Editor: This story includes descriptions from women alleging 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.
JUNEAU, Alaska – She wore her hair down to cover bruises on her neck and collarbone. She’d go days without speaking to her family, explaining later that her husband didn’t want her communicating with them. In turn, her family grew suspicious, then fearful. Was Linda safe, they wondered?
They knew the state's grim reputation: Alaska often ranks as the deadliest state for women. A staggering 59% of adult women in Alaska have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both. Linda Skeek's family knew, too, that as violence escalates in the home, victims are less and less likely to make it out unscathed. But they kept hoping: She’d be OK, right?
Nicole Robinson-Wells, Linda’s foster sister, recalls a frantic phone call from Linda a few years ago. She begged Robinson-Wells to come pick her up. When Robinson-Wells walked into Linda’s home, she says she found Thomas Skeek, Linda’s husband, trying to stab Linda with a large kitchen knife, as Linda screamed and dodged him.
Each time Linda decided to leave, her family says, Thomas wooed her back with promises to be better and provide the stability that she and their children needed. Robinson-Wells says Thomas convinced Linda multiple times not to report domestic violence to police, telling her, “We have these two children and if I go to jail … they’re not going to grow up with a dad.”
Three years ago, Linda Skeek, then 32 and a mother of three, disappeared in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Within two weeks of her disappearance, prosecutors charged Thomas, now 37, with her murder, alleging that after he killed his wife in their apartment, disposed of the body and bought cleaning supplies to cover his tracks.
On March 28, a jury acquitted Thomas Skeek. Defense attorney Emily Cooper told jurors that the state couldn’t prove that Linda Skeek was dead, let alone that Thomas Skeek killed her, because there was no body.
During the trial, senior assistant district attorney James Fayette pointed to a history of explosive arguments between the two, which neighbors often overheard and which were described under oath as including violent threats from him. He argued no one but Thomas had a motive to kill Linda, who wanted a divorce.
Like many, Linda Skeek loved Alaska for its rugged beauty and tough terrain. For decades, travelers, transplants and natives have taken pride in surviving and thriving in this remote state, unlike any other in America. But the isolation has consequences, too. The reality is that many women in Alaska have to survive something far more dangerous than anything they might encounter in the wild: the men they interact with every day.
Across the state, and not just in rural areas, women are raped, beaten and murdered by their spouses and relatives at higher rates than anywhere else in the United States. Reported rape in Alaska is 2.5 times the national average, and it consistently ranks in the top two states of women killed by men.
But to women here, the stats are more than just numbers – they represent their sister, best friend, neighbor, mother, cousin, teacher, grandmother, the woman standing next to them in the checkout line. It’s them. And the violence is happening alongside rampant drug and alcohol abuse, particularly in remote areas of Alaska, where native villages often lack law enforcement. For victims in those regions, it’s not just about personally knowing your attacker – odds are, everyone else in the village knows him, too. And some of them are likely related to him.
“If you meet an (Alaska Native) adult female from The Bush, it’s almost a guarantee she’s been molested or raped or abused somewhere along the way,” says career prosecutor June Stein, who lives in Anchorage and spent five years working in The Bush, Alaskans’ term for regions not connected to the road network.
But as Linda Skeek’s family learned firsthand, big cities aren't always safe, either.
'She wanted a clean life'
Everyone loved Linda from the moment she walked into Rena and Lenny Sims’ home. The foster parents have seen the depths of abuse over 21 years: children raped by family members; girls pimped out by addict parents who need a fix; boys growing up in homes where dad beating mom is an everyday occurrence. Rena Sims, 61, estimates that of the 300-plus children she’s taken in over the past two decades, 98% have experienced some form of sexual trauma.
Linda, then 14, didn’t talk about her childhood or her biological family – instead she gushed about her love of Juicy Couture, and showed off her drawing skills. She played with Bratz dolls and did other kids’ hair and makeup. Known for her laugh, which spilled out as a high-pitched cackle and often came after she busted up at her own joke, she made fast friends with everyone.
Rena Sims’ sprawling home is built to accommodate many, with 11 bedrooms, six bathrooms, four huge sectional sofas, three fully stocked refrigerators, and an enormous framed painting of Martin Luther King Jr. propped on an easel opposite an 8-foot stuffed grizzly bear. She tells children who come there that “we’re already on your side.”
Linda took to Rena Sims instantly, tagging along to a variety of community services projects as Rena Sims' biological daughters Robinson-Wells and Sarita Knull, then 19 and 20, respectively, teased Linda that she was Rena Sims’ mini me.
