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 told police or family members that Holmberg, the man accused of Abraham’s murder, might kill them.
The first was an ex-girlfriend, Shirley Gover, who said it in 2002 as a village public safety officer investigated Holmberg for kicking her in the face and yanking her 50 feet by her hair. That time he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and paid a $50 fine.
“He was trying to drag me into the house, but I grabbed on to something outside,” Gover said in a recent phone interview, recalling how she lost chunks of hair in the attack and left Holmberg for good soon after.
The second woman was Abraham, who is now dead.
All three of the people awaiting trial for the recent homicides, including Holmberg, had been convicted of domestic violence before. In some cases they were also victims.
Between 2002 and 2016, state prosecutors charged Holmberg with six counts of domestic violence. Half, including a felony, were dismissed or amended to misdemeanor harassment. On the rest he pleaded guilty or no contest.
According to Department of Corrections records and sentencing memos, Holmberg served far more time, and was fined far more money, for three drunken driving convictions than for an equal number of domestic violence convictions.
Tammy Maillelle, the 32-year-old Grayling woman charged with stabbing and killing her boyfriend, Lawrence Paul, 45, previously pleaded no contest to family assault in 2008. She was named as the victim last year in an assault charge against Paul. In that case, Paul pleaded no contest to attacking Maillelle and an 11-year-old with a wooden cane.
At the time he told troopers to bring two extra officers when they flew into the village to pick him up, because “he might lose his temper at the airport,” according to a trooper affidavit in that case.
In Noatak, the man accused of killing his wife with a crowbar, Jim V. Adams, had previously been charged with six counts of domestic violence, including three felonies, within the past decade. He pleaded those earlier charges down to misdemeanors. Over the years, three different women filed domestic violence restraining orders against him.
Maillelle and Adams declined interview requests. Maillelle has not yet entered a plea; Adams denied killing his wife in an initial interview with troopers and has pleaded not guilty to murder and assault.
The deaths raise questions about the volume of domestic violence hidden from the public eye during the pandemic and highlight the limited reach of regional shelters that — like state troopers — rely on airplanes to serve vulnerable clients.
McGrath, population 289, stopped receiving visits from a local magistrate years ago, said Mayor Ralph Morgan. The only law enforcement is a wildlife trooper. When it was time for Holmberg to make his first court appearance on the murder charge, a magistrate 230 miles down river in Aniak heard the case. That day, most of the cases on his docket involved family violence.
In fact, a ProPublica and Daily News analysis found that more than 70% of all criminal cases filed in the first half of the year at the Aniak courthouse included domestic violence charges. (Advocates for abuse survivors estimated that the percentage of criminal cases involving domestic violence in Anchorage is closer to 50%. A review of more than 1,000 cases filed there this year suggests the percentage is even lower.)
The domestic violence cases and family murders now pending before the Aniak courthouse originated in 11 villages along the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers. None of the communities has a local domestic violence shelter.
For six of the villages, the nearest shelter is in Bethel, which can only be reached by plane or boat, an average trip of 105 miles. The other five villages rely on Fairbanks, an average of 341 miles away, for emergency domestic violence services.
And air travel is hard to come by these days. Ravn Air Group, a major rural carrier that served much of Western Alaska and upriver villages such as McGrath, announced in April it was declaring bankruptcy and would park all 72 of its planes.
Ravn stopped making three weekly flights to McGrath as a result. A small Anchorage-based carrier that also flies to the village, Alaska Air Transit, temporarily reduced its schedule from four weekly flights to two early in the pandemic, co-owner Josie Owen said.
“A lot of our passenger travel just totally dropped off,” she said.
Travel Lockdowns Limit Shelter Options
In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Interior and Northwest Arctic regions where troopers have reported recent domestic violence murders, most public safety services are provided on a “hub-and-spoke” model.
Weather permitting, troopers fly from a small city to a village to investigate a crime. A survivor of violence might be whisked from her hometown to a waiting shelter hundreds of miles away.
While village residents are still occasionally flying during the pandemic, some must ask tribal leaders for authorization to come and go.
In Emmonak, home to one of the only domestic violence shelters in Western Alaska, the tribe asks that people who travel from outside the community self-quarantine for two weeks to protect elders. As of early July, its shelter had temporarily stopped accepting clients from a dozen surrounding villages, financial clerk Travis Bird said.
