Research by Nathaniel Payne
Content Warning: sexual assault, violence, death
In August 2017, a 25-year-old Native woman was looking for a ride from an Anchorage gas station to her boyfriend’s house across town. Justin Schneider, a 33 year old man from Eagle River, AK, stopped at the gas station on the way to his job as an air traffic controller. He introduced himself as “Dan” to the woman and offered to transport her, but then drove her to another location. He pulled over, got out, and asked the woman to also exit the vehicle under the pretense of needing help loading items. She came around to the back of the vehicle, where Schneider attacked her and choked her until she lost consciousness. He then unzipped his pants and masturbated onto her.
It was the middle of the day on a Tuesday on a residential street.
The victim reported to police that when she regained consciousness, Schneider was over her, zipping up his pants. He threw a tissue at her, let her retrieve her phone and backpack from the truck, and left, driving to his place of employment.
She called the police as soon as Schneider drove away and read his license plate number to them.
Alaska Police Department (APD) detective Brett Sarber arrived on scene and reported that the victim lost consciousness, “thinking she was going to die.” According to Sarber’s report, Schneider never intended to kill the woman. He told her he just “needed her to believe she was going to die so that he could be sexually fulfilled.”
Last month, Schneider, now 34, was convicted for the assault. Yet, despite a two-year sentence, he will not serve a day in jail.
“One Free Pass”
In a state where 61 percent of sexual assault victims are Native women, Schneider’s crime, while particularly heinous, is unfortunately not out of the norm. The fact that he’s walking away from the incident without jail time just adds insult to injury.
Schneider, on Sept. 19 of this year, was found guilty of a second degree Class B felony assault charge and sentenced to two years in prison, with one year suspended and credit for time served. Having spent the last year under house arrest, he will not serve prison time at all.
Originally indicted on four felony charges including kidnapping and assault, and one misdemeanor count of harassment, Schneider pleaded guilty to the assault charge in exchange for the light sentence. As part of his plea agreement, Schneider is now serving three years probation. He also must continue wearing an ankle monitor and participate in a sex offender treatment program.
However, because unwanted contact with semen is not a sex crime in Alaska, Schneider will not have to register as a sex offender. At best, unwanted contact with bodily fluids can only be defined as harassment.
In the time since the ruling, people across the United States are asking how such a horrible crime could result in such a lenient punishment. The Alaska State Department of Law acknowledged this concern in a press release several days after the trial, but concluded that the sentence was “consistent with current Alaska law.” The State also clarified that it had dismissed the most serious charge of kidnapping against Schneider, fearing that it would be difficult to prove since the victim entered the car willingly. Under Alaska law, “kidnapping” requires one to be restrained or moved against one’s will.
Anchorage Assistant District Attorney Andrew Grannik told Judge Michael Corey that he did not believe Schneider was at risk for reoffending, saying “that's the reason why I made the deal that I've made, because I have reasonable expectations that it will not happen. But I would like the gentleman to be on notice that that is his one pass — it's not really a pass — but given the conduct, one might consider that it is.”
The State’s press release observed that the word choice of “pass” was “unfortunate and misunderstood.”
When given the chance to speak during his trial, Schneider did not apologize for his actions or recognize their impact on his victim. Instead, he emphasized how grateful he was for the process, stating that it “has given me a year to really work on myself and become a better person, and a better husband, and a better father, and I'm very eager to continue that journey.”
The Ongoing Tragedy of Assault Against Indigenous Women
“In Alaska, Native people make up 15-20 percent of the population, and yet comprise more than 40 percent of sexual assault victims,” says Lakota People’s Law Project Cheyenne River organizer Madonna Thunder Hawk. “This is an attack on the original peoples of this land — especially on women and children — and it’s our duty as good relatives to stand up and say something.”
Alaska, an already remote and sparsely populated state, must seem like a safe haven for sexual predators — especially those who target Native American or First Nations women. It has the highest sexual assault rate in the nation — three times the national average. For children, that number jumps up to six times the national average. The median age of female victims of sex crimes in the state is 19, and many of the victims are minors. Deplorably, the most common age of victims is just 15 years old. Of the total number of suspects, 96 percent are male. In a state where the population is 52.2% male, some are calling for Alaska to declare a state of disaster, which would spur the implementation of additional resources on the state and tribal level.
Native women are nearly ten times more likely to be assaulted than other Alaskan women. The large majority of the perpetrators of these assaults, again, are non-Native males.
