Vigilante Justice in the rape capital
It’s a familiar storyline in comic books: The hero or someone close to them is attacked, justice is not served and the character becomes a vigilante hero. In real life, though, vigilantes aren’t considered heroes, and two Alaskan victims of child sexual abuse are currently imprisoned because of vigilante actions ranging from stabbing someone to death to beating people with a hammer.
In 2014 former North Pole resident Miranda Barbour, then living in Pennsylvania, placed an ad on craigslist offering paid companionship for men who hate their wives. She waited for the client who responded to join her in her car, while her new husband crouched down in the backseat. If the man agreed to have sex with her after she told him she was 16, she would kill him. If he declined, she would let him go. According to Barbour, Troy Laferrerra loved the idea of having sex with a 16-year-old, so she stabbed him over 20 times while her husband had a cord wrapped around his neck.
She claimed to have committed dozens of other vigilante murders in Alaska, Texas and California.
Vigilantism is associated with frontier towns where citizens lack the protection of the criminal justice system.
Alaska, The Last Frontier, is known as the Rape Capital of the country and Anchorage has earned the shameful title of the most dangerous city in the country for women. Many have questioned whether the incredible prevalence of sexual assault in Alaska is related to a lack of protection by Alaska’s criminal justice system. Does Alaska have more vigilantes than other states? No one seems to be tracking vigilante crimes, but earlier this year a Nebraska man was charged with the vigilante murders of 27 sex offenders who lived near him.
In some ways, Alaska might encourage a little bit of vigilantism: Alaska Statute 12.25.030 allows citizens to arrest those they reasonably suspect of committing a felony. Back in the late ’90s when I worked the overnight shift at the front desk of a downtown Fairbanks hotel (in violation of the curfew law at the time—I was 16) I was encouraged to make citizen’s arrests of intoxicated people who presented a persistent nuisance come time for the hotel guests to start waking up. Sometimes I would have several inebriated people in handcuffs in the back room before an overworked Fairbanks Police Department officer showed up to collect them. No officer ever questioned my age or informed me that the law might not permit me to be putting people in handcuffs over misdemeanor behavior.
Miranda Barbour’s claims reminded some of Aileen Wournos, the “hitchhiking prostitute” who—after a traumatic childhood and teen years spent homeless and hitchhiking back and forth across the country—killed a customer she claimed anally raped her. After that she just kept on killing. Barbour’s origin story is similar to Wournos’: She was subjected to continuing sexual assaults at the age of three which a judge described as the most physically extreme case of child abuse he had ever seen. The perpetrator, her Uncle Rick, served less than half of his 19-year prison sentence and was convicted of having child pornography only a couple of years after he was released.
“It’s something I’ve struggled with all of my life. He will never change. None of them ever do. The legal system is supposed to protect people from these people. It doesn’t. It didn’t protect me … People think I’m a monster, but I’ve done a lot of good,” Barbour said of her alleged dozens of murders which she says spared hundreds of young girls from abuse. “The justice system doesn’t work, so I did what I did.”
Barbour’s claim that the justice system doesn’t work—at least in sexual assault cases—has been echoed by many. Children in Alaska are sexually assaulted at a rate six times higher than the national average. According to STAR (Standing Together Against Rape) 30 percent of Alaskan sexual assault victims are not able to access services. It is estimated that, nationally, only three to 12 percent of child sexual assault cases are reported to police. According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) only seven out of 344—just two percent—of sexual assault reports lead to convictions.
Earlier this year Anchorage resident Jason Vukovich is alleged to have broken into the houses of three men listed on the Alaska sex offender registry for crimes against children and brutally assaulted them with a hammer and his fists. In September, Vukovich sent an intriguing letter to the Alaska Dispatch News: If convicted of the assaults he could face well over 60 years in prison; instead he offered to serve—in succession—the sentences received by the three child molesters he assaulted plus that of the man who molested him as a child—eight years and nine months.
“Grown men who suffer physical wounds will heal, children who are maligned physically, spiritually and emotionally grow up but never become what they could have been. A molested or beaten child automatically receives a life sentence. There is no release date,” Vukovich wrote to the Dispatch. “I realize no organized modern society can tolerate vigilantism, however no reasonable court can think that justice is served when someone who allegedly assaulted three convicted child molesters is expected to serve four or five times as long in prison as they did—combined!”
Vigilantism makes for good storytelling, but in real life it is a slippery slope. The earliest form of organized vigilantism were “vigilance committees” much like modern neighborhood watches. Similar to the very publicized murder of Trayvon Martin by a vigilante neighborhood watch, early vigilance committees resulted in organized violence by groups of middle- and upper-class men perpetrated mostly against members of the lower class and marginalized groups. Similarly organized vigilante groups also became lynch mobs. Modern vigilante groups, on the other hand, have taken to posting names of alleged rapists in bathrooms to alert potential victims of dangerous people in their communities, claiming this is more effective than relying on the justice system to ensure public safety.
Does the trauma of being assaulted—or the secondary trauma of an insufficient response by the justice system—create vigilantes? It happens in comic books, so I turned to Noah Berlatsky, author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.
“This story that [Vukovich] is telling about himself, that he was traumatized and therefore he has to go mete out justice is a superhero storyline,” Berlatsky said. “The way that superhero stories generally work is that the superhero goes out—there’s injustice that the law system can’t handle or handles poorly, and therefore the superhero goes out and handles it with some extreme of violence.” Berlatsky pointed out that in some stories, like True Detective, a trauma origin story is responsible for police officers turning to the path of justice as well.
Dr. Jeffrey Bale, an expert in terrorism, organized crime and countercultures, said that vigilantes do believe that they are doing the morally “right” thing. He also thinks that “a dysfunctional justice system that fails to catch and/or adequately punish perpetrators of crimes and abuses is one major cause of vigilantism.”
Alaska’s history of insufficient responses to child sexual abuse has touched many lives, including my own and that of many I know.
One of the more heartbreaking stories I heard was during a recorded interrogation of a sex worker. An investigator with the Alaska Bureau of Investigations kept bringing up her history of being sexually abused as a child, seemingly in an effort to unsettle her before coming back to questioning her about escorting. Finally, she explained her previous experience with police to him: “It’s on record what he did to me, it’s on record that my mom’s a piece of shit that never did anything about it … APD did nothing, told me that I was a liar … the case was closed because I was not a virgin. When I did go to the hospital I wasn’t a virgin, obviously, cause my brother’s been fucking me and my stepdad’s been fucking me [they] told me I was a liar, shunned me.”
This woman did not become a vigilante. I did not become a vigilante after a Fairbanks prosecutor decided not to charge a case against my father—that Troopers had spent months investigating—because he thought juries didn’t like girls like me. My auntie didn’t become a vigilante after police told her not to make up stories about her father when she tried to report her abuse. The woman I was hanging out with last night did not become a vigilante after police chose to believe her family—who sided with her abuser against her—when she tried to report her own sexual abuse as a preteen. Why do some people become vigilantes and others not?
Pam Karalunas, the chapter coordinator of Alaska Children’s Alliance, explained, “when a [child] victim decides to tell and the system designed to protect them fails, it is a betrayal that we can only begin to imagine. Some children respond by complete withdrawal and hopelessness; some by deciding that they have no value whatsoever; some decide suicide is the only way out; some numb their feelings by drug and alcohol abuse and some take back their power and express their rage in whatever ways they can to make sense of what has happened and to make the world a fair place in which to live.”