In Alaska hometown, Native women say police ignored rapes
NOME, Alaska (AP) — There’s not much that scares Susie. As an Alaska Native woman, she thrives amid sub-zero winters in her village near the Arctic Circle, and camps with her family each summer at the Bering Sea, catching, drying and smoking salmon to put away for winter.
But Susie is afraid to return to Nome. The man who raped her, she says, is still there.
“Just scares me, and I’m scared to see him, and thinking what he might do,” she says. “But I’m not scared in the village, or any other villages, because I know he won’t come.
“But Nome is like ... I don’t really like to overnight in Nome.”
He is a free man — no charges were filed against him. Susie reported to Nome police that she had been assaulted and went with the investigating officer to the hospital, where a forensic nurse was prepared to perform a sexual assault exam.
But the officer told the nurse not to bother, according to a hospital record that Susie released to The Associated Press.
“The Officer stated that he was going to cancel the exam because he had already talked to the suspect and the man admitted that he ‘had sex’ with the patient but that it was consensual,” the nurse wrote in the report. “Therefore the officer did not see a need for an exam.”
Susie’s story isn’t uncommon in Nome, a city of fewer than 4,000 full-time residents that serves as a regional hub for dozens of smaller villages across western Alaska’s Bering Strait region.
Rape survivors and their supporters told the AP that the city’s police department has often failed to investigate sexual assaults or keep survivors informed about what, if anything, is happening with their cases.
Survivors and advocates contend that Nome police pay less attention and investigate less aggressively when sexual assaults are reported by Alaska Native women. More than half of Nome’s population is Alaska Native, largely of Yupik heritage or — like Susie — of Inupiaq heritage. All of its police department’s sworn officers are non-Native.
Susie’s full name is being withheld by the AP, which has a policy of not identifying victims of sexual abuse unless they choose to be identified.
This story was produced through a partnership with National Native News with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
In many ways, Nome mirrors the national debate that has gained momentum over the past three years in the wake of a series of sexual abuse scandals involving entertainers, Hollywood moguls and politicians. Nome’s grassroots struggle illustrates how one American hometown is wrestling with issues of sexual violence and law enforcement — and how a history of racial disparity and unacknowledged trauma has undermined efforts to address what the human rights group Amnesty USA has called an epidemic of sexual assaults against Native women across the United States.
In 2013 — the year Susie reported she had been sexually assaulted — Nome police received 33 calls about sexual assaults against adults. That year, the department made one arrest on a sexual assault charge. In all, Nome police records show, the department fielded 372 calls about sexual assaults against adults from 2008 through 2017. During that span, 30 cases — 8% of the total — led to arrests on sexual assault charges.
By comparison, a study of six police departments across the U.S. published this year by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell found that just under 19% of sexual assault reports led to arrests.
Even that arrest rate raises questions about how seriously police agencies take sexual violence, according to criminal justice experts and advocates for sexual assault survivors. Police agencies in big cities, suburbs and small towns have been accused of failing to test DNA evidence gathered in thousands of rape cases ; dismissing rape reports because officers believed that victims did not “fight back” hard enough ; and showing less concern about rape complaints from African Americans, Native Americans and other less powerful groups.
In Nome, local officials defend the police department, saying low staffing levels have made it difficult to respond to calls for help of all kinds.
John Earthman, district attorney for Nome and surrounding areas, said Nome police officers “are very hard-working people that live in this community. They want to make their community safer. Unfortunately out here a lot of times, it is a triage situation. It’s very hard. Just having a rural police department in rural Alaska is very hard.”
Officials and citizens in Nome are still struggling to come to grips with a history of strains between its police force and the Alaska Native community. There has been some progress over the past year. The police department has new leadership and has increased its workforce to roughly two dozen employees, including officers and support staff. A key catalyst for change has been an informal support group formed by survivors of sexual assault and other violence.
