Young man blamed for 3 arson deaths in Alaska villages gets traditional justice: Banishment
BETHEL — At 18, he shot his father. The man lived. At 19, he started a fire that raged through a house in his home village of Nunam Iqua, Yup'ik for "land where the tundra ends." Three people were killed, including a young boy.
Now Derek Adams is 22 and a banished man.
Pieces of his past trickled out during an interrogation by Alaska State Troopers back in 2013, just after the fire. He has faced repeated rejection, by his family, by his village and now by other villages too.
As a kid, Adams said, his mother kept kicking him out of the house for, as he saw it, the littlest things. His dad beat him, he told troopers. At one point, when the family lived in Sitka, he was wandering the streets there selling pot for food money.
The worst of it happened in Nunam Iqua at the mouth of the Yukon River in Southwest Alaska.
On a chilly, rainy night in June 2013, Adams was drinking homebrew in the village. Somehow that night — he has given a couple different stories on what happened — he started a fire on a front porch of a home where he had been locked out, a house packed with people. Troopers said it was arson but investigators couldn't determine how it started. Maybe a cigarette wasn't put out properly, Adams said. Maybe the house burned from a dog he set on fire, he said in a later story to troopers.
Eight people escaped out a window. Three didn't make it.
Adams in April pleaded guilty to causing the deaths. He doesn't expect to get prison time beyond what he's already served.
Three villages aren't waiting for him to be sentenced. They have banished him.
Banishment in Alaska is a murky legal area. Tribal governments say it's within their sovereign powers but they often don't have law enforcement to back up their order.
The question of whether an Alaska tribe has authority to banish someone was addressed in a case dating to 1999 out of Perryville, on the Alaska Peninsula. It was resolved in the tribe's favor. But the matter hasn't been fully explored in court.
Adams declined to be interviewed unless he was paid.
Nunam Iqua Traditional Council — officially a tribal government — took the first action against Adams, who wasn't even in the village at the time, said council president Edward Adams, Adams' uncle.
The tribal council on June 27 exiled him for 10 years after hearing of "serious criminal activity" and concerns that he "has threatened family members and tribal members of Nunam Iqua," the council resolution said.
At the time, Adams was in nearby Alakanuk. On July 18 the traditional council there approved its own resolution for banishment "permanent in nature."
Adams moved to Emmonak, but on Aug. 5, Emmonak Tribal Council permanently banished him too, but with a caveat that the council could later revoke the action.
In Emmonak, at a meeting with the tribal and city leaders, Adams got a chance to present his side. He argued to stay in the village.
"We had a real nice conversation with him," said Emmonak city manager Martin Moore. "He told them (tribal council members) he didn't actually appreciate being banished from the community."
"You are a young man," Moore, who is 80, told him. "You are not a bad person. You are a good person. And you have a chance to make a change in your life. Take it from here."
"As difficult as the decision was for the Emmonak Tribal Council to make, we did practice our sovereign governing rights to protect our members and other residents residing in our village from any danger that may befall on them," council chairperson Martha Kelly wrote in an Aug. 8 letter to Adams.
Tribal leaders asked troopers for help in getting him on the plane with a one-way ticket to Bethel. By then, Adams was resigned to leaving.
"Derek was cooperative," said trooper William Connors, who is stationed in Emmonak. "I said, 'I'll give you a ride to the airport if you want one.' So I dropped him off at the airport with a member of the tribal government."
Adams tried to live with his father in Bethel. The state Office of Children's Services forbid it because of kids in the house.
"Mr. Adams is presently out of custody and essentially homeless," his lawyer, Jane Imholte, wrote in July requesting a hearing.
Adams has remained in Bethel, working day labor and sleeping wherever he can, she said this week. There's no year-round shelter in Bethel though a Lions Club runs Bethel Winter House during the coldest months.
"He's doing remarkably well for a hungry, homeless guy," Imholte said.
Revived interest in banishment
The new round of banishments marks the latest incarnation of an ancient way some villages protected themselves.
"It hasn't really changed in our culture," Edward Adams, who is 75, said. "Before the Caucasians came around, it was the same way. We do everything we can to straighten them out and if they wouldn't straighten out, they are out of town."
Troopers are only supposed to enforce state law, which doesn't mention banishment, said Capt. Barry Wilson, commander of the western Alaska detachment. As troopers see it, banishment orders are too broad, applying to all public and private property in a community.
In courts, defendants must be able to present their side and get a chance to appeal, but with banishments that doesn't always happen, Wilson said. Sometimes, the trooper commander said, a tribal court issues a simple handwritten document: "The women have spoken and you are banished."
Yet some troopers have helped remove individuals, said Anchorage attorney Sam Fortier, who represents small tribal governments. Sometimes it happens through enforcement of tribal domestic violence protective orders that eject offenders from an entire village, he said.
Troopers turn to laws against trespassing, Wilson said. An individual is warned to stay out of specific buildings or off certain land parcels — not whole communities. Troopers can arrest someone who violates a trespass order.
Violence in Perryville
Banishment is an extreme answer that in old times could have meant death, an answer that some Alaska tribal governments still pick when they see the response from the state criminal justice system as lacking.
"Banishing people from a community or a village was essentially the classic way of protecting a community. It's a very drastic measure in times of old. You don't survive unless you are part of a clan, a community," said Heather Kendall-Miller, an Anchorage-based attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.
Banished people sometimes do better in a new place, Edward Adams said.
