By MICHAEL DUXBURY
It was with sad satisfaction that I learned three days ago of the conviction of Steven Downs and the justice served in the cold case Sophie Sergie 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 she hadn’t realized our request and championed funding to pursue one of the new cold case DNA approaches and then asked for additional funding, we probably wouldn’t have seen this turn into a conviction on a 30 year cold case by Alaska State Troopers.
It is another example of the defense of accountability within a justice system that, while it cannot resolve the pain of indescribable loss, can seek justice and some kind of closure on behalf of the victims. , their families and the community.
Steven Downs’ conviction eliminates the media narrative that there is a level of ambivalence toward missing and murdered Native women and children in Alaska.
In my experience, the AST is not ambivalent towards victims of crime, and never has been. This includes cases of missing and/or murdered Indigenous women. Whenever humanly possible, these cases are prosecuted.
As a former Deputy Commissioner and former Commanding Officer of the Alaska State Troopers Investigative Unit, I know that Cold Case Unit Supervisor and Investigator Randy McPherron has been relentless in the pursuit of justice for the victims. He took the major initial steps to revitalize the Sophie Sergie cold case homicide.
Investigator McPherron brought me the idea of paying for new DNA investigative tools when I was captain commanding investigations.
McPherron had courage. He took an almost completely drained cold case section (down to one person due to budget cuts) and rehired a case that had seen multiple investigators come and go for nearly three decades, and turned it into a unit. with the prowess to pursue DNA. It was his idea of how to effectively serve Alaska and Alaskans according to his oath as efficiently as possible, even in times of budget shortages.
His request to approach Howell for funding for this new DNA process turned out to be the best money I had ever asked for – and Howell immediately agreed that it was the right path.
Investigator McPherron led a process that revived the work of previous investigators and helped break down the media’s manufactured misconception about ambivalence toward missing and murdered Native women and children in Alaska. It is the life of our neighboring mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers. In AST, I didn’t know anyone who was ambivalent about these cases.
When Commissioner Amanda Price arrived, at McPherron’s request, I asked her to approve a request for additional funds for more genetic work on similar cold cases.
I am proud of AST that they are able to prove once again that the Troopers never took the killing of Indigenous women and children lightly.
Even training to recognize prevention steps was part of DPS procedures, through programs like Katie Tepas training soldiers, police, and village public safety officers. Village public safety officers have been involved in efforts to stem these tragedies, and while the AST isn’t perfect, the division is still learning, always trying to improve.
Learning to recognize that we can never stop looking for ways to interdict violence, and that we must be committed to our pursuit of domestic and domestic violence crimes have been hallmarks of the Department of Public Safety and the soldiers of the State of Alaska.
Another example of how far Troopers are willing to go to solve the murders of Indigenous women was evident in the Ashley Barr kidnapping and homicide case.
The Troopers were “all on deck”, requesting assistance from all law enforcement partners. The cost of transportation alone was over $200,000 for search dogs, personnel and equipment to enter Kotzebue, a huge sum for the department, but little Ashley’s death needed to be investigated.
The devastation of human capital is a clinical description of the impact on those directly involved as victims, family and community, as well as members of research teams, responders and investigators. Human costs and expense are two reasons to engage in prevention efforts. The senseless loss of precious lives is what the AST seeks to prevent in its efforts to train soldiers, police and VPSOs across the state.
As usual for AST, the Ashley Barr case and the Sophie Sergie case garnered support from senior management. This resulted in the Lieutenant being dispatched to assist and be the face of investigations, allowing investigators to spend uninterrupted time on the case. In the Ashley Barr case, I traveled to Kotzebue as Captain Commanding to demonstrate our recognition of the importance of the case within the Aboriginal community.
With programs such as the Violence Against Women Act and the Office of the Commissioner’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, the AST has pursued justice-focused accountability for all victims of violent crime. in Alaska. Diane Casto, the director of CDVSA, is a tireless advocate for these victims.
This recent court conviction of Downs is due to the AST’s total dedication to many people, such as Major David Hanson, investigators like McPherron, fellow soldiers, budget, Howell’s support, and investigators from ‘origin.
However, what the public tends to forget is that behind the most well-known names or programs associated with an investigation, there is a network of disinterested officials who are never recognized – employees, technicians, experts in computers and those who answer the telephone.
AST can mark these recent achievements in high-profile cases with bittersweet sadness and compassion for the victims and their families, and yet with humble pride, as these professionals continue their efforts in so many other cases that need to be resolved.
I hope the Department of Public Safety and the Governor’s Office will consider giving an award to Detective McPherron and all members of the DPS. It is important that they know that their contributions to justice are recognized.
Again, congratulations to the many Alaska State Troopers, past and present, who have been part of this effort and accomplishment. And congratulations and thanks to the team at the District Attorney’s Offices who brought these cases to court.
Michael Duxbury is a retired Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety and affiliated with the UAA’s Arctic Domain Awareness Center as an Executive Advisor.