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Family of Ashley Johnson-Barr hopes sentencing brings some closure, raises public safety awareness

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A man who pleaded guilty to killing a 10-year-old Kotzebue girl has been sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Utqiaġvik Superior Court Judge Nelson Traverso sentenced Peter Vance Wilson on September 21st, 2021, to serve 99 years in custody in the disappearance and death of Ashley Johnson-Barr. The 10-year-old Kotzebue girl went missing in September 2018.

Her father, Scotty Barr, says he was grateful for the national support as the case made its way through court. 

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Ashley Johnson-Barr. (Photo courtesy of Kotzebue Police Department)

“I can't thank everybody for what they've done, what they continue doing for our daughter,” Barr said. “It's hard to put words for the people that continue helping us to pass three years. You know, those eight days were the longest days of my life, but the three years of dealing with the court proceedings has been pretty tough on our family and myself. But we got through it by our strength and from people all over continue giving us support and blessings to go ahead and go through this.”

Ashley was last seen alive in September 2018. She had been playing at a playground in Kotzebue – a playground that now bears her name in remembrance. When the family became worried, they reported her missing.

The community, Alaska State Troopers and agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation began searching for her. 

Ashley’s body was found days later outside of Kotzebue.

DNA, video and other evidence linked Peter Wilson to the murder – and he was arrested and charged with five counts in her death.

Ashley’s search and the following case garnered national attention.

“It just shows how much she touched people's hearts and helped them realize we can't take life for granted, especially for a child at a young age.”

In 2020, while court proceedings were ongoing, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy signed a law to commemorate Ashley’s birthday, March 12, as Ashley Johnson-Barr Day in the state – to serve as a reminder to keep Alaska children safe from violence.

“Sometimes it takes a negative to go ahead and turn into a positive thing,” Barr said. “And that's what the state has done. That's what the city has done -- trying to help us try to not think of not try to be in pain too much, I guess, try to elevate lift up our pains or sorrows as much as they can by trying to do these kind of memorable things for our daughter.”

In June, Wilson pleaded guilty to charges that he sexually assault and murdered Ashley Johnson-Barr. Wilson’s plea was part of an agreement with prosecutors that dropped the other charges – but according to the state, Wilson admitted to all the actions alleged in charging documents.

By accepting the change of plea deal, Wilson gave up his right to a jury trial.

During the sentencing, Judge Traverso first allowed statements from the prosecution and the defense attorney. Barr says both were emotional, but particularly the defense attorney who spent time at the playground where Ashley disappeared before the court proceedings.

After the attorneys spoke, Barr says the judge gave Wilson an opportunity to speak.

“He kept on saying that he's very, very, very sorry for what he did to our daughter,” Barr said. “He also stated that he can’t take time back, he wished he could, but he knows that he can't. But he kept apologizing to the whole family, both families and. And he asked for our forgiveness for what he did to our daughter.”

After Wilson spoke, family members read statements, including one of Ashley’s aunts, who spoke about Missing and Murdered Indigenous People and a previous public safety panel with state legislators and policymakers that convened in the region. Scotty Bar also provided a statement:

“Of my statement that I've brought forward to the panel, as well as the people attending about programs for young, troubled youth, boys, teenage boys and young men of trying to get more programs up here to deal with that to you know, I think that's where I believe that would be the right direction to help them understand not to hurt our females in any form and respect our females and mothers, our sisters.”

Barr also said a part of his statement was how the decision in the case was ultimately in God’s hands.

“I did ask Jesus Christ and Father God to help me forgive him for what he did to our daughter, that's what I said in my statement,” Barr said. “Because if I didn't, I feel like he (Wilson) would still have power over my daughter, over my family. And we wouldn’t have found peace and we wouldn’t have found happiness. So I wanted to make sure I did that so we can move on, move forward to in the future without our daughter.”

In total, Traverso sentenced Wilson to 198 years for the first-degree murder and first-degree sexual abuse of a minor – with 99 years suspended.

The Associated Press quoted Traverso as saying “I know this concludes this in one sense, but it doesn’t conclude it in another.”

Scotty Barr says the last three years have been a challenge.

“It has taken its toll on us parents emotionally, physically, spiritually and mentally. We've struggled through this the past three years, where it may have led us through some of the issues that are not related to this,” Barr said. “But we've are trying to do our best to go ahead and be stronger parents, stronger family, stronger family, as well as stronger individuals.”

Barr credited the Missing and Murdered movement for helping the family throughout the process, and he hopes to continue to help the movement in return.

Originally from the Midwest, Tripp Crouse (Ojibwe, a descendent of Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, pronouns: they/them) has 15-plus years in print, web and radio journalism. Tripp first moved to Alaska in 2016 to work with KTOO Public Media in Juneau. And later moved to Anchorage in 2018 to work with KNBA and Koahnic Broadcast Corporation.
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