Editor's note: This story includes claims from women recounting domestic abuse and sexual assault. If you are experiencing sexual violence, or know someone who is, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or the National Domestic Violence hotline at 800-799-7233.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Ronalda Angasan says she knew she had to leave home the day her husband threatened her unborn grandchild.
She had been out shopping with her pregnant daughter. When they returned, she says her husband exploded in anger: “Bitch! Slut! Whore!”
She says he had found her work phone, furious to learn she had a line of communication he wasn’t monitoring. He accused her of using it to cheat on him, she says.
She was used to seeing rage consume her husband. For years, she says, he had physically abused her, once beating her to the point of unconsciousness. But his next threat stunned her.
“Something’s gonna happen to her baby,” she recalls him saying. “Your granddaughter isn’t safe.”
How did it get to this point, she wondered. Didn’t she know better?
Angasan, now 46, says every woman in her life — her grandmother, her mom, her aunt — experienced violence, sexual assault, or both. It was an open secret in their home, though never directly discussed. Her grandmother got pushed; her mother got slapped; every woman got screamed at.
As a teenager, Angasan grew resentful, and mouthy.
“I’d never let a man treat me this way,” she’d tell her mother. “Why do you allow somebody to do this to you? Why aren’t you strong enough to leave?”
But abuse, Angasan learned, is gradual. It starts slowly and before you know it, you’re choked off from your family and friends, alone in a relationship that terrifies you. Five years after escaping what she says was a 20-year abusive marriage, Angasan has become an accidental activist, an advocate born out of the worst circumstances. She's shared her story online and in person at the United Nations to try to help others find freedom and healing.
Angasan’s story – part of which she detailed in a restraining order she filed in 2014 – isn’t unique; women all over Alaska are in danger. The state routinely has some of the nation’s highest rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and murder. Coupled with severe alcohol and drug abuse, and high child abuse rates, the state has become a terrifying environment for women of all ages, across ethnic and socioeconomic spectrums.
“If Alaska was a Third World country, with the rates of domestic violence and sexual assault that we have, they’d declare a humanitarian crisis and the United Nations would move in,” says Elizabeth Williams, another Anchorage-based activist.
But because that’s not happening, Williams, Angasan and a handful of other women have decided they have to make change themselves. After decades of empty promises from politicians, the #MeToo wave has finally reached the 49th state. Now, activists have a to-do list. They want tougher sentencing laws, expanded legal definitions of sexual assault, and better information for victims during the prosecution and plea process. They want women to come forward, like Angasan did, and share their stories. They want believing women to be the default.
Women here like being known as “Alaska tough.” When you pass a woman on the street wearing a short skirt and high heels, there’s a decent chance she knows how to hunt, kill and skin an animal. She might be packing a weapon. And she could very well be living in fear of her life. Almost 60 percent of women in Alaska have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual assault or both, according to Standing Together Against Rape. Everyone knows this is happening, activists say, and everyone needs to help fix it.
“I find this concept of sexual assault ‘awareness’ really insulting,” Williams says. “One in two Alaska women have experienced either domestic violence or sexual assault; as the ones being violated, we’re well aware of the problem, thank you.
“I’m sick of awareness. We need action, and accountability.”
No jail time for masturbating on a woman
Alone in her apartment, Williams fumed.
It was September 2018, and Williams, then 24, sat in bed reading an article on her phone. “No jail time for man who pleaded guilty in strangling assault,” the headline read. With every detail, she grew angrier.
In August 2018, Justin Schneider, then 34, was arrested after police say he picked up a woman at a gas station, eventually pulling over to the side of the road and choking her to the point of unconsciousness — after telling her he was going to kill her — and then masturbating on her. According to police reports, when the woman, identified only as a 25-year-old Alaskan Native, regained consciousness, Schneider offered her a tissue and told her he hadn’t actually planned to kill her. He just needed her to believe that so he could be sexually fulfilled.