“Linda,” Rena Sims says, “wanted to be loved so bad.”
Still, for as much as Linda could endear herself to her foster family by making banners to celebrate the little ones’ birthdays and teaching her sisters how to dance, there was a darker side, too. From the beginning, it was clear Linda had a problem with drugs and alcohol.
Domestic violence and children: The startling toll on children who witness domestic violence is just now being understood
Rena Sims says Linda used drinking and drugs “to escape her past” and to fit in with her biological family, who she stayed in touch with. Hungry for a permanent home, Linda spoke openly of wanting to be a wife and to have children and of her desire to do it the right way.
“She wanted a clean life,” Rena Sims says.
She just didn’t always know how to get one.
Linda was part of “the core,” a group of 20 former foster kids and biological children who kept in touch via a group text anchored by Robinson-Wells and Knull, and who always dropped by during the holidays. When Linda didn’t show up to celebrate the 2016 New Year, her foster family knew something was off.
Linda’s sisters never quite understood why Linda fell for, and almost instantly married, Thomas. They believe she felt pressure from her biological family to marry another Alaska Native (Linda was from the Tlingit tribe).
From her foster family’s perspective, Linda jumped at the first chance she saw to make that happen. She liked that he had an apartment and a car. “I’m ready to settle down,” said Linda, then just 23 years old.
The family didn’t even get to attend the wedding; two days after Linda married Thomas, she shared the news.
Her family says a few months after they married, Linda was furious to discover Thomas had been charged with sexually abusing a minor. In November 2006, Thomas Skeek was found guilty of attempted sexual abuse of a minor, a misdemeanor. After the conviction, he was required to register as a sex offender and as of June 2019, he was still on the Alaska sex-offender registry.
Soon, Linda’s family started to worry about what they believed were signs of physical abuse.
The sisters say they declined to get in the middle of Linda and Thomas’s relationship – not because they didn’t care, but because they were concerned for their own safety. Knull, 41 and a mother of two, says her husband told her, “Until your sister is ready to leave, I can’t have my wife and my kids in danger.”
When Linda and Thomas moved to Anchorage, the family hoped Linda’s burgeoning nursing career could stabilize her relationship with Thomas – or potentially give her the funds to get out and start over. But the family says the distance seemed to embolden Thomas, who they believe only grew more violent as the years passed.
At Linda’s murder trial in February, the state brought to the witness stand Barbara Barnett, who lived in the Anchorage apartment above Linda and Thomas.
Barnett had a history of listening to Thomas and Linda’s relationship play out. She told the jury that in October 2015, she overheard an argument between Linda and Thomas in which Linda screamed, “Help me! He’s killing me!” and Thomas yelled, “I’m going to kill you, you f***ing slut!” Barnett called the police that night. She said after that argument, Linda and Thomas both confronted her, warning her to mind her own business.
She also testified that on Jan. 1, 2016, she heard a loud argument between the two, where Linda pleaded for a divorce. Barnett told the jury she heard Thomas “go into a rage,” a lot of violent noise, and then a loud bang. After that, “I never heard Linda again.”
During the trial, defense attorney Cooper painted Linda Skeek as a longtime drunk – she had a DUI conviction from 2014 – who simply wandered away from her home, and her children.
Aryahna Skeek, Linda and Thomas’ 10-year-old daughter, also testified for the state. The girl told the jury that on the night Linda went missing, “I remember a big fight downstairs, I was crying.” She said she “heard a big thump,” and went downstairs to see what was happening. From the steps, she said she saw her mother’s feet in a puddle of blood by the bathroom floor.
Domestic-violence cases everywhere
So many people who knew Linda begged her to leave. Outsiders often wonder why women don’t pack their bags and be done with abusers. But experts who work with victims say that that question reveals a lack of education. Leaving is always the most dangerous time; abuse is about power and control, and when the abuser is about to lose control, it can turn deadly.
"The first question should never be, ‘Why do you stay?’ The first question should be, to the perpetrator, ‘Why are you hurting someone you love?’” says Mandy Cole, deputy director of Juneau’s domestic-violence shelter.
“Asking why someone stays is an example of how you dissect a victim’s life; it’s one more brick to lay on the wall that isolates that woman from everyone who can help her.”
Leaving an abusive relationship: Safety plan is key to escaping domestic abuse, which can be psychological or emotional
Women like Linda also perfect the art of hiding the truth. When her sisters asked about her relationship, Linda often sidestepped questions. When they pushed, she explained she wanted them to be proud of her. She wanted to be defined by her successes, not her failures.
