Crime & Courts

From criminal to cop, and back again, in Alaska’s most vulnerable villages

On the night a girl in skinny jeans and pink sneakers died in Selawik, it was city patrolman Brent Norton who dialed the first call for help.

That's his job.

Like many Alaska communities far removed from the road system, Selawik does not have a traditional police department. But state regulations allow Alaska's most remote local governments to hire special public safety employees. These officers, whose duties and titles vary, generally wear badges, make arrests and keep neighbors safe in a crisis.

Norton, alternately described in his community as a village police officer or a patrolman, was hired by this lakeside city of 860 in Northwest Alaska to watch for violent crimes and deadly accidents. In late 2015, a month before the death of the girl, 16-year-old Lois Cleveland, he won a statewide law enforcement award.

But this time, when Norton checked Cleveland's pulse and began CPR, he didn't just happen across the tragedy.

He caused it.

The 29-year-old patrolman later admitted to getting Cleveland — an artistic girl known for swimming all day in the frigid village river drunk with bootleg whiskey and raping her. He said he bought the bottle using an advance on his city paycheck and assaulted the girl the night she died from what the medical examiner called "undetermined" causes.


Investigators found what appeared to be fresh handcuff wounds on her wrists.

Like dozens of uncertified officers and patrolmen across Alaska, Brent Norton earned a living as someone the community put trust in to keep things safe. But he was never held to Alaska regulatory standards for police officers or even licensed security guards, who are subject to criminal background checks, drug tests and training requirements.

In fact, Selawik hired Norton even though a simple court record search would have shown he was a convicted bootlegger. At the time of the teenager's death, he was awaiting trial on felony charges of giving alcohol to a different underage girl months earlier.

The city of Selawik agreed on Feb. 7 to pay the family of Lois Cleveland $300,000 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit that strikes at a long-standing problem in rural Alaska: Police officers who themselves have a criminal past are being hired to protect villages while the state government has no idea who the majority of these uncertified police are, nor what prior crimes they committed.

A review by the Anchorage Daily News has found that local governments across the state routinely hire police officers with criminal records, sometimes including felony and domestic violence convictions.

In some cases, these officers are employed in violation of state hiring requirements and continue law enforcement careers even while on criminal probation or targeted by domestic violence restraining orders.

"Unfortunately we are finding more and more of this, that they (village police officers) have a criminal background," said Alaska Police Standards Council director Bob Griffiths.

"It's unconscionable," he said.

[A broken system of oversight for Alaska's village police officers]

The dilemma is part of a two-tier criminal justice system in Alaska where people born and raised in isolated villages are not given the same basic protections as those in cities. Advocates for Alaska Native rights argue state and federal lawmakers refuse to prioritize spending on public safety for rural communities while courts have failed to protect village residents.

The problem is widespread. At least 75 villages have no police whatsoever, according to the Indian Law & Order Commission.

In villages that do hire local police, some officers should not be wearing a badge under Alaska state regulations and widely accepted standards of American policing.

Some recent examples:

• In Napaskiak, in Western Alaska, village police officer Josiah Nicholai is also a registered sex offender convicted of attempted sexual assault, according to public records and the Alaska Police Standards Council.

• In Nunapitchuk, the city hired two village police officers, Waska George and Walter Paul, who have been convicted of domestic violence assault, according to an April 27 letter from the council. George also has an "extensive criminal history" including felony theft, the council wrote. Mayor James Berlin said Friday that the city is now considering removing one or both officers but that applicants are hard to find.

• Public records show village police officers working in Ambler, Buckland, Chevak, Kiana and Noorvik have criminal records that would preclude them from working as police officers in more populated Alaska communities, despite facing the same responsibilities and duties. In some cities, residents told the Daily News that people with recent criminal records are working as police, but efforts to confirm their identities failed when city governments refused to name current village police officers.


Village leaders say the disparity between urban and rural policing is growing worse. The state, starved for oil revenue and facing multibillion-dollar deficits, has reduced spending for village officer training in each of the past two years, said Capt. Andrew Merrill, who oversees a rural policing program for the Alaska Department of Public Safety.

