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Part 5 – Seeking Protection, Wanting Justice: Disparities in Sexual Assault Crimes in Nome

Collage of woman and scenery around Nome that were taken throughout the creation of "Seeking Protection, Wanting Justice" 5-Part series. Photos by Jenna Kunze, Brisa Alarcon.

This is the final part in a series of five stories that explores the community dynamics around sexual assault in Nome and efforts by law enforcement to heal long-standing mistrust.

If you need to talk with someone while reading this, or need help, here are some resources:

Bering Sea Women’s Group: (907) 443-5444; Toll Free: 1-800-570-5444.
Behavioral Health Services at the Norton Sound Health Corporation: (907) 443-3344, emergency number: 443-3200 Alaska Native Justice Center: (907) 793-3550
STAR Alaska: (907) 276-7273; Toll Free (800) 478-8999
ANDVSA: (907) 586-3650

If you are outside of the Bering Strait region, here is a list of resources compiled by the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Throughout this series KNOM has detailed how numerous sexual assault cases in Nome went unresolved for years and the impacts that had on individual survivors and for the credibility of police. We asked people for solutions and what they thought should happen next. They suggested strengthening support for the police department while building in more resources for victims. KNOM’s Davis Hovey shares some of their voices.

Changing Law Enforcement Internal Culture & External Perception

The Nome Police Department has struggled with internal issues. That’s what former Police Chief Bob Estes once said was one of the main issues facing the department in an email obtained through a records request by KNOM.

“I define this to be a lack of leadership, lack of training, lack of policy, lack of key personnel, lack of transparency, lack of expectations, and poorly defined chain of command/span of control. The second and third level concerns from this affect everything from public trust, internal morale, recruitment and retention. No organization is perfect, but a clearly defined internal structure supports a healthy environment for everyone. You want to identify bad behavior early to correct it by having the right people in key positions to verify it and make recommendations. This is occurring with NPD.”

– Police Chief Bob Estes
Chief Mike Heintzelman at his work station. Photo by Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM (2020).

As Nome Police are wrapping up their audit of hundreds of sexual assault cases, current Chief Mike Heintzelman and City Manager Glenn Steckman are working towards a “rebranding of NPD”, building a local cadet training program, and plan to move away from two-week-on and two-week-off work schedules for officers as well as improve retention of officers with incentives and career goals.

Steckman says some steps have already been taken while others are currently in the works.

“Money is important to everybody. But having the equipment, looking at what we’re trying to do with [what’s] going to be a multiple year project with certification accreditation, will, I think, give a pride to being part of a department. And the chief has mentioned training, which we both agree is sometimes an incentive.”

– City Manager Glenn Steckman

An On-Staff Victim Advocate

Although staffing remains an issue for NPD, they have re-hired a victims’ advocate named Sharon Sparks. Chief Heintzelman says Sparks helps survivors of sexual assault understand what is happening with their case.

“She would work hand in hand with the investigators providing some support to the victim. And she was also aware of all the police procedures and could talk to the victims about what would come next and what happens. And, you know, why is there a delay when the investigation goes to the DA; things like that. And she has access to all the confidential records.”

– Chief Mike Heintzelman

Stronger Partnerships

The City of Nome has also recently relied on relationships with community organizations and entities like Kawerak Inc.

President and CEO of Kawerak, Melanie Bahnke, was one of a few local leaders who helped cover the cost of analyzing a group of sexual assault kits at a private test lab. Typically, NPD relies on the State of Alaska’s crime lab, but in the fall of 2020 Kawerak, Norton Sound Health Corporation, and Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation donated almost $40,000 to the city so that survivor’s wait times to have their rape kits processed would be significantly reduced.

Bahnke says she wants both the city and Kawerak to be held accountable as their relationship develops.

“And when we fail, we need to be able to own up to that and identify ways to correct things and make sure that we don’t repeat what has happened. So I see this as positive movement going forward, I see positive changes happening. And I really hope that we can institutionalize these changes so that like I said, it’s not beholden to the goodwill of who’s currently in a position of authority.”

