Advertisement

Police say they won't reopen case of Kotzebue woman found dead on mayor's property

Jan. 30—This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network.

Note to readers: This story details allegations of violence against women and girls.

The Kotzebue Police Department says it will not reopen its investigation into a woman's death on the property of a former Northwest Arctic Borough mayor. The case had been the subject of an Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica investigation into the 2018 death of Jennifer Kirk and the death of another woman, who was found strangled on the same property two years later.

Kirk, 25, died May 23, 2018, at a home owned by then-Mayor Clement Richards Sr. According to police reports, the Alaska medical examiner's office initially told a city police investigator that "signs of strangulation" had been found on Kirk's body. The man who said he found her body — Anthony Richards, one of the mayor's sons — had previously been charged with strangling Kirk and pleaded guilty to assaulting her, though he said he was not involved in her death.

Police eventually closed the case as a suicide. In an open letter to Kotzebue residents last week, police Chief Roger Rouse said neither the city nor state have plans to reopen the investigation. Rouse wrote that the Alaska Bureau of Investigation reviewed the case and told Kirk's family that "nothing in the investigation as it stands would change the sad conclusions of the incident."

The city posted the letter on Facebook. A spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety said in an email that two state investigators reviewed the Kotzebue police investigation into Kirk's death and found no leads that needed to be followed up on and no "suspicious elements" in the case.

But some of the Kotzebue Police Department's new statements about the Kirk investigation contradict previous information provided by the police chief and city officials.

Rouse said in an email last fall, in response to the newsrooms asking when Kotzebue police had closed the investigation into Kirk's death, that the city investigator closed the case on May 24, 2018, a day after Kirk died. He also said that the case was closed before the department received the final autopsy report.

But in the new letter to the community, the chief of police wrote: "The Kotzebue Police Department investigator spent at least sixteen days interviewing witnesses, collecting evidence, and following up leads before closing the case."

Asked about this contradiction, a spokesperson for the police department wrote that the investigation report was created, not closed, the day after Kirk's death. "Following the creation of the report on May 24, there were roughly 16 additional days over the course of the next two months that involved KPD interviewing witnesses, connecting with the coroner and conducting other follow-up for the case," the spokesperson wrote.

Another point of confusion is whether Kirk's arms were long enough to reach the trigger of the gun that police say she used to kill herself.

According to the police report, the length from the tip of the rifle barrel to the tip of the trigger was 27 1/8 inches, slightly longer than the length of Kirk's arm, which the investigator measured to be 26 3/16 inches. Robert Shem, a retired firearms expert for the state crime laboratory, told the Daily News and ProPublica that such measurements can be useful in determining whether a death is indeed a suicide, but in this case, more information would be needed.

"Before I would write it off as a suicide myself," Shem said, "I would probably try to locate somebody of the same size and build and use that rifle, or one similar to it, with the same length barrel and configuration, demonstrate that it's completely unloaded and see if the person can lean over and potentially get their thumb in position to pull the trigger."

In the city's letter to the community last week, Rouse wrote: "Some have expressed concern whether it would have been physically possible for Jennifer to fire the rifle. Measurements taken of both Jennifer's body and of the firearm show that it was."

He did not answer a follow-up question asking how the department had drawn that conclusion.

In the open letter to the community, the police chief wrote there was "no evidence that anyone other than Jennifer fired the gun that ended her life." He did not say what steps police took to obtain any such evidence.

In a Nov. 16 letter asking police to reopen the case, Kirk's family said they assumed police had tested Anthony Richards for gunshot residue as part of the death investigation. The city wrote in a Dec. 12 email to the newsrooms that police did not test Richards' body or clothes.

Kirk's sister, Lucy Boyd, said the police department failed to properly communicate with her family during the initial death investigation, failed to interview certain witnesses and has declined to provide police audio and video records from the closed investigation.

"It definitely took us by surprise again and it almost was like adding insult to injury," Boyd said of the department's letter last week to the community.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons unit of the Alaska State Troopers is investigating the death of Susanna "Sue Sue" Norton, who was found beaten and strangled on Clement Richards Sr.'s property in 2020. The Kotzebue Police Department referred the investigation to the state.

In that case, the medical examiner determined Norton's death to be a homicide caused by "asphyxiation due to obstruction of airways and compression of neck." The autopsy also found that Norton had suffered "multiple blunt force injuries of head, neck and extremities."

Amos Richards, another of the former mayor's sons, had previously pleaded guilty to assaulting Norton. The sons and former mayor have not responded to multiple phone calls, in-person visits and certified letters asking for information about the deaths on the property. Since the investigation into Norton's death remains open, police have not released their report on it.

Rouse has said that Norton's death is the only unsolved homicide in Kotzebue. Some residents, including the current mayor, said they aren't so sure that's true. For example, multiple families said questions remain about the 2016 death of Bessie Ralston, who died from a gunshot wound to the chest. The police chief said in a Nov. 20, 2023, email to the newsrooms that the police department had asked the state Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons unit to review the Ralston case. According to the city spokesperson, the state declined to take the case.

Austin McDaniel, spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety, said in an email that the police department never formally referred the case to state investigators. When the Kotzebue police were subsequently asked about the Department of Public Safety's statement, the city spokesperson replied that the state agency was correct, meaning that contrary to the city's earlier statement, the police department had not referred the Ralston case for review. The spokesperson did not explain why the chief incorrectly said that the case had been referred.