In this Oct. 9 photo, Brian Steven Smith attends his arraignment on a charge of first-degree murder in Anchorage. Losing a digital memory card that contained photos and videos of a horrendous killing may have been careless, but what led police to charge Smith was something he had no control over whatsoever: His South African accent. (Loren Holmes | Anchorage Daily News via AP)

In this Oct. 9 photo, Brian Steven Smith attends his arraignment on a charge of first-degree murder in Anchorage. Losing a digital memory card that contained photos and videos of a horrendous killing may have been careless, but what led police to charge Smith was something he had no control over whatsoever: His South African accent. (Loren Holmes | Anchorage Daily News via AP)

Distinctive accent on torture video leads police to suspect

The suspect in a brutal torture killing led police right to him.

  • By MARK THIESSEN Associated Press
  • Monday, October 21, 2019 3:44pm
  • NewsCrime

ANCHORAGE — The suspect in a brutal torture killing in Alaska’s biggest city ended up leading police right to him, first by losing a digital memory card labeled “Homicide at midtown Marriott” that contained video of the dying woman.

Then came an even more innocuous blunder: He spoke on the tape in his distinctive, very un-Alaska accent.

When a woman found the memory card on the street and turned it over to police, what detectives saw was horrific. At one point, the suspect complained to the victim, whose face was swollen and bloodied: “My hand’s getting tired.” He then stomped her throat with his right foot.

Amid the shocking footage, a clue: The killer spoke in an “English sounding accent,” and detectives recalled Brian Steven Smith, a 48-year-old South African, from another investigation, the details of which they have not disclosed.

They arrested Smith, who has pleaded not guilty to the September slaying of 30-year-old Kathleen Henry, a homeless Alaska Native woman. During his interrogation, police say he confessed to killing another Alaska Native woman. Police won’t say if they think there may be other victims.

Anchorage has a diverse population — more than 200 languages are spoken in the Anchorage school system — and it’s not uncommon to hear people speaking with Russian, Yupik or Hmong accents.

But South African accents aren’t commonly heard in Anchorage, certainly not after the summer tourist season. Just a fraction of the city’s foreign-born population comes from Africa, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Authorities identified the second victim as Veronica Abouchuk, who was 52 years old when her family reported her missing in February. The family last saw her in July 2018, police said.

Smith told police where he killed Abouchuk in 2017 or 2018 and disposed of the body. It was in an area near where Alaska State Troopers recovered a skull with a bullet wound earlier this year.

His arraignment on those charges is set for Monday.

After both women were killed, their bodies were dumped along highways outside of Anchorage “like unwanted trash,” the state says in a memorandum seeking $2 million bail on the more than a dozen counts he faces, including first-degree murder, second-degree murder and evidence tampering. If convicted and found to have committed substantial torture in the Henry case, he will be sentenced to a mandatory 99 years, according to the state Department of Law. Alaska doesn’t have the death penalty.

“These were two Alaska Native women,” Anchorage Deputy District Attorney Brittany Dunlop told a news conference. “And I know that hits home here in Alaska, and we’re cognizant of that. We treat them with dignity and respect.”

Police have released little information beyond what is in court documents. When asked if Smith had an accomplice, Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll said there’s no evidence of a public safety threat. He said they would continue to look at anyone else who might be involved, but only Smith has been charged.

In seeking the high bail, the state said Smith poses a flight risk, citing his ties to South Africa.

“He poses a significant public safety risk, especially to the vulnerable, homeless women living on the streets of Anchorage,” the memo says.

Authorities have released few details about Smith, but said he came to Alaska about five years ago and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in September.

Five years ago, he married Stephanie Bissland of Anchorage.

She was visiting family members in Virginia when Anchorage detectives approached her and told her of her husband’s arrest for the first homicide.

She told Anchorage television station KTUU that last month, Smith reported his vehicle had been vandalized and that his wallet, documents and a briefcase with phones and other electronics had been taken. She said it wasn’t unusual for Smith to have memory cards lying around from cameras and other gear he would work on and sell but said she never saw any of them labeled.

She told KTUU she was horrified by the charges against Smith. She didn’t return messages to The Associated Press seeking comment.

Smith’s attorney, Dan Lowery, an assistant public defender, said he does not comment on pending cases.


• This is an Associated Press report by Mark Thiessen. AP reporter Becky Bohrer in Juneau and Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.


More in News

The Aurora Borealis glows over the Mendenhall Glacier in 2014. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Aurora forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of Dec. 3

Mountain reflections are seen from the Mendenhall Wetlands. (Courtesy Photo / Denise Carroll)
Wild Shots: Photos of Mother Nature in Alaska

Superb reader-submitted photos of wildlife, scenery and/or plant life.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
At Wednesday evening’s special Assembly meeting, the Assembly appropriated nearly $4 million toward funding a 5.5% wage increase for all CBJ employees along with a 5% increase to the employer health contribution. According to City Manager Rorie Watt, it doesn’t necessarily fix a nearly two decade-long issue of employee retention concerns for the city.
City funds wage increase amid worker shortage

City Manager says raise doesn’t fix nearly two decade-long issue of employee retainment

People and dogs traverse the frozen surface Mendenhall Lake on Monday afternoon. Officials said going on to any part of Mendenhall Lake can open up serious risks for falling into the freezing waters. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Officials warn residents about the dangers of thin ice on Mendenhall Lake

Experts outline what to do in the situation that someone falls through ice

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Saturday, Dec. 3

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Molly Yazwinski holds a 3,000-year-old moose skull with antlers still attached, found in a river on Alaska’s North Slope. Her aunt, Pam Groves, steadies an inflatable canoe. (Courtesy Photo /Dan Mann)

 

2. A 14,000-year-old fragment of a moose antler, top left, rests on a sand bar of a northern river next to the bones of ice-age horses, caribou and muskoxen, as well as the horns of a steppe bison. Photo by Pam Groves.

 

3. Moose such as this one, photographed this year near Whitehorse in the Yukon, may have been present in Alaska as long as people have. Photo by Ned Rozell.
Alaska Science Forum: Ancient moose antlers hint of early arrival

When a great deal of Earth’s water was locked up within mountains… Continue reading

FILE - Freight train cars sit in a Norfolk Southern rail yard on Sept. 14, 2022, in Atlanta. The Biden administration is saying the U.S. economy would face a severe economic shock if senators don't pass legislation this week to avert a rail worker strike. The administration is delivering that message personally to Democratic senators in a closed-door session Thursday, Dec. 1.  (AP Photo / Danny Karnik)
Congress votes to avert rail strike amid dire warnings

President vows to quickly sign the bill.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire
Juneau state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, left, gives a legislative proclamation to former longtime Juneau Assembly member Loren Jones, following Kiehl’s speech at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce’s weekly luncheon Thursday at the Juneau Moose Family Center.
Cloudy economy, but sunnier political outlook lie ahead for lawmakers, Kiehl says

Juneau’s state senator tells Chamber of Commerce bipartisan majority a key to meaningful action

Most Read