– Melanie Bahnke, CEO of Kawerak

City Manager Glenn Steckman told KNOM that local partnerships like the one that exists between the city and Kawerak could be a useful tool for addressing all the aspects of the issue, not just the number of sexual assaults.

“We need to look at why. Obviously, we have a homeless situation that has continued and continued. We have overcrowded housing, which can create stress levels. You know, there’s one area that we’re not down in taxation, essentially, is alcohol consumption. There are a lot of different factors, and then it also gets down to why… Are we not offering enough resources, whether it be recreational resources, where people have things to do?”

– City Manager Glenn Steckman

Addressing Caseloads

Nome Mayor John Handeland was one of many who highlighted the need for more district attorneys in Nome to help address the overwhelming caseload that current DA John Earthman has to deal with on his own.

Nome Mayor John Handeland in front of his NJUS office. Photo by Jenna Kunze.

Handeland says he has reached out to the state asking when the vacancy left by former Nome prosecutor Tom Jamgochian will be filled but it is unclear when someone new from the state will come to town. Meanwhile, Handeland asserts that it is not the City of Nome’s purview to help fill that void but there are other factors at play as well.

“It isn’t the city’s responsibility to fund the State Department of law… and I don’t believe that is lack of funding, [as to] why they can’t fill the position, as far as I know. But that it’s other factors…maybe somebody doesn’t want to come to Nome, they don’t believe that the state is steady enough, with employment, and based on our budget. They may decide to come to Nome, and they don’t have a job, come July 1st…those types of considerations. What’s the longevity and the likelihood that I’m going to stay employed in a year? And that is a big question every year with the state currently.”

– Nome Mayor John Handeland

It is possible the City of Nome, and the State of Alaska in general, could receive more support from the federal government to help with this issue.

In his own words, U.S. Attorney General William Barr gave his support of Alaska Native survivors and their need for justice last year. During the 2020 AFN Convention, he said, “I think that in the past Native communities have been faced with the intolerable choice of either moving to cities for law enforcement protection and risk breaking apart or staying in place without protection and continuing to fend for yourselves. This is unacceptable.”

The former U.S. Attorney General also announced over $2-million would be dedicated to Alaska and given to communities for public safety purposes. Some regional communities in Western Alaska, including Nome, received a portion those funds to bolster law enforcement resources within their area.

“Focusing on prevention means healing for victims, it means healing for perpetrators, it means healing for communities, and our criminal justice system is not built to heal.”

– Dr. Ingrid Johnson

Prevention & Community Support for Survivors

Rather than relying on more staff or increased resources to work within the current system, some individuals would rather look at solutions outside of the system.

Dr. Ingrid Johnson with the UAA Justice Center recommends changing the entire focus of the justice system in Alaska, especially when it comes to helping sexual assault survivors and offenders.

In order to achieve justice for more survivors, Johnson says prevention and healing needs to be the state’s priority.

“What if we wanted to prioritize healing and prevention? That really comes down to a very different prioritization on behalf of our state and our federal government. It requires more equal access to health care; that can be financial access, the presence and availability of services, and specifically, mental health care. And eliminating those adverse childhood experiences, to the degree that we can, like incarcerated parents and substance abuse and mental health issues in the home… So focusing on prevention means healing for victims, it means healing for perpetrators, it means healing for communities, and our criminal justice system is not built to heal.”

– Dr. Ingrid Johnson

She also pointed out that a compilation of racial data for who is reporting sexual assaults and who’s cases are being prosecuted in Alaska currently does not exist. Dr. Johnson will be working on that once she has data from Alaska State Troopers and the Department of Law, but for now it is not compiled. KNOM confirmed that missing or incomplete data makes a measure of the scope of sexual assault impossible.

Rather than investing more money in law enforcement and prisons, Dr. Johnson suggests putting those resources elsewhere that will have more of an impact in addressing these underlying issues.

Sex Offender Rehabilitation through DOC Facilities

View of Nome from hospital in winter.
View of Nome in the winter time from hospital. Photo by Brisa Alarcon, KNOM.

