Prosecutor: Man accused of killing 2 Alaska Native women recorded images of both victims
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A man accused of murdering two Alaska Native women recorded images of both of his victims, and the break in the case came when a third woman stole the man’s phone and provided police with photos and videos of one of the killings, a prosecutor told jurors during opening statements in the case Tuesday.
Brian Steven Smith faces 14 counts, including first- and second-degree murder, assault and tampering with evidence, in the deaths of Kathleen Jo Henry and Veronica Abouchuk.
Authorities said he strangled Henry, 30, in an Anchorage hotel room in September 2019, and that when they questioned him about it he volunteered that he had also killed Abouchuk, who was 52 when her family reported her missing in February 2019.
“After this trial, you will all carry the burden of knowing — the burden of knowing the human tragedy attached to the sexual assault, murder and discarding of two beautiful human lives,” said District Attorney Brittany Dunlop. “It’s these two lives that we’re here for.”
Smith’s lawyer, Timothy Ayer, questioned how the recordings came to the attention of investigators — and whether they depict what prosecutors say they do.
Smith is a native of South Africa, and police said they recognized his distinctive voice and accent in the videos of Henry’s death from a prior investigation, which has not been disclosed. Ayer suggested police had tried to “reverse engineer a crime based on what they think they saw on the video.”
The woman who provided the images, Valerie Casler, initially told police she found a memory card containing gruesome images while walking down a street in Anchorage. She then changed her story, saying that Smith had picked her up for a “date,” that she stole a memory card when he got out of his truck to use an ATM, and that she had initially lied about it because she did not want to be arrested for theft or attempted prostitution.
She changed her story again recently, Ayer said, saying she had stolen Smith’s phone, copied the images onto a digital memory card and then lost the phone itself — along with its original photos and videos.
“I can’t tell you what she’s going to say when she goes on the stand to tell you about how she came into possession of these videos, but suffice to say, it’s changed the whole bunch in four years,” Ayer said. “She’s lied about it several times.”
Ayer tried to block the videos from being shown at trial, arguing that prosecutors would not be able to verify them, but Judge Kevin Saxby disagreed.
“She had no idea what was on that phone, but that phone contained the lynchpin to this case,” Dunlop said.
Authorities said Smith recorded Henry’s death at the TownePlace Suites by Marriott, a hotel in midtown Anchorage where Smith worked in maintenance, including images of her blanket-covered body being sneaked outside on a luggage cart. Smith was registered to stay at the hotel from Sept. 2 to Sept. 4, 2019; the first images showing Henry’s body were time-stamped at about 1 a.m. on Sept. 4, police said.
Dunlop told the jury that Smith claims he has no memory of the event. “What he does say is that he found the body of Kathleen Jo Henry in his truck the next morning. He didn’t know what to do so he drove around with it for two days before he dumped the body,” she said.
The last images on the card were taken early on Sept. 6 and showed Henry’s body in the back of a black pickup, according to charging documents. Location data showed that at the time the photo was taken, Smith’s phone was in the area of Rainbow Valley Road, along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, the same area where Henry’s body was found several weeks later, police said.
Dunlop also detailed Abouchuk’s death. She said a search warrant served on Smith’s home turned up a flash drive that had been deleted but that investigators were able to recover its contents — which included videos of Abouchuk before and after her death.
Smith had picked up Abouchuk, who was struggling with homelessness, and took her to his home sometime in mid-August 2018, Dunlop said. She said Smith shot her when Abouchuk resisted his demand that she take a shower.
Alaska State Troopers in 2018 incorrectly identified another body as that of Abouchuk, because Abouchuk’s ID had been discovered with it, for reasons that remain unclear. But with the information Smith provided, investigators re-examined the case and used dental records to confirm a skull with a bullet wound found in the area Smith identified was Abouchuk’s, authorities have said.
The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.
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