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Sexual abuse allegations expose simmering racial tensions in rural Alaska

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 17, 2015

TULUKSAK -- The jail in this remote village in Western Alaska is a 6-by-8-foot mesh cage inside a shabby, one-room building smaller than the master suite in many a suburban American home. In this barren, dimly lit room, Mary Moses sits on the only chair next to the desk of village police officer Kim Lewis and asks a simple question:

"Why isn't Martin Bowman in jail?"

Bowman is a teacher come north from the Lower 48 and now long gone from the Kuskokwim River community of fewer than 400 people. Moses (not her real name) is Yup'ik and the mother of one of nine girls who in the fall settled a $2 million civil suit with the Yupiit School District, claiming they were sexually molested by Bowman.

Moses' question hangs in the air in the empty jail, and another mother nods her head in agreement. (The names of the parents involved in the case are being withheld to protect the identities of the children.)

Almost everyone in Tuluksak is a person of color. Bowman, 59, like most of the teachers at the school, is white. Race colors a lot of things in the village.

When Alaska State Trooper Todd Womack came to investigate the charges against Bowman, former teacher Karen Krejci, who is white, told him "she felt the children might be making things up," according to the record of an interview obtained under Alaska's freedom of information act.

Former school counselor Pam Caylon, who is also white, told Womack that "Tuluksak is one of the most dysfunctional places on Earth ..." The trooper noted that "Pam said she would not put it past the community of Tuluksak to blame Martin."

The racial tensions here exist close to the surface, but the stories told to Womack by the children -- all young girls -- are tellingly similar.

Several children mention watching "SpongeBob SquarePants" on TV while Bowman allegedly exposed himself or touched them. Some of the children provided diagrams of the inside of Bowman's apartment to illustrate they were there.

Disturbing accusations against teacher

One child described the appearance of Bowman's naked body -- "Bowman has a large number of reddish moles covering his body," the affidavit said -- and added information of which the average 11-year-old would seem unaware -- Bowman "was watching what #2 (another alleged victim) described as porn involving 'midgets' from the home's satellite (TV) feed," the affidavit said.

The evidence against Bowman was strong enough to convince the Yupiit School District and its insurance companies in late 2014 to settle a lawsuit filed a year earlier. They tried to keep the settlement secret, but Alaska Dispatch News obtained a copy after attorneys conceded that the document is by law a public record.

That settlement stipulates the agreement "does not constitute an admission of liability or fault."

A now-former shop teacher, Bowman could not be reached for this story. Bowman lives with his near-90-year-old father, Martie, in Montana. When contacted by telephone in October, his father confirmed his home as Martin's but said the younger was away in another Montana city working as a carpenter. He promised to have Martin return the call, but Martin never called back.

When contacted again this month about how to reach Martin, Martie could be heard asking a woman in the background whether she had a contact number for Martin. She said he had a cellphone. Martin asked if they should give it out. She said "No." Martin returned to the phone and said he didn't know how to reach Martin but would take a message. Another message left for Martin went unreturned.

Kim Langton was the superintendent for the three-village district from 2010 to 2014. He now runs a bed and breakfast in Utah, where he was reached by phone. "I'm not going to say too much," he said. "I just do not believe the allegations.

"If I thought anybody had abused any of those kids, I would be absolutely furious. But that's as far as I can go. I personally do not think there was any merit to the suit," Langton said. "That's my own personal opinion … and I'm not allowed to discuss it."

Witnesses like Langton and the former teachers, with their doubts about the credibility of the witnesses against Bowman, would not make it easy to bring a criminal case against the Montana teacher and win, if indeed he is guilty of anything more than inviting some girls in to use his shower. But failing to prosecute the teacher leaves the feeling in the village that brown people don't matter.

As Lewis observed, when a village youth was accused of raping a teacher years ago, the troopers arrived in force by helicopter and in boats. Bowman, on the other hand, wasn't just allowed to slip out of town; he was allowed to slip out of the state.

And nobody ever went looking for him afterward.