Tribal banishment was examined in a case that began in 1999 when the tribal government in tiny Perryville, on the Alaska Peninsula, voted to exile a violent man. The tribe went to state court for an order to enforce its tribal resolution, and after the man didn't respond to a notice about the proceeding, the tribe in 2001 won a "permanent injunction."
At one point, a trooper was directed by a state judge to help the tribe force the man to leave the village, according to a description of the case in the June 2015 Alaska Law Review.
Banishment, no matter how it sounds, "is not a forever situation," said Fortier, who represented Perryville's tribe in that case. Individuals can always ask to return.
Still, without an appellate court ruling, the question of whether tribes have the legal authority to banish someone remains unsettled in Alaska.
In the Lower 48, there's no question that tribes can banish individuals from reservation land, according to the 2015 law review article.
As state-imposed conditions of probation, community-wide banishments have been rejected by Alaska appeals courts, said John Skidmore, director of the criminal division for the state Department of Law.
Tribes say banishment works to keep members safe. After two troopers were killed in the Interior village of Tanana in 2014, the tribal court there banished the father of the accused and another man. William Walsh and Arvin Kangas were considered agitators who radicalized the thinking of Nathanial Kangas, convicted in the killings.
The story of Adams
Nunam Iqua, a village of fewer than 200 people, has no law enforcement and a significant problem with residents out of control on homebrew and sometimes bootlegged liquor, said Edward Adams, the tribal council president.
The village did not feel safe with his nephew there, Edward Adams said. Nor did other nearby communities.
But back in October 2012, when Derek shot his father, James A. Adams, Derek was seen by some as a protector.
The father and his girlfriend, RuthAnn Johnson, were drinking homebrew. Suspicions about her set the older man off, according to a defense summary of what happened filed in court. Derek Adams told troopers his father threatened to "kill RuthAnn and burn the house down with everyone inside."
Johnson, her children and Derek Adams retreated to her brother's place. His father tried to kick his way in. Adams, who troopers said had been drinking too, told troopers he used his .22-caliber rifle to fire a warning shot, then fired twice more through the door. His father was hit in the back.
Adams was sentenced to serve five and a half months.
'Didn't mean to kill'
In the early morning of June 28, 2013, Adams stuffed a little bag of belongings under the steps at his uncle's house.
"He's just wandering around on a rainy night looking for a place to lay down and go to sleep. And he doesn't have it," said Michael Gray, Bethel district attorney.
Adams sat outside with his homebrew bucket then passed out for a few hours. He ended up at the home of Patricia Ignatius, which was crowded with her relatives and others, a popular hangout in the village. He knocked, but was locked out. He smoked a cigarette, waiting for someone to let him in.
Somebody must have just stepped away, he figured. There was a smoldering cigarette on the porch, he told troopers. He said he thought he put it out but maybe he didn't. He said he didn't want the house to burn.
"I started the fire. I saw the flame. I didn't mean to kill anyone," he told troopers. His godfather, Joey Ignatius, 43, was among those who died.
The others killed in the fire were Edward Murphy, 25, and Cyprian Ignatius, 8, found locked in a bathroom, a place authorities suspect he had been told to hide if he ever felt in danger.
The loss of three people, the emotional toll on close family, continued health problems of survivors and destruction of a home used by many amount to a tragedy, said Gray, the district attorney.
At some point that night, according to grand jury testimony made public, Adams threatened to burn down Johnson's house with her and the children in it, the same threat his father had made months earlier.
On his Facebook account that same morning, Adams posted this: "man that sucks it was like all of a sudden and it hurt too my prayers to the peeps who didn't make it and the whole family."
Troopers interrogated Adams for hours. He never admitted to intentionally lighting the house on fire though said he lit up a dog on the porch, which was full of rubbish.
Much of what Adams said to troopers was thrown out by Bethel Superior Court Judge Charles Ray.
He told troopers he beat up dogs and had burned three at different times, getting his anger out that way. But the people were an accident, he said.
"I didn't mean to kill them. I didn't mean to take the house," he told Trooper Joseph Minnick. "I just meant to kill the dog because it annoyed me, pissed me off bothering me."
The transcript of that interview is in the court file.
Minnick asked whether he tortured animals because he was mad about his past.
"I'm mad that I never got to experience what every other kid got to experience with their parents, without getting kicked out by the mom, without getting beat up by my dad," he answered.
Anger in Nunam Iqua
On April 25 this year, Adams pleaded guilty to three counts of criminally negligent homicide from the fire and two assaults from pulling a knife that night. He had been jailed since a few days after the fire, almost three years. Under a plea deal, he had served his time, his lawyer said in court.
Michael Tinker, a Nunam Iqua resident who escaped with others out a window that early morning, told District Court Judge Nathaniel Peters at the April hearing that residents in the village are upset. They didn't think it was fair that Adams would be getting out. Family members expected life in prison, he said. He wasn't able to round up others to testify. One family member had been drinking homebrew.
The same day as the hearing, Adams was released from Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center.
Gray said the plea deal — with four years' prison time, reduced for good behavior — is the best the state can do given the evidence. Adams accepted responsibility for the three deaths, which was key, the prosecutor said. Adams faces five years of supervised probation, plus suspended prison time.
Judge Ray is scheduled to sentence Adams Monday. He doesn't have to accept the deal. A confidential state Department of Corrections pre-sentencing investigation concluded it's too lenient, according to public court filings by both the defense and the prosecution. The lawyers say that report is full of inaccuracies. Both sides are urging the judge to approve the deal as a fair resolution for what defense lawyer Imholte calls "a tragic accident."
Nunam Iqua leaders don't expect Adams will turn up there any time soon. Long ago, another man was banished. He never came back.