Low pay, high turnover

Selawik is an Inupiat community above the Arctic Circle, where hunting and fishing for food is still a way of life. The lack of local police has long been a problem.

[Selawik: In this Alaska village, little to no law in sight]

Longtime village police officer Clarence Snyder said he quit in 2015, partly because he was worried about the people the city was selecting to fill public safety jobs.

One of the new faces was Brent Norton, he said. "When he got hired. I knew something was going to happen sooner or later."

Snyder said he was diagnosed with PTSD in 2010, a condition he attributes to his police work. The regions of Alaska where uncertified officers often stand in for certified police — Western Alaska, the Interior and Northwest Arctic — also have the highest rates of suicide and gun deaths, according to state.

In Western Alaska, the rate of sexual assaults reported to police was the highest in the state. The most common victims are teenage girls, like Lois Cleveland, attacked by someone they know.


Even with adequate funding, equipment and support, the challenge of policing rural Alaska is unlike any in law enforcement. Snowmachines and four-wheelers replace squad cars. Any travel for training or prisoner transport involves a flight or boat ride.

Many communities are still adapting to the culture shock of converting to a cash economy that de-emphasizes traditional roles and cultural values.

"We as a people were seriously impacted by the sudden change from a subsistence lifestyle to one where it seemed that parents did not require help from their kids on a day-to-day basis," said Selawik city council member Grant Ballot. "Instead of wood we have stove oil, instead of hauling water and honey buckets, we have running water and flush toilets."

"Parents started getting bills for living a western way of life, and families started breaking down," he said.

The challenges and vastness of Alaska led lawmakers to create special types of police. Many Alaskans are most familiar with village public safety officers, or VPSOs, who must complete 240 hours of training and generally work for regional nonprofit corporations. (In fact, current VPSO recruits get the same training as Alaska State Trooper recruits, according to the police standards council.) No one with a misdemeanor conviction in the past five years is allowed to work as a VPSO.

But there is another kind of officer that is more loosely regulated and may be even more common in the Bush: village police officers. Under a 36-year-old state regulation, remote city governments that have 1,000 or fewer people can hire these VPOs to handle the same life-and-death situations as big-city police.

The pay, training and backup are very different for a VPO. The pay for Alaska State Trooper recruits starts at $62,900 plus benefits. But in Selawik, where a box of breakfast cereal costs $8.89, city police jobs pay about $44,000 a year.

"It's hard work. And it requires a lot of hours with lack of back up by the state troopers because the money has been dwindling," said Mike Williams, from the Kuskokwim River village of Akiak.

A tribal council member and Iditarod veteran, Williams was a plaintiff in the Native American Rights Fund's unsuccessful attempt to have state courts declare the Alaska public safety system unconstitutional.

An Alaska Superior Court judge had sided with villages in a similar fight over state funding for school construction, saying the method for financing new schools discriminated against village residents, a majority of whom are Alaska Native. The Native American Rights Fund and 10 Western Alaska villages launched a similar case arguing that it was unconstitutional for police in the Bush to be unarmed, undertrained and underpaid compared to their big-city counterparts.

"For 40 years the state of Alaska has unlawfully barred Native village governments from keeping the peace in their traditional ways, while failing to provide them minimally adequate police protection through the state law enforcement system," the lawsuit argued.

But a Superior Court judge ruled against the villages in 2002. There was no mandate to increase funding for police in remote villages.


Today, many village officers make minimum wage and are only employed a few hours each day, Williams said. As a result, turnover is high.

"In my village, I think every male, available male, was a police officer at one time or another," he said.

Imagine being asked to arrest friends and family members, interrupt domestic disputes in communities awash with guns, knowing that any backup from state troopers is a flight away.

In Nunapitchuk, where two current VPOs are not eligible for state certification due to their criminal records, Mayor James Berlin said part of the problem is that officers tend to leave the village once they become certified. The small city government can't compete with salaries and benefits offered by state troopers.

"We can't pay them any higher than our city budget (allows)," Berlin said.

