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Crime & Courts

With 35 homicides in 2017, Anchorage set a disturbing record. Why?

In Anchorage's deadliest year, the youngest victim was 2 years old and the oldest, 92. A recent East High school graduate was shot in the head during a marijuana deal, police said. A beloved member of a longtime Alaska family was killed in a robbery at the family's Spenard paint shop.

Anchorage police tallied a record 35 homicides in 2017, a bleak ranking that breaks the old record, set in 2016, by one. As the year closed out, 11 homicides were still unsolved, compared to three open at the end of 2016. In 17 deaths, criminal charges await resolution.

Why was 2017 so violent?

"I wish I knew," said Sgt. Slawomir Markiewicz, who has led homicide investigations for the Anchorage Police Department since 2005. "I don't really have an answer. We were surprised in 2016 and this year. Each year I'm hoping that next year the numbers will drop."

Yet, police say citizens shouldn't be fearful. In all the homicides with known suspects, only one person was killed at random by a stranger, police said. The only homicides known to be connected are the shootings of three men at a gold shop on Sept. 12, as well as the deaths of three people in an apartment building fire on Feb. 15.

The percentage of solved homicides is the lowest dating back to 1996, the first year for comparable numbers, according to a database compiled by Markiewicz.

Expect arrests soon in one of the worst cases of the year: the Feb. 15 arson fire that killed three people at the Royal Suite Apartments in Spenard, the homicide sergeant said.

Detectives have been working with federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on the fire. The victims included Vivian Hall, a bedridden 63-year-old, and her roommate, Laura Kramer, 70, who died nine days later. Teuaililo Nua, 38, who jumped out a third-story window, was killed, too.

"The investigation continues," Markiewicz said. "There is no doubt in my mind that sooner rather than later the suspects or suspects will be charged and prosecuted."

Risky behavior

Each case is different, but there are common threads. Most Anchorage homicide victims found themselves in danger last year because of illegal drugs or heavy drinking, police said. Some associated with rough people or engaged in risky behavior themselves, Markiewicz said. Some were in fights that escalated. Seven were killed by family members or romantic partners.

"I don't want to say things that blame the victims," Markiewicz said. "No matter what they do, no one deserves being killed."

Tiwan Marquis Johnson Jr., 19, was with a group buying marijuana Jan. 24, police said. He was a 2015 graduate of East High School, where he cheered for the basketball team and played football for a while, his family said.

Tiwan Marquis Johnson Jr., 19. (Photo courtesy of April Robinson)

In the parking lot of the Brown Jug liquor store on Muldoon Road, Johnson thought the man he called "C" shorted him on weed, witnesses later told police. There was a scuffle and he grabbed C's bag before jumping into a waiting Chevy Cruze, according to the police complaint.

Then, police said, C — identified later as 23-year-old Christopher Birotte — fired into the car, killing Johnson and injuring another man. Birotte is now charged with second-degree murder and assault.

In April, Victor Carl Sibson, 21 at the time, had a blood-alcohol content of more than 0.3 — about four times the legal limit for driving — when he fired a gun into his own head in a failed suicide attempt, prosecutors said. The bullet passed through and killed his 22-year-old girlfriend, Brittany-Mae Haag, according to police. Now he's jailed on a charge of second-degree murder.

His only prior offense, other than traffic tickets, was for underage drinking.

Photographs of Brittany-Mae Haag are displayed in her mother’s Eagle River home in August. (Marc Lester / ADN)

For most residents, Anchorage is not dangerous, Markiewicz said, echoing a claim made by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who is up for re-election this year.

"I have been living in Anchorage since 1985. I always feel very safe here, consider it as a safe community, a safe place where my kids grew up," Markiewicz said.

As the head of the city's homicide unit, now staffed with seven detectives, he sees terrible things. Yet he said he feels fine cycling on the paved bike paths and hiking on wooded trails that bring a touch of wilderness to Alaska's biggest city.

Out of the 24 homicides with identified suspects, just two of those killed didn't know the person who did it, said Nora Morse, Anchorage police spokeswoman.

And one of those who died ended up being considered the suspect, not the victim, police said.

