Family struggles to find justice after daughter's murder
EAGLE RIVER -- Twenty-seven months ago, a choirgirl’s voice was silenced by a real-life “monster.” Now, the family of a 19-year-old murder victim wants the public to help them speak for her.
“Our daughter doesn’t have a voice,” said Lonny Bower, whose daughter, Linda Anne Martz Bower, was murdered in 2014 by her ex-boyfriend.
Bower is one of four parents whose lives were shattered on Sept. 10, 2014, when David Joseph Thomas, 28, was arrested in the parking lot of an Eagle River drug store with Linda’s dead body in the back seat of his car.
Bower and the other three – his wife, Sherry Bower (Linda’s stepmother); his ex-wife, Sherry Miller (Linda’s mother); and Miller’s husband, Bradley Miller (Linda’s stepfather) – are speaking out against what they believe is a court system more interested in saving money and protecting the rights of the accused than helping victims get justice.
“We’re getting less than justice because they’re worried about the cost,” Lonny Bower said during an hourlong interview at the Star offices in Eagle River on Dec. 14, three days after Thomas entered an Anchorage courtroom and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Sentencing is in April.
Linda’s parents say they’ve been through hell during the months since the murder, and believe the system has failed them on several fronts. They do not believe the state properly advised them of their rights under the law, they think their case has been dragged out by lawyers and they feel the state’s legislators have gone soft on crime. And they want the people of Alaska to know their story.
“I think it’s a little too late for us,” Lonny Bower said. “But for families in the future there’s got to be judicial reform.”
‘A whole different grief’
Linda graduated from Chugiak High School in 2013. A sprite, elfin girl with a blond, pixie hairdo, she might have stood 5 feet tall only when decked out in chest waders while dipping salmon out of the Kenai River. She loved to spend time outdoors, sang in the Chugiak choir, couldn’t keep her hands off “critters” and gave out hugs with a force far out of proportion to her tiny frame.
“It was like she didn’t want to let go,” said her father, smiling at the memory of Linda’s embrace even as tears welled in his eyes.
Lonny Bower said Linda was passionate about whatever she did.
“She just loved everything and she was the most tenderhearted young lady you will ever meet,” he said.
It was her love of pets that eventually set in motion the events that led to her death – her family said she met Thomas at an Eagle River pet store where she worked. The parents said Thomas was manipulative and that the frequently rocky relationship was unsettling to the family. When Linda stopped working at the pet store and got a job at Blockbuster Video, he took a job in the same shopping mall.
“He was very controlling,” said Sherry Miller, Linda’s mom.
Linda broke things off with Thomas the day before he kill her. It wasn’t until later that her family learned he had a violent past that included at least one domestic violence conviction in Montana. In 2007, he made news when he was arrested for assaulting a police officer after cops responded to multiple 911 hang-ups, according to an account in the Billings Gazette. At the time, he was arrested for violating a protective order against a former girlfriend, the paper wrote.
Police say Thomas, now 30, strangled Linda on the night of Sept. 9-10, then held onto her body for 14 hours before telling his brother he killed her. The brother called police, and Thomas called authorities to the Eagle River Walgreens about 15 minutes later, where they found him with the body.
If he’s ever released from jail, Miller has no doubt Thomas will be a threat to others.
“He’s a monster,” she said.
Since their daughter’s death, Linda’s parents have attended every hearing in the case – about one a month. Each has been agony.
“When we saw him for the first time it was like I was gutted like a fish,” Miller said. “It’s like staring at Satan himself.”
Each of the four parents has been in counseling to try and deal with their grief. But as the case has crept through the legal system, their wounds have been continually ripped open.
“When you lose somebody who was vibrant with life one minute and somebody physically takes that life from you, it’s a whole different grief,” she said. “You’re not only grieving for the loss of your child, you’re grieving how somebody can possibly do this to another human being.”
Linda’s stepmother, Sherry Bower, said the continual court hearings have been excruciating.
“It’s horrible,” she said. “How many times have we heard, ‘It’s in the best interest of the state’?”
Cutting a deal
During a change of plea hearing last week, Thomas admitted his guilt on a single charge of second-degree murder. His public defender and state prosecutors cut a deal to ask judge Kevin Saxby for a sentence of 75 years with 25 suspended. Under the deal, he’ll be eligible for parole in 14 years.
Linda’s family believes the sentence is far too lenient for a man they call “a con artist.” All four are confident will hurt more people if given the opportunity.
“He’s not going to get our sympathy,” Bradley Miller said.
Lonny Bower said the plea deal fails the family and his daughter.
