Murder in a Town Full of Suspects

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The mosquitoes swarmed so thick out of the Yukon River that you had to pick them out of your ears. Worse than that, somebody shot a bear out near the airstrip, and the wounded predator was pacing the outskirts of the village. But that's not why Ruby, this squat cluster of houses on the banks of the dreamy Yukon, was keeping its children inside.

It's because Agnes Wright, Ruby's popular postmistress, was beaten behind her mail counter in June and then shot in the head. The Athabaskan elders said the dead never go alone, that Wright's spirit could be scouting for company. But the parents knew better. They kept the children in because Ruby is only a mile long by a quarter of a mile wide, and somewhere in that postage-stamp space, they believed, was the killer.

This is a story of murder finding its way into the Alaskan bush, a place so remote that you take a small plane at Fairbanks and point it toward nowhere and fly 1 1/2 hours just to get there.

It is about what happens when a whole town climbs up the bluff to bury the postmistress, and everyone standing around the grave is under suspicion; about how police, faced with one of the most perplexing investigations ever to confront them in the Alaskan wilderness, finally cracked the case of one of the few U.S. postmasters ever to die in the line of duty.

"Very seldom is there a whodunit in a bush village," said Sgt. Jim McCann, a seasoned homicide investigator who headed up the inquiry for the Alaska state troopers. "Typically in a bush village, everybody knows exactly who killed who. Usually booze is involved, we go out and put it together as quickly as we can, and in a day or two, we're outta there.

"This one's a little bit different," he said. "This one's a lot different."

The distance between where Wright was born--in a small cabin on Goodtime Street--and the one-room post office where she died 32 years later is perhaps 100 yards.

It measured the space of three children, a lover, a husband, a separation, a reconciliation, a sister pregnant with her first child, meetings of the City Council and the school board, organizing Fourth of July village parties, long chats over the postal counter with friends, madcap trips to Fairbanks for a touch of city life.

"I'm having all the fun," Wright scrawled on hotel stationery when she traveled to the city for a few days not long ago. "I stayed in the tub for an hour last night, ate crab tonight. Went shopping. Everything is so expensive here, and it's also exciting. Love you! Miss you!"

In the days and weeks that followed her death, almost no one could figure out who could have killed one of Ruby's most beloved personalities--and in a fashion that demonstrated such rage. Equally perplexing, how could any murder happen in a village of 200 people, separated by hundreds of miles of squat hills and thick woodlands from anywhere else at all? After doing it, where would the killer go? Wright's car was found at the airstrip, but no plane was known to have taken off. Police scoured the river for miles looking for a boat, but never found one. The wilderness outside Ruby is considered barely survivable.

Slowly, the villagers came to understand. Very likely, the killer hadn't left at all, the state troopers kept saying. Why would a stranger have beaten her so brutally before shooting her, breaking the fingers on her hand as she raised it to defend herself? And how would a stranger get out of Ruby? If Wright's killer hadn't left, they theorized, the killer must still be there. The killer must always have been there.

*

For the first time, people were thinking of leaving Ruby. And not because of the mosquitoes or the outhouses or because you have to fly your vegetables in by air charter. Something had happened after Wright was found at the post office on June 20 by her daughters. People started keeping guns by their doors. They started whispering about drug trafficking, and how some of the village's most powerful families were profiting from it. Even if somebody knew something about what had happened to Wright, people said, how could they tell the police and not worry that the same thing wasn't going to happen to them?

Finally, after a week and a half of intense questioning, McCann and the team of U.S. postal inspectors assigned to the case left the village--to give everyone time to think, the investigator explained.

"I had to take a few days off, otherwise I'd go crazy out there," McCann said, sitting in his office in Fairbanks. "Plus, after just living right there and asking the same questions of the same people all the time, I figured I'd give them a breather too. Somebody in that town probably knows what happened, and I figured I'd just give 'em time to think about it."

McCann said he remained convinced that the murderer was still somewhere in the village: perhaps a drug trafficker whom Wright had caught shipping merchandise into the post office. Wright's estranged husband, Joe, was questioned. He had been seen arguing with Wright at the post office, and he was going to have to pay her a lot of child support once the divorce went through. But Joe Wright was dismissed after he produced an alibi and passed a polygraph test.