Hot showers as bait

As a teacher in Tuluksak, Bowman occupied one of the few houses with hot and cold running water. If the lawsuit is to be believed, he used the promise of hot showers -- a luxury in this part of the world -- to lure young girls into his home where he watched them naked, fondled them and masturbated.

That there were girls in the house is a fact substantiated by former Principal Gene Burke, now also gone from the village.

"I do know there were some kids in the house," Burke said in a phone interview. Burke shared his house, a duplex, on school grounds with Bowman. The small gray building is one of the nicer structures in the community.

No more than 50 feet away, the Tuluksak School -- the nicest and most modern building here -- rises on pilings above the tundra on the edge of a patch of forest.

"I talked to Martin about what was going on," Burke said. The principal told the shop teacher it was a bad idea to invite young girls into his house. Bowman pushed back.

"He said, 'I just like kids," Burke said, but Bowman did promise to stop letting the girls come visit. "The problem is that what he said and what he did was two different things," Burke added.

The girls kept dropping by. Eventually one of them called her mother from Bowman's house.

"On or about the month of August 2011," the lawsuit filed against the school district says, "Jane Doe 1 went to the house provided to Bowman by the (school district) to pick up her child, minor plaintiff Jane Doe 2. When Bowman finally opened the door, Jane Doe 1 observed that her child, Jane Doe 2, and two other minor plaintiffs were half-dressed and exhibited evidence of having recently been showered and bathed by Bowman. Immediately thereafter, Jane Doe 1 learned of the sexual abuse of Jane Doe 2."

Nine elementary school girls eventually told of showering at Bowman's house, where they claimed he watched them naked, touched their private parts and masturbated in front of them.

A stuttering investigation

Villagers say Alaska State Troopers on three occasions investigated the accusations. The first two times they did nothing, said Lewis, the local police officer. The third time, Womack, the support staff for village public safety officers in Western Alaska, came upriver and spent days in the village.

State records indicate Trooper James Lester first learned of problems in the village on Oct. 21, 2011. Four girls were then reported to have been involved. They were flown to Bethel, a regional hub, where they were interviewed at the Child Advocacy Center. Lester watched a DVD of the interviews and wrote a report on what was said but did no more.

Four days later, according to state records, Bowman "resigned from his teaching position in Tuluksak and left Alaska to return to Montana."

The case appears to have stalled there. The next report in the file comes almost seven months later, on May 3, 2012, when Lester wrote that he'd contacted Burke, the principal, "to refresh my memory concerning what Gene had told me when this matter was initially reported."

Burke again told Lester about meeting girls ages 9 to 11 in the utility room at the house shared with Bowman.

"Gene asked Martin about this and Martin replied he was trying to help the girls since they had gotten their clothes wet and needed to dry their clothes," Lester's report said.

Over the course of the next three months, state records indicate that at least two more troopers got involved in the case, but nothing happened until Womack took over on June 12 of that year. The following day -- a full nine months after the assaults were reported -- Womack "flew to Tuluksak to continue the investigation," his notes record.

Lewis said Womack eventually recommended the prosecution of Bowman, but no charges were ever filed, nor was any explanation offered to anyone in the village.

Lack of charges questioned

The state's lack of action and explanation has raised questions among residents. Some wonder about the possibility of racism and what appears to some, if not many, to be a double standard in the treatment of the "ruling class," which is how the teachers who come to rural Alaska to work for a few years and then leave are often viewed.

Womack would not respond to phone calls or emails from Alaska Dispatch News, but Alaska State Troopers public information officer Megan Peters eventually did. After confirming no charges were filed, she conceded that Lewis was telling the truth about Womack's actions in recommending charges.

"We sent information for the district attorney office to review regarding allegations of possible violations of SAM2 (sexual abuse of a minor) and indecent exposure," she wrote.