Stories of abuse litter Alaska headlines.
In Wasilla, 45 miles north of Anchorage, Amy Smith, a 37-year-old mother of three, was found dead New Year’s Day 2018. Her husband, Anthony Smith, was arrested and charged with her murder. Alaska State Troopers allege that Anthony Smith choked Amy Smith to death; Anthony Smith told the 911 dispatcher that his wife fell down the stairs and that he found her unresponsive.
Anthony Smith, who’s been convicted of past violent crimes including felony assault and violating a restraining order, pleaded not guilty to killing Amy Smith. Multiple attempts to contact him for comment were unsuccessful.
Amy Smith’s mother, Chris Moore, says her daughter told her on New Year’s Eve that she was finally going to leave her husband after years of abuse. Moore told her to load the car when he wasn’t home. Moore says now she thinks Anthony Smith’s discovery of the packed car is what pushed him over the edge.
“I tried and tried to get her away from him,” says Chris, “I tried to talk to her, I told her she wasn’t safe. But she believed she could repair the marriage and their relationship.”
According to court records, troopers had responded to a call from Amy Smith earlier on New Year’s Day, at roughly 2:30 a.m. Amy Smith called 911 after locking herself in the bathroom, telling the dispatcher Anthony Smith was “being aggressive.” She told responding troopers she was afraid, because he had become violent in the past, but added that she didn’t want Anthony Smith arrested, she just wanted him to “chill out.”
Three hours later, Amy Smith was dead.
“They knew his reputation and his history,” Chris Moore says, “and they left her there.”
Anthony Smith’s trial is expected to start in late fall or early winter. Now, as the family waits for justice, Chris attends a support group for Alaskans affected by violent crime in between working full-time and caring for her three grandchildren.
Violence doesn’t discriminate when it comes to race or socioeconomic class, either.
In February 2017, 37-year-old Brandy Sullivan, an Alaska Airlines customer-service agent who lived in an upscale Anchorage suburb, was allegedly shot and killed by her estranged husband. Their 11- and 13-year-old daughters were in the house when she was killed, and called 911. According to police, Adam Sullivan, then 40, confessed to his brother that he had killed Brandy Sullivan.
Two months earlier, when Brandy Sullivan had asked her husband for a divorce, he responded by flying into a rage, according to her family. They say he smashed her computer, broke her bed and destroyed a dishwasher, coffee table and TV stand.
Adam Sullivan was initially charged with destruction of property, a domestic-violence felony, but Anchorage District Attorney Clint Campion reduced the charge days later at the urging of Brandy Sullivan, who said she believed everything could be resolved in divorce proceedings. Sullivan had multiple prior convictions, according to Alaska court records, mostly for misdemeanors, including assault, destruction of property, reckless driving, eluding a police officer and resisting arrest.
Campion, who is now in private practice, told a local reporter in 2017 that he stood by his decision. He declined an interview request with USA TODAY.
On Dec. 21, 2016, just three months before she died, Brandy Sullivan petitioned for and received a short-term restraining order against Adam Sullivan. Her request for a long-term order was denied on Jan. 9, 2017, when she failed to show up for the hearing.
Adam Sullivan could not be reached for comment. He’s pleaded not guilty to first and second-degree murder charges, and is currently in custody. His trial is scheduled to start later this year.
Rural Alaska even more dangerous
As devastating as stories of domestic violence and sexual assault are in urban areas, it’s considerably worse in rural Alaska.
When she speaks to a school full of native children – with her hair twisted up in a neat French braid, small pearl studs in her ears, well-manicured nails and a reassuring, commanding voice that belies her petite 5-foot-3, 120-pound frame – Alaska State Trooper Anne Sears tells them it’s OK to laugh when she says words like “penis” and “vagina.” She encourages them to use slang if it will make the conversation easier.
She talks to them about the age of consent (16 in Alaska) and tells them that if anyone is touching them or hurting them, or making them do something they don’t want to, they have a right to report it. People like her can help.
“I love arresting rapists,” she says.
She explains the meaning of “per capita,” and how Alaska leads the country in rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. When she mentions that Alaska is one of the least populous states, with just over 700,000 residents, the kids gasp and exchange whoa-can-you-believe-that looks; it might not be very many people compared with other states, but in a village of just over 500 people – where most of these kids will stay their entire lives – it’s an astronomical number.