There were mutterings about possible corruption on the City Council, on which Wright sat. There were reports about a stranger who had been seen near the post office, a man with a long ponytail who had been carrying an accordion folder. The man was seen around town for two days, but never talked to anyone except the children. When they asked him what his name was, he grinned and replied: "Elvis."

People kept talking about Abram Walter, a backwoodsman, trapper, prospector and musician who lived with his parents and brothers at a remote cabin up on the Nowitna River, about 70 miles away near McGrath. Walter had been scheduled to appear in Bethel on a burglary-and-theft case. But his canoe had been found on June 5, overturned on the Nixon Fork in the Kuskokwim Mountain drainage, about two weeks before Wright's murder.

But Walter could have walked through 70 miles of woods and hills, the villagers said. The fact that he was probably dead did not dissuade the village elders, who started talking again about spirits looking for company.

When Katie Kangas, a friend of Wright, proposed Walter as a suspect, the state trooper questioning her sighed. "Ma'am," he said, "first of all, dead people don't murder. And second of all, if somebody had just walked through miles of some of the meanest tundra you've ever seen, he's not gonna kill the first person he sees, is he?"

Robbery was dismissed as a motive. The safe was wide open, and everyone knew the post office never had much cash. The money order machine and several money orders were gone, but who would hold up a post office for a bunch of traceable money orders? And why would you beat the postmistress before shooting her?

So McCann got on a plane and went back to Fairbanks, and waited for the dust to settle.

"Everybody wants me to come out there like a white knight and solve the crime," he said, "and I've got this little town kicking my butt."

*

In the big house that Harold and Florence Esmailka built on the site of the old cabin where Wright was born, one of the elders--Zeta Cleaver--shifts quietly into the kitchen for a plate of food: a strawberry, a bit of lasagna, an ear of corn, cookies, coffee with milk, all Wright's favorite foods. Cleaver will take them back and burn them, as she has every day since Wright's life stole out of her body at the local clinic a few minutes after the attack.

There's evidence that it's working. Cleaver went up to the post office the other day, and the door handle started slowing turning before she touched it. Kangas' husband walked into the post office, and his glasses suddenly slid all the way down his nose. "She's a playful spirit now," Kangas explained.

Wright was always playful. Before she and Joe were married, when she was a single mother raising daughter Jenasey, now 15, she'd go out with her girlfriends every once in a while, tip back a few beers, laugh. The song "Wooly Bully" would play, the song everyone around here calls "The Battle Hymn of the Yukon," and Wright would get up and just whoop.

"She was just outgoing," said her father, Harold Esmailka, who owns a local flying service. "She'd burst through the door and say, 'Good morning, Dad!' and it would light up your whole day."

In the pictures, Wright is always the pudgy one, sticking her head over someone's shoulder, grinning devilishly.

When no one was celebrating the Fourth of July anymore, Wright started organizing village-wide events, setting up three-legged races, egg tosses, a boat race across the river, a contest to see who could be fastest to gather wood and light a fire and make a pot of tea. Her tiny house with the satellite dish was where the neighborhood children always gathered to watch TV and spend the night when their parents were drunk at home.

"The thing that was important to Aggie was her own family. Her kids. Her mom and dad. That was the important thing. Aggie's dream was to get married and have more kids," recalled Deanna Captain, her best friend.

After those long years of raising Jenasey alone, in a village of 200 where she already knew everybody, Wright didn't think that was possible. But then she started seeing more of Captain's brother, Joe. Nobody paid any attention: Joe was nine years younger. But one day, Wright confessed to Captain that the two had fallen in love.

Everybody worried that Joe was too young, but when they saw how wild Wright was about him, they blessed the marriage. Wright had two miscarriages, and then Nicole, now 4, and Darren, 3, were born.

Mostly they were happy, Joe says, except he kept wanting to go out drinking and partying with his friends. Wright would get fed up; Joe would apologize, then he'd go out and do it again. Finally, she threw him out in December.

They presented a property settlement to the judge in Fairbanks, who rejected it, saying Joe wasn't getting enough out of it. Wright argued she had bought almost everything they had with her salary at the post office, but she agreed to throw in the satellite dish. Still, friends say, there were bitter arguments.

"It was the end of April, or early May, I went into the post office and Aggie was just, 'Oh my God, oh my God, Joe was in here calling me all kinds of ugly, dirty names,' " Kangas recalled.

