Deadliest State: For Women in Alaska, Rape, Domestic Violence, and Murder are Far Too Common

A photo of Linda Skeek hangs in her foster family’s home. Skeek went missing in Anchorage in 2016 and her husband, Thomas Skeek, was charged with her murder. In March 2019, Thomas Skeek was acquitted of all charges.
SANDY HOOPER
Alaska is the most dangerous state in the U.S. for women
Alaska is a sprawling state with a population about the size of Seattle, but a staggering 59 percent of adult women in Alaska have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both.

*WARNING: THIS STORY INCLUDES DESCRIPTIONS FROM WOMEN ALLEGING DOMESTIC ABUSE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT. IF YOU ARE EXPERIENCING SEXUAL VIOLENCE, OR KNOW SOMEONE WHO IS, YOU CAN CONTACT THE NATIONAL SEXUAL ASSAULT HOTLINE AT 800-656-HOPE (4673) OR THE NATIONAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE AT 800-799-7233.

JUNEAU, Alaska – She wore her hair down to cover bruises on her neck and collarbone. She’d go days without speaking to her family, explaining later that her husband didn’t want her communicating with them. In turn, her family grew suspicious, then fearful. Was Linda safe, they wondered?

They knew the state’s grim reputation: Alaska often ranks as the deadliest state for women. A staggering 59% of adult women in Alaska have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both. Linda Skeek’s family knew, too, that as violence escalates in the home, victims are less and less likely to make it out unscathed. But they kept hoping: She’d be OK, right?

Nicole Robinson-Wells, Linda’s foster sister, recalls a frantic phone call from Linda a few years ago. She begged Robinson-Wells to come pick her up. When Robinson-Wells walked into Linda’s home, she says she found Thomas Skeek, Linda’s husband, trying to stab Linda with a large kitchen knife, as Linda screamed and dodged him.

Each time Linda decided to leave, her family says, Thomas wooed her back with promises to be better and provide the stability that she and their children needed. Robinson-Wells says Thomas convinced Linda multiple times not to report domestic violence to police, telling her, “We have these two children and if I go to jail … they’re not going to grow up with a dad.”

Three years ago, Linda Skeek, then 32 and a mother of three, disappeared in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Within two weeks of her disappearance, prosecutors charged Thomas, now 37, with her murder, alleging that after he killed his wife in their apartment, he disposed of the body and bought cleaning supplies to cover his tracks.

On March 28, a jury acquitted Thomas Skeek. Defense attorney Emily Cooper told jurors that the state couldn’t prove that Linda Skeek was dead, let alone that Thomas Skeek killed her, because there was no body.

During the trial, senior assistant district attorney James Fayette pointed to a history of explosive arguments between the two, which neighbors often overheard and which were described under oath as including violent threats from him. He argued no one but Thomas had a motive to kill Linda, who wanted a divorce.

Like many, Linda Skeek loved Alaska for its rugged beauty and tough terrain. For decades, travelers, transplants and natives have taken pride in surviving and thriving in this remote state, unlike any other in America. But the isolation has consequences, too. The reality is that many women in Alaska have to survive something far more dangerous than anything they might encounter in the wild: the men they interact with every day.

Across the state, and not just in rural areas, women are raped, beaten and murdered by their spouses and relatives at higher rates than anywhere else in the United States. Reported rape in Alaska is 2.5 times the national average, and it consistently ranks in the top two states of women killed by men.

But to women here, the stats are more than just numbers – they represent their sister, best friend, neighbor, mother, cousin, teacher, grandmother, the woman standing next to them in the checkout line. It’s them. And the violence is happening alongside rampant drug and alcohol abuse, particularly in remote areas of Alaska, where native villages often lack law enforcement. For victims in those regions, it’s not just about personally knowing your attacker – odds are, everyone else in the village knows him, too. And some of them are likely related to him.

“If you meet an (Alaska Native) adult female from The Bush, it’s almost a guarantee she’s been molested or raped or abused somewhere along the way,” says career prosecutor June Stein, who lives in Anchorage and spent five years working in The Bush, Alaskans’ term for regions not connected to the road network.

But as Linda Skeek’s family learned firsthand, big cities aren’t always safe, either.

‘She wanted a clean life’

Everyone loved Linda from the moment she walked into Rena and Lenny Sims’ home. The foster parents have seen the depths of abuse over 21 years: children raped by family members; girls pimped out by addict parents who need a fix; boys growing up in homes where dad beating mom is an everyday occurrence. Rena Sims, 61, estimates that of the 300-plus children she’s taken in over the past two decades, 98% have experienced some form of sexual trauma.