Experts agree that education is key to stopping the epidemic in Alaska. Young men and women need to understand that violence is never part of caring for someone and that the state is dangerous everywhere; across race and socioeconomic spectrums, women are vulnerable. But statically, the state is even more dangerous for Alaska Natives, many of whom live in small villages in the most remote parts of Alaska. Among felony-level sex-offense cases reported to Alaska law enforcement in 2017, Alaska Natives made up 42% of all victims. Women in those villages face extraordinary barriers in reporting and dealing with sexual assault and domestic violence.
Sears, 53, has been an Alaska State Trooper for 18 years, after a short stint with the Juneau Police Department. Stationed in Kotzebue in northwestern Alaska, located just above the Arctic Circle and home to about 3,200 people, Sears works with four other troopers, servicing nine surrounding native villages. They cover an area roughly the size of Ohio.
Sears meets abuse victims all the time – women who have known violence their entire lives and aren’t sure there’s another option. Years ago, Sears says, a presentation for adults turned into “a de facto survivors’ meetings, because every parent had been through something.” She’s determined to show women there’s another way.
In early May, Sears and Shylena Lie, 26, who runs the five-bed family crisis center in Kotzebue, headed 75 miles southeast to visit Buckland, a village reachable only by single-engine, 10-seater airplanes (and snowmobiles, when the water of the Kotzebue Sound and Chukchi Sea is frozen over).
Villages have only the necessities: a school, a store, a post office and, usually, a single jail cell. There are no playgrounds or parks. When the snow melts in spring, toddlers entertain themselves by splashing around in giant mud puddles. Everyone looks out for everyone else’s children, pulling kids to the side when a four-wheeler – cars are rare here – rolls down the street.
Flights go in and out of Kotzebue two to three times each day toting all the essentials: diapers, soda (which retails for $13.50 per 12-pack), paper towels, mail, every bit of food that’s not hunted, and everything in between. Planes land on a strip of gravel; this far out, there’s no airport. Roundtrip tickets from villages to regional hubs, the only place flights go, run about $400.
A year and a half ago, Sears, who is married to a retired state trooper, requested a move to Kotzebue. She missed rural patrol.
“You might arrest someone one week, and the next week they’re your best witness and the week after that, they’re a victim,” Sears says. “You have to treat everybody like you’re gonna need them next week.”
Because of state budget cuts, troopers aren’t stationed in every community, and instead have to commute to hard-to-reach areas. When weather allows troopers to go out, they first have to procure a plane – the state has a limited number – which can take a day or two. When there’s a sexual assault, the first responder is often the village health aide, who can’t administer a rape kit. There are no domestic-violence shelters in villages, only regional hubs, so lack of access is common across the state. According to Standing Together Against Rape, an Anchorage organization, 30% of Alaskans weren’t able to obtain victims’ services because there were no services available in their area.
When Sears and other troopers can’t get to villages – a common occurrence in winter – they rely on villagers to take care of each other. Specifically, they look to village police officers, tribal officers and public-safety officers to keep the peace until troopers arrive. These officers, who have no formal training but have been taught CPR, typically carry pepper spray, a taser, a baton and handcuffs, but no gun.
At the school, home to 186 K-12 students, Sears and Lie spend the morning talking with the 29 high-school students about what healthy relationships look like and the realities of domestic violence. Sears starts her part by explaining that she’s 7/16 Inupiaq – the same tribe as all the children sitting in front of her. She mentions that her grandfather hunted seals until he grew too weak to pull his snow machine out of the ice.
“I make a big deal about where I’m from on purpose,” Sears says. “I want girls to know, they can do this, too.”
During her presentation, Sears asks students why someone might not report an assault or rape. A girl in the back raises her hand and offers shyly, “because they’re protecting someone?” and Sears nods sadly.
Convincing sexual assault or domestic violence victims to come forward is tough in any community, as survivors try to navigate an aftermath of shame, guilt and betrayal. This is magnified in a village of just a few hundred people, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Nationally, 80% of women who suffer sexual violence do so at the hands of someone they know. And in Alaska, booze is almost always an impetus for crime.
Calvin Brown, one of two village police officers in Buckland, greets everyone with a warm smile and wave, his VPO badge hung around his neck on a braided lanyard made of yarn. Most of his calls involve alcohol.
“Alcohol makes the man not know what he’s doing,” Brown explains. “Lots of times, he wakes up in jail the next morning and says, ‘What did I do? Why am I here? I forget what happened last night.’”
Alaskan communities have a public option, where they can vote on how “wet” or “dry” they want to be. Many vote to go totally dry, effectively banning alcohol. But like any community that touts prohibition, there’s also a black market where alcohol is readily available and exorbitantly expensive. There’s a saying in The Bush, too: How many crimes come out of one bottle?
