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Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation, nearly four times the national average. About one third of women in Alaska have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Yet it is a secret so steeped into everyday life that to discuss it is to disrupt the norm.
These 29 women and men did not choose to be violated, but they now are choosing to speak about what happened to them.
Last year, the Anchorage Daily News partnered with ProPublica to investigate sexual violence in Alaska, and explore why the situation isn’t getting better. We continue that work this year.
The profiles below reflect the urgent and everyday wounds borne by people all over the state. Many have parents and grandparents who are also survivors. Many have been repeatedly abused, often by different perpetrators. Some have chosen careers at the front lines of sexual assault response.
Some told us that giving words to what happened is a form of justice. Some said they chose to speak so others might feel less alone. They recalled moments of brutality and callousness, but also transformation, rebellion and renewal.
Each person spoke to their individual experience, but taken together, their words reflect common themes found throughout our reporting.
It was important that each person sharing their story had input on how to tell it. This project is not only about what has happened to them, but also who they are today. Each chose how to be publicly identified and how their experiences — related and unrelated to abuse — would be represented.
They worked with Daily News photographers to make portraits that are true to them. They chose to be photographed in meaningful locations, alongside the people they love or dressed to represent a source of strength. Read more about the portrait-making process here.
We understand that not everyone is ready to share their story. We’ve made space for you, too, here and in the pages of the newspaper. For those ready to share their story, you can do so here.
We welcome your thoughts and feedback at [email protected].
(Some of the quotations below have been condensed for clarity.)
LINDA REXFORD, 23, Iñupiaq, accounts receivable clerk. Lives in Anchorage.
Rexford had just turned 21 in June 2018 when she went out to a bar with friends in Anchorage. That night, she was sexually assaulted by an older man she did not know. After she drove herself to the emergency room, police were called to help her file a report and to take her for a forensic examination. In the aftermath of the assault, Rexford quit her job in Anchorage and moved back to Fairbanks for a few months. There, she said, she unsuccessfully tried to get help from several agencies. She was devastated to learn there was a one-year wait to see a therapist through a local clinic, and ultimately did not add her name to the waitlist. When she told her friends and family what had happened, many of them shared stories of their own assaults. Rexford said that as a result of a backlog in processing rape kits, her forensic exam was not tested until the end of 2019. The Anchorage Police Department said its investigation remains open.
KAYLA ARTHOFER, 29, Yup’ik, heavy equipment operator and psychology student. Lives in Fairbanks.
Arthofer was so young when she was abused by an older man, she didn’t understand what he was doing when he would hold her in his lap. She recognized it as molestation only years later, when she learned about sex for the first time. In her mid-20s, she began seeing a psychologist and started to share what happened with people close to her. By talking about it, she said, she learned the abuse was not her fault. She then decided to make a report to Alaska State Troopers. Arthofer said making that report was the single most important step she took to change her life. The investigation of her case stalled when investigators asked her to obtain a recorded confession from the perpetrator. Arthofer did not feel ready to confront him, and did not attempt to make the recording. Instead she began a dialogue about the abuse with her family. Still, Arthofer said, until she filed the report, she had been “a prisoner” of her mind. She continues to work on reframing her past trauma in order to be stronger in the present.
META MENDENHALL, 27, pipeline security administrator. Lives in Valdez.
Mendenhall was raised in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. When she was 15 and visiting her father in Wasilla, she said, a boy she met through friends raped her, causing extreme pain and ignoring her pleas to stop. She had never had sex before. Mendenhall says she told a few friends the next day, but never reported it to law enforcement because she feared getting in trouble for underage drinking. After the rape, she felt like sex could never be special, and for several years, she said, she behaved “promiscuously.” She said realizing that the assault was not her fault allowed her to encourage others to report rape.
DAVID FISHER, 35, business consultant. Lives in Portland, Oregon.
Fisher moved to Alaska from Washington state in 1993, at 7 years old. In Bethel that first year, he said, he was befriended and then sexually abused by an older boy over the course of several months. Saddled with feelings of guilt and confusion, he never told anyone until he was a young adult. Now a business professional and a devout Christian, Fisher makes a point of sharing his story with others. “It’s tough to admit, as a man, that you were a victim,” he said. “I hope that my openness can be a sign to others that healing is possible, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression that my healing is complete.”
MARIE R. SAKAR, 48, Yup’ik, elementary school teacher and mother. Lives in Chuathbaluk.
