After Brian Smith’s Anchorage murder conviction, MMIP advocates hope for change

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Rena Sapp hugs her sister Margie F. Lestkenoff, after the guilty verdicts in the Brian Smith trial were read. Both are sisters of Veronica Abouchuk, who Smith confessed to killing sometime around 2018. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

The dark and disturbing trial of a man who killed two Alaska Native women, and shot footage of their murders, ended with his conviction last week — but the sound of Brian Smith’s voice on those videos, with his thick South African accent, will likely haunt those who sat in the courtroom for a long time.

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Kathleen Jo Henry (left) and Veronica Abouchuk (right). Henry was 30 when she was killed and Abouchuk was 52. (Facebook/Courtesy Mary Dan)

The national media dubbed the case the “Memory Card Murders,” with coverage that focused on Brian Smith and his terrible crimes.

Before the verdict was read, Veronica Abouchuk’s family huddled together in the back of the courtroom, as they had each day of the trial, along with advocates for both Abouchuk and the killer’s other victim, Kathleen Henry.

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Throughout the three-week trial, family members and advocates for the victims sat on the wooden courtroom benches, often tearful as they watched graphic images of the killings. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

They hoped their presence would show the jury how much they cared. And whether that was a factor in the final outcome, the jury reached guilty verdicts on all 14 counts against Smith in less than two hours. The unusually quick verdict came as a relief for Veronica Abouchuk’s older sister, Margie Lestenkof.

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Rena Sapp and Margie F. Lestenkoff wait on Feb. 24, 2024 for the verdict in the trial of Brian Smith, who was convicted of killing their sister, Veronica Abouchuk. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

“It was pretty hard on all of us, but we tried to be strong in our hearts,” Lestenkof said. “But it still hurts a lot.”

Lestenkof says there is at least closure in knowing what happened to her sister, who was 52 when she disappeared. And although the amount of evidence was almost overwhelming, Lestenkof says she’s grateful it convinced the jury of Smith’s guilt and that he now faces a life sentence.

Much of the testimony focused on an SD memory card that gave police their big break in the case. The card, labeled “Homicide at midtown Marriot,” came from a sex worker, who told them she found it on the ground. It had footage of Kathleen Henry’s torture and murder — and in the background, Smith’s chipper voice with his South African accent, gleefully narrating the footage, as he taunted Henry for being too slow to die.

“In my movies, everyone dies,” he said.

Only the jury, attorneys and court staff saw the footage, but everyone in the room heard the sound.

“It was just sitting there, hearing the gasping for air,” said Golda Ingram, a Victims for Justice advocate, who said it was painful to hear Smith say, “You live. You die. You live, you die,” as he took his hands on and off Henry’s throat.

Ingram said she watched Smith as the recording was played and he appeared to be proud of what he did.

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Brian Smith listening to closing arguments in his murder trial. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Ingram says she’s used to hearing about violence in her line of work.

“But this is beyond anything that I’ve ever experienced. I was not prepared for the extent of the trauma,” she said.

But Ingram said it helped to spend time with the Abouchuk family, as they quietly supported each other. She said their kindness and perseverance helped to restore the dignity of the victims.

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From left to right, Margie F. Lestenkoff, Rena Sapp and Veronica Rosaline Abouchuk — three sisters in happier times. (Courtesy Rena Sapp)

When there was a break in the testimony, they would sit together at a table in the courthouse lobby, to share food and memories. Margie Lestenkof says she wishes everyone could have known the sweet girl she remembers from childhood.

“My sister Veronica was a real nice person,” Lestenkof said. “She never cussed. Didn’t have a mean bone in her soul.”

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Veronica Rosaline Abouchuk graduating from high school. (Courtesy Rena Sapp)

Lestenkof says Veronica was also known for her beautiful grass baskets and dolls. But throughout the trial, her sister, as well as Kathleen Henry, also became known for their addictions and risky choices.

From what Kathleen shared on her Facebook page, it was clear she had her struggles, but there was one proud post — that she had earned her GED at the age of 24 at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, where she was remembered as someone who loved to write poetry. She died six years later.

Both women were originally from small coastal villages in Western Alaska. Veronica’s daughter, Kristy Grimaldi, says her mother was not able to raise her, as well as her sister and two brothers. She believes her mother’s troubled life goes back to her childhood in St. Michael, where a Catholic priest molested her.

“After that, I looked at my mother very differently.” said Grimaldi, who, after hearing her story, began to feel understanding and compassion for her mother.

Grimaldi says, after her first child was born she invited her mother to live with them, happy to discover they had the same favorite snack of rice and melted cheese.

There were other visits, but after a few weeks, her mother would return to the streets. And then in 2018, she disappeared.

“I remember when I didn’t know what happened to my mother, waking up and feeling like you’re in a complete nightmare,” Grimaldi said, “Just not knowing.”