Calls to Schneider’s cell phone and his attorney were not returned.
Initially charged with four felony counts, including kidnapping and assault, Schneider in September accepted a deal in which he pleaded guilty to a single felony assault charge in exchange for a sentence of two years, with one suspended. Because Schneider, who had no prior criminal history, received credit for time served while he was wearing an ankle monitor and living with his parents, he did no jail time.
But what infuriated Williams, what made it impossible to sleep that night and eventually spurred her to action, was one sentence from Anchorage Assistant District Attorney Andrew Grannik, who told the court “that this is (Schneider’s) one pass.”
“I was just like, there’s gotta be a catch here,” Williams recalls. “This is what happens in Alaska: We hear case after case of awful violence and (perpetrators) are given literally what the prosecutor called a free pass.”
For Williams, who identifies as a sexual assault survivor herself, advocacy work is personal. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed and fashionably dressed, she says she's used to not being taken seriously because of how she looks. But as a social worker who has spent time in some of the most remote areas of the state, she’s seen first hand the devastating effects of sexual assault and domestic violence.
After the Schneider case made news — the DA’s office suffered considerable backlash for the plea deal but stood behind its prosecutor, pointing to the law that said unwanted contact with semen wasn’t considered a sex crime — Williams decided Alaskan residents needed to stop thinking of sexual assault and domestic violence as “women’s issues,” and instead consider how it hurts men and women, boys and girls.
Last fall, with the help of her brother, Isaac, Williams formed the grassroots advocacy group No More Free Passes, aimed at holding perpetrators accountable. First, they took aim at the judge who had rubber-stamped the Schneider plea deal, and who was up for a retention vote in November 2018.
Elizabeth and Isaac Williams went to work, hosting rallies and educational forums, pleading with voters to take action, demanding that politicians on both sides of the aisle be held accountable for what they viewed as passive leadership. Elizabeth Williams got her share of hate mail, including notes from Alaska-based lawyers who, she says, wrote that they hoped she would get raped in retaliation for what she was doing.
In November, Superior Court Judge Michael Corey was voted out, a victory for No More Free Passes. It was the first time Alaskan voters had ever voted out a judge despite a positive recommendation from the Alaska Judicial Council. Afterward, Corey compared the recall to being crucified, a stance he reiterated during a June interview with USA TODAY. Asked if he would do anything different if he could replay the events of the sentencing, Corey was emphatic: "No. It was the right answer."
‘I need help, my daughter’s being beaten up’
A year ago, when Elizabeth Williams was working in Bethel, she received a phone call late one night from a panicked woman hiding in her hallway closet with her children. Terrified, she told Williams her husband was stalking around the house with a gun, threatening to kill them all. With no local law enforcement available, the woman begged Williams to call state troopers and send them to her house. Williams called, but because of weather, troopers wouldn’t arrive until the next day, a scenario that plays out across large swaths of the state on a regular basis. Williams spent the night on the phone with the woman, waiting to hear a gunshot. Williams says the woman still has not found a way to leave the situation.
That night was just one in a series of haunting moments that have imprinted themselves on Williams’ brain, calling her to advocacy work. In college, she volunteered as a rape crisis advocate, often holding the hands of women who had just been violated. When they showed up at the hospital for a rape kit, Williams switched to holding their legs – helping create space for doctors who needed to swab for DNA.
She keeps going, she says, because she has help. Besides her brother, Williams has found an ally in Republican state Sen. Peter Micciche, who represents the Kenai Peninsula in the Gulf of Alaska. Fifty-seven-years old, with fishing memorabilia decorating his office walls, Micciche points to the next room, where giggles from his youngest daughter ring through the wall. He sets a picture of his family — his wife, Erin, and four girls ages 4 to 24 — on his desk. He’s fighting for them, he says.