The first boy to sexually abuse Sakar during her childhood in the Western Alaska village of Chuathbaluk issued a frightening warning: If she told, her parents would hate her and blame her. She believed him. Sakar went on to be abused by other boys and men in her village, abuse that followed her into adulthood. She became a mother and earned a college degree, but drank heavily to cope with the abuse. A turning point came when she heard someone say silence only served to protect abusers. She began to confront men who she said had abused her, got sober and began telling her story openly. A few years ago, she moved back to Chuathbaluk — her home as well as a place freighted with memories of childhood abuse. Now, as a teacher at the village school, she wants to be a trusted adult for children to confide in.
EBONY MCCLAIN, clinical therapist. Lives in Anchorage.
Watching Christine Blasey Ford testify in Congress during the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, McClain reconsidered her past. She saw a fellow psychologist being questioned on national television for not remembering details of a long-ago trauma. McClain’s memory jumped to when she was 19 years old and attended a party at the trailer-home of a Taco Bell coworker. She had accepted a drink from him and quickly passed out; she believes she was drugged. McClain awoke to her coworker trying to perform oral sex on her. Despite years of providing therapy to clients who were survivors, she had never thought of herself as a victim of sexual assault. The Kavanaugh hearings prompted McClain to talk about the incident for the first time in decades.
B.B., 28, mother. Lives in Southcentral Alaska.
In March 2013, B.B. reported to police that she had been raped by a man she met online. A grand jury handed up 11 felony charges against the alleged perpetrator: four counts of first-degree sexual assault, five counts of second-degree sexual assault, and one count each of third-degree assault and theft. Everything except the theft charge was dropped as part of a plea deal. The defendant was required by the court to write a letter of apology to B.B. In it, he said, “In closing I would like to note the remorse I feel in being a contributor to a situation where sexual boundaries may have been pushed. Any wishes you had that were not respected is not ok- I apologize for any part I may have played in that.” In December 2017, the same defendant pleaded guilty to an attempted sexual assault charge in the second degree, after another victim reported him. He is now serving eight years in prison.
SUE ROYSTON, 73, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Retired. Lives in Fairbanks.
In 1973, a year after Royston moved to Alaska, she was attacked at knifepoint by a stranger who broke in through her bathroom window. Nearly half a century before #MeToo, in an era before rape kits were developed, Royston decided to fight for justice. She said her prosecutor warned her that her name would be all over the papers, that she’d lose her job, and that her daughter, entering second grade in the fall, would be bullied at school. Over the next two years, Royston said, she faced doubt and dismissal from the police, the prosecutor, and a neighbor whom she had looked to for support. Ultimately Royston’s assailant faced charges and pleaded guilty, but the hurtful exchanges still affect her to this day.
JESSICA WILSON, 34, Koyukon Athabascan and Iñupiaq, enrollment specialist. Lives in Fairbanks.
When Wilson was 17 years old, she reported being raped by multiple young men at a house party while heavily intoxicated. At first, Wilson said, she felt reluctant to speak to law enforcement. But when her mother — who said she is also a survivor of sexual assault — found out what had happened several days later, she insisted on driving Wilson to the police station. Alaska State Troopers investigated. One of the men admitted that he had sex with Wilson, but said it was consensual. As an Alaska Native teenager faced with the prospect of being cross-examined before a jury, Wilson ultimately decided not to participate in a criminal case. Today, Wilson works at the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Native nonprofit serving Alaska’s vast interior. She has been sober for more than eight years. Wilson first shared her story on Facebook, and since then, she’s spoken publicly about sexual assault and trauma to audiences in Alaska and New York.
BARBARA BEATUS, 64, Koyukon Athabascan and Iñupiaq, accountant. Lives in Fairbanks.
When Beatus heard that several men had sexually assaulted her daughter Jessica Wilson at a house party, she wanted them brought to justice. She drove her daughter to the police station to report the rape. That had not been an option for Beatus when she was a teenager in the 1970s. She had grown up in the village of Allakaket, an “idyllic” childhood, she said, until she moved to Fairbanks at 14 to attend high school. During the summer when she was 16 and back home in the village, Beatus and a female relative were out walking one night when a local man invited them into his home for a drink. Beatus said she had only a sip of the drink he gave her and quickly lost consciousness; she believes they were drugged. She woke up the next morning without her clothes. At the time, the only option seemed to be to run away and try to forget.
