In Alaska, immunity can catch killers

The scales of justice are seen in an undated photo. (Getty Images)
The scales of justice are seen in an undated photo. (Getty Images)

The scales of justice are seen in an undated photo. (Getty Images)

I have been a sex worker in Alaska for 20 years. I started in 2004, leaving an abusive marriage because I could support myself and my two kids from my work. I have experienced stigma, shame and criminal charges due to being a sex worker.

My first day attending Brian Steven Smith’s trial was on Valentine’s Day. A fitting day, the five-year anniversary of when Tracy Lynn Day, an Indigenous woman from Juneau and my longtime best friend, became missing. I went to the trial to show support to the family of other women, who Smith was accused of murdering, and to witness the ending of a predator. I wanted to find the courageous woman that came forward and initiated the investigation, a woman the media described as a “convicted prostitute.”  When the media describes a person like this it dehumanizes and promotes stigma, and this makes sex workers easy prey for men like Smith.

Brian Steven Smith’s trial was for the murders of Kathleen Jo Henry and Veronica Abouchuk, two homeless Alaska Native women he picked up for sex. He regularly picked up sex workers. Smith had picked up Valerie Casler, a sex worker, and she stole his phone. She found images and video of the murder of Kathleen Jo Henry, in all of its horror, on that phone. 

Fearful of arrest, she transferred the videos to an SD card and contacted the Anchorage Police Department on Sept. 30, 2019, stating she had found the SD card in the parking lot. She was afraid of being arrested for theft of Smith’s phone and of prostitution. Both misdemeanors. 

She was afraid of being arrested for a moral crime when she had information about a horrific murder. 

The videos of the torture and murder initiated an investigation from APD. Officers recognized Smith’s accent from a prior investigation, when a woman named Alicia Youngblood had contacted the police in 2018 regarding Smith. 

Alicia Youngblood had a brief previous relationship with Smith and had contacted police in 2018 after he had made comments to her about killing a woman. Not much is mentioned regarding that investigation. We were told that Youngblood had testified for the grand jury in this trial, but sadly in July of 2021 she died.

Casler didn’t know that sex workers have immunity from prostitution charges when reporting heinous crimes, thanks to the work and effort of Community United for Safety and Protection addressing the issue and getting the prostitution statute modified in 2016 as part of SB91. Encouraging victims and witnesses to come forward and report violent predators in our communities is important. Letting the public know this is even a viable option is part of stopping serial killers like Brian Steven Smith. 

Clients of sex workers don’t have the same immunity from prostitution charges to report heinous crimes. Clients are first responders in cases of actual sex trafficking and can be the only people a trafficking victim is ever alone with to confide in, but they risk an embarrassing charge and news coverage that could have long-term effects on their careers and families if they report crimes like sex trafficking or murder. This year in House Bill 265, legislators are considering modifying the immunity section of the prostitution statute and they could choose to add clients into its protections. 

If more people knew that sex workers could report crimes without fear of legal repercussions it could answer lingering questions left after Smith’s trial. 

For example, there was unknown female DNA found on the tailgate of Smith’s Ford Ranger. An FBI DNA forensic examiner from Quantico testified that DNA evidence ruled out Veronica Abouchek and Kathleen Jo Henry. Swab samples from Stephanie Bissland, Smith’s wife, were sampled, compared and excluded. The female DNA was possibly from another victim. 

On Feb. 22, 2024, the jury deliberated for close to two hours and came back with their verdict. Smith was found guilty on all 14 counts, including an aggravator that Smith subjected Kathleen Jo Henry to substantial physical torture. Fortunately, Casler’s fear of police and the resulting chain of custody of the videos was only a small hiccup the defense focused on. 

I met up with Valerie Casler the day after. It turns out, Feb. 22 was her birthday. When I told her of the verdict she looked at me and smiled. “The DA said they would call me, I didn’t know!” she laughed, nodding her head.

“I’d do it again, ‘cause those ladies needed to cross over and their souls make it to heaven,” she said. 

Valerie knows she saved lives. She knows she stopped a serial killer from killing more Alaska Native women and sex workers. 

Sentencing is set for July. 

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