Micciche understands, of course, that having daughters is not a requirement in the pursuit to make Alaska safer. But it resonates deeply when you realize one of your children could become a victim. At their home in Soldotna, Micciche practices regularly with his girls:
"What if someone approaches you after school and says they’re friends with Daddy and you’re supposed to go with them?"
"I ask him for the family word."
"OK, but what if he knows the family word?"
"Then I tell him I have to go back inside school and get something, and then I tell my teacher."
Micciche also explains to his daughters that no matter who they interact with, trust is earned, never assumed. Understanding that everyone – an uncle, a teacher, a pastor – has the potential to hurt you is crucial to safety. It’s challenging to explain this to a 4-year-old without scaring her, Micciche admits. It’s also necessary.
Micciche and other lawmakers were particularly disturbed at the death of Ashley Johnson-Barr, a 10-year-old girl in Kotzebue, a small town in remote western Alaska, who went missing last September. After an eight-day search, her body was discovered on the tundra, more than two miles from the playground where she’d last been seen. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled. According to federal charging documents, the suspect, Peter Wilson, was a relative who’d been in the family home numerous times. According to authorities, DNA found on Johnson-Barr’s body matched Wilson’s.
Wilson, who has a criminal record that includes assault, trespassing and burglary, pleaded not guilty to the charges involving Johnson-Barr. His trial is scheduled to start in September. Calls to his attorney were not returned.
Part of Alaska’s domestic violence and sexual assault problem hinges on money. Simply put, the state is broke. Once rolling in cash from oil profits, Alaska is in a budget crisis, and the newly elected governor, Mike Dunleavy, has proposed a series of cuts that could dramatically impact residents in remote areas, especially Native villages. Alaska State Troopers, currently understaffed by about 40 people, have been forced to re-organize their patrols, pulling troopers out of some areas full-time to staff higher-crime communities. Every decision comes down to money. And in a system full of inequities, experts say it’s almost always women and children who pay the cost.
But already, Williams sees tangible progress in the fight against domestic and sexual violence.
This spring, with Williams' help, lawmakers wrote House Bill 14, which would make non-consensual contact with semen a sex crime; make strangulation to the point of unconsciousness assault in the first degree; make time at home on an electronic monitoring device not count toward sentence credit for sexual assault crimes; and require that victims be notified of any plea deal involving their perpetrator, and be given the opportunity to say they don’t approve of the deal. (They don’t have actual veto power, though.)
In early May, House Bill 14 passed both the House and Senate. Dunleavy, a Republican, is expected to sign it into law in coming weeks.
Other archaic laws present their own problems. In May, Alaska lawmakers voted to keep the marriage defense act, which allows husbands to legally rape their wives in some cases. A handful of other states have similar laws, but most have done away with them, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
Currently No More Free Passes is drafting an executive order for the governor's consideration that would change how Alaska’s Department of Law handles and prosecutes cases. The group wants more trauma-informed procedures, a commitment to prosecute more cases and for victims to be more involved in the process. Ultimately, the group wants to form a political action committee that will hand out grades to politicians based on their work done to decrease domestic violence and sexual assault rates.
Other activists are hoping to change Alaska’s culture classroom by classroom.
In 2014, 20-year-old Breanna "Bree" Moore, a dental assistant from Anchorage, was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Joshua Almeda. Almeda, who was drunk the night he killed Moore, had a history of mixing alcohol and violence.
At the time of the shooting, Almeda was on probation for a controlled substance conviction from 2013. He wasn’t supposed to have alcohol or guns. The night he killed Moore with a single bullet to the head, Almeda had just returned from anger management class. He eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in her death, and in 2016 was sentenced to 75 years in prison. Attempts to contact Almeda through his attorney were unsuccessful.
Since Moore’s death, her parents, Butch and Cindy Moore, have taken on advocacy work full time. They fought for the passing of Bree’s Law, signed by the governor in 2015, which mandates the teaching of dating violence awareness and education to all Alaska high schoolers.