“Since this pandemic started we aren’t able to fly (clients) in,” he said.
Meantime, one of the largest shelters in rural Alaska, Tundra Women’s Coalition, has sought to reduce bed capacity by as much as 50% to allow for social distancing. No one whose life appears to be in danger from an abuser is turned away, and some clients are still arriving by plane and being screened for COVID-19 symptoms, Executive Director Eileen Arnold said.
With less space available, the shelter has pivoted to helping village residents who call the emergency hotline find safe houses and file requests for protective orders online.
“Domestic violence is not reducing as people quarantine with their abusers,” said Lisa Whalen, development manager for the Bethel shelter. “We are trying to find ways to get people to safe places.”
Carmen Lowry, executive director for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said that fewer people are requesting restraining orders at Western Alaska courthouses.
“One thing to think about is accessibility,” she said. “Literally, can you get into the courthouse?”
Protective orders can now be filed online, but many people may not know that, said Casto, director for the state Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
Like many law enforcement agencies nationwide, Alaska state troopers are seeing fewer reports of certain crimes during the pandemic. Investigations into theft, non-domestic violence homicide, sex crimes and robbery are down this year compared with the first half of 2019.
But not family violence. Troopers received 1,724 reports of domestic violence assault in the first half of this year, up slightly from 1,676 statewide reports for the same period last year, according to the Department of Public Safety. In Bethel, the largest rural Alaska hub city, domestic violence calls to local police are up 7% this year compared with 2019.
While the number of sexual assaults reported to troopers is down statewide, service providers say that may mask the true number of offenses. In fact, Arnold said the Bethel shelter appears to be seeing more demand for sexual assault response services, especially among children and teen victims.
For Price, the public safety commissioner who oversees the state troopers, the recent homicides signaled a clear warning.
“These deaths are tragic and a stark indication that the blight of domestic violence occurring across Alaska hasn’t ebbed. The (Department of Public Safety) can’t stop the violence alone; we need the public’s help,” Price said in a written statement.
In McGrath, many say they tried to help. They offered safe houses. Called troopers. The abuse continued. Even, one young woman said, after she tried to teach Holmberg a lesson.
“Want to See What a Woman Can Do?”
The death of Abraham in McGrath has haunted Gover, Holmberg’s ex-girlfriend. But it didn’t really surprise her.
Gover and Holmberg had dated in the early 2000s. Gover, who is from the village of Nikolai about 40 miles east of McGrath, said Holmberg had a great sense of humor when he was sober. She lived with him off and on. Unlike Nikolai, where residents have voted to ban the sale and possession of alcohol, McGrath was and still is “wet.” One reason she dated Holmberg, Gover said, is that he provided her with the alcohol her addiction demanded.
“I was fearing for my life a few times when I was with him,” said Gover, who says she is now sober and working as an airport security officer. “He did choke me out one time.”
Taylor remembers watching Holmberg fight with another man in her childhood living room. As she grew older, she dated Abraham’s son and became close to Abraham.
Friends say Abraham was tall and slender with long, straight hair that framed her glasses. She had an easy laugh. She called everyone “angel” and bubbled with giddy energy. A few years ago she started dating Holmberg.
“She called me crying one day to ask me to come save her from him,” said Taylor, who was staying in the house next door. “There were clumps of hair on the grass around the residence.”
It was around June 2017. Taylor said she found Abraham covered in red welts; the bruises hadn’t formed yet. Abraham said Holmberg had beaten her.
Taylor, 18 years old at the time, thought of Abraham as a second mother. She climbed the stairs to confront Holmberg.
“I grabbed a pipe wrench from the porch when I walked in and said something along the lines of: ‘You like beating women? Want to see what a woman can do?’”
Taylor dropped the wrench — “I didn’t need it,” she said — and punched him in the face. “He was so embarrassed, he wouldn’t open the door for days,” she said.
A few months later, according to state troopers, Abraham phoned a relative to say she was in danger again. According to an account written by Trooper Anthony Wiles, Abraham was calling around looking for her son. She said something about needing help with her life insurance plan.
In a whisper, Abraham told a family member that “if anything happened to her it was Glen that did it because he told her he was going to kill her,” the trooper wrote. But when an investigation began, Abraham later denied making the statement when interviewed by a trooper. Advocates say many criminal cases involving domestic violence stall when the victim recants or refuses to cooperate.