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Martha Tom was the youngest sister of Veronica Abouchuk, who was last seen by her family in 2018. Tom’s body was found under a picnic table at an Anchorage park in 2005, badly beaten. Her case remains unsolved. (From Anchorage Crime Stoppers)

Grimaldi had reason to fear the worst. Her mother’s younger sister, Martha Tom, had been found badly beaten under a picnic table at an Anchorage park in 2005. She died later at the hospital. Her case remains unsolved. She was only 35.

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Kristy Grimaldi and her brother Sean Hinson. Their mother, Veronica Abouchuk, had another son and daughter. Grimaldi and Hinson say women like their mother need compassion and understanding but have been stigmatized because of their struggles to survive on the streets of Anchorage, making them vulnerable to killers like Brian Smith. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

“We’re just one story,” said Sean Hinson, Grimaldi’s younger brother. He says his family is not alone, that all too many Alaska Native families have had loved ones, gone missing or murdered.

“We’re one piece of that puzzle. Everyone has their own piece,” he said. “You never know what someone is going through and what baggage they’re carrying.”

Hinson says the stigma of homelessness and addiction make women like his mother faceless to the world and easy prey for men like Brian Smith.

After police confronted Smith with video of Kathleen Henry’s murder in 2019, he surprised them by confessing to Abouchuk’s murder. The prosecution played video from a police interview with Smith, in which he sounded almost casual about the killings.

“OK,” said Hinson. “He’s talking about someone’s daughter, talking about someone’s mom, talking about someone’s sister. It’s not clicking in the brain, what he was doing.”

During the trial, the family also saw footage from a flash drive police seized from Smith’s home that had images of Abouchuk’s last moments. It had been erased from the drive, but investigators were able to restore the footage, which showed scenes before and after her murder, in which Smith treated her body like a trophy.

“What hurt me really most, when he had taken her clothes off,” said Lestenkoff. “She was dressed when he killed her.”

But despite all that she saw and heard during the trial, Lestenkoff says she will always be grateful to Valerie Casler, who gave the police the SD card that ultimately led to Smith’s arrest.

“If it wasn’t for that,” she said, “we wouldn’t have known what he did to my sister and Kathleen.”

Lestenkof calls Casler a hero, even though she initially lied to police about the history of the SD card she turned over to them.
In court she admitted the video was from Smith’s cell phone, which she stole — and when she saw what was on it, copied the footage to a stolen SD card. As a sex worker and a drug addict, she feared police would arrest her if she told them the truth.

“She is an absolute brave, amazing woman,” said Amber Nickerson, a member of Community United Safety and Protection (CUSP), an advocacy group for sex workers.

“Rather than just saying, ‘Oh it’s too difficult. I don’t know what to do, I’m just going to leave this the way it is and go on with my life,’” said Nickerson. “She chose to go above and beyond to get that information to police.”

Nickerson says it wasn’t easy for Casler to admit she was a deeply addicted drug user, who lived in a tent and survived as a sex worker. She told the court she had been on what she called “a date” with Smith, when she stole his phone from his truck. And while her testimony may have been messy, Nickerson says we cannot ignore what the footage revealed.

“I hope this causes some people to say, ‘Enough is enough,” Nickerson said. “We need to look deeper when someone’s body is found on a park bench, when a woman’s body is found in the woods. We need to do more.”

MMIP advocates hope what the memory cards revealed won’t be forgotten – the violence that went unchecked because the killer thought no one would really care.

RELATED: Alaska chapter of federal MMIP report highlights historic violence, legal hiccups

There are also two names among the loose ends in the case, Alicia Youngblood and Ian Calhoun, who Smith purportedly confided in, to impress them about the killings.

Prosecutors say Youngblood went to police to report what Smith had revealed to her but later took her own life. The investigation into Smith appeared to be on hold until a detective recognized his voice on Casler’s memory card.

During the trial, prosecutors showed texts between Calhoun and Smith, which indicate that Smith wanted to show him Kathleen Henry’s body, before he disposed of it along the Seward Highway.

In 2018, the Urban Indian Health Institute listed Anchorage as one of the top three cities for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Alaska was also ranked fourth in having the highest number of MMIP deaths.

Advocates like Dr. Charlene Apok, director of Data for Indigenous Justice, says she hopes this case will bring attention to some of the underlying issues that she calls “pre-MMIP.”

“Our unhoused relatives are the pre-MMIP, as people who are targeted, most at risk and most vulnerable in our communities,” she said. “They are targeted by perpetrators.”

Apok says housing is one of many pre-cursors to being targeted, which need to be addressed to stop the violence.

Michael Livingston, a retired Unangax̂ police officer, who has researched the role of historical trauma and colonialism in MMIP deaths, says the Smith case has forced us to confront the horror of racial violence, just as the Emmett Till lynching did in 1955.

“When his mother insisted on an open casket to show the world the ugly face of racism, she launched a civil rights movement,” Livingston said.

And while the two situations are very different, there are hopes that the deaths of Veronica Abouchuk and Kathleen Henry will help to fuel a movement for change and not be lost in vain.

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