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Crime & Justice

4 years on, still no trial for Anchorage adoptive mother accused of abuse, kidnapping

Zemira James was a bone-thin 15-year-old when she was rescued from the home of the woman who had adopted her from Alaska's foster care system.

That was back in October 2010.

When Anya James was arrested seven months later, in May 2011, the case made headlines. Prosecutors alleged the Anchorage woman forced a bleak, isolated existence on her six adoptive children in a sprawling Hillside home, locking them in bare basement partitions with concrete floors, forcing them to use kitty litter buckets as toilets, feeding them "power meals" of oatmeal gruel, ground-up spaghetti and raw eggs, or withholding food until some of the teenagers and young adults showed signs of starvation.

Anya James was charged with 16 felony counts in which she is accused of assaulting and kidnapping the six children, all while collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in state adoption subsidies.

More than four years after she was arrested, the criminal case against Anya James still hasn't gone to trial. The 55-year-old James is out on bail and on her fourth defense attorney.

Her trial date has been rescheduled 22 times.

Today, Zemira James is a striking, healthy-looking 20-year-old who lives with her boyfriend and has dreams that include working with animals or writing a book about her life. She wears mostly black, a tangle of rubber bracelets and a spiked cuff on her wrist. She says the black is symbolic of grief.

Without a trial, Zemira says, she is tethered to the past. She can't go into a Fred Meyer or drive past a McDonald's or dental office in Anchorage without a flood of memories. She wonders if she'll run into her former adoptive mother at the grocery store. Even her name, changed at the time of her adoption, is a daily reminder of the eight years she spent with Anya James.

After the trial is over, "I'd look at the city probably in a very different way," she said. "I'd rejoice. I'd walk out of the courtroom crying and smiling at the same time."

Until then, she said, "I feel like I'm drowning."

Two civil cases against the Office of Children's Services -- which placed the children in the home and which attorneys say failed to investigate claims of abuse -- are stalled until the criminal case is resolved, attorneys say. The civil cases represent the best chance the victims will receive money or other restitution from the state.

"(Zemira) was 15 years old when she was rescued basically from a cage in a garage of a half-million dollar mansion on the Hillside," said Mike Kramer, Zemira's attorney in a civil case against the Office of Children's Services that names Anya James as a third-party defendant. "She lives every day with nightmares that she's going to run into Anya James, who has been out on bail for four-and-a-half years."

Meanwhile, James is "living in a mansion and getting a series of free lawyers," Kramer said.

Lawyers and the judge involved in the case say they are frustrated by the way the case has festered in the system.

Still, there's no clear end in sight.

Zemira says the delays don't surprise her: The system has been failing her for a long time.

"All my life," she said. "I just haven't seen any good. I know they could do a lot better than what they are doing."

'What's keeping me back is fear'

When she was placed in James' home at age 8, Zemira had already been in foster care for much of her life. Her first placement was with a woman in her 50s named Fran, when she was about 4 years old. That was a happy experience.

"She would always dress me up, buy me dresses. I had nice long hair, and she'd put me in these white nice gowns. She was a really nice lady," Zemira said. "I love her a lot."

But the woman moved out of state, and Zemira was placed in an emergency foster home. By then, her biological brother was already with James, she said. In a phone conversation, Zemira remembers him telling her about the big house he was living in. There were lots of cats and dogs. Prosecutors later said the children at James' home lived with more than 60 animals, part of a pet boarding business.

"He said, 'it's a big mansion. It looks like a castle,'" Zemira said. "He was 6 years old. He still had his baby teeth. I decided to stay there because of him. I had already created such a strong bond with him."

James legally adopted them and changed their names. She also withdrew Zemira from Kasuun Elementary -- where Zemira says she had thrived -- and started homeschooling the girl instead.

Life in the home started out OK, but escalated to physical abuse and the isolation and deprivation documented in hundreds of pages of court filings, Zemira said.

One of the biggest lingering effects of her eight years in the home is a sense of isolation and difficulty connecting to people, especially peers her age.

