NATIONAL NEWS

A stolen digital memory card with gruesome recordings leads to a double murder trial in Alaska

Feb 3, 2024, 9:01 PM

FILE - Brian Steven Smith sits in a courtroom while waiting for his arraignment to start in Anchora...

FILE - Brian Steven Smith sits in a courtroom while waiting for his arraignment to start in Anchorage, Alaska, Oct. 16, 2019. The double murder trial of Smith, a South Africa native accused of killing two Alaska Native women will begin this week, more than four years after a woman provided police with a digital memory card that authorities said contained images and video of one of the killings. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A woman with a lengthy criminal history including theft, assault and prostitution got into a truck with a man who had picked her up for a “date” near downtown Anchorage. When he left her alone in the vehicle, she stole a digital memory card from the center console.

Now, more than four years later, what she found on that card is key to a double murder trial set to begin this week: gruesome photos and videos of a woman being beaten and strangled at a Marriott hotel, her attacker speaking in a strong accent as he urged her to die, her blanket-covered body being snuck outside on a luggage cart.

“In my movies, everybody always dies,” the voice says on one video. “What are my followers going to think of me? People need to know when they are being serial-killed.”

About a week after she took the SD card, the woman turned it over to police, who said they recognized the voice as that of Brian Steven Smith, now 52, a South Africa native they knew from a prior investigation, court documents say.

Smith has pleaded not guilty to 14 charges, including first- and second-degree murder, sexual assault and tampering with evidence, in the deaths of Kathleen Henry, 30, and Veronica Abouchuk, who was 52 when her family reported her missing in February 2019, seven months after they last saw her.

Henry and Abouchuk were both Alaska Native women who had experienced homelessness. They were from small villages in western Alaska, Henry from Eek and Abouchuk from Stebbins.

Authorities say Henry was the victim whose death was recorded at the TownePlace Suites by Marriott, a hotel in midtown Anchorage. Smith was registered to stay there from Sept. 2 to Sept. 4, 2019; the first images showing her body were time-stamped at about 1 a.m. on Sept. 4, police said.

The last images on the card were taken early on Sept. 6 and showed Henry’s body in the back of a black pickup, according to charging documents. Location data showed that at the time the photo was taken, Smith’s phone was in the area of Rainbow Valley Road, along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, the same area where Henry’s body was found several weeks later, police said.

As detectives interrogated Smith about the Marriott case, authorities said, he offered up more information to police who escorted him to a bathroom: He had killed another woman, and he went on to identify her — Abouchuk — from a photo and to provide the location of her remains, along the Old Glenn Highway north of Anchorage.

“With no prompting, he tells the troopers in the bathroom, ‘I’m going to make you famous,’” District Attorney Brittany Dunlop said during a court hearing last week. “He comes back in and says … ‘You guys got some more time? You want to keep talking?’ And then discloses this other murder.”

Alaska State Troopers in 2018 incorrectly identified another body as that of Abouchuk, because Abouchuk’s ID had been discovered with it, for reasons that remain unclear. But with the information Smith provided, investigators re-examined the case and used dental records to confirm a skull with a bullet wound found in the area Smith identified was Abouchuk’s, authorities have said.

Smith’s attorney, Timothy Ayer, unsuccessfully sought to have the digital memory card’s evidence — or even mention of it — excluded at trial. The woman who turned in the card initially claimed she had simply found it on the street, and it wasn’t until a second interview that she confessed she had stolen the card from Smith’s truck while he tried to get money from an ATM and she had it for a week before giving it to police, he said.

For that reason, he argued, prosecutors would not be able to demonstrate the provenance of the 39 photos and 12 videos, establish whether they were originals or duplicates, or say for sure whether they had been tampered with.

“The state cannot produce a witness to testify that the video fairly and accurately depicts any act that actually happened,” Ayer wrote.

However, Third Judicial District Judge Kevin Saxby ruled late Friday that the woman can testify about her possession of the card until she handed it over to police and that the recordings can be properly authenticated.

Henry’s family has not spoken publicly about her death and efforts to reach relatives have not been successful. Abouchuk’s family has not returned messages from The Associated Press.

“These were two Alaska Native women,” Dunlop, then the assistant district attorney, said in 2019 after Smith was charged. “And I know that hits home here in Alaska, and we’re cognizant of that. We treat them with dignity and respect.”

Authorities said Smith, who is in custody at the Anchorage Correctional Facility, came to Alaska in 2014 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen the same month Henry was killed.

In a 2019 letter to the AP, he declined to discuss the case. He added that he was doing well: “I have lost weight, I have much less stress and I am sober.”

His wife, Stephanie Bissland of Anchorage, and a sister acting as a family spokesperson in South Africa, both declined to comment until after the trial.

The trial, expected to last three to four weeks, was scheduled to begin Monday with jury selection.

Prosecutors had suggested the possibility of closing the courtroom to prevent the gruesome videos from being seen by the public. The Associated Press, the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska’s News Source and Alaska Public Media objected to any such move in a letter to the court’s presiding judge.

Afterward, Saxby said he has no intention of keeping the public from the courtroom, but safeguards will be in place to prevent those in the gallery or watching the trial’s livestream from seeing them.

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A stolen digital memory card with gruesome recordings leads to a double murder trial in Alaska