District Attorney John Earthman says a majority of sexual crimes against adults in Nome involve "voluntary intoxication," and "some sort of sexual misconduct with a passed-out or otherwise unaware person." If the accused claims it was consensual, he said "you're going to have a tough time proving in a jury trial that they knew" the victim was incapacitated, he said.
Prosecution experts agree that these are complicated cases, but say they are prosecutable.
"You really have to be interested in searching for the truth, take the time to actually speak to people, and not just minimize the case as not important, or just some drunk sex," said Jennifer Long, co-founder of AEquitas, a national organization that trains professionals on sexual violence investigation and litigation.
"What we know about victims is that there's an incredible level of self-blame for all of the activity — and being vulnerable is not a crime, although in these cases it certainly is used against the victim."
‘Everybody Is Due Justice’
Estes launched the audit of the city's sexual assault cases in early 2019. In his first weeks as police chief, he'd heard the concerns and decided his department needed to fathom the extent of the problem.
"One case or 100 — if you're unable to properly investigate and case manage, that's a travesty," he told the AP. "Everybody is due justice. Period."
He turned to two employees — Kennon, the former cold-case investigator from Virginia, and Paul Kosto, a former Alaska state trooper Estes had hired as an evidence tech. Kennon and Kosto set out to review 460 sexual assault cases going back 14 years.
Kosto said it quickly became clear the department had not provided officers with adequate training on collecting and preserving evidence and writing reports.
Kennon said he didn't think all officers were to blame. Some appeared to have done acceptable investigations.
The department sent an initial group of 76 case files to the district attorney's office to see whether there were grounds for prosecution. The DA's office rejected 57 of them, and sent 19 back with requests for more investigation.
Estes told the AP that he was "cautiously optimistic" over the spring and summer that things were moving in the right direction with the department.
But he was frustrated by his inability to do something about the department's staffing. The department has just over 20 employees, including dispatchers and support staff, for a city of around 3,900. That makes it hard to pursue in-depth investigations. And that often means there's only one officer on the street per shift — a dangerous situation, he said, for officers and citizens.
Without enough staff to cover day-to-day demands, Estes said, he was forced to pull Kennon off the cold case review for several months.
Estes, Kennon and Kosto planned to resume the case audit in early September. The three of them say that before Kennon and Kosto could get started, the city's interim city manager at the time, John Handeland, began pushing to end the cold case audit for good.
City leaders wanted to treat the cold cases as "water under the bridge," Estes said.
In an email, Handeland declined comment.
‘A Public Emergency’
Estes went public with his concerns about his department's staffing and direction at a City Council meeting on Sept. 23. At one point, he paused, overcome with emotion, and left the meeting room.
He returned with an apology for "losing it." He said the issue was not about him — the entire community was being hurt.
Estes submitted his resignation in early October. He told the AP recently that after the council meeting it became clear the city was not willing to act on his concerns.
"Maybe I didn't explain it the best way I could have," Estes said. But "it wasn't just me explaining the problems. There were other people within the city who knew — and know — that change is needed."
He's back in Virginia, but he said he and his wife remain fond of Nome. "We've made lifelong friends," he said.
The city is conducting a search to hire Estes’ replacement and has a new city manager, Glenn Steckman, who has a track record as a local government administrator in the Lower 48. He told the AP that he is working with the police department to bring on additional investigative help, which would allow it to restart the cold case review in early 2020.
Meanwhile, the Alaska chapter of the ACLU has sent a letter informing the city that it is preparing a lawsuit on behalf of Clarice "Bun" Hardy, the former Nome police dispatcher who says she couldn't get her own department to investigate her rape report.
In a letter replying to the ACLU, attorneys for Nome's insurance agency asserted that Hardy has no case, because deciding whether to investigate a criminal complaint is a discretionary matter.
"The City of Nome is sensitive to Ms. Hardy's situation, but disputes legal liability for the emotional distress and trauma that you describe in your letter," the attorneys wrote.
Sexual assault survivors and their advocates say the letter felt like a gut punch to women who made the difficult decision to go public in 2018.
"Now what we're seeing is the people who did come forward, that laid themselves on the line, made themselves vulnerable — they are now being disrespected by the city," said Ellanna, a member of the survivors advocacy group who recently was appointed to the city's new public safety commission.
Koelsch, the Nome Eskimo Community Tribal Council member, said things are worse now than they were a year ago. Staffing woes and other turmoil at the police department, she said, have left many people fearful for their safety.
"Basically, we have a public emergency on our hands," she said. When Estes came in as police chief, "I felt hopeful. I did. Because he did seem to be on the up-and-up. Now I don't have any hope."
For women who have been fighting for change, the departure of Nome's police chief is another in a long line of setbacks. So many of their days and nights are spent grappling with crises — sometimes in private, sometimes in public.
They get calls in the middle of the night because another woman has been raped, and go out to "support yet another person who may or may not even get their case brought to a DA," according to Darlene Trigg, a member of the survivors advocacy group. They take turns, too, going to public meetings and speaking out to keep issues of public safety and private pain on the community's agenda.
The burden of doing all this is exhausting, Trigg said, but it's the only way to see that victims of sexual violence are supported and that the issue doesn't get pushed back onto the margins of public debate.
"It takes diligence and a constant eye," Trigg said. "If we're silent, all this will go to the wayside."
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