This story was originally published by the Anchorage Daily News and is republished here with permission.
Late in the afternoon on June 15, a dog walker found Fred Lee’s body on a lonely stretch of the Kincaid Park beach in Anchorage. He was naked, and his nose was broken.
The 41-year-old had been visiting Anchorage from Buckland, in Northwest Alaska, where he was a father of four children, a longtime high school basketball coach and a worker at the Red Dog Mine. He had last been seen on the morning of June 14, walking fully clothed with a backpack on along Spenard Road — more than six miles away from where his body was found.
For Lee’s family, it was a shocking end for a beloved father and husband. What had happened to Fred Lee? How had he ended up on the Kincaid beach in an unfamiliar city? And most important, how had he died?
The Anchorage Police Department initially investigated the death as suspicious. But within a week, police said Lee’s death had been determined to be “non-criminal in nature.”
Lee’s family members, including his daughter and wife, say that doesn’t make sense to them, given what they know about the circumstances of his disappearance and death. They say police haven’t given them an indication of why the death was ruled non-criminal.
“It just doesn’t add up,” said Lee’s oldest daughter, Shaylin Thomas of Kotzebue.
A month later, they are full of questions about how Fred Lee died and trying to piece together for themselves what may have happened.
Lee’s wife and daughter both say the Anchorage police haven’t done enough to investigate whether Lee’s death was due to foul play.
“I’m trying my very best to get him the justice he deserves,” said Thomas. “Or at the minimum, the investigation he deserves.”
“It would be a disrespect to him if we didn’t keep pushing to find out what happened,” his cousin Craig Moore said.
Fred Lee and his wife Nancy Stalker Lee lived in Buckland, a community of about 500 people southeast of Kotzebue.
They shared three young children and a busy life: Fred worked as a heavy-equipment operator for the city, repairing roads, and for a construction company working at the Red Dog Mine. He also coached high school girls basketball, taking the Buckland Belugas to the state tournament multiple times.
Thomas says her father was a quiet man who kept a low-profile and contributed to his community as a father, coach and worker.
“He cherished his children and his wife so much,” said Bessie Hadley, his younger sister. “He took care of my mom, also.”
Lee was just finishing a six week hitch at Red Dog Mine when his brother died, his wife said. On June 11, the two flew to Anchorage together to be with grieving family.
They were supposed to fly home the morning of June 14.
The couple had been staying at the Spenard Motel, but were so unhappy with the condition of their room they decided to try to switch to the Chelsea Inn Hotel, just a few blocks away, for their last few hours before the flight, his wife said.
On the morning of June 14 they left the Spenard Motel sometime around 4 a.m., with Nancy heading off in a taxi to retrieve a phone she’d left at an uncle’s house, she said. Lee left for the Chelsea Inn Hotel wearing his backpack, his family said.
He’d been drinking but he was “a little buzzed, not intoxicated,” his wife said. “I wouldn’t leave him intoxicated.”
Lee didn’t check in at the Chelsea Inn Hotel, Thomas said.
He was last seen around 6 a.m. on June 14, walking toward the Holiday gas station at Spenard Road and Minnesota Drive, according to Thomas. He was asking a man for directions to the nearest DMV, she said.
His wife says Lee had an expired I.D., so may have been trying to get that sorted out before flying home.
Lee was supposed to check in for a flight home by about 9 a.m. that day, according to Thomas. When he didn’t do that, family members in Anchorage got worried and started canvassing Spenard for him. There were at least four cars driving all over looking for him, said Hadley.
If he’d been walking to Kincaid Park on his own, they’d have seen him that morning, his daughter said.
“There were people looking everywhere,” Thomas said. “All day.”
Discovery on the beach
A day later, on June 15 a little after 4 p.m. a dog walker discovered Lee’s body on an out-of-the-way section of the Kincaid Park beach, about a 10 minute walk south of the main beach access off the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
In conversations with police and the medical examiner, Lee’s daughter learned that he was found naked with deep scratches, a broken nose and bumps on his head. Police identified him using fingerprints, Thomas said. He had none of his belongings or the backpack with his cell phone and clothes in it. His feet didn’t show signs of having walked a long way barefoot.
At first, police investigated the death as suspicious, saying in a written summary that officers “made observations at the scene that…warranted a closer look at the circumstances surrounding the death.”
In their grief, family members had immediate questions: How had Fred Lee gotten 6.2 miles from his last known location to the Kincaid Park Beach, in a large city unfamiliar to him? What caused his death? And who was responsible?
Lee had a bad back, his sister said. And he knew Anchorage’s main roads and the hospital area, but didn’t have a deep knowledge of the city’s geography. To his sister, it seems improbable that he would have found his way to a lonely stretch of Kincaid Beach accessed via trail.
“He didn’t even know where Kincaid Park was,” Thomas said.
To them, foul play seemed obvious given his location and the injuries the medical examiner described, she said.
Less than a week later, on June 21, Anchorage police told Lee’s 24-year-old daughter Shaylin Thomas that his death had been ruled “non-criminal in nature.” She couldn’t believe it.
The Anchorage Police Department later classified the death as an “outdoor death,” including it on a list of people thought by police to be homeless or living with no fixed address and found dead outdoors. APD now says that was an error and has been corrected.
Members of the family say they don’t believe investigators pulled surveillance footage or interviewed people who had last seen Lee. His wife said she wasn’t contacted by police. Thomas said she’d been told by the medical examiner that toxicology report results have come back but the family won’t receive information about a cause of death for several more weeks.
The family says they’ve also learned that Lee may have owed a man in Anchorage money, information Thomas says she communicated to police.
Thomas said she doesn’t understand how police came to the conclusion that the death was not due to foul play. His wife agrees. She said she wonders if police didn’t learn that he’d been drinking — though not much, she says — and make “assumptions” about what happened to him.
“Wouldn’t they investigate his black ear, broken nose and (swollen) forehead and question me, because I was with him last of our family?” she said in a phone interview.
Anchorage police spokeswoman Renee Oistad did not answer questions about the police investigation of Lee’s death.
“There was no indication in our initial investigation that Mr. Lee’s death was caused by another person,” she wrote in an email.
Oistad did not answer questions about the investigative steps taken to determine the death was not criminal in nature. She did not answer where Lee’s body was found at Kincaid Park. She did not answer a question about whether a cause of death had been determined in the case. She did not answer a question about whether police interviewed anyone or gathered surveillance video as part of the initial investigation into the death. She did not answer a question about what accounted for Lee’s injuries, and any police theory on why he was found naked with none of his belongings.
“The questions you have asked are the same questions the deceased’s family has asked,” she wrote. “The homicide sergeant has had extensive conversations with them and has answered all of their questions.”
But Lee’s family does not feel their questions have been answered.
“I know in my heart that something happened to him, he wouldn’t leave his kids behind,” wrote his daughter. “Believe me when I say, I am going to exhaust ALL measures to find out what happened to my dad.”