For those who stay, even the best officers can burn out, said Anna Bill, a VPO in the Yukon River community of Mountain Village.


"I've had a total of 49 suicide attempts that I've stopped," she said of the hangings and armed standoffs she might face on any given day. "A couple of times I was the one cutting them down and reviving them."

On Tuesday, Bill was first on the scene when a 32-year-old man shot another man in the ear and, by the time troopers arrived in the Mountain Village, "had already formulated a plan to de-escalate the situation and apprehend the shooter," said Department of Public Safety spokesman Jonathon Taylor.

"She is the front line of law enforcement in that community, and they (troopers) wouldn't have been able to respond and apprehend the shooter as they did without her quick thinking and planning," the Public Safety spokesman said.

But in seven months on the job, Bill has had seven different partners, she said.

Her most recent partner, John Scott Hunter, is awaiting trial in Bethel today. Prosecutors say he was securing a murder scene April 24 when he stole a $300 cellphone from the 18-year-old shooting victim. He's now charged with evidence tampering and theft.

Bill is busy looking to hire a replacement, she said. "I'm solo again for now."

In some cases the relatively loose standards for village officers and the lack of oversight by the state allows for second chances.

Josiah Nicholai, the Napaskiak VPO who is also a registered sex offender because of two domestic violence crimes he pleaded guilty to in 2015, said he was let go from the position on Friday. Still, he said, he believes he has helped save lives in his hometown while on the job.

"It's a person's choice if they want to change their life for the better. It's what I did," he said.

In other cases the line blurs from hero to criminal and back again.

To protect and serve

Despite his misdemeanor convictions and bootlegging arrests, Brent Norton was working for the city of Selawik as a patrolman by June 2015 when prosecutors filed a new accusation against him.

He was charged with (and later pleaded guilty to) giving alcohol to a 13-year-old.

"He was being investigated for letting children drink at his house at the time and that's just wrong," said Snyder, the former Selawik VPO. "He'd bring like 13- or 14-year-olds to the station."

But five months after he made his first court appearance in Kotzebue on the new felony charges, Norton was back on the job in Selawik.

No one mentioned, or seemed to know about, his pending criminal case or prior convictions. The city administrator at the time, Tommy Ballot, was unaware Norton had been charged with drinking with underage girls while working as a patrolman, said attorney Joseph Evans, who represented Selawik in the wrongful death suit.

The Alaska Federation of Natives also did not know about those criminal charges when Norton was honored in October 2015 for his response to a fatal shooting in Selawik, Evans said.

The AFN award has since been rescinded. Even Norton's job title has been the subject of some confusion after the high-profile death of Lois Cleveland.

Alaska State Troopers, who have a post in Selawik, referred to Norton as a village police officer in an affidavit describing the Selawik shooting standoff. In the city's initial response to the wrongful death lawsuit, Selawik officials described Norton as a VPO too.

In a subsequent filing and interviews, however, Evans said Norton was a part-time, on-call patrolman. Griffiths, the police standards council director, said that distinction is not meaningful.

"That's purely a matter of semantics," Griffiths said. "It didn't change his authority."

Lois Cleveland's family, in a mediation brief, argued Norton was "essentially a VPO in training" who had access to police equipment, offices and jail cells and was paid the same amount as village police officers.

Norton had a habit, the family argued, of giving alcohol to young girls and attempting to have sex with them. "Victims felt helpless to do anything about it," attorneys for the family claimed in a mediation brief. "They could not report the assault to police because Norton was the police."

Whatever his title, Norton's job was to protect. To shield the people who would be hurt from those doing the hurting.

Those roles reversed one Tuesday afternoon in November.

'Found a party'

Norton had finished his overnight shift at about 8 a.m. and later told troopers that he had asked for a $200 payroll advance. He used the cash, he said, to illegally buy a fifth of R&R whiskey from a local bootlegger.

Norton planned to meet up with 16-year-old Lois Cleveland, whom he shared alcohol with before, he told troopers. Lois subsequently told a 17-year-old friend that she had "found a party."

The three met at a house where the 17-year-old was staying. Norton brought the bottle.

