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Trial of Brian Smith, accused of murdering two Alaska Native women, enters third week

Photo of Kathleen Jo Henry, courtesy of Facebook. Photo of Veronica Abouchuk, courtesy of the Abouchuk family.
Kathleen Henry (left) was killed in a midtown motel room. Police say Veronica Abouchuk was murdered a year or two earlier in Brian Smith's home. Both cases came to light after a woman stole Smith's cell phone, copied the images to an SD card and gave it to police.

The trial of a Brian Smith, a man accused in the murders of two Alaska Native women, resumes on Tuesday. The case, which has drawn national attention, has been dubbed by Court TV as the “Memory Card Murders.” Smith, who is 52, is originally from South Africa.

Last week, jurors saw cell phone videos of the murder of Kathleen Jo Henry, a 30-year-old Native woman – and heard Smith admit to police that he killed another woman, 52-year-old Veronica Abouchuk.

As the trial got underway two weeks ago, the prosecutor apologized to the jury for the horrific images they would see, that might live on in their heads long after the trial.

But those who are not in the courtroom may also be affected by what they see and hear about the trial.

Advocates for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) say the Brian Smith case is part of an ongoing pattern, made worse by historical trauma.

“I hope that we ultimately, as a state, and we as a community, do a better job of respecting all human lives,” said Michael Livingston, a former police officer and historian.

Livingston, like many Alaska Natives, has been following the Smith trial, as it’s covered in newspapers, local television and streamed live on Court TV.

Last week the core of the case finally unraveled, the story of two murders -- one that took place in 2019, and another, sometime a year or two before that.

The courtroom was rearranged so that the TV monitors faced away from the gallery. Only the jury, Smith and those involved in the trial could watch the last moments of Kathleen Jo Henry’s life, which Smith is accused of recording on his cell phone.

Everyone else in the courtroom could hear the sounds of Henry being tormented and taunted in a midtown hotel room as she lay dying. In a gleeful voice, a man with a thick South African accent beseeches the woman to die quickly. Police say that man is Brian Smith.

The jury also saw an interview police recorded with Smith, in which they confront him about the videos. Afterwards, he confesses to killing another woman later identified as Veronica Abouchuk, who like Henry, had also struggled with homelessness and addiction in Anchorage.

Last week, Livingston gave a training session on Zoom.

“The title of my presentation is serial killers in Alaska and MMIP,” said Livingston, as he began his lecture. Livingston is Unangax̂ and currently works on the Healthy Relationships Team for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.

He told the group that there is a connection between modern serial killings and Alaska’s long history of dehumanizing Indigenous people. He traces it back to the late 1700’s, when the Russians battled to dominate the fur trade and enslaved or killed the Unangax̂ people, who were scattered across the Aleutian chain. Although memories of those mass killings are gone, he says place names and collective trauma remain.

“Places such as Murder Point, Massacre Bay, Massacre Beach,” Livingston said. “And Krasni Point. Krasni is the Russian word for red. The ocean water was so red from the blood of the Unangax̂ people that the Russians named it Krasni Point.”

Livingston says Russians called Native peoples savages, as did the colonists who followed them.

“And savages is a code word for a non-human being,” he said, "and you cannot murder a non-human being.”

Livingston says this word helped to normalize the historical lack of attention given to Native murder cases. He says serial killers today capitalize on society’s lack of caring for the most vulnerable among us.

“That’s wrong thinking,” Livingston said. “Just because someone happens to drink, or someone has a drug challenge, or someone chooses a lifestyle that we don’t think is safe, does not give anybody the right to think that they’re less human than we are.”

Livingston says the Brian Smith murder trial is a chance for all of us to do some soul searching — not just about the women in this case – but their many sisters, who have also suffered at the hands of other perpetrators.

Livingston says we need to ask ourselves some important questions.

“Are some human beings less human than others? And when we reflect on that, if we do, I think it’s important that we change our way of thinking,” he said.

About 50 people attended Livingston’s lecture, a training certified by the Alaska Police Standards Council. He closed with a warning that details from his lecture and the trial may hit the Alaska Native community hard.

“Meditate and do something that helps rest your mind,” he said, and if need be, call 988, a 24-hour-crisis line that offers listening and support for those in distress.

Livingston offers his training to any organization that makes a request at no cost. The groups can be small or large. The training also includes information about victim services and how people can protect themselves and each other from predators.

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.