The group, worried about a backlash, had met quietly on the edge of town for three years to plan their efforts. At first members tried to work behind the scenes with police and city leaders, but made little headway. They finally went public with their concerns in the spring of 2018.
“You have every opportunity to raise up the Native community right now,” group member Darlene Trigg, who is Inupiaq, told City Council members in May 2018. “In the end we can come out of this in a good place — we all just have to be humble enough to recognize that there’s been mistakes. Please, please recognize that.”
A DEATH IN NOME
On Aug. 11, 2003, Florence Habros and her sister watched 19-year old Sonya Ivanoff step into a Nome police car. It was the last time anyone saw the young Inupiaq woman alive.
Habros, who is Yupik, agonized about coming forward when she learned that Ivanoff was missing, fearing retaliation against herself and her family, she told the Anchorage Daily News at the time.
When Ivanoff’s body was discovered in bushes by the side of a service road outside of town — she had been shot in the back of the head at point blank range — Habros decided to call police. She told Nome’s then-police chief, Ralph Taylor, what she’d seen. For weeks, she waited for police to follow up with her, she said, growing more and more afraid to go outside alone.
Habros finally sent a video statement to the Alaska State Troopers. The troopers’ investigation of the case ultimately led to the murder conviction of Nome Police Officer Matthew Clay Owens.
After Owens’ arrest, citizens and Alaska Native organizations seized the moment to speak up about what they charged was a pattern of police brutality, harassment and neglect.
A lawsuit, filed by three women who said they had been stalked, threatened and assaulted by Owens, claimed the city knew or should have known that he was a danger to young women in Nome. One of the women alleged Owens had forced her to perform oral sex at gunpoint, promising he’d kill her if she told anyone. Another of the three claimed she and her mother had complained to Taylor after her first assault, years prior to the murder, but nothing was done.
Taylor could not be reached for comment for this story. Before he stepped down as chief at end of his contract in January 2004, he said he hadn’t been aware of concerns about Owens’ conduct and that the murder case had been turned over to state troopers as soon as he had information that a Nome police officer might be involved. “Nothing was dropped or hidden,” he said.
Soon after Taylor departed, Craig Moates flew in from Tennessee to take over the police department. Moates made a whirlwind tour of villages, saying it was his top priority to heal relations with the Native community. He promised to look into allegations of police misconduct.
Moates later told the news media he was unable to substantiate police harassment or abuse. Still, the city quietly paid out roughly $750,000 to settle lawsuits filed by the three women and Ivanoff’s family over its hiring and supervision of Owens, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs.
The civil settlement — and Owens’ 101-year prison sentence — closed the legal proceedings in Nome’s courthouse. But the memory of Ivanoff’s murder is still fresh for many Alaska Native people in Nome and across the state. Alaska Natives have long endured sexual abuse — by staffers at boarding schools that Native children in rural areas were required to attend for much of the 20th century, and by missionaries who came to claim the land for Christ.
In 2007, the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order, agreed to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit for serial sex abuse perpetrated against Native girls and boys across Alaska. More than a dozen Jesuit priests were accused of molesting children in Nome and nearby villages, according to a list published by the order last year. Among the most prolific abusers on the list was the Rev. James Poole, who started a radio station in Nome and was lauded in a 1978 People magazine story headlined “Western Alaska’s Hippest DJ . Comin’ at Ya with Rock’n’Roll ‘n’ Religion.”
Jim LaBelle, who is Inupiaq and is a member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said Alaska Natives who have suffered sexual trauma often have few places to turn for help, and there are no protocols for healing entire communities that are still suffering. Many get comfort from embracing centuries-old traditions of subsistence living, he said, but they find even this alternative limited by legal restrictions on hunting and fishing.
While Native communities still suffer from the effects of sexual trauma, Nome’s physicians, nurses, therapists, teachers and police are almost exclusively non-Native. Many come from out of state for short rotations, ranging from a few weeks to a few years. Alaska Native organizations try to keep pace by offering cultural trainings to help outsiders better serve their communities — but not everyone participates.