The older girl smoked outside the house as Norton half-carried the 16-year-old, who was staggering, into a bedroom. In a recorded interview with trooper investigator Brian Hibbs, Norton admitted to raping the younger girl while she was unconscious.

For a long time, he said, he didn't know she was dead. He did know she was underage.

The mother of the girl, Minnie Cleveland, told state troopers that she had known something was wrong and tried to stop it the night of her daughter's death. Minnie was out of town for a medical visit to Anchorage, she said, and worried her daughter was drinking back in Selawik.

She phoned village police officer Axel Snyder, asking him to check on Lois and her friend. The VPO told Cleveland he went to the house but that no one answered.

Axel Snyder told the mother that Brent Norton was on duty too, gave her Norton's phone number and hung up. Cleveland dialed Norton, she said. He was hard to hear, and cursing.

"Your mom is on the phone," Minnie Cleveland heard Norton say.

But Lois never came on the line. The call ended. When Minnie Cleveland phoned patrolman Norton back, no one answered.

More calls followed. But Cleveland never spoke to her daughter again.

"I didn't think he was going to hurt her. But to make sure, I tried to call here (to Selawik). And I tried to let somebody go get her," Cleveland said, according to a recording of the interview.

At some point, Norton realized Lois wasn't breathing. He tried to resuscitate her, walked to the police department office and called the village health clinic at 12:52 a.m., according to a trooper affidavit and interviews.

He reported the teen was choking on vomit, health aide Krystal Ballot later recalled. Ballot hurried to the house where the girl died.

Like in many village homes, Adidas sneakers crowded the entryway and dry goods lined the shelves. A monitor heater kept out the November chill as the health aide searched for Lois.

She was in a bedroom, lying on her side. Ballot asked Axel Snyder, Norton's colleague, to move the body to the living room where a single bulb illuminated the home.

Snyder checked her pulse. Nothing. By that time, Norton — who the health aide had assumed was on duty because he called from the police station — was nowhere to be found.

He knew he was in trouble.

As a patrolman and as a suspect in three prior criminal cases, Norton also knew what came next. Interviews with troopers. A bumpy 30-minute flight to Kotzebue to see a judge.

He tapped out a text to a friend at 1:32 a.m., less than an hour after discovering Lois had no pulse: "Fuck man some one die n its my falt im fuckt for life now."

The lawsuit from the girl's family asserts that had he noticed she was choking earlier in the night, and he could have saved her. The family said officials who hired Norton failed to check his background and failed to inform the Alaska Police Standards Council of his hire, and they argued he never should have been placed in a position of authority due to criminal convictions in 2006 and 2012.

When he was accused of new felony charges of giving alcohol to a 13-year-old while working for the city, he should have been suspended, the lawsuit argues.

The cause of death for Lois Cleveland was considered undetermined by the State Medical Examiner Office. The lawsuit argues she most likely died from asphyxiation with the use of handcuffs and the rape as contributing factors.

Norton told investigators that he never placed his handcuffs on the girl. The city has denied that he was on duty at the time of the rape and a city administrator refused to answer questions when a reporter called for comment in May.

'How come they let him work?'

The lawsuit never went to trial. The $300,000 Selawik agreed to pay the girl's family — the bill will be covered by the city's insurance — is about twice the amount the city spends each year on public safety salaries.

In 2016, Norton pleaded guilty to attempted sexual assault of an incapacitated victim and furnishing alcohol to a minor, both felonies, for the attack on Lois Cleveland.

Despite those convictions on the events that led up to her death, no one has ever been charged with killing Lois Cleveland.

Minnie Cleveland, her mother, declined to be interviewed for this story. But her anger can be heard in a 2015 recorded interview with state troopers.

"He's supposed to be helping," Cleveland said of patrolman Norton. "Not furnishing (alcohol) and taking her life or her childhood."

"How come they let him work?" she asked.

She had so many questions, Cleveland told the trooper.

Who was Norton's boss and who hired him? Why had Norton still worked for the city despite a pending felony case involving an underage girl?

Who, the mother asked, could be held accountable?

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email