“This Is What We Have Been Praying For”
Jennifer Baumgartner, owner of Hotel McGrath, has known Holmberg for years and is close friends with his sister. “His parents are like my parents,” she said.
But she had seen that he, and other men in the village, could be dangerous.
“A few years ago, there was a woman in town. A very young woman who was being abused on a pretty regular basis,” Baumgartner said. “My son and I were responding to finding her bloody and beaten in the middle of the road and kind of scooping her up and trying to get her healthy-ish again. And it kept happening.”
A survivor of domestic violence herself, Baumgartner began texting others in the community. Over time, residents set up safe houses and quietly made rooms available to women who need to escape immediate danger overnight.
Abraham is one of the women who had sought help. But the night Abraham died, Baumgartner said she had no idea anything was wrong.
The following morning Baumgartner woke up to a rumor that something had happened to Abraham. She biked to Holmberg’s house. Painted ocean green with white trim, the home faces a wide ribbon of the Kuskokwim River. Moose antlers and no trespassing signs decorate the yard.
There she saw the local wildlife trooper standing within arm’s reach of Holmberg.
“I was able to go right up to Glen and sit with him for a moment, not knowing what happened,” Baumgartner said.
“It looked like he was just in shock. He was trying to speak but he really couldn’t,” she said.
As a favor to Holmberg’s family, Baumgartner spent a few days cleaning up the crime scene. In nearly every room she found crayons, sticky notes and buckets emblazoned with a state anti-domestic violence slogan.
In 2019, Attorney General William P. Barr announced more than $52 million in funding for public safety in rural Alaska. Asked for an accounting of that spending, a Department of Justice spokesperson provided a two-page list of grants and awards to the state, tribes and individual villages including money for victim services, renovating buildings and the hiring of VPSOs. Baumgartner said she hasn’t seen evidence of it yet in McGrath.
Advocates for domestic violence survivors say earlier Department of Justice grants, intended to reduce violence against indigenous women, have arrived in some villages and are being used to operate safe houses.
One hopeful sign can be found in the Bering Sea coastal village of Hooper Bay. On the same day that the string of five domestic violence homicides began, June 22, the village opened its first domestic violence shelter to the public.
“Elders are saying this is what we have been praying for, thinking about, talking about for so many years,” Victim Services Coordinator Emma Smith said. “They are happy for their daughters and granddaughters or grandchildren.”
After the Funeral, a New Attack
Taylor, who stood up to Holmberg as a teenager, is now 21. She returned to McGrath to work this summer as a Division of Forestry dispatcher and took a boat downriver for Abraham’s funeral on July 10.
The services were held in Takotna, a nearby village even smaller than McGrath, where Abraham lived much of her life. The official population there is 72 people. Dozens attended the funeral, Taylor said.
The mourners wore face masks. Taylor helped carry the handmade coffin from the town hall, where photos of famous Iditarod mushers cover every wall, to a waiting grave. No one had much to say.
“It was too horrific,” Taylor said.
A few days later, back in McGrath, troopers learned of another emergency. A woman had called a city phone number at 4:30 p.m. on July 15. (Dialing 911 in the village isn’t so simple. The city of McGrath warns that your call may be dropped and that you should state your phone number quickly, in case the connection fails.)
When no one answered she left a message asking for help and for someone to come to her house. It sounded like she was sobbing, troopers wrote.
The next morning the woman was found beaten in the middle of the road.
The same wildlife trooper who had first responded to Abraham’s death was in town and took the woman to the village clinic until a medevac flight arrived to take her 200 miles to an Anchorage hospital. She later told troopers that a 25-year-old man had been beating her off and on for three straight days.
The woman at the clinic told them the man gets jealous and hits her sometimes. He previously pleaded guilty to assaulting her in Anchorage 2017 and, according to the city prosecutor’s office, violated conditions of release that sought to prevent him from contacting her. (The man has not entered a plea in the new felony charge of domestic violence assault.)
In a new affidavit filed in state court, charging the man with felony assault, Trooper Jason Bohac wrote that he noticed that bruises covered the woman’s body. Some old and some new.
“I thought I was going to die from him beating me,” the woman said, describing running from the house without shoes.
She said, “He told me he was going to kill me.”