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Anchorage slayings boosting public safety awareness

Posted: May 14, 2012 - 12:00am

ANCHORAGE — Two attention-grabbing murders in Alaska’s largest city have left some residents more cautious even as police say Anchorage remains as safe as ever.

Brittney Lynn and Kisa Haywood, two young friends, are particularly affected by the case of 18-year-old Samantha Koenig, who was abducted Feb. 1 from the coffee stand where she worked, her body found two months later at the bottom of a frozen lake north of Anchorage.

“I feel vulnerable but at the same time I feel kind of numb because it could happen to anybody, anywhere,” Lynn, 19, said.

Added 22-year-old Haywood, who has friends who work at coffee stands: “It’s made me more aware, I guess, of things going on around me, kinda like, look out for suspicious behavior.”

Less than three weeks after Koenig’s body was found, 22-year-old Senior Airman Clinton Reeves disappeared, raising the obvious question: Was he also abducted? Reeves, stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, was found dead in a ditch north of the city Tuesday in what police say is a homicide. A 24-year-old airman, James Devinn Thomas, has been arrested on evidence tampering charges in the case, but authorities have not named him as a suspect in the murder.

In the Koenig case, Israel Keyes has been charged with kidnapping and killing the young barista, and using a debit card to obtain ransom money. Keyes, a 34-year-old self-employed contractor, was arrested in Texas about six weeks after the young woman’s disappearance.

Days before the JBER airman went missing, two men were shot to death at a Coast Guard communications station on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, a case many Anchorage residents consider part of a trio of high-profile cases along with the Anchorage murders. There have been no arrests in the Kodiak case and authorities have not named a suspect, although the FBI says investigators don’t believe residents there are in danger. FBI officials have refused to say how they drew that conclusion.

Many questions remain in all three cases. That’s prompted prolonged news coverage that has fueled an ongoing dialogue among Alaskans, whether face-to-face or on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks that have added to the frenzied information distribution.

The media is quick to dramatize such murders, when every homicide is equally tragic, said Brad Myrstol, a criminologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Criminal Justice Center. The high-profile deaths stand out because each is so unusual and involves “good victims,” those not expected to be among those at risk, such as a drug dealer, Myrstol said.

“I think that’s why there’s the emotional salience of these particular cases,” he said. When a homicide occurs in a high risk realm, he said, a “sort of narrative that surrounds those sorts of victims is that they had it coming.”

The way homicides are covered can vary widely, and media reports on those involving sympathetic victims can create an increased sense of vulnerability, Myrstol said. In actuality, homicide rates in Anchorage, as well as statewide, have been fairly stable.

Police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker said Anchorage is a “very safe” city. There are problems with sexual assaults and domestic violence, he said, but the people involved generally know each other.

“In terms of actual danger to the public, there’s very little,” Parker said.

In the last several years, between 12 and 19 homicides have occurred annually in Anchorage, with a population of nearly 300,000. So far this year, there have been nine homicides, according to Sgt. Slawomir Markiewicz, supervisor of the police department’s homicide unit. That number is fairly high for a period of less than half a year, but months can go by without a homicide, he noted.

The Koenig and Reeves cases required significant police resources because of their circumstances. But all homicides are considered priorities, according to Markiewicz.

“Each case is equally important,” he said.

Koenig’s father, James Koenig, believes Anchorage is changing, and for the worst. He blames the growing population.

“The more population you have, the odds are greater you’re going to have scumbags in the place,” he said. “And I think these scumbags have this misconception that if they go all the way north, they can hide out and do whatever they want and get away with it. Well, that’s not the case.”

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