ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - On Monday, the family of Veronica Abouchuk flooded into an Anchorage courtroom through tears, pausing often for hugs. When the emotion was too much, anguish escaped their lips in sobs and quiet wails.
Joanne Sakar and Natasha Gamache, supporters of Veronica Abouchuk sit at Brian Smith's arraignment wearing red hands over their faces, symbols of a nationwide movement to improve the startling statistics about missing and murdered indigenous women.
Before the mid-afternoon hearing, church bells rang through downtown, a soft background noise to the hallway chatter of the assembled crowd.
They'd come to witness the second arraignment of 48-year-old Brian Smith, whom police say shot Abouchuk and left her body along a highway north of Anchorage.
For the family, it is the latest event in a series of heartaches, of murdered and missing mothers and sisters.
Years before Abouchuk disappeared, her sister, Martha Toms, was found severely beaten in 2005 underneath a picnic table in an Anchorage park. She died the next day. The case remains an unsolved homicide within the Anchorage Police Department.
More than a decade later, Abouchuk went missing.
"She was full of life. I grew up with her as a child," Tatauq Muma, Abouchuk's niece, told KTUU. "Aunty Veronica" was a "very sweet lady. She loved her kids. She loved everyone. I really miss that," Muma said after Smith's arraignment.
Smith is accused of killing Abouchuk and a second victim, Kathleen Henry, in unrelated incidents more than a year apart. Police credit a mysteriously appearing memory card containing still images and videos of Henry's murder with helping them solve the case. According to police, a good Samaritan found the memory card on the ground, discovered the contents, then made arrangements to turn it in.
At the hearing, Smith entered not guilty pleas and asked for a jury trial. A judge granted the prosecution's request to raise Smith's bail to two million dollars.
Muma said Abouchuk taught her how to cook, including an encrusted chicken dish made with Corn Flakes.
Over the years, the family did what they could to stay close to Abouchuk. Sharpe even took a brief job at Bean's Cafe, which provides meals to the homeless, so that she could more easily keep in contact with her sister.
They knew something was wrong when Abouchuk failed to pick up her Permanent Fund Dividend check about two years ago, according to Angela Sharpe, Abouchuk's sister.
"It was scary. We've always wanted the best for her," Muma told KTUU about her aunt's disappearance.
In August 2018, law enforcement incorrectly identified a different found body as that of Abouchuk's. For reasons unknown, that deceased individual had Abouchuk's identification, Sharpe said. A fingerprint comparison later confirmed it wasn't her.
It wasn't until Smith's arrest for Henry's murder that investigators caught the break they needed. During an interview with police, police say Smith confessed to shooting a woman and leaving her remains along the Old Glenn Highway. When presented with a picture of Abouchuk, police say Smith identified her as the woman he had shot.
With that new information, investigators used dental records to confirm that a skull found in that area in April was indeed that of Abouchuk. The skull had damage from a bullet hole.
With that discovery, Abouchuk had gone from missing woman to murder victim.
"We didn't know what to think. We were hoping for a better outcome," Muma said.
Now, the family's focus is on staying strong for each other and calling on better ways for the community to keep vulnerable women safe.
"Maybe we can find ways to stop it before it happens again," Muma said.
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