Corbin Carltikoff, 29, was killed Feb. 1 after trying to carjack a vehicle in Fairview at gunpoint, Markiewicz said. In that case, the driver of the vehicle was considered the victim, though that is who shot Carltikoff, the sergeant said.

"There should not be a fear in the public of that random crime," Morse said.

Experts suggest that choosing whom to associate with and being aware of surroundings are ways to keep safe, Markiewicz said. Watch your own behavior, he said. People who are violent may end up on the receiving end. Drink in moderation so as not to be an easy target.

Some of the guidelines are easier said than done, he said. Family and economic ties can be hard to unravel.

"I don't think we have a magic recipe to prevent happenstance things from happening, when people gather and things get out of control," Markiewicz said.

Police are targeting high-risk behaviors. In March, Anchorage police commanders redirected vice and community action patrol units to focus on drugs, including street level deals, Morse said. A new investigative support unit made up of officers freed up from regular patrols is supposed to get violent people off the streets, Markiewicz said.

As of the year's end, the investigative unit, formed in October, had made 51 arrests, Morse said.

Family loses a favorite uncle

Gregory Gill (Photo courtesy of family)

Only one person was killed in a chance encounter: Gregory Gill, 65. He was a third-generation Alaskan appreciated in his large family as, nephew Chris Gill said, "the quintessential uncle."

Greg Gill's grandfather, Oscar Gill, was an early mayor of the young city of Anchorage, said another nephew, Tim Gill. More than 40 people came this year to the family's Thanksgiving dinner.

"Now we've got fifth generations running around," Tim said.

His uncle loved coming to work at Aurora Paint Co., the store on Arctic Boulevard in Spenard that Tim and Greg owned and ran together, Tim said. If they weren't at work, the two bachelors were with family. Greg Gill was at every family picnic, every holiday gathering, and he usually would slip each kid a $20 for Christmas, nephew Chris said.

Early on the morning of Sept. 10, Greg Gill was in the store as usual, a sign of his enthusiasm since that was a Sunday and it's closed on Sundays.

In the span of a minute, a man walked in, shot him in the head, and left with the cash box and the keys to Gill's Kia, according to a charging document in the case. Surveillance footage caught the man walking in through a side door, then out through the front at 7:42 a.m., police said.

On that Monday morning, when Tim Gill arrived at the paint store, he found his uncle. Police quickly let the public know someone was dead — though they didn't immediately call it a homicide -– and asked for help in finding the stolen white Kia Optima.

"In 17 minutes, we had the car," Morse said.

Police also had a suspect: Randall Igou. The chase ended when Igou, age 27, ran into East Anchorage's Cheney Lake. Officers found the cash box in the trunk of the stolen Kia, according to a criminal complaint. A dive team later recovered the gun — which Markiewicz said was stolen — from the lake.

Igou told police he was on meth, Tim Gill said.

"My theory is, he killed a man for a fix," he said.

At the time of Gill's death, Igou was out of jail awaiting trial in Homer on charges of being a felon in possession of a gun, failing to stop at the direction of an officer and reckless driving. He has a history of crime, including a 2008 felony burglary conviction.

Family members and friends jumped in to clean up the shop, blackened with fingerprint dust. Soon Aurora was open again. Customers showed up to buy paint and support the family. Tim got rid of the things that reminded him too much of his uncle, like the 50 pairs of broken reading glasses the older man had saved to fix later.

"I am committed to being here every day," Tim said.

Anchorage is still a great place to raise a family, his brother Chris said.

Fewer solved in 2017

Homicide totals don't generally include those in which people are shot by police. Add those in and last year there were 37 in Anchorage, with two involving officers, and in 2016, 38, with four fatal shootings by police.

Excluding officer-involved shootings, 68 percent of the 2017 homicides are considered solved, police statistics show.

Most years, the solved rate is 80 to 95 percent, according to the database that Markiewicz started. All 19 homicides in 2004 were cleared.

Some suspects are identified the next year – or even later — raising the percentage solved after the fact. A Crime Stoppers tip led to two arrests in December from a 1995 cold case.

"I think I feel pressure from myself more than from above," Markiewicz said. "I am the one that is dealing with families a lot of times."

"It's more about making good cases than quick cases," Morse said.