Her parents say they couldn't believe they were unaware of their daughter's suffering. After her death, Bree’s colleagues told Butch Moore they wish they’d have asked more questions when Bree showed up to work with black eyes.
“We had no idea it was this bad in our state,” Butch says. “Cindy, my wife, gets messages all the time: ‘I need help, my daughter’s being beaten up.’ ”
Right now, education about teen dating violence comes from whatever curriculum is already available nationwide to middle and high school students. In the coming years, Butch Moore plans to lead schoolwide assemblies once a semester, where he can share his daughter's story. When he speaks to students now, he explains that parents don’t just give kids keys to the family car and wish them good luck. Dating is the same, he reasons. You have to learn how to do it the right way. The biggest emphasis: If something feels off about your boyfriend or girlfriend, trust your instincts and tell an adult.
Experts who study domestic violence and work with victims struggle with the “stranger danger” narrative. When women are constantly on the lookout for scary men with jagged scars who wait in dark alleys, they tend to let their guard down around people who can do the most damage and have the most access. Statistically, 80 percent of women are attacked by someone they know, according to RAINN.
What Butch and Cindy Moore have learned in the past five years is that their daughter wasn’t an anomaly: In 2015, the year after Bree Moore was killed, 10 percent of high schoolers reported experiencing some form of dating violence; by 2017 that number had been cut in half, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Butch Moore hopes more direct education and conversations can lead to even fewer cases.
“We always knew she’d impact a lot of people, but we had no idea how big her effect on the world would be,” Butch Moore says, his voice catching. “But honestly, we were a lot happier before we knew about all the s--t happening in our state.”
Terrified and trapped, she stayed
Even if you know about domestic violence, even if you’ve witnessed it up close, you can still be vulnerable. That’s what Angasan says she has learned.
When Angasan met her ex-husband he represented stability: He had a job and a home and he paid his bills on time. He promised Angasan, then a 20-year-old single mother, that she’d be treated like a queen.
“You’re so beautiful,” he’d tell her.
Soon, she says, it evolved to, “You’re so beautiful, don’t let other men talk to you or look at you like that.”
Insults followed: Angasan says he called her fat and ugly, accused her of flirting with other men, told her she wasn’t paying enough attention to him. A few months into their relationship, shortly after she moved in with him but before they were married, she says he got violent for the first time, shoving her to the ground during an argument.
“I was upset,” Angasan recalls, sitting in the living room of her Anchorage home, where photos of her children and grandchildren adorn the walls.
“Then I rationalized it: If I wasn’t so mouthy, if I didn’t give him that last drink, if I would have cleaned up faster, cooked a bigger dinner … I told myself he’d never do that again, because he loves me,” she says.
She believed in the vows she’d taken. "For better or for worse," she repeated. This was his worse, she reasoned. It’ll get better.
A history of domestic violence: Five generations of domestic violence prompts campaign to break cycle for young women
It didn’t. Three years into their relationship, Angasan says she feared for her life when he shoved her into a closet, away from her 3-year-old daughter, and told her if he couldn’t have her, nobody could. She says that he threatened that if she ever tried to leave, he’d make sure to get custody of her daughter. She believed him. Terrified and trapped, she stayed.
Multiple attempts to contact Angasan's ex-husband were unsuccessful. According to court records, her ex was served with a short-term restraining order – requested by Angasan – in May 2014 shortly after she fled their home, and a long-term one in December 2014. The May restraining order details Angasan's claims that her husband threatened her and her pregnant daughter, including an outright threat to kill her. She wrote that he had been physically violent with her in the past, including choking her on numerous occasions and that she fled for her safety because "I am in fear for my life."
Angasan says she never pursued criminal charges against him because "he scared me too much." According to court records, her ex has previously been convicted of disorderly conduct and making a false statement, both misdemeanors.
During the darkest days of her marriage, Angasan told herself she was not like her mother. But instead of confiding in the one woman who surely understood Angasan’s pain and terror, she kept quiet.