Many service providers “don’t come as learners,” said Barbara Amarok, who is Inupiaq and director of Nome’s Bering Sea Women’s Group, a shelter for women seeking safety from violence.
Nome sits on the Norton Sound a little more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the Arctic Circle. It still promotes itself to tourists as a gold rush boomtown, the place Wyatt Earp called home after the Wild West became too tame.
Residents are deeply attached to their community of one- and two-story homes and businesses that stand between the Bering Strait and the treeless expanse of Alaska’s western tundra. The sun appears after noon in winter, hovers over the sound for a few hours, and sinks back under the ice. It’s hard to see where the land ends and the sea begins. In summer, the plains explode with berries and edible greens. Visitors from surrounding villages and other places can only reach Nome by plane, boat and, sometimes, snow machines or dog sleds.
On the night Susie says everything changed for her, she had come from her village farther north to visit a cousin in Nome. At a bar, she encountered a man she knew from another village who lived in Nome. According to the notes compiled by Barbara Cromwell, the lead forensic nurse at Nome’s Norton Sound Regional Hospital, Susie said the man bought her three shots of liquor — “I was just feeling a little bit ‘somewhere,’ but I wasn’t drunk.”
She recalled the man saying, “I want to have sex with you.” She said she told him “I’m not like that” — she had children and a boyfriend. But he persisted, she said, following Susie and her cousin back to her cousin’s apartment. He refused to leave, and finally pushed Susie into a bedroom and locked the door and raped her, pressing his forearm into her neck and chest when she tried to struggle, she told the nurse.
At the hospital, Cromwell decided to conduct a full sexual assault exam, even though her notes indicate that Nicholas Harvey, the Nome police officer investigating the case, told her to cancel it. She wrote that she found evidence that could be consistent with Susie’s account, including bruises on her arms and legs. The man had been convicted of physical assault three times before Susie reported him to police, according to court records.
Susie says she waited three days in Nome to hear back from police about her case, but heard nothing. She flew back to her village and continued calling police and prosecutors in Nome. Still, she says, no one could tell her what had happened with her case.
“So I was like . . . must not be important enough,” Susie says. “Us Natives must not be important enough.”
Under Cromwell’s direction, Norton Sound Regional’s forensic nursing program — established in 2010 to provide specialized care to victims of sexual assault and other violence — has grown.
Survivors can see a trained nurse in a private area of the hospital and decide for themselves whether to involve police and undergo evidence collection. They can remain anonymous if they choose. If patients decide to report a crime, police are supposed to interview them in the nurse’s private office, with a victim’s advocate present if the patient requests one.
The number of evidence kits Cromwell’s team collected more than tripled, from around 55 the first year, to over 180 by 2017. But as more and more people went to the hospital for rape exams, Nome police officers struggled to master investigative techniques, Cromwell told the AP.
“By the time the rest of our team could kind of bring them up to speed, they’d be gone,” she said. “And then the victims kind of drift away because nothing’s being done.”
Cromwell said she was shocked when a Nome police officer casually let it slip in 2017 that police were regularly “weeding out” some sexual assault reports on the spot, without bringing women to the hospital for an exam and an interview with someone trained in dealing with traumatized victims.
“I had no idea that they were sometimes deciding in the field that it was not a legitimate report,” Cromwell said. “How can you substantiate (an assault) if you don’t bring them to a quiet place to interview them with support, with an advocate, and have a medical person evaluate them? Because it might sound like nothing, but that’s because it’s very difficult for the women to tell their story. You really have to give them the opportunity to do that.”
Harvey, the officer who had handled Susie’s case, declined to answer questions for this story. Harvey, who left the police department earlier this year and took a job as a deputy clerk at the Nome courthouse, started as a dispatcher for the department in 2008 and eventually rose to lieutenant; for much of the past decade, he was one of the officers responsible for investigating sexual assault cases in Nome.
