Jury finds Brian Smith guilty on all charges in Anchorage double murder trial

Feb. 23—After deliberating for less than two hours Thursday, an Anchorage jury unanimously convicted Brian Smith on all counts, finding him guilty of murdering Kathleen Jo Henry in 2019 and Veronica Abouchuk in 2018, and bringing to a close a long, gruesome trial that highlighted violence against Alaska Native women.

More than a dozen family members and supporters of the victims were present in the courtroom. Some cried as the verdict was read.

"My sister Veronica and Kathleen — it's their day today," Abouchuk's sister Rena Sapp said, pointing skyward, after the jury delivered its verdict. Sapp and other family members attended each day of the three-week-long trial.

Smith was charged with 14 total counts, including first-degree murder, sexual abuse, misconduct with a corpse and tampering with evidence in Henry and Abouchuk's deaths. After additional deliberation, the jury also found that Smith "subjected Henry to substantial physical torture," an aggravator finding that carries a mandatory 99-year sentence on the murder charge related to her death.

The trial drew national media attention in part because prosecutors contend South Africa-born Smith targeted vulnerable, unhoused Alaska Native women for brutality that he documented with videos and photos. Earlier in the trial, the jury was shown more than a half-hour of videos of Henry's torture and strangling death that prosecutors say Smith himself filmed. Some of the women he picked up directly from the Brother Francis Shelter or from a Fairview grocery store parking lot, jurors heard, promising alcohol or just a warm place to stay and a meal.

The state and defense had earlier delivered closing statements to the jury Thursday, summing up weeks of evidence.

"The defendant has admitted to killing these women and dumping their naked bodies on the side of the road," said prosecutor Heather Nobrega. "He's bragged about it."

Smith, Nobrega said, killed both women, admitted to it in a police interview and brazenly showed a photo to a girlfriend of himself sexually abusing Abouchuk's body and texted with another man about "having fun" as he was killing Henry.

"It is difficult to explain the callousness and the brutality the defendant has perpetrated on these women," Nobrega said.

Nobrega ran through the evidence at the heart of the case, including a self-filmed video of Henry's beating and asphyxiation in an Anchorage hotel room on Sept. 4, 2019. The jury also viewed hours of police interrogation video in which Smith repeatedly admitted that it seemed to be him on the video, while denying having any memory of killing Henry, a 30-year-old originally from Eek.

Smith himself told police detectives that he killed another woman by shooting her as she rested on his couch and described dumping her body off the Old Glenn Highway. Police later identified the woman as Abouchuk, a 52-year-old mother from St. Michael, and determined Smith killed her in mid-August 2018.

On a screen, the prosecution projected Smith's own statements during the 5 1/2 hours of interrogation video jurors watched: "I am convinced I have done this," and "That's my stomach," "That's my hand," "That's my arm," "That's my foot," and "That is me, I'm not denying that," all about Henry's death.

The state also presented evidence placing Smith's cellphone tracking at the Midtown hotel where the videos of Henry were filmed, as well on the Seward Highway, where her body was found feet away from railroad tracks.

In a forceful, nearly hourlong closing statement, defense attorney Timothy Ayer sought to sow doubt about some of the state's most central pieces of evidence: He attacked the credibility of the woman who turned in the violent video to police and whose story about how she got it changed over time, describing her as a "comfortable and constant liar."

Ayer also scrutinized the detectives' interview of Smith, calling it coercive and "eight hours of pre-planned psychological warfare," and cast doubt on the state's DNA analysis, noting that some important pieces of evidence were never even tested.

"If there's any part of this case that makes you think, maybe not, that's reasonable doubt," Ayer said.

Smith seemed to be filming and taking photos for an audience, saying things like "what would my followers think of you?" during Kathleen Henry's fatal assault.

The question of how broadly Smith intended for those images and videos to be shared was never fully answered at the trial.

As the jury's verdict was read, Smith remained motionless at the defense table, flanked by his lawyers. His wife, Stephanie Bissland, watched quietly from the front row.

There was so much damning evidence against Smith that some questioned how the case even got to trial at all, instead of being resolved by a plea agreement.

Prosecutor Brittany Dunlop said she couldn't say whether a plea agreement offer had been extended to Smith at any time during the more than four years since his arrest in October 2019. But such agreements are "difficult in cases like this," she said.

Antonia Commack, a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples advocate who attended the trial, said she still has concerns.

She said she wondered why Ian Calhoun, the Anchorage man whom Smith texted in the hours after Henry's killing saying he'd "had fun" and wanted to show him something at a park, and who messaged Smith a news story that Henry's body had been found, had not been charged with any crime.

She also questioned what information police received during their initial investigation of Smith in 2018, when his girlfriend contacted the Anchorage Police Department and said her boyfriend had shown her photos of what she believed to be a dead body. That was roughly a year before Smith killed Henry.

Smith's first sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 12.