Kotzebue women’s deaths at former mayor’s property did not get thorough investigations, report says

A four way intersection in Kotzebue, Alaska. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Two Kotzebue women died two years apart at the home of former Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Clement Richards Sr. No one has been charged in connection with either death.

That’s according to a report from the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica that calls into question how effectively local police, prosecutors and judges handled those deaths, as well as a string of domestic violence complaints against the former mayor’s sons leading up to them.

ADN and ProPublica reporter Kyle Hopkins told Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early that the two women had each dated one of Richards’ sons. 


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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Note to readers: the interview details violence against women.

Kyle Hopkins: Both Sue Sue Norton and Jennifer Kirk were longtime girlfriends of – each one had had a longtime relationship with one of the former mayor’s three sons. So, you know, they had children in common with the sons. They, at times, lived at that location, at the mayor’s property. And we’re talking relationships over several years. This wasn’t kind of a girlfriend for a season. This was, you know, a long-term relationship over several years.

And one way that we know that is those relationships were, in a way, documented on the public record, because there was a history of, in both Jennifer’s case and in Sue Sue’s case, there was a history of domestic violence that led to police visits to the home, criminal charges, criminal complaints, that kind of detailed not only the domestic violence and the assaults, which involved physical assaults, strangulation, but they also documented, throughout these relationships, that kind of dating connection.

Wesley Early: What happened in those domestic violence cases? You talk a little bit about strangulation, but I’m curious what the outcomes of those cases were?

KH: Well, I think that was something that became a focus of the reporting. When you have a repeated history of domestic violence accusations- so you have, you know, two people in a relationship, and one is being accused again and again of domestic violence, either Jennifer or Sue Sue, or like a neighbor would call police. Police would come to the house. They would sometimes, often, they would find kind of signs of a visible injury. They would interview Sue Sue Norton or Jennifer Kirk and kind of find out what happened. And then they would, often the police themselves, would file the charge, you know, rather than a prosecutor getting involved. They would arrest the son, and then the police would file the charges.

And so I would say that one potential failure point in how this process works, is that you would have a case of strangulation or you’d have a case, in Jennifer Kirk’s case, you had someone who was six months pregnant, was kicked in the stomach repeatedly, apparently resulting in premature labor. And that was charged, police labeled that as Assault IV, which is like, the lowest level of assault in Alaska state law. Assault IV is like what you would charge somebody if they just threatened another person to a fight. You know, if you see someone on the street and you say, “Hey, I’m gonna beat you up,” that’s Assault IV. But in Kotzebue, Assault IV was also, you know, literally kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach, at six months pregnant. So I’d say that a potential failure point was how those cases were charged by police.

WE: So how much effort did Kotzebue police put into investigating the deaths of Kirk and Norton?

KH: In Jennifer Kirk’s case, that’s a closed case, meaning that it’s not an open investigation. It was closed as a suicide. And as a result, and I’m sure you’ve encountered this, it can be really hard to get police records, and often it’s because everything’s considered an open investigation. But in Jennifer Kirk’s case, because they called it a suicide and because they closed the case, we were able to make the case that we should be provided their death investigation records, because it’s no longer an open investigation.

So we did get kind of a heavily redacted copy of the death investigation in that case. And what it showed was, on May 23, 2018, there was a call, it was kind of labeled as suicide at that property, at the mayor’s property. He was still mayor at the time. And police arrive. There’s an initial investigation. Jennifer Kirk died on May 23. And according to the Kotzebue Police Department, that case was closed on May 24. So, that’s one day of investigation. And it was closed before, and we know this for a fact, it was closed before the Kotzebue Police Department received the final autopsy report.

And the thing about that is, I went back and read like, “How do you know, when you’re investigating an unintended death or death like this, you know, who determines if a death is a suicide?” And that’s not necessarily the medical examiner. Because the medical examiner has the body and can draw some conclusions, but my understanding is that it’s up to police to take into account the context and all the factors of the scene of the death and stuff, in order to determine, you know, is this really a suicide? And so I think there’s some real questions about how quickly that case was closed.

WE: Is it your sense that police and others in Kotzebue swept these deaths under the rug because they occurred on the mayor’s property?

KH: I think what’s notable about the fact that it happened in the mayor’s property is that this is all around the time that Ashley Johnson-Barr was killed. In between the deaths of Jennifer Kirk and Sue Sue Norton was the death of Ashley Johnson-Barr. The reason that feels meaningful is that it felt like a moment in time when cases of these deaths were really going to be paid attention to and kind of looked at critically and not swept under the rug, or given every resource in order to investigate. And so I guess where I was coming from, as a journalist, was if you have two deaths that happened a block away from the police department, and they happen on the property of one of the top elected officials in the whole region, if those deaths aren’t receiving careful consideration and a thorough investigation, then what hope does anyone else have of their loved ones’ death being thoroughly investigated?

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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