One former employee of the department, Tomas Paniaataq, recalled accompanying Harvey on a sexual assault call; before Harvey even started the car, Paniaataq told the AP, the investigator told him it was a “he said, she said” case that would never hold in a court, so there was no point in taking a report.
Paniaataq, who is Inupiaq, worked from 2016 to 2018 for the department as a community services officer, a civilian employee who assisted sworn officers.
“Honestly, if you look back at a lot of the sexual assaults within the police department that that particular officer did, (it) was always like a no-report, ‘he said-she said’ kind of thing,” Paniaataq said.
Preston Stotts was a 15-year veteran when he left the department two years ago — in large part, he said, because of frustration with Harvey and other officers who were “failing to go on felony calls, not going on sexual assault calls.”
As a supervisor, Stotts said he wrote numerous complaints, but the department did nothing about “blatant disregard for policing.”
ONE OF THEIR OWN
Clarice “Bun” Hardy, a 911 dispatcher for Nome police from 2015 to 2018, had always thought of Harvey as a friend. Harvey was “the one cop I thought of as family, the one who I trusted with everything,” she said.
She turned to him in March 2017 after she awoke one morning, sore and bruised, with no memory of getting home the night before. Friends called her, she said, telling her about photos and a video posted on Snapchat that seemed to show a man having intercourse with her while she was unconscious.
She told Harvey she believed she’d been drugged at a local bar and then sexually assaulted. She said she gave him a list of witnesses, she said, but they later told her that no one from the police department had contacted them.
Meanwhile, during her shifts as dispatcher, she was answering repeated calls from two women who had reported being assaulted. Each time she told Harvey one of the women was on the line to ask about the status of her case, Hardy said, he said: “Just tell her I’m working on it.”
It was the same thing that he told her every time she asked about her own case, Hardy said.
“That’s when it sparked,” she said, her voice wavering. “Oh my God, he’s not doing anything.”
In March 2018, she said, she told the police chief at the time, John Papasodora, what had happened with her case, and he seemed surprised. He couldn’t locate a report or even a case number in the department’s computer system, she said, and asked her to rewrite her complaint, promising to deliver it to state troopers.
Months later, she said, she discovered her complaint still sitting on the chief’s desk. Hardy contacted the city’s human resources officer, the municipal employees union and Alaska’s Office of Victims’ Rights. She eventually went on unpaid leave and then was terminated from her job because, city officials wrote her, she hadn’t returned to work after her leave expired.
“I went from being a very active person, going to every community event, helping out, volunteering, to being scared to be in public in Nome,” she told the AP. “My blinds and my apartment were closed, my doors were locked.”
Papasodora, who stepped down as Nome police chief in September 2018, did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment for this story.
As Hardy waited for something to happen in her case, members of the local support group for sexual assault survivors were struggling to make progress in their talks with city officials.
Things began to change in August 2018 after Hardy’s sister Josie talked her into going to a community forum on public safety that the survivors group had organized.
Around 30 people assembled, and they went around in a circle introducing themselves, Hardy recalled. “I said, ‘Hi, my name is Clarice Hardy. I go by ‘Bun.’ I’m a dispatcher for the Nome Police Department and I’m here because I reported that I was drugged and raped, and my case didn’t go anywhere.”
Soon after, Hardy gave an interview to the Anchorage Daily News, which ran a story in September 2018 under the headline: “911 dispatcher: I was raped and Nome police colleagues ignored the case.”
Her public recounting of her experience in the state’s largest newspaper was a turning point: She was a former police department insider and she and her family were well-known in Nome.
At the same time, revelations about her case came in the wake of the news that the department had rehired Carl Putman, a former Nome community service officer who months before had pleaded guilty to punching Florence Habros — the eyewitness in the Sonya Ivanoff murder case a decade and a half before.
City officials explained that the department had rehired Putman — bringing him on as a police dispatcher — because it was hard to find qualified people.