Linda, then 14, didn’t talk about her childhood or her biological family – instead she gushed about her love of Juicy Couture, and showed off her drawing skills. She played with Bratz dolls and did other kids’ hair and makeup. Known for her laugh, which spilled out as a high-pitched cackle and often came after she busted up at her own joke, she made fast friends with everyone.

Rena Sims’ sprawling home is built to accommodate many, with 11 bedrooms, six bathrooms, four huge sectional sofas, three fully stocked refrigerators, and an enormous framed painting of Martin Luther King Jr. propped on an easel opposite an 8-foot stuffed grizzly bear. She tells children who come there that “we’re already on your side.”

Linda took to Rena Sims instantly, tagging along to a variety of community services projects as Rena Sims’ biological daughters Robinson-Wells and Sarita Knull, then 19 and 20, respectively, teased Linda that she was Rena Sims’ mini-me.

“Linda,” Rena Sims says, “wanted to be loved so bad.”

Still, for as much as Linda could endear herself to her foster family by making banners to celebrate the little ones’ birthdays and teaching her sisters how to dance, there was a darker side, too. From the beginning, it was clear Linda had a problem with drugs and alcohol.

Domestic violence and children: The startling toll on children who witness domestic violence is just now being understood

Rena Sims says Linda used drinking and drugs “to escape her past” and to fit in with her biological family, who she stayed in touch with. Hungry for a permanent home, Linda spoke openly of wanting to be a wife and to have children and of her desire to do it the right way.

“She wanted a clean life,” Rena Sims says.

She just didn’t always know how to get one.

Linda was part of “the core,” a group of 20 former foster kids and biological children who kept in touch via a group text anchored by Robinson-Wells and Knull, and who always dropped by during the holidays. When Linda didn’t show up to celebrate the 2016 New Year, her foster family knew something was off.

Linda’s sisters never quite understood why Linda fell for, and almost instantly married, Thomas. They believe she felt pressure from her biological family to marry another Alaska Native (Linda was from the Tlingit tribe).

From her foster family’s perspective, Linda jumped at the first chance she saw to make that happen. She liked that he had an apartment and a car. “I’m ready to settle down,” said Linda, then just 23 years old.

The family didn’t even get to attend the wedding; two days after Linda married Thomas, she shared the news.

Her family says a few months after they married, Linda was furious to discover Thomas had been charged with sexually abusing a minor. In November 2006, Thomas Skeek was found guilty of attempted sexual abuse of a minor, a misdemeanor. After the conviction, he was required to register as a sex offender and as of June 2019, he was still on the Alaska sex-offender registry.

Soon, Linda’s family started to worry about what they believed were signs of physical abuse.

The sisters say they declined to get in the middle of Linda and Thomas’s relationship – not because they didn’t care, but because they were concerned for their own safety. Knull, 41 and a mother of two, says her husband told her, “Until your sister is ready to leave, I can’t have my wife and my kids in danger.”

Nicole Robinson-Wells and Sarita Knull, Linda Skeek’s foster sisters, recall how close they were to Linda were growing up. Skeek went missing in Anchorage in 2016 and her husband, Thomas Skeek, was charged with her murder. Thomas Skeek was acquitted of all charges in 2019. SANDY HOOPER

When Linda and Thomas moved to Anchorage, the family hoped Linda’s burgeoning nursing career could stabilize her relationship with Thomas – or potentially give her the funds to get out and start over. But the family says the distance seemed to embolden Thomas, who they believe only grew more violent as the years passed.

At Linda’s murder trial in February, the state brought to the witness stand Barbara Barnett, who lived in the Anchorage apartment above Linda and Thomas.

Barnett had a history of listening to Thomas and Linda’s relationship play out. She told the jury that in October 2015, she overheard an argument between Linda and Thomas in which Linda screamed, “Help me! He’s killing me!” and Thomas yelled, “I’m going to kill you, you f***ing slut!” Barnett called the police that night. She said after that argument, Linda and Thomas both confronted her, warning her to mind her own business.

She also testified that on Jan. 1, 2016, she heard a loud argument between the two, where Linda pleaded for a divorce. Barnett told the jury she heard Thomas “go into a rage,” a lot of violent noise, and then a loud bang. After that, “I never heard Linda again.”

During the trial, defense attorney Cooper painted Linda Skeek as a longtime drunk – she had a DUI conviction from 2014 – who simply wandered away from her home, and her children.

Aryahna Skeek, Linda and Thomas’ 10-year-old daughter, also testified for the state. The girl told the jury that on the night Linda went missing, “I remember a big fight downstairs, I was crying.” She said she “heard a big thump,” and went downstairs to see what was happening. From the steps, she said she saw her mother’s feet in a puddle of blood by the bathroom floor.

Domestic-violence cases everywhere

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SOURCE: Lindsay Schnell, Sandy Hooper, USA Today