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Couple struggle to recover after assault

Posted: June 24, 2013 - 3:39am

ANCHORAGE — Two and a half weeks after a stranger deliberately ran over Nicholas Philemonoff and April Merculief as they walked home from a night out in Spenard, the couple is alive, but in limbo.

Merculief is still in the hospital, healing from having her body crushed by a vehicle that police have only been able to describe as a red SUV. She’s conscious and able to answer questions. She is expected to be released this week.

The driver and his passenger are still on the loose. Police say they have few leads in the case.

Meanwhile, Philemonoff, Merculief’s boyfriend and the father of their three young daughters, is laid-up at his mother’s Lake Otis apartment.

There he elevates his broken leg on the couch and thinks about a to-do list aimed at getting the family back to their home on remote St. Paul Island: find Merculief a wheelchair-accessible apartment in Anchorage to recover for the next six months. Go commercial halibut fishing, even with his busted leg, to make money to get through next winter.

In moments of quiet amid the tangle of daughters, nieces and nephews who run through the apartment, Philemonoff relives the early morning of June 1: the suddenness of the assault, watching his girlfriend get sucked under the SUV, the sound of her ragged breathing afterward.

He says he’s not an angry person and is more bewildered than anything by the attack. How could he have known, he wonders, that a routine visit to Anchorage would take this awful turn?

“Still I can’t believe this happened to us,” he said.

Seeking a red SUV

Police say they have little new information on the case.

“I can say I’m looking for a red SUV,” said police Detective Ed Gurtler. Thousands of vehicles in Anchorage match that description, he said.

Gurtler said the case may rely on a member of the public who saw something coming forward. Not many leads have come in, he said, which may be because the incident happened at 4:30 a.m.

Police believe surveillance video gathered from the scene shows the vehicle but say releasing it would compromise the investigation. Other cars can be seen passing by on the video, Gurtler said.

Philemonoff says he wants the video released, in case it might help someone identify the car. He says he knows it had a yellow license plate and saw it speed off westbound toward the airport, then turn north on Arctic Boulevard.

What motivated the man to pull up, yell a sexual remark about Merculief and then drive over the couple “at full throttle,” according to Philemonoff, isn’t clear.

“You can speculate all day,” Gurtler said. “Everybody can. But there’s nothing that can tie it down to anything.”

‘Oddball night’

The Philemonoff-Merculief family is the last branch of their immediate family to live on St. Paul, an island in the Bering Sea with a population of about 500 people. They usually spend a couple months of the winter in Anchorage with relatives, Nicholas Philemonoff said.

By the end of May they’d already stayed longer than planned after the death of an uncle. On the night of May 31, Philemonoff and Merculief left their daughters with grandparents and headed to Piper’s Restaurant & Lounge at 3450 Aviation Ave. in Spenard, which Philemonoff said is a hangout for people from the Pribilofs.

It was an “oddball night” from the beginning, he said.

They’d gotten into an argument with his sister there, he said, and decided to take a long walk home to allow time for things to cool.

They were holding hands and walking in silence through the parking lot of Hope Community Resources between 524 and 540 West International Airport Road when the red SUV pulled up, he said. It was about 4:30 a.m.

The man inside, who police have described as a 5-foot-7 black male with close-cropped hair, yelled something like “your woman,” at the couple. They exchanged obscenities and the man suddenly jumped back into the car and drove “full-throttle” at the couple, according to Philemonoff.

The entire exchange lasted no more than 30 seconds, he said.

He remembers the sickening realization that Merculief had been pulled under the car and fumbling, panicked, with his cellphone security code as he tried to call 911.

It was only when the ambulance arrived, after he started gathering the spilled contents of Merculief’s purse, that he realized he too was injured, he said.

Merculief was taken to the Alaska Native Medical Center, where she spent more than a week in critical care.

She has a hole in her skull where doctors removed skull fragments from her brain and is confined to a wheelchair while she relearns how to walk. She’s able to answer questions and has seen her three daughters, Philemonoff said.

“She’s all there,” he said.

Money worries

With the immediate medical crisis passed, the family’s concerns are economic.

Philemonoff plans to go long-line halibut fishing from St. Paul in a week or two. Fishing is the primary source of the family’s livelihood, he said. He’s not sure how that will work with his injured leg but says he feels responsible to his family as well as the four crew members he employs on his boat, the Cameo II.

“The alternative is we’ll be hungry in the wintertime and I don’t want that,” Philemonoff said.

His sister, a nursing student, and other family members will help care for Merculief in Anchorage, where most of their extended family now lives.

Anchorage already represented a painful history to the Merculief family. One of April Merculief’s sisters was beaten to death in Anchorage in 2001. Her killers served light jail sentences, family members said.

But Philemonoff says he isn’t consumed with anger at the man who attacked him, though he does want to see him caught. People have donated thousands of dollars to help the family with bills and food since the incident.

“There are a lot of nice people in Anchorage,” he said.

But as soon as Merculief is able, he wants to get the family home, he said.

He misses the easy freedom of St. Paul. He said he felt safe letting his girls roam to the playground, where he never worried about the violence of strangers — because there weren’t any.

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