RICKI DAHLIN, 28, inmate at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center.
In 2018 Anchorage police arrested Dahlin at gunpoint for trying to ram her way through a barricade in a stolen GMC Sierra. In the center console they found a gram of heroin; on the passenger seat a .380 handgun. For many in Anchorage it was another example of the rampant auto theft and drug-fueled property crime that has plagued the city in recent years. For Dahlin, her capture came almost as a relief. She’d been running from an abusive boyfriend and unable to kick the drug habit that had followed her across Alaska since childhood. Born premature and diagnosed with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, she said she was sexually abused repeatedly as a girl. The man who she says abused her has never faced charges. (He denies the allegations.)
DESI BOND, 35, Yup’ik and Blackfeet, legal advocate and SART coordinator. Lives in Dillingham.
Bond said she is the victim of multiple sexual assaults. In the aftermath, she struggled with substance abuse. In November 2016, Bond joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has collected an AA coin commemorating her sobriety each year since. The second anniversary gave her renewed motivation to remain clean. She said of her eldest daughter, “My baby told me how scary I was. … She told me how proud she is of me [now] and how she’s not scared of me anymore. That she feels safe, loved and protected.” In addition to AA, getting back to her Native culture helped her heal and “be present,” Bond said. Sobriety also led her to work with survivors of sexual assault at a Dillingham agency. She now coordinates a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), a group of first responders who help victims make reports and collect evidence.
PENELOPE PARAOAN, 28, Iñupiaq, Yup’ik, American Indian and Filipino, former winner of Miss Congeniality at Miss Alaska USA and bodybuilder. Lives in Anchorage.
Paraoan said she is a survivor of child sexual abuse. She spent years working through that trauma in therapy. Then, in her mid-20s, she experienced another assault by someone she knew through work. Paraoan didn’t hesitate to report it: She called a car and asked her best friend to meet her at the Alaska Native Medical Center emergency room. From there, she was taken for a forensic exam and an interview with police. She remained hopeful that her case would be investigated. Every few months, she called the detective assigned to her case to ask for updates. After nine months with no news, she stopped calling. The Anchorage Police Department said its investigation is suspended unless additional evidence or leads surface. No arrests have been made. It’s been nearly three years.
E.K., 43, Yup’ik. Lives in Southwest Alaska.
In the summer of 2017, E.K. was hired on a tug-and-barge operation that worked in remote waters off Alaska’s southwest coast. She recalled reporting for duty, when a deckhand showed her to her bunk, under the stairs. It had no door, just a curtain, she said. Everyone else had a locking door. E.K. was the only woman on site. She said most of the men came from out of state or out of the country. She was used to working in male-dominated fields — she had worked construction since 2012. But she said what happened in the days at sea left her traumatized. Due to an open Alaska State Troopers investigation, E.K. would rather not provide details of the alleged sexual assault but says the PTSD from this incident has had a devastating effect on her ability to make a living.
JUDY JESSEN, 28, advocate and organizer. Lives in Anchorage.
Jessen decided she wanted to get a forensic exam after she was raped by an acquaintance in 2015, her second assault since high school. She wanted to preserve evidence of the assault and get proper medical care. Jessen chose to get the exam while remaining anonymous and not working with police or an advocate. She said the forensic exam and interview were “awful.” But by giving a statement to a forensic nurse and undergoing the exam, her evidence was preserved for the future. That meant she could wait until the immediate trauma had passed to make decisions about whether and how to pursue her case. For months after the assault, she shared her story and recommendations about how to make it easier to get a forensic exam with politicians and advocates. In 2019, a new multidisciplinary center was opened in Anchorage for survivors of sexual assault to get medical and law enforcement services in one place. Jessen said the opening of the new center addresses some of her concerns, but change has been slow to come as she has continued to help others navigate the reporting process.
S.S., 51. Lives in Southcentral Alaska.
Nearly 40 years passed before S.S. found trauma care that felt welcoming and made sense for him. A survivor of child sexual abuse by a priest listed as credibly accused by the Catholic Church and by a neighbor (both have since died), he grew up in silent turmoil that affected every part of his life. Still, he pushed on toward the hallmarks of adulthood, becoming an accomplished professional and dedicated father. But there were points when he thought he wouldn’t make it another year. “I sat for decades in a vicious loop … never coming forward, never dealing with it,” he said. In his early 20s, S.S. considered seeking help, but he found few spaces that appeared to welcome survivors like him — a man, grappling with the cycle of anger, shame and guilt. After a particularly dark episode in early 2019, he picked up the phone, dialed Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) and asked for care. This time he was connected to a therapist who is helping him make sense of the trauma. He said it was the start of the healing process that he’s long been searching for.
