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Rural Alaska

Murder in Kake highlights hard-to-come-by public safety in Alaska villages

  • Author: Sari Horwitz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 3, 2014

KAKE -- Her body lay in the back entryway of the church for 11 hours after villagers called the Alaska State Troopers for help. She was a 13-year-old nicknamed "Mack" who wore big red glasses and loved to dance. The Tlingit girl had been beaten to death.

No one knew who killed Mackenzie Howard that cold February night last year -- and people were terrified that the killer was still in their midst. But in the remote community of Kake, only accessible by air or boat, there was no law enforcement officer. That meant no police to protect the community, cordon off the crime scene, preserve the evidence and launch an investigation. The villagers had to wait for state troopers in Juneau, 114 miles away, to get there.

"They have the capability of flying at night now . . . but still nobody came," said Joel Jackson, a local wood carver who helped gather villagers to guard Mackenzie's body and the crime scene that night. "And that upset me greatly. When there's any fishing violation or hunting violation, they're here in full force -- over a dead animal. To have one of our own laying there for (so long) was traumatic for everybody."

With no police and few courts of their own, most Alaska Native villages instead are forced to rely on Alaska State Troopers. But there is only about one trooper per every million acres. Getting to rural communities can take days and is often delayed by the great distances to cover, the vagaries of the weather and -- in the minds of many Alaska Natives -- the low priority placed on protecting local tribes.

Rural Alaska has the worst crime statistics in the nation's Native American communities -- and the country. Alaska Native communities experience the highest rates of family violence, suicide and alcohol abuse in the United States: a domestic violence rate 10 times the national average; physical assault of women 12 times the national average; and a suicide rate almost four times the national average. Rape in Alaska occurs at the highest rate in the nation -- three times the national average.

These trends, according to Bruce Botelho, a former Alaska attorney general and a member of the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, are "exacerbated, in part, because of the enormous geographical size of Alaska, the remoteness of these communities, the skyrocketing costs of transportation, the lack of any economic opportunity and the enormous gaps in the delivery of any form of government service, particularly from the state of Alaska."

There are at least 75 remote Alaska Native villages with no law enforcement, according to a report last fall by the bipartisan Indian Law and Order Commission, created by Congress to study ways to make tribal communities safer. Of the nation's 566 federally recognized tribes, 229 of them are in Alaska, most in tiny villages with no access by roads.

"Unfortunately, there are places in rural Alaska that if a woman is raped or a child is beaten, that victim might not get any help whatsoever," said Associate Attorney General Tony West, who recently visited Alaska. "It can take a day and a half before responders show up to the scene of a crime or to a call for help. Imagine if you were a victim of violence and you can't get help because weather conditions don't allow you to get out of your village. Where are you supposed to go? You have nowhere to go."

A spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers said that delayed response time "has no relationship to the priority given to respond to remote Alaskan villages."

"The overriding factor considered . . . when establishing case priority for a response, whether on the road system or off, is the nature of the crime," spokeswoman Megan Peters said. "Crimes in rural areas . . . can take additional time to respond to depending on logistical issues such as distance, terrain and weather."

In some remote villages in the Alaska bush, townspeople say they have to place a suspect in a locked closet until troopers come. In one, villagers handcuffed a suspect to an anvil in a hut while they waited for help.

Nestled in the Tongass National Forest, Kake (which means "mouth of dawn" and is pronounced "cake") overlooks the serene waters of Frederick Sound and the distant snow-capped mountains of Baranof Island. It is home to one of the world's largest totem poles.

Bald eagles fly above, humpback whales are seen offshore and black bears wander into town, especially when the salmon starts running in Gunnuk Creek. A close-knit and mostly peaceful community, the 559 villagers live off the land, hunting moose and deer and fishing for salmon and halibut. As an alternative to the traditional justice system, magistrate Mike Jackson, the brother of the local carver, created a "circle peacemaking" program to resolve minor disputes and misdemeanors.

