Lawsuit says City of Nome ignored sexual assaults against Alaska Native women

ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker speaking during a press conference in Anchorage announcing a federal lawsuit against the City of Nome. Second from left is Clarice "Bun" Hardy, who ACLU is representing in the lawsuit. (Photo courtesy of Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

Joaqlin Estus

'Before I was raped, and before I learned the truth about the Nome Police Department, I considered my colleagues family, I trusted them'

The ACLU Alaska filed suit against the city of Nome on Thursday for looking the other way for years as Alaska Native women were raped and sexually assaulted. Police did not follow up on about a quarter of the reports of sexual assault between 2005 and 2018. They didn’t interview the victims or alleged assailants much less collect evidence. That’s according to an investigation by a then new police chief, Bob Estes, who in 2018 brought in officers he’d worked with before to go through 460 files dating back to 2005.

In a prepared statement ACLU Alaska said, “Alaska’s sexual assault rate is four times the national average, and that figure is six times higher in Nome. Alaska Native people are disproportionately victims of sexual assault, making up nearly half (46 percent) of the victims in reported felony-level sex offense crimes across the state.”

Those rates reflect a lack of law enforcement among other factors. A third of rural communities in Alaska lack any local law enforcement. Assailants who are not held accountable continue to commit crime with impunity. The Nome police department’s rate of prosecution of sex crimes was less than half the national average.

When Estes discovered the backlog, and with new cases pouring in, he asked the city council for funding to increase staffing. When the council said no, and the city manager called the cold cases, “water under the bridge,” Estes resigned.

ACLU Alaska Legal Director Stephen Koteff said it’s “alarming that this lack of policing, this indifference, especially toward Alaska Native women in a city like Nome, has gone on for so long.” He said the ACLU had been watching the developments in Nome for about a year. Investigative reporting by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica, and National Native News and The Pulitzer Center had revealed the extent of lawlessness in rural Alaska.

ACLU filed the suit on behalf of rape victim Clarice “Bun” Hardy, Inupiaq. She worked as a dispatcher in the Nome police department. So when she was drugged and raped in March 2017, she had every reason to believe her colleague Lt. Nick Harvey when he said he would conduct an investigation. He said he would obtain a warrant to get a copy of a graphic video that had shown up on Snapchat. It showed her being sexually assaulted as she lay unconscious. She gave Harvey names and contact information for witnesses and he said he would interview them.

“Before I was raped, and before I learned the truth about the Nome police department, I considered my colleagues family, I trusted them,” Hardy said in a prepared statement. “So that’s who I turned to after I was raped. They told me that they’d help me. They didn’t. Instead they lied to me, over and over and over again,” Hardy said. “Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can still hear their voices and picture their faces as they try to avoid looking at me.” When she periodically asked about her case, Harvey told her the investigation was moving along.

In March 2018 her alleged assailant called 911 on another matter. Hardy was the one who took the call. She broke down afterward, which led to her discovering there was no record of her complaint. The chief of police had her file a report again and said he’d turn it over to state troopers.

Two months later, in May, she called the troopers. “She learned that [they] had no idea what she was talking about and they had no record of her complaint because the chief never forwarded it,” Koteff said. Koteff said the chief told Hardy he had been meaning to get around to it.

The state troopers’ investigation, conducted more than a year after the fact, didn’t lead to prosecution, “we believe in large part because the evidence was lost over all that time,” said Koteff. “The Snapchat video that would have been available to Nick Harvey had he sought it out immediately after hearing about the sexual assault was no longer available because Snapchat does not keep records of what people post for more than 30 days.” Witnesses had trouble recalling details and gave contradictory accounts.

A few months after Harvey’s inaction was uncovered, Koteff said, “Lt. Harvey came into the police station and sat down. He said in a quite menacing way to Ms. Hardy and another Nome police department staff person something to the effect of he had just been dealing with these Alaska Native women who are complaining about sexual assault, and he used a very derogatory term. He referred to them using the C word.

“She just, she couldn't take it anymore and, and she asked to go on administrative leave that was granted,” Koteff said. “At this time she was starting to have a really difficult time emotionally.” She had nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks. She was diagnosed with PTSD and ended up moving back to her home village.

“I miss playing basketball,” Hardy said. “I miss leaving my curtains open to let the sunlight in. I miss restful night sleeps.”

“I felt like I was supposed to be silent,” Hardy said. “It was suffocating… that feeling almost killed me. Feeling forced to be silent was the scariest part of my experience.

“I made a decision to use the voice I have because I am terrified that what happened to me will happen again, and I can’t let that happen,” Hardy said. “Through my voice, I’ve found power.

“I moved back to Shaktoolik in December of 2018. I didn’t feel safe in Nome, I didn’t know who I could trust,” Hardy said. “So, I went home, back to my roots. There, girls and men tell me their stories… stories like mine. It reminds me that no matter how bad my trauma is, or how real my depression is, that I have a voice for a reason.”

“I can’t undo the harm done to the hundreds of other women the Nome police department failed to help. But maybe I can stop this from happening again. Maybe that is my purpose,” Hardy said.

Koteff said ACLU Alaska took on the case, along with ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, and Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Miller & Monkman, LLP because the city of Nome’s systemic, disastrous failure to protect Native women won’t change “without a case like this compelling them to make the change.” The lawsuit seeks an end to what the ACLU says are violations of equal rights, and to get better police training and financial compensation for damages to Hardy.

Nome’s interim city manager, John Handeland, provided a written statement to the Associated Press, “The city’s efforts to improve community policing, and sexual assault investigations in particular, have been well publicized.”

Two non-profit foundations have partnered with the media to support investigative reporting on violence in rural Alaska. 

For more reading, see:

  • Anchorage Daily News and Propublica stories
  • National Native News and The Pulitzer Center stories
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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent based in Anchorage, Alaska. She is a long-time Alaska journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @estus_m. Email her at: jestus@indiancountrytoday.com.

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