Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price stands alongside photos of Jessica Baggen taken at her 17th birthday party in 1996. Baggen was murdered later that same evening as she walked home on the Sawmill Creek Road bicycle path. It wasn’t until August, 2020, that “genetic geneaology” was used to identify a suspect living in Arkansas. (DPS image)

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was like the pavement that all other stories rolled on- everything from school closures, the poor fishing season, the non-existent cruise season, to elections. Most news was propelled by the pandemic in some way.

While the winding road through 2020 was unpredictable, Sitkans found answers to some tough questions amid the detours: How to live together in uncertain times, how to educate our children, and how to adapt and move forward. KCAW’s Robert Woolsey and Katherine Rose review the 2020 stories that shaped us. Listen here:

Here are additional details on the stories referenced in this podcast:

Jessica Baggen Cold Case Resolved

Unsolved for 25 years, 2020 finally brought answers to the cold-case murder of Jessica Baggen. Jessica’s death left an indelible impression on how we thought about ourselves and our community. And the ending of the story is just as hard to understand as the beginning.

The suspect, Steve Allen Branch, took his own life in Arkansas after investigators confronted him last August. They were led to him by a technique called “genetic genealogy” that is being used all over the country to solve cold case crimes.

“While Branch will never face a jury of his peers in this case, we can finally say that Jessica’s case is solved,”

Amanda Price, Alaska’s Commissioner of Public Safety

Price said that the genetic genealogy methods used to find Jessica Baggen’s killer will continue to be applied by investigators, meaning “there is no amount of time that can pass that a case can not be a priority for this department.”

Social Justice and the Baranov Statue

There were several demonstrations in Sitka following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man and who was killed by Minneapolis police in May. Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests and calls to end police violence and defund the police. In Sitka there were vigils and weekly demonstrations in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that continued into the fall.

Dionne Brady-Howard, whose Tlingit name is Yeidikoo’aa, drums and leads a song after speaking to the crowd about why she wants the city to relocate the statue of Alexander Baranov: “No, it is not about political correctness. It is about accuracy. The teaching of accurate history is the only thing that keeps us from repeating those mistakes.” (Berett Wilber/KCAW)

Sitkans gathered in front of Centennial Hall several times to call for the removal of the statue of Alexander Baranov.

“This monument is not about telling our history, it’s not about acknowledging it. It’s a monument, it’s a place of honor for someone who does not deserve our honor.”

Dionne Brady-Howard, speaking at the first demonstration in June.

A petition to remove the statue received nearly 3000 signatures. The assembly ultimately voted to relocate the statue to the Sitka History Museum, and plans are in the works to replace it with a new monument in 2021. 

A Lost Year for Sitka’s Schoolchildren

2020 will definitely be remembered as the Year of Adaptation, when we had to change so many basic behaviors about how we lived and worked. And while it’s only been a year for adults — one unusual year — for schoolchildren a year’s disruption in their social and academic lives is a very big thing. We had a taste of what things were like during a two-hour listening session with the school district earlier this month. Hearts were laid bare. But this comment by a parent, Teal West, resonated with many.

“I’ve watched a vibrant 12 year-old that was in Silks, softball, basketball, Girls on the Run — you name it, she did it — she’s now in nothing. I’ve watched her go from not being on a screen much, not having much access to iPhones, to being on an iPad eight hours a day.”

Teal West

Local Politics Energized by National Issues

The pandemic also deeply affected local politics. The assembly and Sitka Tribe received millions of dollars in CARES Act relief funding, and spent months figuring out how to spend it. The assembly tried to develop COVID policies- attempts at mandating masks didn’t pass muster at the assembly table, in large part because the public was very split on whether it wanted more restrictions. 

When it came time for municipal elections in October, it was clear that the dramatically different year had energized local political engagement. 8 ran for seats on the assembly, 2 for mayor, three for school board. National issues, namely the coronavirus and navigating the financial repercussions of the virus, but also social and racial justice, fueled the local election, and tensions were heightened over racist comments made by candidates, and threatening language published by one candidate to social media. At the end of the two-month municipal election season, we saw the highest local turnout in the last 15 years.

The election of Crystal Duncan (far left) and Rebecca Himschoot in October narrowed the gender-gap on the assembly. Steven Eisenbeisz (right) became mayor after serving two terms as an assembly member. (KCAW photo)

And Sitka elected two new women to the assembly: Crystal Duncan and Rebecca Himschoot. Himschoot is a teacher who has served on the state board of education.

“There’s nobody who doesn’t want good things for our community. So how we get to those good things is the crux of the matter,” she says. “If we can respectfully learn from each other the steps that we all want to take, I think we can all benefit.”

Rebecca Himschoot

Duncan, who works for Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, was spurred to run after she became involved in the effort to remove the Baranov statue over the summer.

“I realized on July 14 that I had no idea how to get that done. I wasn’t sure if I reached out to the city, the Tribe, how does this all work? I looked up, and I realized that I didn’t see myself reflected in the current membership, and that had me bringing up questions about access and diversity.”

Crystal Duncan

Sitkans elected a new mayor, two-term assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz, and Blossom Twitchell and Andrew Hames were elected to Sitka’s school board. For Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tribal Council, Dionne Brady-Howard and Louise Brady were newly elected, along with incumbents Bob Sam and Michael Miller, and Lawrence “Woody” Widmark was elected to the Tribal Chair post. 