“When I was in the middle of it all, I was too busy sticking up for him to tell my mom what he was doing,” she says, tears flowing down her cheeks.
She says she protected him to protect herself. Worried that her mother would figure it out and ask Angasan the same questions she’d asked as a teen – Why do you let him do this to you? Why do you let your daughter see it? – “I hid it, and I hid it really well.”
She imagined telling a friend or neighbor what was going on but already heard the replies in her head: “But he coaches little kids’ sports teams! But he’s involved in the community!”
Eighteen months after she left her husband, after she felt safe in a new relationship, Angasan started the Facebook group “Alaska Natives Against Domestic Violence.” She wanted to give women a community where they could be heard, and believed. She never imagined it would go beyond that.
Soon, she got a Facebook message from a woman she didn’t know. “Help me,” the woman wrote. “My boyfriend beat me up. I’m in the southeast, and I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do.”
Angasan made sure the woman wasn’t in immediate danger and then researched nearby shelters and advocates. She gave her a list of resources. The woman went silent.
A couple days later, the woman sent another message: “Thank you. I got out and I’m safe. If it wasn’t for you, I don’t know what he would have done.”
Angasan looked at her second husband, who she married in August 2016, and started crying. “Somebody told me I made a difference,” she said through tears. “I have to keep doing this.”
'It's over. And I survived.'
The first time she held a Glock 9 millimeter handgun in her palm, Angasan felt in control.
Last fall, with encouragement from her husband, Angasan took classes to obtain her conceal carry permit. Like many Alaskan women, Angasan had been raised around guns. But now she was going to learn the proper way to carry and shoot a firearm.
During her first field test, “I couldn’t hit the paper, much less the target,” she recalls. After practicing at the shooting range, Angasan now carries her weapon at all times. It’s part of her healing process, she says.
Sharing her story has also helped her feel whole again.
Shortly after the 2018 election, Angasan, along with a handful of other survivors in Alaska, launched 49th Rising, an organization aimed at making Alaska “as safe as it is beautiful.” Angasan wrote out her story for the first time. Before it published on the group’s website, she sent the piece to her mother.
When her mom called, Angasan says, “She was in a lot of pain.” Her mother cried so hard, it was difficult to understand her. She apologized to her daughter for not knowing it was that bad, and not knowing how to get her out.
Angasan kept saying the same thing: “Mom, it’s over. I’m writing it because it’s over. And I survived.”
In March, Williams, Angasan and two other 49th Rising members testified at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. They spoke as guests of "How We Heal: Surviving Sexual Violence in Alaska," a panel hosted by the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office.
Angasan's daughter, Amariah, and granddaughter, Scarlett, joined her in New York, sitting in the front row for her presentation. As Angasan and other women shared stories and statistics, 4-year-old Scarlett, wearing a floral dress as bright as her red hair, waved to her grandmother.
Afterward, they did all the New York things: Visiting the Statue of Liberty, playing in Central Park, riding the subway. They felt safe, joyful, free.
Angasan knows that Scarlett, when she’s old enough, will likely learn what her grandma went through. She hopes Scarlett sees what others do: that grandma was thrust into the spotlight not because she asked for it, but because after decades of silence, she decided it was time to hear women’s voices.
“I want people to realize that you don’t need to be ashamed of your story,” Angasan says. “You can’t change it, but you can change your future. My daughter’s story exists because of what I went through and what she witnessed. But that doesn’t mean my granddaughter has to have that story, too. Her’s can be different.
“This can be the generation that breaks the cycle.”
HOW WE DID THIS STORY: USA TODAY national correspondent Lindsay Schnell spent nine days in Alaska reporting this story, visiting the cities of Juneau, Anchorage, Kotzebue and Buckland. She spoke to dozens of sources, including victims, victims’ family members, activists, lawmakers, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, domestic violence experts and residents, and reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A deadly place: Alaska is the most dangerous state for women, now they're fighting back