NATASHA AĠNAŊULUURAQ GAMACHE, 39, Iñupiaq and Yup’ik, pre-law student. Lives in Anchorage.
On Jan. 13, Gamache sat in a courtroom and told a judge some of what her ex-husband had done to her. He was being sentenced that day for two felony charges of sexual assault of a minor, and Gamache was giving a victim impact statement. Gamache said that in 2011 she had reported her husband to police for raping her and had helped police tape a confession from him. But he was not charged. Alaska’s state law at the time allowed a “marriage defense” in some cases where one spouse sexually assaulted the other. The law was changed in July 2019. Gamache’s ex-husband pleaded guilty to the charges of sexually assaulting minors, and that day in January, he was sentenced to a total of 36 years in prison. He is currently incarcerated. When he was offered the chance to speak in court, he said, “Everything that she said is completely accurate. Everything is true. There’s so much more she could have put in there that I have done.”
SONYA SMITH, Tlingit and Haida, community mental health cultural developer and formline artist. Lives in Sitka.
Smith is known by many in her community as “Dr. Sonya.” A community advocate for Alaska Native survivors of sexual assault, especially missing and murdered indigenous women, Smith intimately knows the scars of child sexual abuse. She said a now-deceased uncle sexually abused her from the time she could walk into her teenage years. She believes she was first raped at age 4. The day after she graduated from high school, Smith left her family home, moving to Juneau, Anchorage and Seattle before settling in Sitka in 2008. There she became a certified nurse assistant. She now takes pride in looking out for younger generations. “I think it takes more guts as I age and come into our matriarchal experience,” she said. “I am responsible for them all. … it’s my turn.”
EMILY KNOWLES, 36, family business executive. Lives in Anchorage.
In the early 2000s, Knowles fought her way out of two sexual assault attempts as a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Both of her assailants were friends; one she had known since childhood. She worked as a paramedic for 12 years after graduating from college. Knowles said witnessing other women’s traumas compelled her to deal with her own. She has been in therapy since 2014.
TERESA LOWE, 41, Yup’ik, physician assistant. Splits her time between Fairbanks and Utqiagvik.
Lowe grew up in Mountain Village along the Yukon River in Western Alaska until the age of 12. She graduated from high school in the hub city of Bethel and went on to college in Fairbanks and Seattle. Until her 20s, Lowe says she experienced sexual assault in each of those places. She became a medical professional inspired by the belief that Alaska Native providers could improve outcomes for Native communities. In 2006, she asked her supervisors to be trained as a forensic examiner. She worked with a sexual assault response team in Bethel from 2006 until 2012. She was the only Native forensic examiner on the team.
D.M., 42. Lives in Seward.
D.M. grew up in Southeast Alaska, where she said she was sexually abused by someone close to her. She left the village at 17 and had a child soon after. Drinking alcohol numbed her but could not heal her. She said she later experienced other sexual assaults. In her 30s, she changed her lifestyle in order to find healthier ways to cope. She is now nine years sober. Running and leading addiction treatment classes have helped her stay on course. She said getting older has also given her the opportunity to redefine herself.
ASH, 25, administrative worker in public safety. Lives in Anchorage.
Ash, who asked that her last name not be used, said she always wanted to become a police officer, and she believes her personal experience of sexual assault will make her more effective in that role. She has been in therapy since age 9 to treat the trauma of childhood sexual molestation, she said. Seven years ago, during her first year of college, she said, she was raped at a party. Afraid she wouldn’t have a strong legal case, she never reported it to police. In college, Ash majored in criminal justice with a particular interest in public service work around sexual assault prosecution. Soon, she hopes to prepare for the police entrance exam. She said every day continues to get better.
MYRA SCHOLZE, 26, fisheries biologist. Lives in Nome.
After Scholze moved in with a boyfriend, she said, he began physically and verbally abusing her. Eventually a group of her friends convinced her to move out of state for a few months to escape the relationship. After she came back to Alaska, life prospered, but years later she struggled with severe anxiety and depression.