Feds: Suspect had missing girl's cell phone, lied about knowing her

Ashley Johnson-Barr was reported missing in Kotzebue after she was last seen Thursday, Sept. 6. (Photo Courtesy Walter "Scotty" Barr)
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Federal charging documents have been filed Monday afternoon against a man related to the death of Ashley Johnson-Barr in a case officials say appears to be murder.

Peter Wilson, 41, of Kotzebue faces a charge of making false statements to a federal agent. The charge filed against Wilson centers on accusations that he lied to law enforcement, particularly in regards to Johnson-Barr's cell phone, which is said to have led authorities to her body Friday evening.

A sworn affidavit submitted by Michael Watson, a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent, reports that investigators used geo-location data from Johnson-Barr's phone to discover that on the day of her disappearance, it had traveled roughly two miles east of downtown Kotzebue.

They traveled to that location Friday, Sept. 14.

"At approximately 4:15pm, Ashley's body was located one quarter mile off the road on the tundra in an area that could only be accessed by four-wheeler or on foot," wrote the FBI special agent. "This was an area that was concealed by thick alder and willow brush and a depression in the ground."

A warrant has now been obtained to collect DNA and trace evidence samples from Wilson, and officials say Johnson-Barr's death appears to be a murder, although the cause of death is still being investigated.

The FBI special agent says a person whom Wilson sometimes stays with found Johnson-Barr's cell phone in Wilson's jacket pocket on the evening of Sept. 6, the night that the girl disappeared.

"When she picked up the phone and tried to unlock it she saw Ashley's name displayed on the screen," wrote Watson. "(The person) knew Ashley and her family, so (she) immediately contacted Ashley's mother, who advised that Ashley was missing. Ashley's father went to (the) residence and retrieved the phone and it was later turned over to the Kotzebue Police Department."

According to the FBI, Johnson-Barr's family and Wilson were relatives, with Wilson visiting Johnson-Barr's family on multiple occasions.

According to the affidavit, Wilson was interviewed by FBI Task Force Officer Leonard Torres on Sept. 13. In the interview, Wilson is alleged to have denied knowing Ashley, denied seeing Ashley's name on the cell phone, and repeatedly said that he found the cell phone near the NANA building on Third Avenue.

Watson also alleges that Wilson made an unexplained two-hour trip on a four-wheeler around 5:30 p.m. on the night that Ashley disappeared. That trip is in the same time frame that the girl's cell phone traveled to the area where her body was later found.

Johnson-Barr's body was found late Friday afternoon after an exhaustive eight-day search of Kotzebue and its surrounding areas.

Jonathon Taylor, communications director for the Department of Safety, said in terms of potential state charges that the "investigation is still ongoing and law enforcement is continuing to follow up on leads and process evidence."

Johnson-Barr's body was transported to Anchorage so the State Medical Examiner's Office could conduct an autopsy. Taylor said the autopsy has been completed as of Monday afternoon. He did not know when Johnson-Barr's body would be sent back to Kotzebue.

Taylor described that investigators now had "quite a bit of evidence" to process from both the autopsy and connected to the scene where Johnson-Barr's body was found.

As of Monday morning, Taylor said the case could be categorized as a suspicious death investigation but not as a homicide investigation.

Most of the law enforcement officers that troopers sent to Kotzebue are now back to their regular assignments, according to Taylor, but he said the investigation is still ongoing and troopers may make one-off trips to Kotzebue to follow leads.

Taylor said it would be wrong to say that investigation efforts had been scaled back, with resources in Anchorage now taking a larger role.

Johnson-Barr's body was found about 4 p.m., around a mile east of town on the tundra. Taylor says that evidence from a number of sources had led investigators to find her body. He would not comment on what that evidence was or where the information came from.

Officials with the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced around an hour later that Wilson had been arrested and faced charges of making a false statement to a federal agent. However, Wilson does not face charges directly connected to Johnson-Barr's disappearance or death.

For over a week, dozens of volunteers went to the Northwest Arctic Borough building, helping to canvass areas in the town of Kotzebue and its surrounding areas. The volunteers worked tirelessly searching abandoned buildings, inside confined spaces, and across the tundra.

The volunteers were joined by as many as 17 FBI special agents, 11 Alaska State Troopers, and members of the Kotzebue Police and Fire Departments. The Northwest Arctic Borough, the United States Coast Guard and United States Fish and Wildlife Service also assisted in the search.

Three friends in Anchorage helped to feed the volunteers by sending hundreds of pounds of food and supplies donated by strangers. The food was sent free by Alaska Airlines, complimented with local fare, including muktuk that came from nearby villages.

The same friends are now planning to send another 1,000 pounds of food and supplies Wednesday for Johnson-Barr's memorial and potluck, which has been scheduled for later in the week.

In a week, a GoFundMe page set up for the family has raised more than $35,000 of an $18,000 goal.

Walter "Scotty" Barr, Ashley's father, said Thursday afternoon that bringing Ashley's body home would "bring peace and relief and allow the healing to begin."

Barr said the family would want anyone responsible for his daughter's death to be brought to justice.

Jill Burke contributed to this story.

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