Distinctive accent on torture video leads police to suspect
Anchorage, Alaska – The suspect in a torture killing in Alaska’s biggest city ended up leading police right to him, first by losing a digital memory card labeled “Homicide at midtown Marriott” that contained video of the dying woman.
Then came an even more innocuous blunder: He spoke on the tape in his distinctive, very un-Alaska accent.
When a woman found the memory card on the street and turned it over to police, what detectives saw was horrific. At one point, the suspect complained to the victim, whose face was swollen and bloodied: “”My hand’s getting tired.” He then stomped her throat with his right foot.
Amid the footage, a clue: The killer spoke in an “English sounding accent,” and detectives recalled Brian Steven Smith, a 48-year-old South African, from another investigation, the details of which they have not disclosed.
They arrested Smith, who has pleaded not guilty to the September killing of 30-year-old Kathleen Henry, a homeless Alaska Native woman. During his interrogation, police say he confessed to killing another Alaska Native woman. Police won’t say if there may be other victims.
Anchorage has a diverse population – more than 200 languages are spoken in the school system – and it’s not uncommon to hear people speaking with Russian, Yupik or Hmong accents.
But South African accents aren’t common, certainly not after the summer tourist season. Just a fraction of the city’s foreign-born population comes from Africa, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Authorities identified the second victim as Veronica Abouchuk, who was 52 when her family reported her missing in February. The family last saw her in July 2018, police said.
Smith told police where he killed Abouchuk and disposed of the body. It was in an area near where State Troopers recovered a skull with a bullet wound earlier this year.
His arraignment on those charges was set for Monday.
After both women were killed, their bodies were dumped along highways outside of Anchorage “like unwanted trash,” the state says in a memorandum seeking $2 million bail on the more than a dozen counts he faces, including first-degree murder, second-degree murder and evidence tampering. If convicted and found to have committed substantial torture in the Henry case, he will be sentenced to a mandatory 99 years. Alaska doesn’t have the death penalty.
“These were two Alaska Native women,” Anchorage Deputy District Attorney Brittany Dunlop told a news conference. “And I know that hits home here in Alaska, and we’re cognizant of that. We treat them with dignity and respect.”
Violence against Native women was a topic last weekend at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives conference, the state’s largest gathering of indigenous people.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, drew prolonged applause Saturday when she mentioned several bills to combat violent crime on Native land and to develop law enforcement protocols to address the issue, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.
“I think we all know that, for far too long, it has been uncomfortable, that it’s been almost put off limits, to talk about the darkness, the violence, in our homes and in our communities,” Murkowski said.
Police have released little information beyond what is in court documents. Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll said there’s no evidence of a public safety threat.
In seeking the high bail, prosecutors cited his ties to South Africa.
“He poses a significant public safety risk, especially to the vulnerable, homeless women living on the streets of Anchorage,” a bail memo said.
Authorities said Smith came to Alaska about five years ago and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in September.
Five years ago, he married Stephanie Bissland of Anchorage. She was visiting family members in Virginia when Anchorage detectives approached her and told her of her husband’s arrest in the first homicide.
She told Anchorage television station KTUU that last month, Smith reported his vehicle had been vandalized and that his wallet, documents and a briefcase with phones and other electronics had been taken. She said it wasn’t unusual for Smith to have memory cards lying around from cameras and other gear he would work on and sell but said she never saw any of them labeled.
She didn’t return messages to The Associated Press seeking comment.
Smith’s attorney, Dan Lowery, an assistant public defender, said he does not comment on pending cases.
Associated Press writer Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska and Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.