Former Nome officer denies role in 19-year-old's murder

Man also accused of tampering with evidence and lying to police

Posted: Thursday, November 24, 2005

KOTZEBUE - A former Nome police officer on trial for the second time in a first-degree murder case took the stand as a defense witness this week and denied he shot and killed a 19-year-old woman.

"Did you fire this bullet into Sonya Ivanoff's head?" his lawyer, Jim McComas, asked Matt Owens, 30.

"No sir, I did not," Owens answered in a calm voice.

Besides murder, Owens also is charged with tampering with evidence. He denied those claims during questioning.

He gave the same "No sir, I did not" answers when asked if he ever used a gun the prosecution maintained is the murder weapon; if he ever burned women's clothing at a fire pit; or if he generated a note found in a stolen police car.

During cross-examination, prosecutors tried to paint Owens as a man who used his position as a police officer to exercise control over young women whom he allowed as passengers in his patrol car.

The defense is expected to call its last witnesses Monday.

A mistrial was declared earlier this year in Owens' first trial in Nome. Superior Court Judge Ben Esch, who presided at the first trial, is presiding over the second trial taking place in Kotzebue.

Prosecutor Rick Svobodny said in his opening statements that Owens killed Ivanoff, whose body was found Aug. 13, 2003, in willows alongside an old mining road. She died of a single gunshot wound in the head.

Alaska State Troopers said Ivanoff was last seen alive around 1 a.m. on Aug. 11, 2003, near a Tesoro gas station on Fourth Avenue in Nome. When Ivanoff did not return home Aug. 12, her roommate reported her missing to Nome police.

Owens was one of two Nome police officers on duty during the early morning hours of Aug. 11, 2003. Witnesses said they saw Ivanoff get into a police car that had circled a block and pulled up to her.

Police launched a search and her body was found Aug. 13 near the end of a neglected access road near gold dredges about three miles from downtown.

Her body was naked except for a sock on her left foot.

In late September, a Nome police vehicle was stolen during the night from the department's parking lot. A Nome police officer - later identified as Owens - found the vehicle about 90 minutes later in a gravel pit north of the city.

Owens reported he heard two gunshots as he approached the vehicle and hit the ground, but no suspect was identified. One of the vehicle's side windows had been broken out and the shotgun had been stolen. The gun was eventually recovered.

A few days after the incident, an envelope was discovered in the same patrol car with Ivanoff's identification card and a letter by someone who implied he was Ivanoff's killer. The letter "warned the police that he would kill them if they got too close to him."

A few days later, on Oct. 1, troopers announced that they would take over the case at the request of Nome police.

On Oct. 23, Owens, then 28, was arrested.

According to charging documents, Owens made peculiar moves during the investigation that raised suspicions. He showed up at the abandoned gold dredges on a four-wheeler with his 4-year-old son when Ivanoff's body was discovered, even though he was not working at the time and no radio traffic disclosed the location.

Prosecutors said during the first trial that Owens made three known trips to Coffee Creek, north of Nome, in the weeks following Ivanoff's death, where clothes linked with her and keys connected to Owens were found in a burn pit.

Owens was also accused of lying about the police car theft and finding it.

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