But Kake is also struggling with 80 percent unemployment and, like other communities around America, the attendant alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence. The village's once-booming logging industry is dead. The commercial fishing business has long been in decline. The salmon hatchery closed last month. And Kake does not have enough funds for a police officer.

"It can be terrifying," said Teresa Gaudette, who chairs Kake's public-safety committee. "When something happens, like someone breaking and entering, we have to call 911 to get a state trooper to come in. Then, it can take a few hours to a day or two, depending on their availability and the weather. By the time they get here, sometimes nothing can be done because there's no evidence. People can just get away with it."

Or, as Kake City Council member Marla Howard, the mother of the slain girl, put it: "People don't really fear the law here."

The Justice Department's relationship with Alaska Native villages is different than it is with tribes in the Lower 48 because the state -- rather than tribes or the federal government -- generally has jurisdiction over criminal matters involving tribes.

In the Lower 48, there is a long history of treaties to provide services to Native American communities that the government moved onto reservations. But in Alaska, which became a state in 1959 long after the American Indian treaties, there are no reservations. And a series of court rulings has determined that there is almost no "Indian country" in Alaska, as defined by federal law, which has led to a tense and complicated relationship between the tribes and the state government.

"The strongly centralized law enforcement and justice systems of the state of Alaska . . . do not serve local and Native communities adequately, if at all," concluded the Indian Law and Order Commission. "Devolving authority to Alaska Native communities is essential for addressing local crime."

On Feb. 5, 2013, villagers in Kake gathered for a memorial ceremony for a widely respected elder. Scores of relatives and friends from other towns descended on the tiny village in Southeastern Alaska for the Tlingit tradition of "potlatch," an event with large offerings of food and other gifts.

Mackenzie and her parents, Marla and Clifton "Kip" Howard, spent the day preparing for the funeral. The Howards have eight children from previous marriages. Mackenzie was the one child they had together.

A villager snapped a photograph as Mackenzie set out with a boatload of flowers to Grave Island, right across the water from Kake. Wearing her signature red-framed glasses, the junior high basketball player flashed a big smile. It is one of the last images of her alive.

Later, as the village-wide memorial dinner wound down in Kake, Mackenzie told her father, who is the village fire chief, that she would meet him at home. When Kip Howard arrived shortly afterward, she wasn't there and he sensed that something was wrong. Grabbing a hand-held spotlight, he started looking for her and called other villagers to help.

About 11 p.m., the pastor's wife called him. She had found Mackenzie's unclothed body in the back of the Memorial Presbyterian Church, directly across the street from Mackenzie's house.

"I opened up the church's back door and there she was," said Kip Howard, fighting back tears. The assailant "bashed her head in with a rock bigger than a basketball. And I just . . . that's when the world just changed for me."

Joel Jackson, the local carver whose studio is next to the church, called the state troopers in Juneau. He gathered other villagers to help him cordon off the lawn outside the church, guard the girl's body and protect the village while they waited for investigators. Thirty-five years ago, Jackson was the village's police chief. The village eventually shut down the one-person department because of a lack of funds.

"There were probably 12 to 15 men," said Liz Medicine Crow, president of the nonprofit First Alaskans Institute who had come in from Anchorage for her uncle's potlatch. "And (Jackson) told them, 'If you're going to help, go home and get your warm clothes on because you're going to be out here all night. If you can't handle this, don't come back.' They all came back."

As daylight broke -- and the troopers were still not there -- people who had come in for the potlatch began leaving the village.

"There was a group of us all leaving in the morning on the early ferry," said Medicine Crow. "And there was kind of a 'What do we do?' moment. 'Can we leave? Are we allowed to leave?' There was no trooper there to tell us what to do. So, we left."

"The fastest way to get law enforcement here is to shoot a moose," she added, reflecting a widespread sentiment in the village.