A sex offender treatment program has been offered at Anvil Mountain Correctional Center in Nome since March 2018, according to Alaska’s Department of Corrections staff. Right now, there is only one treatment provider at AMCC, and she has finished working with her first cohort, which normally takes 18 to 24 months to complete the program. This group includes any sex offenders who are incarcerated at AMCC and choose to undergo treatment. It is not mandatory for all offenders to complete the program.

DOC’s Chief Mental Health Officer, Adam Rutherford says the program seems to be working, though it’s too early for hard data.

“That’s been really beneficial to have a treatment provider in a rural community, because it’s so rare. Recruitment of treatment providers is very difficult in general; having them in rural areas is pretty unheard of.”

– Adam Rutherford

And recruitment is challenging, as Rutherford explains: “[there’s] difficulty in finding treatment providers in general in Alaska, and then you add on a lot of the stigma that’s associated with treating sex offenders, and a lot of folks just aren’t interested in treating that population.”

To compensate for the stigma that comes with treating sex offenders, DOC is relying on telehealth services for more rural areas, but they also provide treatment through a provider in Nome and Bethel. 

They also try to use contract agencies like the attempted partnership with Seaside in Nome to offer more services in other places but that isn’t always an option that has support from the community.

Charles VanRavensway, DOC’s criminal justice planner with sex offender management program, says barriers like a lack of safe housing prevent more sex offenders from being successful when they re-enter the community. 

“However, I do believe that those that are reentering and managed by the Alaska Department of Corrections are overall more successful than other offenders that are reentering into the community. I believe that our management program works and we’re proud of it.”

– Charles VanRavensway

According to VanRavensway, statewide sex offenders who participate in our sex offender management program and are supervised by the Alaska Department of Corrections only commit a new sex crime 3.25% of the time, which is below the national average of 5%.

Funding for these types of treatment programs come from the legislature according to Rutherford. In terms of how the state can reduce the high numbers of sex offenses occurring in rural Alaska, DOC officials say they wish they had the answer to that question.

Raising Awareness

Councilman Jerald Brown has been on the council for almost 15 years. Brown says he didn’t truly realize there was a larger problem until a former police chief gave a report to the city council years ago.

“It was in January; I don’t remember what year but he [Chief Papasadora] brought a report. And this report not only had the statistics of how many cases in different categories, but it also showed for each category, how many of those cases were resolved and in what manner. I think there were 40 some or 50 sexual assaults. Then it said there are only two arrests, you know, and no convictions, no nothing further. That that was the first wake up call for me on that issue. Then yeah, I probably should have followed up a little more vigorously at that point. But shortly after that is when Lisa [Ellanna] and the others started coming into the council and demanding action, which I fully supported. But that’s basically when I became aware of it as a big problem.”

– Councilman Jerald Brown

Many survivors spoke to KNOM about how the criminal justice system did not work for them, more often than not it made it more difficult for them to receive justice in their cases.

“…this whole system never really worked for me. It didn’t work for me, it worked for him [my attacker]…”

– Andrea Irrigoo

Andrea Irrigoo and others didn’t know what was happening with their case throughout the legal process, so many survivors are asking for more transparency and communication from attorneys, police, and those involved when their sexual assault case goes to court.

To potentially achieve more justice for survivors, Irrigoo suggested reducing the Nome DA’s caseload by involving local/regional tribal governments or organizations.

“What could help is like moving some of these cases to tribal governments, because they have… they can establish law to. Why does the state have to handle all the criminal cases?”

– Andrea Irrigoo

Meghan Topkok, an Alaska Native attorney for Kawerak, says it’s important for the Native community to have conversations about sexual assault, but bringing up sexual topics with family members can be difficult. She wants to go a step further and not just rely on tribal courts or governments for laws, but also make it easier to have conversations about sexual assault.

“One idea that came up was that we incorporate our traditional stories into tribal court proceedings as a way to frame the issue and to talk about the issue with our people because it is so difficult to talk about anything with my family. There was a lot of reluctance to do that.”