But family members say in the last few weeks before her death, Wright was considering a reconciliation with her husband.

"We spent the morning together when she came back from Fairbanks, me and her and the kids, sitting and watching TV and stuff," Joe said. "I just told her I wanted to stay together. . . . I told her I had to work on my drinking. She said, 'Yeah, I know.' "

Captain has saved a card that Wright gave Joe before she died. It contains a poem urging him, at times when there seems to be no hope, to pray. "To my dear husband," she wrote, "I hope we can work out things together, but we have to give each other time to heal inside. Love, wife Agnes."

When the news got out about the murder, Joe rushed to the post office. Kangas was watching as two people held him back, one by each arm. "He was trying to get in there, and finally he just totally collapsed," she said.

Everyone has spent the last weeks wondering if there was something they missed. Some remember Wright getting depressed lately, and talking about applying for a postal job in another village. One of Joe's sisters, Liz Peters, said she remembers now that Wright was worried about something going on in the village, something she was afraid to mention to anyone else. "I told the police about it, but I don't want to say what it is," she said.

"I drove myself nuts that first week. My mom told me to quit torturing myself. Did I miss something? Did I not hear something I should have?"

*

"I can tell you that right now I am in fear of my life," said one woman who thinks she may have seen Wright's attacker but who hasn't dared to tell anyone about it. On the first few nights, everyone kept guns by the front door and they called each other every few hours, all night long, to make sure everyone was still alive.

"The federal people said they were going to stay here until the case was solved, but they're gone now," said Don Honea, Ruby's mayor. "Mostly right now it's just frustration. Because nothing seems to be resolved. People don't think it's a local person that did it. Most people I talk to don't think we have anybody that violent here."

At the post office, Ron Inlow has temporarily taken over Wright's job. He came back from working at the gold mine many miles away because he didn't want his new wife to be alone at night. Now he says he's confident that the truth will come out.

"Sooner or later, in a little community like this, somebody talks," Inlow said. "Sooner or later. The drugs or the alcohol. They relax a little, and they'll talk."

McCann wasn't so sure. He was getting ready to head back to Ruby, go over the list of possible suspects again, question everyone about the same events he'd already questioned them all about.

But then something happened that nobody could have foreseen. On July 16, the post office at the village of Ester was held up by a man with a gun. The suspect demanded blank money order slips and then walked out the door.

A day later, police with scent dogs found a set of keys labeled "LeMans" near the post office. Sending out a radio alert, a stolen 1992 LeMans was tracked down and stopped. In the driver's seat was Abram Walter.

Walter confessed to killing Wright, authorities said.

"Based on our previous ongoing investigation out of Ruby [and] statements made by the defendant last night, including admissions, the defendant will be charged with murder as a result of the death of Ruby Postmaster Agnes Wright," state prosecutor Jeff O'Bryant said at Walter's arraignment July 17 in Fairbanks.

Walter's family had spent a year or so living in Ruby before moving out into the back country, residents recalled. They were known as a religious family; once, when Abram was accused of breaking into some state fish-and-wildlife agency cabins, his father read him scripture for three hours as atonement.

Joe Matty, who has traveled into the back country for years taking supplies to the Walter family in exchange for furs, said they lived off their garden--1,000 pounds of potatoes a year--and whatever caribou or moose they could run down. For cash, they trapped marten in the winter, prospected for gold in the summer.

Walter, he said, could easily have walked through the woods from Ruby back to McGrath. "It takes a good man about four or five days. It's up and down rolling, forested hills and meandering rivers and stuff all through it. Somebody from L.A. would probably die out there. But he could do it."

In any case, Ruby now has a big case of the I-told-you-sos when the state troopers come to town.

"This has been our thought all along, all along, and nobody would believe us," said Ginger De Lima, Wright's sister. "They thought it was too farfetched. But we knew nobody in this town could have done this."

But did they really? These days, Ruby is still smarting from the weeks when nobody was sure about anything. When nobody had much to say to Joe, when people started asking questions about what was going on at the City Council and who was selling drugs. Now, none of those things matter, except that once the question gets asked, the question mark remains.

"It's over," said Hollie Koyukuk, an elementary school teacher in Ruby. "But will it ever really be over?"

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