But Peters, the spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers, said crimes against people always get first priority.

In the wake of the murder, villagers were angry. "People were scared," Jackson said. "They still hadn't figured out who did the crime. People were on edge, people had guns out, which I don't blame them. It was pretty intense." The murder of a child was unheard of in Kake.

A trooper arrived later that morning, followed several hours later by investigators who came from Anchorage, more than 1,000 miles from Kake. The school was shut down for two days and in lockdown in the days afterward. "I told the lead trooper, 'You need to solve this and solve it quick,' because you could feel the anger in the town," Jackson said.

Ten days later, the villagers prepared to bury Mackenzie on Grave Island. "They sent her to Anchorage to try and fix her up," her mother said. "But they couldn't fix her up for us to be able to see her again."

The family was only able to touch her hand to say goodbye.

"That's about it," Marla Howard said.

At 11 a.m. the morning of the funeral, state troopers made an arrest after collecting several key pieces of evidence and executing search warrants, according to state trooper Lt. Rex Leath, who oversaw the investigation.

The suspect was one of Kake's own, the 14-year-old son of villagers who were friends with the Howards. The boy, who has not been publicly named because he is a juvenile, was flown to a juvenile facility on an island more than 100 miles away where he is still detained. A court hearing is set for the fall to determine whether he will be tried as a juvenile or an adult.

Juneau's assistant district attorney, Nick Polasky, declined to comment on the case. John Bernitz, the attorney representing the boy, said he would not confirm or deny there even is a juvenile case. Mayor Henrich Kadake said he did not want to discuss the murder because he is related to the families of both the victim and the accused.

It has been about a year and a half since Mackenzie was killed. From their living room window, the Howards look out at the church where their daughter's body was found. A piece of yellow crime scene tape left by the troopers still blows in the wind. "It's a nightmare," Marla Howard said. "And I'm awake."

After the murder, Kake was sent a village public safety officer known in Alaska as a VPSO. Throughout rural Alaska, about 100 VPSOs are used as substitutes for police. These officers, who have limited training and authority, are paid by nonprofit regional corporations with state funds. But they are not directly accountable to the community where they work, instead reporting to Alaska State Troopers.

Even though Alaska is one of the highest gun-owning states per capita, public safety officers have not been allowed to carry firearms. A VPSO was shot and killed in a Southwest Alaska village in March 2013. Last month, the Alaska governor signed a bill that would allow VPSOs to carry firearms. But the gun training won't begin until January, and VPSOs aren't expected to be armed until the end of 2015.

In most cases now, only one unarmed officer is responsible for the safety of the village around the clock. When a VPSO leaves for training or to patrol another village, the community is left with no backup.

A Washington Post reporter visiting Kake in mid-June found a handwritten note taped to a window of the small building where the VPSO works, indicating he was gone. "If you have any reports to make, please call Ketchikan Dispatch. Thank you," the note said. Ketchikan is 143 miles away from Kake. A dispatcher said the officer would be gone for the week. He was attending a training program.

"It's nerve-wracking when the village public safety officer leaves the island," said Kake City Administrator Rudy Bean. "Everyone pretty much hopes that nothing serious happens."

Many mornings, Kip Howard gets up at 3 a.m. to go fishing before heading to his jobs as fire chief and operator of the village water treatment plant.

"I cannot get through the day without thinking of Mackenzie half the day," he said. "It's very, very hard when you have to bury your baby. It should have been the other way around." He and his wife have thought about moving away from Kake. "But Kake is home," Howard said. "My wife grew up here and lived here all her life. I've got all my work here. My pleasure comes in going down to my boat in the morning and being able to put my line in the water and probably catch a fish within five minutes."

On the way back, Howard does not come straight home. He steers his boat out toward lush, green Grave Island where the village elders are buried, as is his daughter.

"I want to let Mackenzie know I'm passing by," Howard said. "I want her to know I'm thinking about her."

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