Several days before Schneider was sentenced, the body of 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr, a Native American girl from a remote Inupiat town on Alaska’s northwestern coast, was found in an offroad section of tundra thick. She had gone missing eight days earlier after leaving a playground to head home.
Autopsy reports show that the girl had defensive wounds on her hands and signs of strangulation and sexual abuse. Peter Wilson, 41, has been charged with the murder, including a single count of kidnapping and four counts of sexual abuse of a minor in the first degree. Wilson allegedly abducted the girl with an ATV, abused and murdered her, and kept her phone on him, which led to his arrest.
The heartbreaking stories of Ashley Johnson-Barr and Schneider’s unnamed victim are all too common in Indian Country. Alaska is failing its women, and especially its Native women. This is unacceptable.
"It's absolutely appalling that he walked away free," Elizabeth Williams, a social worker and former volunteer rape counselor, told the Associated Press in reference to Schneider.
Williams, outraged by his plea deal, started a Facebook page shortly after the verdict to rally people against the prosecutor who struck the deal and the judge that allowed it to happen. Her page, called “No More Free Passes—vote NO on Judge Corey!” garnered over 3,500 likes in just a few weeks.
The online group is organizing against the retention of Judge Corey, which comes up for a vote on Nov. 6. No More Free Passes filed paperwork on Sept. 27 with the Alaska Public Offices Commission to officially register its campaign. On Saturday, over 50 people with the grassroots organization gathered in downtown Anchorage to call for Corey to be removed from the state Superior Court.
For many Alaskans, the outcome of the Schneider case felt “disturbingly routine,” notably that the attacker is a white male and the victim is a Native woman.
"This is another example of an Alaska Native woman not getting the justice they deserve,” Williams told the Associated Press last month.
Loopholes in the Law
The sexual violence that occurs in Alaska’s cities and rural regions is only exacerbated by the loopholes in the state’s sex crime laws. Schneider’s recent conviction highlights a problem with a long history and without adequate response from the State.
America’s 49th state has had to amend previous loopholes in sex crime laws; before a recent legislative fix, sex with a minor on the first offense was not considered a sex offense. As of Oct. 2, there are 3,534 sex offenders registered in the state, and 251 of them are in noncompliance. The Department of Public Safety does not know where 75 of the 251 are currently located.
Similarly, sexual predators registered out of state currently do not have to register as sex offenders if they move to Alaska.
This lack of oversight for sexual offenders is reflective of a broader issue within Alaska’s recent criminal reforms. In a well-meaning attempt/rush to reduce correctional costs, Alaskan lawmakers have prioritized cost savings over the safety of their constituents.
Passed in July 2016, Senate Bill 91 (SB 91) is Alaska’s recent majxor criminal justice reform bill, meant to reduce the number of people in prison and cut overall correctional costs. Though noble in its goals, it failed to specifically address Alaska’s sexual assault epidemic and introduce legislation that would have protected Alaska’s most vulnerable groups.
“As we know, every great evil in history was enabled because it was in accordance with law,” Alaska Native Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie wrote in Indian Country Today. “The violator is not required to even register as a sex offender, because of the law.”
Gov. Bill Walker, an Independent coming up for re-election in Nov., has recently revised his year-old, 82 point “Public Safety Action Plan” to include proposed amendments to Alaska’s sex crime laws. Some main points of this plan would do the following:
1. Make unwanted contact with semen a sex crime;
2. Treat sex with a minor more than six years younger as a sex offense, not just statutory rape, and require the perpetrator to register as a sex offender;
3. Force individuals registered as sex offenders in other jurisdictions to register in Alaska;
4. Ensure that unwanted videotaping of locker rooms or bathrooms are categorized as sexual offenses.
All three gubernatorial candidates in the upcoming election, including Walker, have expressed disappointment in the verdict coming out of Schneider’s case and advocated for changes to existing sex crime laws. How this change will happen, though, is still unclear.
If sentences that coddle criminals like Justin Schneider are “consistent” with the current law, then one thing is abundantly clear: it is time to change the law. In the current national landscape, survivors all over this country are dealing with renewed pain and anxiety, reliving past trauma, and worried for the future of themselves and their daughters. The problem is widespread and nobody’s pain should be minimized. That said, we cannot and will not forget, specifically, the violence against indigenous women — no matter the nation — that continues at such a horrific frequency.