Anchorage Daily News, ProPublica take on Alaska’s sexual assault crisis

Aerial view of Selawik, Alaska on April 20, 2009. Credit: Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News

The town of Kotzebue sits low on a gravel spit where three rivers meet, 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Western Alaska. It is believed to be the oldest continuous human settlement in the Americas—9,000 years for the Iñupiat, who still comprise 75 percent of the population. Wild musk ox graze the stark landscape outside of town, where the sun doesn’t set for six weeks every summer. The Red Dog Mine, 90 miles north, stains the river banks red and sickens the town’s children. When 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr disappeared from a playground there in September 2018, search teams used boats to scan the shorelines around Kotzebue Sound, Swan Lake, and Kotzebue Lagoon. They found her body on the tundra.

Kyle Hopkins, who is special projects editor at the Anchorage Daily News, flew in to cover Ashley’s murder. On September 23, the suspect was charged with kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and strangling Ashley. Through interviews with the suspect’s relatives, Hopkins discovered that the suspect, a local, had raped girls since he was at least 12, but had never been charged and was not a registered sex offender.

The suspect’s sister had never spoken about his pattern of assault. Then she met Hopkins. Once they started talking, “family members described 40 rapes,” Hopkins says. “For two family members, it started very, very young.”

Weeks later, in October, Hopkins and his team at the Daily News covered an assault in Nome, 180 miles south across the Seward Peninsula. This time, the victim contacted Hopkins because she had seen another report he did about a case ignored by police.

Hopkins wondered about the extent of sexual violence in Alaska. “How many victims are there? Why wasn’t Ashley’s killer a registered sex offender? What does that say about the state?” Rape rates in Alaska are three times higher than the next highest state, and the majority of victims are indigenous women and female children. Alaska Natives represent 15 percent of the population, but make up more than half of sexual-assault victims. In 2015, 370 felony sexual assaults were reported per 100,000 people in Western Alaska, where the problem is worst. (By comparison, Kings County, New York, had 25.4.)

Hopkins’s team at the Daily News published a simple Google form, asking Alaskans to share their experiences. The paper received over 200 responses—more than they had the resources to investigate. So Hopkins applied to a grant from ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, which funded Hopkins’s salary and benefits for the year, plus occasional reporting expenses, such as records requests.

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The first story in Hopkins’s investigative series, “Lawless,” published today, reveals that one in three communities in Alaska has no local law enforcement. “No state troopers to stop an active shooter, no village police officers to break up family fights, not even untrained city or tribal cops to patrol the streets,” Hopkins writes. Almost all of the communities are primarily Alaska Native and often lie miles from the nearest road. The absence of state-funded public safety services, Hopkins argues, means Native villagers live on the front lines of the addiction, suicide, and sexual assault crises that plague their communities.

The police protection study published today is the most comprehensive investigation of its kind in Alaska, Hopkins says. He frames the story around a sexual assault case in a village where there is one “poorly paid, poorly trained” police officer.

“The mayor of the Yukon River village of Russian Mission said that within the past couple years, residents duct-taped a man who had been firing a gun within the village and waited for troopers to arrive,” Hopkins writes. “In nearby Marshall, villagers locked their doors last year until a man who was threatening to shoot people had fallen asleep, then grabbed him and tied him up. Elsewhere, tribes mete out banishment for serious crimes from meth dealing to arson. Rape survivors are told not to shower and must fly to hub cities or even hundreds of miles to Anchorage to undergo a sexual assault examination.”

More than 20 villages hired officers with criminal records, violating state standards for police officers over the past two years, Hopkins reports. Two officers are registered sex offenders. “Let’s say you’re a 5-year-old living in a Native community,” Hopkins says. “Why don’t you have the basic services taken for granted by most Americans? A toilet that flushes and a running sink in your home. A school. And if you dial 911, someone answers.”

Also today, ProPublica published a revamped version of the Daily News’s rudimentary outreach form from last year, to encourage native Alaskans to volunteer information about sexual violence in the state. ProPublica assigned two engagement specialists, Beena Raghavendran and Adriana Gallardo, to help Hopkins conceive of outreach opportunities. It also plans to launch a private Facebook advisory group to solicit input from Alaska Native victims’ advocates and others on how to best serve communities.

ProPublica launched its Local Reporting Network program in 2018 with seven local-newsroom partnerships. This year, the initiative will partner with 20.  “Reporters and newsrooms get the full slate of ProPublica resources,” Raghavendran says. “We share sources, provide the engagement team and strategy, news app support, data, research, and design services.”

Part of ProPublica’s objective in Alaska is to build accountability mechanisms that might make it easier for victims to find police records or approach law enforcement. To fill the gaps of accountability within the system there, the News’s ability to connect locally will be vital, Raghavendran says.

They are also planning local events to raise the work’s visibility, Gallardo says. The first will bring the entire team to Kotzebue on June 6, where a panel will include a state representative, staff members of a local clinic in town that provides services to victims of sexual assault, elders from the community, and, Gallardo hopes, a survivor from Kotzebue who has written a book on her experience. “Even people in Anchorage don’t really know what life is like off the road system,” Hopkins says.

Data support from ProPublica is already making a difference. “A big piece fell into place when we were able to negotiate a sex crimes records request with the Anchorage Police Department,” Hopkins wrote in an email. “They initially wanted $40,000 in research fees and estimated the dig would take 6 months.” ProPublica and the Daily News worked with the IT department to file the request as a database query and got most of what they needed for $200.

Those data sets will come into play later in the series. For now, “the stories on the lack of cops in rural Alaska are more of a brute force records effort,” Hopkins says. “Hundreds of emails, phone calls, letters.” ProPublica and the Daily News asked more than 560 traditional councils, tribal corporations, and city governments representing 233 communities if they have police protection.

The biggest challenge, according to Hopkins, is getting people to open up. Indigenous families in Alaska do not openly discuss assault. “The window of opportunity to talk is small,” Hopkins says. “There is no press in these communities. It’s so easy to do it wrong, parachuting in and asking intrusive questions of people who are traumatized.” As he gets to know a new source, he is careful to let them know he has female colleagues they can speak with if they prefer. “No one has taken me up on that yet,” he says.

“Kyle is the bridge,” Raghavendran says. “The ProPublica model is a local reporter side-by-side with engagement reporters. He’s on the ground, the human element, and we’re galvanizing people.”

If you are an Alaskan with a story to share about sexual assault or the state’s legal system, you may wish to take part in the Anchorage Daily News’s confidential survey. If you have a tip or want to talk privately with a reporter, email Kyle Hopkins at khopkins@adn.com or call him directly at 907-257-4421.

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Amanda Darrach is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.