In a phone interview this month, John Skidmore, director of the criminal division in the Alaska Department of Law, said the Bethel district attorney declined to prosecute "because we were not going to be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. I'm pleased that Mr. Valcarce was able to file and settle a civil suit." Mr. Valcarce is Jim Valcarce, the Bethel-based attorney who brought the suit after being contacted by the families of the girls.

Skidmore added that he didn't know the details of what further evidence Valcarce and others might have found, noting that the burden of proof in a criminal case is higher than in a civil case.

Alaska's rural-urban divide

Sexual abuse and assault have long plagued rural Alaska, so much so that some have called the problem an epidemic. Many villages are home to multiple registered sex offenders, and that figure represents only the people caught and successfully prosecuted.

Tuluksak, according to the state's sex offender data base, has seven registered sex offenders -- about one for every 24 women.

Lance Jackson, the principal in Tuluksak before Burke, is very blunt about the situation.

"I had two kids get raped," said Jackson, now the principal at a reservation school in North Dakota. "The state (of Alaska), it's on them. They know.

"They had a situation with a kid when I was there. They prosecuted him. It took a year and a half. The kid had got hold of a fourth-grader. This kid damn near killed that girl. He was back in the village literally before I left.

"All the internal chaos, the rape and stuff, it's not so uncommon out there; it's only uncommon (in this case) because of the teacher (referring to Bowman) out there. I don't know what the hell happened to Martin."

Jackson puts much of the blame on Burke, who Jackson believes should have limited the contact between Bowman and students after school hours. Jackson said that is what he did when he was Bowman's supervisor.

"I told him I'd fire him," Jackson said. "I told him, 'If any kids are in your house, I'll fire you.'"

Jackson is the principal who originally hired Bowman.

"I hired Martin from another school," he said. Bowman's job reviews weren't great. He was described as a "mean, gruff guy," Jackson said. "(But) I work with mean, gruff guys. I needed mean SOBs up there to get that place to work right.

"To me, (Martin) was just an angry old white guy. He was an angry old farmer."

Jackson is a big, bald, black man, a former college football player and an almost unbelievably blunt-talking principal. His experience in village Alaska left him with the belief that race colors almost everything in the rural parts of the state.

Because he ran the school with an iron fist, Jackson said, "I got called a racist. I said, 'Really? I'm a black guy.' I called them jackasses. I said, 'Go read your history.'"

Jackson is not shy in describing his management style.

"I kicked kids out of school. I threatened village people," he said. "I protected the school and the people around it."

2 principals, 2 different styles

Burke is much the opposite of Jackson. He is a polite, 68-year-old white man who came out of retirement to run one of the three schools in the breakaway Yupiit District. Based in the village of Akiachak, the district is headed by a group of Alaska Native leaders trying to put their Alaska Native Claims Settlement Lands in trust with the U.S. Department of the Interior and essentially form an Alaska Indian reservation.

The people in Tuluksak are friendly, as they are in most Alaska villages where interracial crime is rare. But there is an obvious white-Native divide. On a visit in the fall, a white reporter was asked several times: "Are you a trooper?"

Troopers and teachers are the white people villagers most often see, and neither tend to stay around for long.

Not long after Burke's arrival, Jackson, then working at a school in Colorado, said he started getting calls from the teachers still at the school saying that Burke just wasn't doing enough to maintain order.

"People can say what they want about Tuluksak," Jackson said. "Yeah, it's rough, but you have to do your job. Whatever happened was a consequence of (Burke's) leadership. Gene would stay in his office. To me, Gene's a coward."

Still, asked bluntly if he believed Bowman committed the acts of which he is accused in the civil suit, Jackson was more restrained.

"If the village is telling you that, it's 50-50," he said. "They said I was beating kids. I'm 230 pounds. If I was beating kids, it would have been obvious."

The only real way to sort out what happened in this village might be to put Bowman on trial in Bethel, the regional hub 50 miles downstream.

An angry corner of Alaska

"When (Bowman) left Tuluksak, it was basically in a hurry," Burke said. "The people in the community were throwing rocks at his house. I told him he had a choice: resign or deal with these angry people.

