Man charged with murders of two Alaska Native women

By Yereth Rosen, Reuters - October 18, 2019
A view of downtown Anchorage from Earthquake Park. (Luke Jones / CC-BY 2.0 via Flickr)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A digital camera card containing videos of a man beating and strangling a woman in a hotel room led to the arrest of an immigrant from South Africa charged with murders of two Alaska Native women who had gone missing, authorities said on Thursday.

In each case, the victims’ remains were found dumped in wooded outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. The suspect, Brian Steven Smith, 48, has confessed to both slayings to police, according to a bail memorandum filed by prosecutors on Thursday.

At a news conference in Anchorage, officials declined to link Smith to a larger wave of homicides, sexual assaults, domestic violence and disappearances among Indigenous women in Alaska and Canada. But they said additional charges were possible as the investigation continues.

[A breakthrough in an Alaska cold-case murder shines a light on violence against Indigenous women in the Arctic]

Smith was arrested on Oct. 8 at the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage and was arraigned the following day on murder and other charges in the Sept. 4 torture and slaying of 30-year-old Kathleen Jo Henry.

Her body was found on Oct. 2 in a secluded area just south of the city.

Smith was indicted on an additional murder charge on Thursday in the fatal shooting more than a year ago of Veronica Abouchuk, 52, who was last seen by family in July 2018 and was described in a missing-persons report as being homeless.

Authorities said the location Smith gave police for disposing of her remains matched the wooded site north of Anchorage where Alaska state troopers recovered her skull with a gunshot wound in April.

Investigators were led to Smith after someone found and turned over to police a digital camera card containing video of a naked woman being beaten and strangled, and a man laughing and yelling at her to die in “an English sounding accent,” the bail memorandum said.

The video card, containing 39 still images and 12 videos in all, was labeled “Homicide at midtown Marriott,” according to the document.

The memorandum said Smith was linked to the videos by a detective who recognized him from another case, and that Smith admitted under questioning that he was the man in the footage and had disposed of the victim’s body.

Smith, a white immigrant from South Africa who has lived in Alaska for five years, is married to a U.S. citizen and became a naturalized American citizen last month.

Deputy District Attorney Brittany Dunlop declined to offer a possible motive for the two killings, or to characterize Smith as a suspected serial predator.

“We take every case and every victim as they come,” Dunlop told reporters. “These were two Alaska Native women, and I know that hits home here in Alaska, and we’re cognizant of that.”

In June, a Canadian government inquiry into widespread violence against aboriginal women and girls concluded that the more than 1,000 such homicides documented between 1980 and 2012 amounted to a national genocide.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has declared a public-safety emergency in rural Alaska, pledging tens of millions of dollars in federal grants to combat sexual assault, child abuse and other violent crime.

Asked whether Smith might be tied to other crimes, Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll said, “That’s something that we’ll certainly look at as our investigation continues.” He added that several law enforcement agencies were involved in the investigation, including the FBI.

Smith has been ordered held on $750,000 bail, though prosecutors were seeking to raise his bond to $2 million. He faces an arraignment on the second indictment on Monday.