Letters to the Editor

Letter: A heartbreaking, necessary story

I wish to thank and applaud the ADN and ProPublica — and especially reporter Kyle Hopkins — for the recent investigative story about the deaths of two Alaska Native women in Kotzebue. This may have been the most powerful and well-reported (and written) piece of long-form journalism I have read in the Daily News, and it offers a much-needed window into the ongoing violence perpetrated against Alaska Native women. I’m sure a team of editors worked with Hopkins to put together this piece and all deserve to be commended, but Hopkins’ in-depth reporting and the writing itself is especially outstanding.

The narrative was written in a straightforward yet compelling way that was both heartbreaking and infuriating, as we learned of the enormous harm done to Jennifer Kirk and Sue Sue Norton, and ultimately their deaths — which certainly appear to have been murders, whatever the official legal and medical conclusions to date. At the same time we learn about the complete and shameful failure of Alaska’s legal system, from law enforcement officers to prosecuting attorneys and the magistrates and judges who oversaw the court proceedings. It also appears that “village politics” played an important role in this appalling sequence of events.

The list of villains in these tragedies is a long one, from the abusive — and perhaps murderous — partners of Kirk and Johnson, brothers Anthony Richards and Clement Richards Jr., to their enabling (and also violent) father, Clement Richards Sr., along with Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman and prosecutor Rachel Ahrens (and others, including a third Richards sibling, Amos). Ahrens appears to have been guilty of prosecutorial misconduct, and it is both startling and worrisome that she is now a judge herself. It’s not surprising that all of the above have taken a “no comment” stance, in some instances hiding behind legal rationale.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in such circumstances, and of course, this story, as tragic and disheartening as it may be, is only the tip of the iceberg. I hope that the ADN-ProPublica collaboration will help lead to real changes in Alaska’s culture of violence toward women, particularly rural Native women for whom the legal system and the communities in which they reside too often fail to give the support and safety those women— and in some instances, girls—need and deserve.

— Bill Sherwonit


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Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."