In Remote Villages, Domestic Violence Kills More Than COVID-19

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This story was co-published with the Anchorage Daily News, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

COVID-19 has largely spared the isolated villages of Western Alaska. Yet it has been a summer of burials.

On June 22, troopers say a woman stabbed and killed her boyfriend in the Yukon River village of Grayling. Later that week, about 330 miles away, a man was accused of beating his wife to death with a crowbar in the Northwest Arctic village of Noatak. The day after that, neighbors found the body of a 50-year-old woman, missing a portion of her scalp, in the home she shared with her boyfriend in the Kuskokwim River village of McGrath. Then, on July 1, two Alakanuk men stabbed each other to death in what troopers called a “domestic dispute.”

All told, five village residents died in domestic violence murders in 10 days, according to the Alaska State Troopers. All were in communities with no local domestic violence shelter and where pandemic travel restrictions have limited access to services.

While the state commissioner of public safety has issued a plea to Alaskans to work with law enforcement to prevent more deaths, some McGrath residents expressed little surprise at the killing in their hometown.

The June 28 homicide of Carol Abraham, whose boyfriend, Glen Holmberg, is charged with beating her to death, ended a slow-motion tragedy. Court records show that not only had Abraham warned family and friends that Holmberg might one day kill her, she wasn’t the first woman to say it.

Holmberg, 47, has not yet entered a plea in the case. He declined a request for an interview.

“Domestic violence and sexual assault has thrived in this area for far too long,” 21-year-old Christine Taylor wrote in an email to ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News seeking to draw attention to Abraham’s death and the many warning signs that preceded it.

Taylor grew up in McGrath, a postcard-ready village of dozing sled dogs and refueling bush planes. In many ways it’s a magical place, she said, but one where she has had to confront abusers with her fists and rescue friends found outdoors and bruised.

“Something must be done,” she wrote. “Something must be said.”

A Spike in Domestic Violence Calls
The combined population of the villages where the murders occurred is fewer than 1,800 people. In Alaska’s largest city of Anchorage, home to a population 160 times larger, there have been just six homicides in 2020, as of last week.

Statewide, Alaska has the highest rates of sexual assault and women killed by men in the nation. The Alaska Justice Information Center published a study in May that found more than 29% of all homicide victims in the state are Alaska Native, yet Alaska Natives make up just 16% of the population.

The recent spate of domestic violence killings took the lives of women and men living within troopers’ Western Alaska detachment, a California-sized expanse that begins at the Arctic Circle and stretches along the Bering Sea coast to the Aleutian Islands. Over the past five years, 43 of the 71 homicide investigations there involved domestic violence, with troopers normally averaging about one new murder case in the region per month, according to records obtained through a public information request. (Some murder investigations involve more than one person who died.)

Yet as of 2019, 43% of communities in the troopers’ Western Alaska detachment area had no local law enforcement of any kind. Statewide, about one in three Alaska communities had no law enforcement, a ProPublica and Daily News analysis found.

The pandemic has mostly spared Western Alaska villages. On Monday, the Bethel-based Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. reported its first death.

Nonprofits that provide help for abuse survivors in the region say the pandemic is making the always-difficult job of aiding people in this vast system of rivers, islands and roadless tundra even harder. In the spring, many remote villages began to defend against the virus by limiting travel. One of the few shelters in the region stopped flying in clients from surrounding communities while another has sought to reduce bed capacity and is focusing on helping people find safe houses and file protective orders online.

Statewide, a survey of 30 Alaska domestic violence shelters found hotline calls increased 52% in the five weeks after the state declared a coronavirus public health disaster on March 11. Shelters nationwide have seen similar trends. In Alaska, the same shelters cut bed capacity by 57% to allow for safe social distancing.

“The spike in hotline calls is probably more related to the fact that people can’t leave their home and get out to receive services at a shelter,” said Diane Casto, executive director for the state Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “So instead they find those moments when they can call.”

Meantime, Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said Western Alaska has suffered a “blight” of domestic violence murders.

For survivors like Taylor, Abraham’s friend, the hardest part is to have seen it coming.

Court records show that two women
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