Alaska is one of the nation’s leaders in per capita alcohol consumption. But there’s debate about which came first – does Alaska have a sexual assault and domestic violence problem because of alcohol, or is there an alcohol problem because there’s so much sexual assault and domestic violence, and people use it as a coping mechanism?
There’s no perfect answer. But alcohol, officers and prosecutors say, is the biggest catalyst for crime in The Bush.
Law-enforcement officials and legal aides encounter a litany of challenges beyond smuggled alcohol. Most of them are outsiders, white men and women viewed as imposing their laws on a community of color that didn’t ask for it. Almost all of them are transient, coming and going as needed, which makes villagers hesitant to trust. Tribes have their own form of justice, too, such as banishment, but what happens when their punishment doesn’t match up with what outsiders view as fair?
It’s easy, from the outside, to judge a perpetrator of sexual assault and say he should be immediately locked away. But for native communities that subsist largely on hunting and fishing, removing a man diminishes the village in the eyes of other Alaska Natives. And when a victim does decide to come forward and press charges, it can backfire: Stories of mothers turning their backs on daughters, or tribal elders working to intimidate victims, are numerous.
In 2008, Stein, the career prosecutor who spent five years working in The Bush, helped on a sexual-assault case in Bethel, Alaska, where John Leopold was charged with raping his younger sister. Leopold had a long rap sheet with numerous other sex-assault convictions, including one for raping his cousin in 1986, when he was just 16 years old. Shortly after he was released for that crime, Leopold raped his aunt – as a means of revenge. He was also convicted for that sexual assault.
Alaska’s three strikes law mandated that Leopold be sentenced to 99 years in prison after he was convicted of raping his sister. And yet Leopold’s mother, while acknowledging that her son had indeed violated her daughter, begged the judge for leniency and asked for him to come home. He was sentenced to 109 years, with 10 years suspended.
“To a victim in The Bush,” Stein says, “prosecuting someone can look like nothing but hopelessness.”
It’s easy to get bogged down by repeated stories of abuse. If the outlook in the villages – and really, the state – is so bleak, then why don’t people just move?
That’s not an easy answer, Sears says.
In the villages, many people have never known anywhere else – decades ago, this is where their family first fished and built a life. How do you turn your back on that? There’s an expectation within the tribe that the younger generation will care for aging parents. And even if a woman were to decide leaving was the only option, it’s exceptionally expensive. There’s no bus to hop on, no neighboring town or state to find work.
“It’s true that some girls don’t know any better, so when they get hit or sexually assaulted, they think it’s normal,” Sears says. “But it can get better. It has to start in the villages.
“And it gives me hope that other people are out here fighting with me.”
'Did you kill Linda?'
In Anchorage, Linda Skeek’s family plans to keep fighting for her, too – for her body to be found, and for her story to be known.
In the days after Linda Skeek went missing, Rena Sims grew suspicious and called Thomas Skeek. She demanded to know why he hadn’t reported her disappearance to police. When he refused to let Rena speak with the couple’s two young children, Rena changed her tone.
“Did you kill Linda?” she asked Thomas.
“I don’t think so,” he answered in a low voice.
“You don’t think so?” she asked again, her voice rising.
“No, I did not kill Linda.”
Sims wasn’t convinced. After police got involved, she recorded another conversation with Thomas, and he again denied killing her. At his murder trial in late February, she recounted all this for the jury. Months after a not guilty verdict, Linda’s family wonders if they’ll ever find closure.
Knull sometimes wants to believe Linda is still alive. When Linda first disappeared, Knull “looked for her in everyone.” Anyone with Linda’s height or build or shiny dark hair got an extra glance from Knull, who hoped Linda had found a way to escape.
“One thing I’ve always counted on with Linda is that she was a survivor,” Knull says. “Even knowing the (domestic violence) statistics, you don’t expect it to be somebody you know.
“Maybe you could accept, like, the neighbor down the street. But not your sister.”
For Robinson-Wells, who was closest to Linda, it’s a layered tragedy: She was four months pregnant when Linda disappeared, and shortly after the police report was filed, she miscarried. She believes the stress of Linda’s disappearance caused her to lose the baby.
If Linda is really gone – and her entire foster family does believe she’s dead – they’re determined not to let her be forgotten. Linda mattered. But the bigger story, her family says, is how the state continually fails to protect women. How many have to die or suffer severe violence, they ask, before changes are made?
They’re worried they might never get an answer.
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: Missing or murdered? In America's deadliest state, one family is still searching for answers