Crime & Courts

Anchorage juvenile justice officer charged with sexual abuse of teen inmate, helping plan her escape

A former juvenile justice officer at McLaughlin Youth Center has been charged with five counts of sex abuse of a minor and conspiring to help an inmate escape after an investigation into the officer's relationship with a 16-year-old girl at the facility.

The charges say Phillip Bigham, 47, resigned Nov. 24, the same day his superiors called a meeting where they questioned Bigham about outings he took with the teenage girl, an inmate at McLaughlin, to secluded areas like a tool shed and the school section of the building.

"Bigham became visibly angry with the staff, left the room and returned a short time later with his letter of resignation," the charges say. But Bigham kept his job for another week; he requested the time to gather his belongings and say goodbye.

Bigham worked at the facility for underage offenders for about four years and three months, according to the charges. Unit Supervisor Nicole Cuaresma told an Anchorage police investigator there were no issues with Bigham until he took a position with the Girls Treatment Center.

After Bigham left the facility, the girl got letters from the Anchorage area despite having no relatives in the city, the charges say. A phone number had also been added to her call list as an alternative number for her father. The facility's officials checked and determined the number wasn't her father's.

The investigation heightened when McLaughlin officials searched the girl's cell, discovering a letter with handwriting similar to Bigham's, according to the charges.

"Cuaresma stated that the letter talked about an escape plan and how (the girl) could get out of the building by obtaining the code from one of the other juvenile justice officers," and further advice for how to find the code, the charges say.


Bigham's letter also informed the girl he had set up a room for her in his garage, which included hair dye and new clothes, according to the charges.

The girl was at first reluctant to come forward with more information but started helping with the investigation. Bigham worked as a kind of counselor for several in the Girls Treatment Unit, which serves inmates struggling with drug use, trauma and self-esteem, among other issues.

The girl said Bigham began treating her differently in July by giving her candy and letting her use his phone and computer. Their relationship became more sexual in October, she said; she described three sexual encounters they had at the facility.

The charges do not indicate how plans for the girl to escape were formulated, but she said she was supposed to try and get out on Dec. 13. She told staff she got scared and the plan fell through.

On Dec. 18, Bigham was secretly recorded speaking with the girl on the phone, the charges say. The two discussed the best time for her to escape and where to meet up, as well as their sexual encounters.

Anchorage police spokesperson Jennifer Castro said Bigham was arrested and jailed on Dec. 18.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.