“I think we were willing to accept 50 years. As a consensus we wanted him to do 99 years – the max – but we were willing to accept he’d be 80 years old when he got out. What we were definitely opposed to is the fact that with time served he would be eligible for parole in 14 years.”
District Attorney Clint Campion said multiple factors go into plea deals, including the certainty of getting a conviction and a sentence that will protect the public.
“It’s a negotiation, and in order for us to obtain the certainty of a guilty plea and the certainty of a sentence we have to compromise,” Campion said.
Campion said he thinks the plea agreement will allow the state to put Thomas behind bars for long enough that the killer is no longer a threat to the public.
“My perspective on this is I think it’s a fair resolution,” he said. “It holds him accountable and it will protect the community in the long run.”
During the change of plea hearing, Thomas told the judge Linda’s family is right in seeking harsh punishment. They think that statement was an act.
“He’s going to try to game the system,” Bower said.
If he had his druthers, Bower said Thomas would be underneath the prison rather than inside it.
“I for one do not believe you can rehabilitate a murderer. That’s something between God and that individual,” he said. “There’s no place for that individual. They belong out of society or they belong in the electric chair. Unfortunately, Alaska doesn’t have the death penalty.”
The family believes their daughter’s death is a symptom of a growing sickness in the Alaska criminal justice system, and they think a bill passed in the state Legislature last session will only make things worse. Gov. Bill Walker signed the measure, known as SB 91, in July. A massive, 193-section bill, its aim is to reduce the number of inmates in Alaska’s jails and prisons. Among other things, it mandates more treatment for drug offenders, less time in jail for petty thieves and more chances for those on probation and parole.
The bill received bipartisan support in the Alaska Legislature, but has been criticized by members of the public who think it’s soft on criminals. That’s just not the case, said Barbara Dunham, staff council with the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission.
“The idea of this is to reduce recidivism, which should improve public safety outcomes,” Dunham said.
She noted that among its provisions, the bill actually increased the mandatory minimum sentences for first- and second-degree murder. Dunham thinks the public has been misled about the bill’s intent. The idea isn’t to be easier on the bad guys, she said, but to find evidence-based ways to combat the overall crime rate by focusing on rehabilitation and “concentrate resources on the worst offenders.”
The commission was created to address Alaska’s skyrocketing prison population, which increased 27 percent between 2005 and 2014. It’s a task force made up of state and local officials who developed their recommendations based on research by the national PEW Charitable Trusts and the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a partnership between Pew and the U.S. Department of Justice, according to a summary of the bill provided by Sen. John Coghill’s office.
According to the summary, the bill will reduce Alaska’s prison population by 13 percent, save taxpayers $380 million and “reinvest almost $100 million in victims’ services and evidence-based prison alternatives.”
Alaska’s recidivism rate – the rate at which criminals reoffend – was about 60 percent at the time of the bill’s creation, Dunham said, and putting more people in jail simply doesn’t work to reduce crime.
“What seems to be the case is there are diminishing returns in mass incarceration,” she said.
But Lonny Bower believes that’s nonsense.
“It’s all about money and in the end it’s going to cost us our sons and daughters,” he said.
The answer to crime isn’t rehabilitation, he said, but harsher sentences for criminals – especially those who hurt others.
“The answer to crime is to get tough on crime,” he said.
The family also hopes Legislators will enact even tougher penalties for criminals who commit acts of domestic violence.
“There needs to be very stiff penalties for that, because those people will do it again and again,” Sherry Miller said. “This was a domestic violence murder.”
Speaking for the victims
The family is also frustrated with a system they say has failed to represent them. Although Alaska has a state-run Office of Victims’ Rights whose job is to represent crime victims in court, the Bowers and Millers say they weren’t made aware of the office until less than two weeks ago.
“We had to find that out ourselves after the plea agreement,” Sherry Bower said.
The law states crime victims must be notified by police of the office, and prosecutors are supposed to notify crime victims about their rights in writing. But because the notification process often takes place in the immediate aftermath of a crime, victims often aren’t aware of the office’s mission, according to its director, Taylor Winston.
“They’re in trauma mode, a lot of stuff is rushing through their heads,” she said.
Winston’s staff (which includes three other attorneys – all former prosecutors – and an investigator) can speak on victims’ behalf or file proceedings asking a judge to speed up the process.
“Our primary purpose is to represent their statutory and constitutional rights,” she said.
But those rights can’t be represented if victims don’t know the office exists, and Linda’s family says the state made no effort to inform them. None remember being told about the office, although they admitted it’s possible a written notice was sent and not seen. What’s clear, however, is nobody from the state went out of their way to ensure the families’ rights were protected.
“We weren’t aware during all of the pretrial conferences that led up to this that we had a voice,” Bradley Miller said.
