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Troopers investigate village death as homicide

Posted: February 7, 2013 - 4:59pm  |  Updated: February 8, 2013 - 1:10am

The investigation into the death of a 13-year-old girl in Kake is being treated as a homicide, according to the lead case supervisor, a jarring shock to the small, quiet Southeast Alaskan village whose community leaders say they are dealing with both fear and grief.

“Our community really lost its sense of security for our kids, we don’t even know who did it,” Jeffrey Jackson, the president of the Organized Village of Kake, the federally recognized tribal government, said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Whoever did this is still on the loose. I can’t even put to words how hurt my community is right now.”

School was closed Wednesday to account for student safety after the body of Mackenzie H. Howard, a seventh-grader, was found in the arctic entryway of a local Presbyterian church just before midnight on Tuesday.

“Yesterday we cancelled school because I couldn’t ensure student’s safety,” Kake City School District Superintendent Kevin Shipley said by phone, adding that about half of the 100 students in the district trickled into school on Thursday. “We had no law enforcement present on the island ... until the troopers came. Everybody’s a suspect out there.”

Deputy Commander of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation’s Major Crimes Unit Rex Leath said he could not provide details surrounding Howard’s death. But he says there’s a “high” probability it was a homicide based on evidence collected from the crime scene and from the victim. He declined to specify what the evidence was.

“There are facts that exist that lend us to believe it’s not a suicide, and it is not what appears to be an accidental death,” Leath said in an phone interview from Anchorage on Thursday afternoon.

The ABI, which is under the umbrella of the state Department of Public Safety, has taken charge of the investigation since Kake does not have a police department or any current village Safety Patrol Officers. They sent two ABI investigators from Anchorage, two evidence collection technicians from the state crime lab and one Alaska State Trooper from Juneau to Kake to conduct interviews and process the crime scene.

So far, no suspects or persons of interest have been identified, and no arrests have been made, Leath said. They are awaiting autopsy results from the state medical examiner’s office, which can determine the cause and manner of death.

As the bureau continues to conduct interviews, the tight-knit community of Kake has rallied around the family in support and has been trying to cope with grief. Crisis counselors from SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) hosted a grief session at the Kake community center on Wednesday night and will be holding another session Thursday evening.

Counselors also met with teachers on Wednesday to give them counsel — “It’s a small school, they had all taught her,” Shipley said — as well as to help prepare the teachers to deal with distraught students.

Leath said there were good reasons family and investigators remained mum.

“If we project too much information too quickly, we could definitely jeopardize the investigation,” he said.

One facet of the investigation Leath did mention is that Kake saw an influx of people in town on Tuesday, the day of Howard’s death, as it hosted a large funeral memorial service for prominent community member Clarence Jackson, a Sealaska Board Member who died late last month. Leath said investigators are trying to track down potential witnesses, as well as suspects, who attended that funeral but have since left Kake. He asked if anyone had information to contact Alaska State Troopers office in Ketchikan at 907-225-5118.

Jeffrey Jackson said Howard and her parents helped out at the funeral for his dad, Clarence Jackson, on Tuesday. He remembers seeing her in a skiff filled with flowers as his father’s casket was being transported in another skiff to Grave Island where he was buried.

“It was just hours before she passed,” he said.

A banquet was held after the service. Jackson estimates about that maybe 40 people arrived in Kake from out of town for the funeral, most of them family and close friends.

“I just can’t believe it happened here,” Jackson said. “It’s a real tight-knit community — everybody helps each other.”

Now he said he is scared to let his kids out of his sight.

“I never felt like that before” he said. “I hope they can find who did this so we can start healing again.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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