World News

In Alaska hometown, Native women say police ignored rapes

In this Feb. 16, 2019, photo, Deidre Levi rests her head for a moment in her grandmother’s house before a basketball game in the Native Village of St. Michael, Alaska. Levi says she spoke up about being sexually assaulted because she wanted to be a role model for girls in Alaska. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

hat 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.

__

SUSIE’S STRUGGLE

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.

In this Feb. 21, 2019, photo, the entrance to Norton Sound Regional Hospital is seen through a snow storm in Nome, Alaska. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

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.”

__

WEEDED OUT

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.

In this Feb. 14, 2019, photo, a school bus stop stands in front of Old St. Joe’s Hall, built in 1901 by a Jesuit priest in Nome, Alaska. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

“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.”

In this Jan. 14, 2019 photo, Clarice “Bun” Hardy stands on the beach with her dog, Marley, in the Native Village of Shaktoolik. (AP Photo/Victoria Mckenzie)

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.

In this Feb. 17, 2019, photo, Deidre Levi carries her basketball as she walks to work in the Native Village of St. Michael, Alaska. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

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.

In this Feb. 23, 2019, photo, new police chief Robert Estes speaks to the Associated Press in Nome, Alaska. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

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

Sep 14, 2019

Advertisements

Categories: World News

Tagged as:

Leave a Reply