Campion said he’s not sure if the family was notified or not because the prosecutor who first handled the case is no longer in the office. He said prosecutors try to work with victims, but typically don’t go out of their way to refer families to the office this late in the process unless there seems to be a disagreement or misunderstanding.
“It isn’t until things appear to be in conflict that we make sure they know about the Office of Victims’ Rights,” he said.
A former state prosecutor, Winston said her office can’t reach out to crime victims on its own.
“We get involved at the point a victim comes to us,” she said.
Lonny Bower said it’s clear the state can do more to reach out to victims.
“When you have a family grieving like we are it’s one thing to say, ‘You have this,’ but it’s another to ensure you get it,” he said.
The Office of Victims’ Rights has about 300 active cases, Winston said. Her attorneys can help victims at any point in a case, from the time someone is arrested until they’re no longer under court supervision.
“We can get involved in a case all the way to parole and probation,” she said.
Created by the Legislature in the early 2000s, Winston said the office is unique in that it’s independent from the rest of the state court system.
“We’re kind of like an ombudsman,” she said.
But if people don’t know about the office, she said, it can’t be much of a help to anyone.
“I think the reason we don’t have more cases is just due to people not knowing who we are and how we can help,” she said.
Winston has done outreach work at police academies to try to get young officers more aware of what the office can do. But the real problem, she said, is a culture among prosecutors and defense attorneys that allows even clear-cut cases like the Bower murder to drag on for months longer than is necessary.
“It’s not a system that would take as long if there was a new culture, a new approach,” she said.
In a case like Thomas’s – where there’s ample, undisputed physical evidence – the courts should be able to act far more quickly.
“That really should not take two years,” she said.
A cry for help
In the aftermath of their daughter’s murder, the family received an outpouring of support from the community. But in the long months since, they’ve found their struggle has become more lonely. Time has a way of making people forget even the most heinous crimes.
Unless it’s their daughter who’s been murdered.
“That’s the worst thing you can hear, ‘Oh, it’ll get better with time,’” Sherry Bower said. “I hate that statement. Really? When? When does it get better?”
The family wants the public to know there are things it can do to help. They want the people to oppose SB 91 and tell legislators that it’s time to reject policies designed to put fewer people in jail. If not, they believe the citizens of Alaska are the ones who will suffer.
“That’s the kind of monsters these (criminals) are and we’re going to see an increase in homicides in Alaska,” Sherry Miller said.
Lonny Bower praised Eagle River Rep. Lora Reinbold, a Republican legislator who has been outspoken in her opposition to SB 91 despite her party’s support of the bill.
“That’s the kind of leadership we need,” he said.
Monday, Reinbold said she’s hopeful the Legislature will take another look at criminal justice reform during the upcoming session.
“We need to get this right,” she said.
Reinbold said the most important thing is to look out for the rights of people like the Bowers and Millers.
“The innocent victims should never be forgotten,” she said.
The biggest way people can help the families, Lonny Bower said, is to remember their daughter.
“There are no words that can ever illustrate the impact of not having Linda in our lives has had on us,” he said. “The only thing we can do is learn to manage our emotions so we can talk about it, so we can get through the day.”
Those remembrances can come in the form of letters to judge Saxby. The family is hopeful the community rallies around their cause and inundates the judge with letters asking for the maximum sentence for Linda’s killer.
“We need letters,” Sherry Bower said.
If that happens, the family is hopeful Thomas will be put behind bars for good.
“The more support, the better off we’ll be,” Lonny Bower said. “We want the public on our side.”
Prosecutor Campion said letters from the public and especially victims are strongly considered during sentencing, and noted Saxby is not bound by the terms of the plea agreement.
“The victims’ input is critical,” he said.
Unfortunately, Campion said he’s also aware no plea deal is likely to satisfy a family whose lives have been so brutally violated.
“There’s no sentence that’s going to bring their daughter back,” he said.
All four parents agreed there’s little good that can come from Linda’s senseless killing. But, Lonny Bower said, they hope Alaskans will always remember the spunky teen whose short life was filled with love, joy and enthusiasm for everything she did.
“She’s our daughter and she’s still existent and I guarantee there’s not a day goes by that none of us don’t talk to her,” he said.
What do they say?
Bower choked up as he struggled to answer the reporter’s question. Then all four parents spoke in harmony.
“That we love her.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA) is a statewide network of resources for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. For more information, visit andvsa.org. If you are in crisis or need immediate help, call 911 or call the domestic violence crisis hotline in your area. In Anchorage, abuse victims can contact Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis (AWAIC) at (907) 272-0100 or Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) at (907) 276-7273 or 1-800-478-8999.