Native Alaskan women protesting at arraignment of Brian Smith in Anchorage, Alaska
FILE - Joanne Sakar, left, and Natasha Gamache at the arraignment for Brian Steven Smith, who faces 14 charges in the deaths of two Alaska Native women, in Anchorage, Alaska, Oct. 21, 2019.

WASHINGTON - In early October, Anchorage police found the body of Kathleen Henry, a native of the Yupik village of Eek in southwestern Alaska, along a stretch of highway south of town. Her alleged killer might never have been arrested had someone not found video of her slaying contained in a lost digital memory card.

Brian Smith, a naturalized U.S. citizen from South Africa, has been charged not only with her murder but that of another Yupik woman, Veronica Abouchuk, from the western Alaska village of Stebbins. Now, Anchorage is wondering whether it has a serial killer on its hands.

Rena Sapp, outside a courtroom Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in Anchorage, Alaska, shows a photo of her sister, Veronica Abouchuk. Sapp attended the arraignment of Brian Steven Smith, who is accused of killing Abouchuk.

It’s a question many American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) have asked, given the epidemic of missing and slain indigenous people across North America. Many of these cases go unsolved.

Thirty years ago, the FBI launched the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP), a database of unsolved violent crimes, allowing police agencies around the country to report violent crimes, analyze existing data and find patterns that could lead them to the perpetrators.

But as The Atlantic reported in 2015, out of about 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, only about 1,400 participate in the system. This led investigative journalist Thomas K. Hargrove to create the Murder Accountability Project (MAP), a database that tracks unsolved killings across the United States. It includes not only FBI data but also information from police agencies that do not use ViCAP.

Hargrove developed an algorithm to detect and map homicide clusters — geographic locations where multiple victims have been killed separately but in similar ways — that suggest the presence of serial killers. The data and maps are available to both law enforcement and the general public.

Clusters of death

Canadian criminologist Michael Arntfield, who serves on MAP’s board of directors, said Washington, D.C., for example, has one such cluster. So does the Northwest, a region stretching from Oregon north along the Pacific coast that is home to hundreds of thousands of Native, First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples whom law enforcement often overlooks. It is a region with enough wilderness that makes hiding a body easy.

“Serial killers prey on marginalized populations, and indigenous women make up a disproportionate number in the victim pool,” Arntfield said.

Convicted serial killer Robert "Willy" Pickton, a Vancouver, B.C., pig farmer, known to have murdered at least 13 indigenous women.

Notorious examples include:

• Robert Pickton, a Vancouver, British Columbia, pig farmer who, from the mid-1990s to early 2000s, butchered 33 known victims, at least 13 of whom were indigenous.

• Joshua Wade, active in Alaska between 1999 and 2007, confessed to killing at least two Alaska Natives: Henry Ongtowasruk, a 30-year-old man from the Kingikmiut village of Wales, and Della Brown, 33, in Anchorage in 2000 (her tribal affiliation is unknown).

• Robert Hansen admitted to killing 17 women between 1979 and 1984, often hunting them down in the Alaska wilderness. At least one of his victims, an unidentified woman dubbed "Eklutna Annie," is believed to have been an Alaska Native.

Killers on wheels

In the early 2000s, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation noted a pattern in a string of women’s bodies that had been dumped along Interstate 40 in four states. This prompted the FBI to establish a Highway Serial Killings Initiative, which tracks known and unknown killers. The program initiative noted that suspects included predominantly long-haul truck drivers.

Today, the FBI has collected profiles of as many as 400 truckers who may still be active serial killers, Arntfield said.

Trucking, he explained, is an ideal profession for serial killers, as it gives drivers both mobility and anonymity.

Tower sign advertising a truck stop in Van Horn, Texas, 26 June 2008.

"It also provides a veneer of legitimacy to serial killers being on the highway or at truck stops in the middle of the night,” he said. “Truck stops are known hotbeds of the sex trade, and truckers with nefarious motives can exploit that.”

Native women are at particularly high risk of commercial sexual exploitation, according to a 2009 study by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, which blamed historic trauma, poverty, alcohol or substance abuse, domestic violence and homelessness.

Native women and girls may be exploited into trafficking by force, fraud or coercion. Others may turn to prostitution as a means of economic survival.

Many Native women and girls, lacking cars or access to public transportation, are forced to rely on hitchhiking to get from place to place, making them easy prey for killers.

Thousands of truck drivers today, however, are working to combat human trafficking.

The Colorado-based nonprofit Truckers Against Trafficking works with law enforcement agencies and trucking companies to train drivers — 720,000 in the past decade, according to a recent Newsweek report — on how to spot victims of sex trafficking. Since 2009, drivers have reported 600 cases of likely trafficking involving more than 1,100 victims.

A Denver FBI agent with an underage victim of prostitution who was rescued during Operation Cross Country XI in October 2017, an effort focused on recovering children and holding sex traffickers accountable.

Incomplete statistics

Arntfield told VOA he knows of no cases in which serial killers target AI/ANs “systemically or exclusively.”

It’s difficult to find hard statistics on how many AI/AN victims there are, because only about half of all murder cases are solved.

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) reports that on some reservations and in some Alaska Native villages, indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average.

But, as the Urban Indian Health Institute notes, more than 70% of AI/ANs live in urban areas. In a 2017 study of 71 U.S. cities, UIHI was able to identify 506 cases of missing and murdered AI/AN women and girls — 128 (25%) were missing-persons cases, 280 (56%) were murder cases and 98 (19%) had an unknown status.

Six were killed by a serial killer.

But UIHI stresses that nearly two-thirds of the police agencies called on to provide numbers sent incomplete data or nothing at all.

Others tracking serial homicides include Radford University in Virginia, which since 1992 has has compiled a database of known U.S. and international serial killers. Out of 11,200 victims of serial killers since 1900, it identifies 48 as Native American.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 2.9 million AI/ANs in the U.S. representing about 0.9 percent of the total population. Canada’s 2016 census showed that First Nations, Inuit and Metis people total more than 1.6 million or 4.9% of the national population.

A 2015 analysis by Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper found that nation’s Indigenous women are roughly seven times more likely than non-indigenous women to die at the hands of serial killers.

Eighteen indigenous women have been murdered by convicted serial killers since 1980, the majority in or near cities by non-indigenous men, but the number of suspected cases was more than 75.

‘Blind spot’ in data

The Uniform Federal Crime Reporting Act of 1988 (UCR) mandates that federal agencies, which have jurisdiction over tribal lands, report homicides to the Justice Department.

Servers of the National Crime Information Center or NCIC at the Criminal Justice Information Services Division, Clarksburg, West Virginia, December 28, 2004.

MAP data show that between 1999 and 2017, these agencies failed to report 2,400 homicides.

“MAP has determined that the federal government, the only body who is required by law to report homicides back to itself as per the UCR Act of 1998, has not been doing so for over 20 years with respect to reservation homicides that fall within their purview,” Arntfield said.

MAP has filed a lawsuit against the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies for failing to comply with the law.

“Once we obtain the proper records we are taking the government to court for, it will become clearer what exactly has been going on and how this massive blind spot in the data — and allowing offenders to remain at large — has been permitted to go on,” he said. “The public has a right to know how they are being murdered, in what numbers, what ethnic groups are being disproportionately targeted and what the success rate is in catching these people.”