Tension lingers over handling of investigation into linked homicides

Anchorage Police Department Chief Chris Tolley addresses the media at the department's West Anchorage training facility. (Photo by Josh Edge/Alaska Public Media)
Anchorage Police Department Chief Chris Tolley addresses the media at the department’s West Anchorage training facility. (Photo by Josh Edge/Alaska Public Media)

A day after news broke that five Anchorage murders are linked to the same gun used an attack on a police officer over the weekend, questions remain about how officials responded to public concerns in the months before. Law enforcement had very little evidence connecting the homicides and walked a fine line between recruiting the public’s help and not losing their only thread in the case.

On Saturday, the Anchorage Police Department caught a break.

They’d known since July that the same gun was used in multiple homicides in different parts of the city. But even as more killings happened, that’s almost all they knew. When Lieutenant John McKinnon arrived at a crime scene early Saturday morning, he was surprised to find the exact weapon APD had been looking for.

“(I) immediately recognized that there was a Colt Python,” McKinnon said, referring to a powerful .357 caliber revolver. “It made me tickled pink a little bit.”

It is rare nowadays to see revolvers used in Anchorage homicide cases, according to McKinnon, who heads APD’s homicide and robbery/assault units. The state’s Scientific Crime Discovery Laboratory had connected the weapon to five killings from this summer, month’s before 40-year-old James Dale Ritchie used it against an APD officer downtown during an early-morning stop that had nothing to do with the open investigations.

As of right now, investigators only have evidence tying Ritchie to the death of 21-year-old Treyveonkindell Thompson in July 29th, not the two double homicides that happened within the same two-month period.

“We know that the weapon was used on those other two cases, but we haven’t discovered complete information to show that Mr. Ritchie was there,” McKinnon said.

Currently, the department’s focus is finding proof that it was Ritchie who shot the other four victims, in order to close the case.

Going forward, APD will work with partners like the Federal Bureau of Investigation to see if Ritchie is potentially linked to other open cases elsewhere in the country. Investigators say they’re looking into other places Ritchie may have lived, including Virginia and Nevada, before he moved back to Alaska in February of 2016. According to McKinnon, there are no other investigations in Anchorage where Ritchie is a suspect right now.

APD is not calling Ritchie a “serial killer,” partly out of deference to process, since he hasn’t been factually linked to other homicides. But also out of concerns over messaging. And that was a decision they made this summer, even after the department began realizing that random murders had something in common.

“If we were to use the term ‘serial,’ it would not have protected your safety,” McKinnon said.  “There was no investigative benefit to put that out there. And we didn’t want to embolden the person.”

This is a point of local controversy. For months, members of the media and public have asked law enforcement and elected officials whether some of this year’s record-breaking homicides were the work of one predatory individual. And for months, the police department has said they will not speculate on open cases, a response which many have found vague and unsatisfactory.

APD’s Communications Director Jennifer Castro said the department has been trying to find a balance between keeping the public informed enough to be safe without jeopardizing a fragile investigation.

“That gun is the only — the only — piece of evidence that we had to tie any of these cases together. If that gun were to go away, to disappear, to get dumped, we would have no way to tie any of this together,” Castro said.

This is not a theoretical concern for investigators. Besides the gun, police had enough clues in the Thompson case to release a sketch of the suspect, and a description of a yellow bike they believed was stolen in the incident. According to McKinnon, interviews and material recovered on Ritchie’s phone show he got rid of the bike after that information was made public.

According to Staci Feger-Pellessier, a spokesperson for the FBI in Anchorage, in cases like these police department’s try to balance public concerns against what effect additional information will have on investigations.

“I can understand the public’s concern, but we also need to understand the difference between wanting to know something and needing to know something, and in this case releasing additional information would have jeopardized the investigation and could have possibly led to more murders,” Feger-Pellessier said.

But that logic doesn’t assuage concerns from the last few months felt by many Anchorage residents.

Eric Croft sits on the Anchorage Assembly, and has seen a tension between the interests of police investigators and members of the public.

“I had a number of constituents and other Anchorage residents trying to figure out whether we had a serial killer, whether these crimes were connected,” Croft said. “People are naturally concerned about that.”

Those fears led to chatter on social media, alarmed public meetings, and even organizing in some areas to start community patrols. And it changed a lot of people’s behaviors and feelings about where they live.

Eva Gardner’s home is near Valley of the Moon Park, where a double homicide in August has been linked to the gun in question. She wrote a letter to the mayor after the killings saying the city’s response to residents’ concerns had been inadequate. Like many people, Gardner heeded warnings from the police department to avoid the city’s trails out of concerns for safety.

“After the Valley of the Moon homicides I still walked to work as long as it was daylight, but as soon as the darkness came I stopped using them alone, and I think as of this week, I’m going to start using them again,” Gardner said.

It’s a sentiment she’s heard from others, as well. She feels relief that investigators believe the man responsible for this summer’s five killings is no longer a threat, but sees room for improvement in how police communicate with citizens.

Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska.

@ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

Previous articleAlaska News Nightly: Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016
Next articlePerseverance Theatre’s Not Medea