Small-town streets turn mean in Bethel

Some residents say drugs, alcohol to blame for increase in crime

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Longtime residents such as Lori Sands will tell you that robberies and murders are not supposed to happen in a place like Bethel.

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Sands moved to Bethel nearly 10 years ago because it was a safe and friendly city. She left her doors unlocked, and folks would just come and go. She left her car running when she went shopping. It seemed like everybody knew everybody.

But practically overnight, it seems, Bethel has turned into a big city with big-city problems, she'll tell you. A cab driver shot to death. A woman found dead in the snow. A snowmachiner robbed at gunpoint. A juvenile stabbed by another kid. And another stabbing victim who won't tell police what happened. All this in one week.

"Is this a fluke or a new trend? I don't know," said David Twitchell, a juvenile justice officer and longtime resident of Bethel.

Ju Young Joung, 41, was fatally shot Sunday. Days earlier, Agnes Evan, 40, was found dead in brush. Police say she died of hypothermia but had suffered blunt force trauma to her abdomen. No arrests have been made in either case.

It suddenly feels like not the city it was just a couple of years ago, Twitchell said. He blames alcohol and drugs, including methamphetamine, which has made it to the city 400 miles west of Anchorage.

Bethel is not immune to violent crime. In 1997, 16-year-old Evan Ramsey killed a principal and a student at the high school. Ramsey opened fire with a 12-gauge shotgun as students assembled in a lobby. He is serving a 198-year prison term.

There are killings every year now, police say, including one earlier this year where a man got drunk and beat his father to death with a baseball bat.

But those were incidents that occur over time in many communities of 6,000 people, residents say.

The recent spate seems different. It involves half a dozen unrelated, serious crimes in a short time frame. They seem to have started several weeks ago when a different cab driver was robbed at gunpoint, police said. No arrest has been made in that crime either.

"It's very, very unusual to even have one (homicide)," police chief Ben Dudley said Wednesday. "And to have two in the span of a week is unheard of."

"A lot of people want answers, and frankly, we don't have them at this time."

City manager Wally Baird says he thinks it's a fluke. "It wasn't a full moon or something strange in the water. It was just one of those things."

Resident Chase Powers, though, says it's now different to walk around the city where he felt like he knew everyone.

"It's scary knowing (the killers) haven't been caught and they are in our midst," he said.

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