– Meghan Topkok

According to Bahnke with Kawerak, specifically men need to be involved in this discussion about sexual assaults.

“We need to hold people accountable. When I look at the group of people that’s been really, you know, trying to pursue justice, we actually need some more men to walk alongside us and be the leaders in this too. They can’t just be women. We need leadership from men saying this is not okay. You know?…this isn’t just a Native problem.”

– Melanie Bahnke, CEO of Kawerak

Look at the Larger System

Topkok with Kawerak, says the issue is more systemic and goes beyond just sexual assaults.

“There’s just a lot of systemic racism, I’ll just come out and say it. There’s a lot of barriers and we don’t see ourselves again represented. We’re not judges and we’re not seeing Alaska Native judges. We’re not seeing Alaska Native prosecutors, defense attorneys…”

– Meghan Topkok

In order to address this larger issue and help reduce the high number of unprosecuted sexual assaults, Topkok is focusing on developing more tribal courts in the Bering Strait region. But that also requires more resources and work than one person can accomplish, as Topkok explains.

 “So when we talk about sexual assault, domestic violence, tribes have very limited authority to do anything with that. And if they do have any limited authority, like under VAWA, there’s so many strings attached, that it just doesn’t become feasible to actually do anything in tribal court with DVSA [domestic violence and sexual assault]. Like, in order to have any sort of criminal jurisdiction over these types of issues, you have to have a law trained judge. How many of us are law trained, who are going to be working in tribal court? You have to provide a defense attorney for indigent individuals. How many tribes can afford to have like hire an attorney? I mean, my position is supported by 19 tribes just to pay one attorney’s salary.”

– Meghan Topkok

Striving for Health

Dr. Ingrid Johnson, mentioned earlier, also emphasizes the need to have a community-wide discussion about sexual assaults.

“I see healing as a solution. And so that is going to require a pretty heavy community dialogue that says, ‘Okay, if we want to prioritize healing, what does that look like?’ That means we’re going to have to make mental health resources more readily accessible. And that’s, again, financially accessible as well.”

– Dr. Ingrid Johnson

In addition, multiple people including Melanie Bahnke of Kawerak, expressed the need for the Nome Police Department to publicly acknowledge what happened in the past. Bahnke says that is key for moving forward and to help the healing process.

“We told the City of Nome Police Department…in order for us to move forward, truly move forward and rebuild trust with the police department, it’s going to be important for them to acknowledge their shortcomings, their past shortcomings. We can’t just say okay, everything’s fine, now we’re doing all of these wonderful things. There has to be an acknowledgement that the system has failed in the past…”

– Melanie Bahnke, CEO of Kawerak

Advocate and longtime resident, Lisa Ellanna acknowledges how difficult this topic is to address and discuss.

“Our little community here, Nome Alaska, what a brave endeavor. You know, I’m very proud of my community. And as much as it seems like I am causing friction or being abrasive or my attitude is too serious, whatever people label me as, people have to understand that this conversation is an extremely difficult conversation to have. And I just want to tip my proverbial hat and just say thank you to everybody engaged in this conversation. Thank you for being brave to stick it out.”

– Lisa Ellanna
Resident of Nome, Lisa Ellanna, overlooking the snowy hills in Nome. Photo by Brisa Alarcon.

This portion of the series was written by KNOM’s Davis Hovey and Emily Hofstaedter with contributions from many others.

To everyone who agreed to share their experiences with KNOM, who helped guide, and contribute to this 5-part series: Thank you!

Read each segment of the 5-part series Seeking Protection, Wanting Justice, here.

More resources on sexual assault: https://www.knom.org/wp/blog/category/all-news/seeking-protection-wanting-justice/https://www.knom.org/wp/blog/category/all-news/seeking-protection-wanting-justice/

A guide to resources for sexual abuse survivors in Alaska, put together by ProPublica and ADN:

Information on Sexual Assault put out by the State of Alaska’s Department of Law:

This series is a collaboration between Alaska Public Media and KNOM, with funding in part provided by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.

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