Investigators narrow suspect list in Nome slaying

Killing of one-time honor roll student and star basketball player has shocked the small community

Posted: Monday, October 20, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Alaska State Trooper investigators are down to a short list of suspects in the killing of Sonya Ivanoff, a young woman found shot to death in Nome two months ago.

"We've narrowed the field," said Alaska Bureau of Investigation Sgt. Randy McPherron, who declined to be more specific.

Ivanoff, 19, moved from Unalakleet to Nome about a year ago. Her body was found Aug. 13 in willow bushes at an abandoned gold mine inside Nome city limits. She apparently died of a single gunshot wound.

The slaying shocked Nome and Unalakleet, where Ivanoff, an honor roll student and star basketball player in high school, was known as a responsible young woman with a loving family and many friends. At the time of her death, Ivanoff worked as a secretary for Norton Sound Health Corp. in Nome.

"The nursing staff there was very attached to her," said Janet Tobuk, who got to know Ivanoff when she competed in the 2003 Arctic Native Brotherhood pageant, a scholarship competition for Native women that tests character and cultural knowledge.

Ivanoff was last seen alive was around 1 a.m. Monday, Aug. 11, near the Tesoro gas station on Fourth Avenue in Nome, troopers said.

When Ivanoff did not return home Aug. 12, her roommate reported her missing to Nome police.

Police and volunteers began searching Nome, a community of about 3,500 on the Bering Sea, almost immediately after the report came in, said Nome police Chief Ralph Taylor.

Jon Larson, a retired attorney who had volunteered at the Nome Fire Department for 15 years, heard about the search and offered to help. On Aug. 13, he and other volunteers split into groups around 4 p.m. Larson said his group was looking around the area where she lived.

After searching for a few hours, Larson went home for dinner.

"It didn't seem like we were looking for a missing person anymore," Larson told the Anchorage Daily News. "I was thinking we should look in more remote places."

After dinner, Larson said, he offered to search Anvil Mountain but the fire chief told him the area had already been checked, he said.

"I told him all right, I'll look around one of the gold dredges."

Larson and his wife drove to the dredges, about three miles from downtown Nome. Larson noticed a neglected access road that looked as if it had been recently used.

"I stopped the car and walked back, and there she was. ... I went back to the police station and got the squad car, and they followed me back."

With no arrests, the Nome Rotary Club started a reward fund for information leading to an arrest and conviction. The Norton Sound Health Corp., where Ivanoff worked, immediately pledged $10,000. The reward quickly grew to more than $20,000.

On Oct. 1, troopers announced that they would take over the case at the request of Nome police. Spokesman Greg Wilkinson said the decision was a matter of resources.

Just days before Taylor asked troopers to take the case, a Nome police vehicle was stolen during the night from the department's parking lot. A Nome police officer found the vehicle about an hour and a half later in a gravel pit just north of Nome.

Wilkinson said it is not yet clear whether the car and gun theft is connected to the Ivanoff slaying.

"We are still analyzing physical evidence," he said.

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