"He just didn't use good judgment. He was like a junior high school kid in an adult male body, or maybe a high school kid."

Or maybe something worse.

"On one or more occasion during 2011," the 10-page suit against the school district charges, "when Bowman lived in Tuluksak, Bowman sexually abused Jane Doe 3, who was under the age of 16 years old, at the house provided by the YSD. On information and belief, this sexual abuse included, among other acts, fondling Jane Doe's vagina, breasts or buttocks, exhibiting his penis to Jane Doe 3, and masturbating himself in front of Jane Doe 3."

Valcarce, the plaintiffs' attorney, said he is forbidden from saying much because of the agreement leading to the settlement, but he pointed out that the fact that the nine girls involved told basically the same story about Bowman made for a strong case, which was further buttressed by the trooper report recommending prosecution.

Bowman does appear to have left the teaching profession. His father said he now works as a carpenter.

His Alaska teaching certificate has expired, but he remains licensed to teach in Montana. Ann Gilkey of the Montana Office of Public Instruction said there don't appear to have been any complaints filed against Bowman over the years, but she noted some weaknesses in reporting in the state. Accusations against teachers often go unreported to her office, she admitted. She had not heard about the accusations leveled against Bowman in Alaska until she was contacted by Alaska Dispatch News.

Sondra Meredith, who leads educator evaluations for the Alaska Department of Education, wasn't surprised to learn that, given that no one in Alaska ever filed a formal complaint against Bowman. She was of the opinion someone should have done that. Had the case amounted to no more than Bowman's inviting or allowing female children to shower at his house, she said it would appear to warrant at least a hearing before the state's Professional Teaching Practices Commission. But she added that nothing happens unless someone files a complaint.

A large, multiracial problem

The state of Alaska's response to the rural sexual abuse problem has been to launch a propaganda campaign. Former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and other political leaders backed a public relations effort called "Choose Respect."

Tuluksak joined the communities rallying for respect in 2013. One of the mothers of a girl allegedly abused by Bowman, however, wonders whether the campaign is not just so many words. She notes the lack of respect shown the village in this case.

No one has come to explain why the criminal justice system does not seem to want to do anything about the white man from far away who molested village girls.

She stares at the floor in the jail and asks again: "Why isn't he in jail?"

The question echoes: "Why isn't he in jail?"

For the villagers here, it is easy to think the answer to that question is simply that no one cares because they are the forgotten people -- and in many ways, they are forgotten.

Tuluksak, wrote an Outside reporter who visited here in 1969, "resembles the crumbling towns of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta … in the destruction of human motivation which is as sure an accompaniment of poverty as ignorance, disease and malnutrition."

Over the decades since, the educational and health care systems have improved, but many of the problems of the '60s remain only to be exacerbated by the technology of these times.

On a crisp, clear day last fall, there were kids walking the streets of the village talking on cellphones, but the air smelled faintly of the human waste filling the mini-dumpsters where residents empty the so-called "honey buckets" that pass for toilets in most homes. Some of the honey-bucket dumpsters lacked lids; others were near overflowing.

There is almost no economy but for government jobs of some sort. Everyone talks about living the subsistence lifestyle, but the salmon runs of the Kuskokwim River are fading, and that lifestyle is hard. There are a lot of kids. Almost 35 percent of the population is under the age of 18. The median age in the village is 26. The village store is full of young people. A half-size frozen pizza goes for $11, but it doesn't really cost money.

Many villagers have Alaska Quest Cards, the electronic debit cards that have replaced food stamps. Some of the smart young people look at the world in which they live and see education as a way out. But the school system is struggling, if not failing.

It has a new superintendent this year. Each of the three schools in the district has a new principal. The state has appointed a trustee to oversee the district's finances.

"I don't know how many teachers have left," said Molli Sipe, a Fairbanks-based education consultant who has worked with the district.

Jackson said he hired some to work in North Dakota. They were happy to get out, he added.

The kids, however, can't get out. They need someone to care.

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