Lt. Josh Nolder, who has been temporarily supervising the homicide unit, said: "It's not 'when is the next case going to be resolved?' It's 'what do you need to get the case resolved?' "

Police consider a case solved when someone is arrested and charged, or if a suspect is identified but charges can't be brought or aren't justified.

Five of the 24 solved homicides from 2017 didn't result in arrests, and in a sixth, the charges were dropped.

Anchorage Police Sgt. Mark Bakken investigates the scene of the fatal shooting of Jerry Amos Jr. in Spenard on Oct. 11. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Two domestic violence cases last year were murder-suicides with both the killer and the victim dead. In a third, the suspect was 91-year-old Duane Marvin, who told police he killed his 92-year-old wife and didn't know why. He was initially charged with murder but an Anchorage Superior Court judge ruled that he wasn't competent to stand trial because of dementia.

Prosecutors declined to bring charges in the death of Corbin Carltikoff, Markiewicz said. The killing was considered self-defense during the attempted carjacking by Carltikoff, who was armed, he said.

Police say they have closed investigations in two other deaths without bringing charges because of self-defense. Jason Ramsey was killed in September in a fight in which he was put in a chokehold, police said. Terrance Williams was shot and killed when he and another man were attempting a home invasion robbery in August, police said. In the latter, police are waiting to hear whether the Anchorage district's attorney office has declined to pursue the case.

Two men stabbed in the same neighborhood

Eleven of the homicides, including the three from the Royal Suite fire, are still open cases.

"We are waiting for things to slow down so we can catch up," Markiewicz said.

Kyle Andrew Rea, 24, and Dennis Joshua Heimdahl, 30, were stabbed to death in June near Bean's Cafe, the soup kitchen at the edge of downtown.

No arrests have been made. Police say they are investigating the two homicides separately at this point. They wouldn't say whether the men were homeless, but noted both killings happened near the shelter and soup kitchen.

One unusual unsolved case happened Aug. 9 in Spenard. Police investigating a report of gunshots found Patricia Ann Phelps dead in the yard of an apartment building. They thought she had been shot and hit by a getaway vehicle in a drug-related incident. The investigation found she was hit by the vehicle, but not shot. Police still consider it a homicide, not an accident.

Five shootings remain unsolved too.

So does a case from Government Hill. Markiewicz won't say how detectives believe Brianna Brown, 22, died late on Aug. 20. Her body was found in an apartment. Police say some of her family members were present when she died.

16 minutes into the new year

Criminal cases involving 17 killings are moving through the court system. Six people are charged in connection with 36-year-old Weston Gladney's death on Nov. 27 in a South Anchorage garage. Anchorage prosecutors are so overloaded, the Gladney cases are being handled by the Palmer district attorney's office.

As of the end of 2017, the Anchorage district attorney's office had 55 open homicide cases awaiting trial or pleas, mainly from the last two years but some going back much further.

One defendant awaiting trial in Anchorage is Anthony Pisano, 43, accused in a Sept. 12 triple homicide at a Spenard gold and silver shop called The Bullion Brothers. Police say he got into an argument with Steven Cook, one of the owners, and shot and killed him, along with two other men, Daniel McCreadie and Kenneth Hartman, who lived in apartments in the building. The latter two came out to help after the first shots were fired, police said.

A memorial was held on Sept. 22 for the three men killed in a shooting at the Bullion Brothers store on Spenard Road. Steven Cook, Kenneth Hartman and Daniel McCreadie were shot to death in the incident. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Pisano, a retired Army veteran with no criminal record, sometimes worked security at the shop, his lawyer said in a court filing.

Trials are scheduled for early 2018 in most of the pending cases. But they are likely to be moved back.

The first homicide of 2017 already has worked its way through the system.

Elliot Myas, then 23, had been drinking Rich & Rare whiskey for a couple of days with his mother, her boyfriend and another man at the Econo Inn on the edge of downtown. On Jan. 16. 2017, he repeatedly punched the boyfriend, Luke Flanagan, 50, during what court documents described as a blackout state. He told police he figured he was upset over the man saying bad things about his mother.

In October, Myas pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He is serving a five-year prison sentence.

On New Year's Day, at 16 minutes after midnight, Anchorage police got their first reported homicide of 2018. Timothy Smith, 39, was shot multiple times downtown at Fourth Avenue and D Street, police said.

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