By MICHAEL DUXBURY
It was with sorrowful satisfaction that I saw the news three days ago of Steven Downs’ conviction and the justice served in the Sophie Sergie cold case in Fairbanks.
I recently wrote to thank Kelly Howell, special assistant to the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety. And she deserves thanks. If it hadn’t been for her realizing our request and being a champion for funding to pursue one of the new approaches to DNA in cold cases, and then asking for additional funding, we would likely not see this develop into a conviction on a 30-year old cold case by the Alaska State Troopers.
It is another example of championing accountability within a justice system that, while it can’t resolve the pain of unspeakable loss, it can pursue justice and some sort of closure on behalf of the victims, their families, and the community.
The conviction of Steven Downs takes down the media-driven narrative that there is any level of ambivalence toward Alaska’s missing and murdered Native women and children.
It has been my experience that AST is not ambivalent about the victims of crime, and never has been. That includes cases of Native missing and/or murdered women. Whenever humanly possible, these cases are pursued.
As the former deputy commissioner and former commander of the Investigative Unit at Alaska State Troopers, I know the Cold Case Unit’s supervisor and Investigator Randy McPherron was relentless in the pursuit of justice for victims. He took the major initial steps in revitalizing the Sophie Sergie cold case homicide.
Investigator McPherron brought the idea of paying for the new DNA investigative tools to me when I was captain commander of Investigations.
McPherron had grit. He took an almost completely gutted Cold Case Section (down to one person due to budget cuts) and re-engage a case that had seen multiple investigators come and go over nearly three decades, and turn it into a unit with the prowess to pursue the DNA. It was his idea about how to effectively serve Alaska and Alaskans according to his oath as efficiently as possible, even in lean budgetary times.
His request of me to approach Howell for funds for this new DNA process turned out to be the best money I ever asked for — and Howell recognized it was the correct path right away.
Investigator McPherron spearheaded a process that rekindled the work of prior investigators and helped shatter the media-manufactured misconception about ambivalence toward missing and murdered Native women and children in Alaska. These are the lives of our neighbors mothers, sisters, aunts, and grand mothers. In AST I knew no one who was ambivalent about these cases.
When Commissioner Amanda Price arrived, on McPherron’s urging I asked she approve a request for more funds for more genetic work on similar cold cases.
I am proud of AST that they are able to prove yet again that the Troopers have never taken the murder of Native women and children lightly.
Even training to recognize steps for prevention were part of DPS procedures, through programs like Katie Tepas’ training of troopers, police, and village public safety officers. The village public safety officers have been part of the efforts to stem these tragedies and, while AST is not perfect, the division is always learning, always trying to improve.
Learning to recognize we can never stop looking for ways to interdict the violence, and that we must be committed in our pursuit of intimate partner and domestic violence crimes have been hallmarks of the Department of Public Safety and Alaska State Troopers.
Another example of how far the Troopers are willing to go to solve murders of indigenous females was evident in the Ashley Barr abduction and homicide case.
The Troopers were “all hands on deck,” asking all law enforcement partners for help. Transportation cost alone was over $200,000 for search dogs, personnel, and equipment to get into Kotzebue, an enormous sum for the department, but needed to investigate the death of little Ashley.
Human capital devastation is a clinical description of the impact to those directly involved as victims, the family, and community, and also members of search teams, and responders, and investigators. The human costs and spending are both reasons to engage in preventative efforts. The senseless loss of precious lives is what AST seeks to prevent in their effort to train Troopers, police officers, and VPSOs throughout the state.
As has been traditional for AST, the Ashley Barr case and the Sophie Sergie case garnered the support of the senior leadership. That resulted sending the lieutenant to help and be the face of the investigations, allowing investigators to spend uninterrupted time on the case. In the Ashley Barr case, I went to Kotzebue as the captain commander to demonstrate our acknowledgement of the case’s importance within the Native community.
With programs like the Violence Against Women Act and the Commissioner’s office Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, AST has pursued justice-driven accountability for all of Alaska’s victims of violent crime. Diane Casto, the director of CDVSA, is a tireless advocate for these victims.
This recent court conviction of Downs is due to AST’s complete dedication of many, such as Major David Hanson, investigators like McPherron, other troopers, budget, support from Howell, and original investigators.
However, what the public tends to forget is that behind the names or programs most known in association with an investigation, there is a network of selfless public servants who are never recognized — clerks, technicians, computer experts, and those who answer the phones.
AST can point to these recent accomplishments in high-profile cases with bittersweet sorrow and compassion for the victims and their families, and yet with humble pride, as these professionals continue on with their efforts in so many more cases that must be solved.
I hope the Department of Public Safety and the Governor’s Office will consider an award for Investigator McPherron, and for all DPS members. It’s important that they know their contributions to justice are recognized.
Again, congratulations to the many Alaska State Troopers, past and present, who were part of this effort and accomplishment. And congratulations and thanks to the team in the District Attorneys’ Offices who brought these cases to trial.
Michael Duxbury is a retired deputy commissioner of Public Safety and affiliated with UAA’s Arctic Domain Awareness Center as an executive counselor.