‘IT’S KILLING US’
Not long before Bun Hardy went public, Deidre Levi, a high school basketball coach from St. Michael, a village on the other side of Norton Sound, reported a sexual assault to Nome police.
At the hospital, Levi, 21 at the time, was so distraught she needed to be sedated before undergoing a rape exam, according to medical records she released to the AP. The forensic report showed deep purple bruises around her neck “consistent with manual strangulation.”
Harvey interviewed her at the hospital. Friends who stayed with her during the interview repeatedly asked the officer what the next steps were.
Levi said Harvey told them that the only thing that could be done was to get a court order allowing her to record a phone conversation with the man she said had raped her — in the hope he might say something incriminating.
Levi’s mother, Priscilla Washington, flew to Nome and went to the police station with an advocate from the local women’s shelter.
“I went to Harvey and asked him what’s going on, and he said: ‘It’s just accusations right now,’” Washington recalled. “I asked if I could give him information, witnesses, anything. I asked: ‘Why isn’t he arrested yet with all that she went through?’”
Washington said she called the police department a week later, then a week after that, about getting approval to do the recording.
“They said they’d let me know,” Washington said. “And they never called back.”
It was soon after that the Anchorage Daily News story about Hardy went live. Levi read the story with a shock of recognition. She wasn’t alone.
After another three weeks passed without communication from police about her case, she said, she went online and wrote a long Facebook post about her experiences with Nome police. The post went viral and the newspaper followed with a story on Oct. 4 headlined: “A second woman comes forward to say she was raped in Nome without consequence.”
That same day, during an Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration in Anchorage attended by then-Gov. Bill Walker, Alaska Native author and playwright Vera Starbard gave a speech urging law enforcement authorities across the state to do their jobs and work to break through denial about sexual abuse of Alaska Native girls and women.
“We’ve seen that our sisters in Nome reported their sexual abuse, and were ignored,” Starbard, who is of Tlingit and Dena’ina Athabascan heritage, said. “We’ve heard it said over and over on social media, in the news, in the comments — that we aren’t to be believed, or it was our fault anyways, or that we deserve what we get. . . . It’s crushing us. It’s killing us.”
SIGNS OF CHANGE
In Nome, as Hardy and Levi’s stories drew statewide publicity and stoked community anger, signs of change emerged. The city hired a new police chief, Robert Estes, who announced that his department was performing an internal audit of over 460 old sexual assault cases. The City Council approved the hiring of the police department’s first victims advocate and passed an ordinance to create a civilian oversight committee to monitor police conduct.
But change isn’t a simple or swift process. Lisa Navraq Ellanna, an Inupiaq member of the survivors advocacy group, says the group wants lasting policy changes, not just new leadership.
“We can’t look away for one minute,” Ellanna said. “Or all of this goes away.”
Susie, meanwhile, was inspired by Hardy and Levi’s stories to try to find out what had happened with her own case.
From her village, she emailed Estes and other police officials, then called the station repeatedly to try to follow up. When she finally got through, she was told it would cost $20 to get a copy of her police report. She tried to pay with a credit card over the phone, she said, but was turned down. “They said it had to be cash.”
By mid-March, Susie was feeling low. She still had no word, she said, about her case.
“They’re just pushing me away. They know I’ll give up like I did before. It’s stressful.”
It was a relief this summer to join her parents at various camping sites, catching amaqtuuq and other varieties of salmon, gathering berries and hunting moose to prepare for the long winter, using skills passed down from her great-grandparents. “I love our way of living,” Susie said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”
Still, she couldn’t help wonder, out there in the wide open spaces, when she’d hear back from Nome police.
“I’m still waiting for the phone call,” she said in mid-July. “I’m at camp working on fish.” But they wouldn’t have any problem reaching her. “We have a generator to charge our phones.”
AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.
To hear voices of some of the people involved in Nome’s struggles over sexual assault, listen to the podcast series that the AP’s partner in this project, National Native News, has launched at https://www.nativenews.net/waiting-for-justice-in-nome-alaska/ .