"What's keeping me back is fear. Fear of being around people, fear of talking to people I don't know."

'This has gone on too long'

On a Monday afternoon in August, James took her seat behind the defendant's table in a third-floor courtroom in downtown Anchorage. She wore a pink sweatshirt and blue pants, her hair in a ponytail.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Spaan asked her current attorney, a court-appointed lawyer contracted by the Office of Public Advocacy named Jason Gazewood, how realistic the latest scheduled trial date in October would be.

Given the volume of evidence, that didn't seem realistic, Gazewood said.

In Alaska, crime victims have a constitutional right to a "timely disposition" of the case "following the arrest of the accused." But that doesn't always happen.

Serious, complex cases often take years to get to trial, said Taylor Winston, the head of the state Office of Victims Rights. As a prosecutor, she worked on a few homicide cases that stretched into the five-year range before ever going to trial or seeing resolution.

Time is necessary to allow attorneys on both sides to sift through evidence and prepare a strong a case for trial, she said.

"(These cases) deserve not to be shoved through a system quickly," she said.

But there are costs to victims and the system when trials are delayed for years. Beyond the time of judges and attorneys, victims often put education, trips and other plans on hold in order to be available to testify for a constantly shifting court date, Winston said.

"It keeps them chained to the criminal justice system and to the case," she said. "They really can't be free until its over."

So why is Anya James' case taking so long to reach trial?

Part of the issue is a revolving door of attorneys paired with a mountain of evidence.

Because each of the six children were placed in the home by the Office of Children's Services and received an array of services -- all documented -- there are tens of thousands of pages of documents to sift through.

The criminal and civil cases against Anya James her span multivolume files that are inches thick. An index that simply lists OCS files referenced in the civil lawsuits is more than 40 pages alone.

Those documents could be crucial to James' defense. Her lawyers have argued that James took in severely emotionally disturbed and disabled children and tried her best to care for them, despite violent behaviors.

James was represented for more than three years by Rex Butler, a private attorney in Anchorage known for defending high-profile clients.

Court filings by Butler said James' elderly parents were initially financing her legal defense and paid $75,000 in bail money to get her out of jail. They were also paying the mortgage on her home and living expenses.

In February 2014, Butler pulled out of the case, saying James had run out of money and could no longer pay him. Her trial date at the time was three months away.

In a contentious hearing, Spaan chastised Butler for spending three years on the case and then leaving it months before trial.

"You took her $100,000 and you withdraw," Spaan said, according to a courtroom transcript from the hearing.

"I shouldn't do any trial in your courtroom because of your view of me," Butler responded.

Spaan said he respected Butler's skill as an attorney but was "distressed" by his actions in the case.

After that, James was appointed an attorney from the Public Defender Agency. Court-appointed attorneys are supposed to go to indigent defendants who have no means to hire a lawyer on their own.

Usually, judges simply ask defendants about whether they can afford a lawyer. If they say no, they are assigned a public defender.

At the time of the alleged abuse, James and the children lived in a 4,000-square-foot Hillside home valued at more than $600,000. Public records still list her as the owner of the home.

Anya James' case was soon transferred to an attorney from the state Office of Public Advocacy, which also represents indigent clients. Gazewood, a different contract attorney with OPA, recently took on the case, making him James' fourth defense lawyer.

At the August status hearing, Gazewood said he'd worked his way through about 8,000 of 50,000 pages of evidence; all parties agreed to another status hearing in September.

"This has just gone on too long," Spaan said.

Anya James and a friend walked out of the courtroom together. She declined to comment, saying she couldn't tell her side of the story right then.

Zemira says she and the other children have spent the years since they were removed from the home trying to forge new lives.

But she is certain she will testify at the trial, when it comes.

"I am mad at Anya. I am very hurt," she said. "But she must be feeling scared right now, just the way I was."

Correction: The headline of this article originally identified Anya James as a "foster" mother. She is actually the adoptive mother of the children.

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