Alaska Village Sued Over Teen’s Death

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) – The mother of a 16-year-old girl has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Alaska Native village of Selawik and the person responsible for hiring the officer involved in the sexual assault and death of the girl.

Minnie Cleveland sued the village and an individual named in the complaint as John Doe on behalf of herself and her daughter Lois’ estate. According to the complaint, Doe is the person responsible for hiring and supervising village police officer Brent Norton.

Cleveland’s death sheds light on the inconsistent processes involved in selecting individuals to fill the different levels of safety officers within the state’s Village Public Safety Officer program mostly Alaska Native communities in remote parts of the 49th state. These rural villages fall under the oversight of the Alaska State Troopers, a statewide law enforcement agency spread thin across a state that is bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined.

VPSOs are generally the first to respond to calls from the community for help and can assist in law enforcement, fire protection and search and rescue, but are not expected to handle high-risk or complex situations, according to the state website. The funds for the program are managed through the Alaska State Troopers, but under state law the selection and supervision is handled by the regional native nonprofit or borough in the area of the state where they work.

In Selawik, a community of nearly 850 located in Northwest Arctic Borough, the acting officers are selected by officials in the community they serve and are not vetted as carefully or put through the same rigorous law enforcement training as full-time VPSOs. This loophole seems to have allowed Norton, a 29-year-old high school dropout with misdemeanors in his background, to be hired.

Norton’s misdemeanor convictions included transporting liquor to a dry village in 2006 and again in 2012. He received probation, according to Cleveland’s complaint. Despite this, Doe hired Norton as Selawik’s village police officer.

After being hired in 2015, Norton was arrested and charged with furnishing alcohol to and having sex with a 13-year-old girl – both felonies – and two misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Following the charges, the state sought to revoke his probation for the 2012 incident, Cleveland says in the complaint.

Despite the charges, Selawik and Doe did not suspend Norton as the village police officer. In fact, a month before the incident with Lois, Norton was awarded the Glen Godfrey Law Enforcement Award at the Alaska Federation of Natives Conference – an annual gathering of tribes across that state – for his “outstanding dedication to the safety of the public in the state of Alaska,” according to the federation’s website.

Norton received the award for being first on scene of a shooting and risking injury to retrieve the victim’s body when he was just six months on the job. The federation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Norton next turned his attention toward Lois and, according to the mother’s lawsuit, lured her to his home on at least two occasions and plied her with alcohol.

In November 2015, Norton learned Lois was spending the night at the home of her girlfriend’s grandparents, who were out of town. He purchased whiskey from a local bootlegger and went to the grandparents’ house and encouraged the girls to drink, Lois’ mother says in the lawsuit.

“Once Lois was impaired to the point of vomiting and being incoherent, Norton proceeded to have sex with her, which is a criminal act amounting to statutory rape and sexual battery,” the mother says in the complaint. “In the course of Norton’s sexual activity with Lois, Norton did a number of things that were unwanted and offensive, including the use of handcuffs to bind Lois’ hands. These handcuffs were issued to him by Selawick.

“Even after Lois had passed out and was unconscious and possibly deceased, Norton continued to have sex with her.

“When he was finished, Norton recognized that Lois was not moving, either because she was unconscious or deceased. Instead of calling for help, he got dressed, put clothes on Lois, and proceeded to try to have sex with [Lois’ girlfriend],” the mother says in the lawsuit.

The girlfriend refused Norton’s advances so he returned to Lois and found she was not breathing and had no pulse. Instead of calling for help or giving the girl CPR, Lois’ mother says Norton left and went back to the police station and called another officer.

While he waited for the other officer to arrive at the station, Norton began deleting his text messages to Lois, the mother says. He returned to the home with the other officer, who finally called for medical assistance and reported Lois was “cold and not breathing.”

“The medical aides responded to the location, but it was determined that Lois was deceased,” the mother says in the complaint. “It is believed that had Norton provided aid to Lois immediately after having sex with her, she would have survived. The delay in rendering aid contributed to Lois’ death.”

The medical examiner listed the cause of Lois’ death as asphyxiation, likely due to a combination of Norton’s use of handcuffs and the weight he put on the girl while having sex with her, according to the complaint.

Norton was charged and convicted of attempted sexual assault and furnishing alcohol to a minor. His earlier interactions with the 13-year-old girl also resulted in a conviction and his probation for the 2012 incident has been revoked, the complaint says.

Lois’ mother says if Doe had done a “cursory search of his background,” Norton would not have been hired. should never have been hired, but background checks are not required for substitute officers. According to the filing, Norton possessed none of the requirements or training for his position in the community.

Selawik officials did not immediately return calls for comment.

The mother seeks compensatory and punitive damages in excessive of $100,000 on wrongful death and civil rights claims. She is represented by David Gross of the firm Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot in Anchorage.


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