Fishing, Tourism Look to Better Times 

Sitka’s seafood and tourism economy were caught in the downstream effects of the pandemic this year. But there were some bright spots: We learned that Victory Cruise lines wants to bring its newest ship — the Ocean Victory — to Sitka’s industrial park next summer, for what is called a “turnaround” in the business, offloading one group of passengers, and bringing on board another. It’s supposed to be far more lucrative than a regular port of call, and an excellent niche for Sitka in the cruise market. And Sitka’s commercial fishing fleet stepped up when their traditional markets were almost eliminated by the virus, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association led an effort to use grant funds to distribute seafood to Alaskan communities where fish runs had collapsed. Jacquie Foss and her husband fish for ling cod, coho, and king aboard their 40-foot troller out of Sitka. They participated in that effort.

“When you’re starting out with unknown markets, unknown volume, unsure if you’re going to be able to sell your fish anywhere, there was a lot of anxiety early on,

Jacquie Foss
Sitka fisherman Jacquie Foss stands in front of her and her husband’s troller, the Axel. The coronavirus virtually shut down Asian seafood markets, and the American restaurant industry in 2020. Fishermen found a way to use grant funding to provide seafood to families in need — and saved their season. (Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

The work of ALFA, Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, and Catch Together help stabilize markets in what otherwise may have been a disastrous year.

Childcare in Crisis

Some social issues Sitkans were tackling had to be sidelined this year, due to the pandemic. One of them was childcare: Sitka has a major shortage of childcare options for young parents. Pandemic social distancing restrictions made that even more apparent, but before the pandemic Raven News produced a series on Sitka’s childcare shortage. We spoke to parents and providers and experts about what it would take to meet Sitka’s childcare needs. It’s a multi-pronged problem. It’s expensive — the cost can be prohibitive for parents — but there’s also a shortage of workers, and centers are expensive to operate. One parent, Makenzie Rose, was juggling babysitters in the morning, and bringing her baby to work with her in the afternoons, to make do.

“I feel like I’m not doing as good of a job at my job and I’m not doing as good of a job at being a parent. I think a lot of parents feel like that. I don’t really know what other option would be good because I can’t go eight hours without being with her. I don’t want to, I would feel so terrible. So you just try to do as best you can,” she says, “but I’ve definitely sat in here and just cried.”

Makenzie Rose

Sandy Poulson Inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame

“I thought they had the wrong Sandy Poulson,” Poulson said, of the day she was notified of her selection by the Hall of Fame, “but then I realized I was probably the only one!” (Daily Sitka Sentinel photo/James Poulson)

Sandy Poulson was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame this fall. Her “who, me?” response when the Hall of Fame called was so classic! The Daily Sitka Sentinel has been a family-run business for over 50 years, and Sandy and Thad Poulson are giants of small-town journalism.

“I have the good luck of having women include me in this really amazing group of women,” she said. “I just have to remind myself to smile modestly.”

Sandy Poulson

Big Stories Overshadowed by COVID

-Former Sitka Police Det. Mary Ferguson settled harassment claims against the city for $500,000. The city had settled earlier in the year with former jailer Noah Shepard for $30,000 — the third of three lawsuits brought against the Sitka Police Department over the previous couple of years.

-Sitka’s schools experienced the first snow day in either 15 years or 6 years on January 9, 2020, after 15 inches of snow fell steadily over a few days. And they got another snow day on the 10th. That feels like another planet, now!

When it snows in Sitka, it sometimes snows a lot! In January, 2020, 15-inches accumulated in Sitka in just a couple of days. (KCAW photo)

-The Sitka Tribe of Alaska scored some wins in its lawsuit against the state over the management of the commercial herring fishery, which did not occur for the second year in a row.

-And we said goodbye to a pair of Sitka institutions: Gil Truitt, an educator at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, and Bob Allen, the founder of Allen Marine, both passed away this year. 

A Moment Together

This year really has been like no other: As of December 30, 2020, over 330,000 people in the United States have died from the COVID-19 pandemic, and over 19 million people have been infected. The virus further exposed deep divisions and inequities in our society, and so many lives were upended in the wake of the pandemic.

COVID fatigue is very real, and the news can be difficult to swallow, especially when we’re so disconnected from each other. But Sitkans did find ways to connect, peering through windows at the Pioneer Home, a lot more outdoor time with friends and family, teddy bear hunts, virtual dance classes, cooking classes and art walks. Early in the pandemic, one bartender, Peter Menendez at Ernie’s Old Time Saloon, made Sitkans a virtual drink and gave viewers a chance to tell a joke.

Ernie’s Old Time Saloon bartender Pete Menendez lifted spirits by pouring patrons a virtual drink on Facebook, and laughing at their jokes . “Holy mackerel!” he’d exclaim. Indeed… to all of 2020 we say Holy Mackerel!

Really, no kidding, he said that? I can’t believe…well, you know he does that kind of stuff. And then she did that? Maaaan, you gotta be kidding me. Well what’d you do? You said that? That’s hysterical man, holy mackerel.

How are things going at work? Yeah I know it’s been crazy going through this right now, but we’ll get through it. It’s all about community and taking care of each other.

Peter Menendez

Menendez’s video was a shot in the arm at a very dark and uncertain time. And now we’re ending the year with literal another shot in the arm for some. The COVID-19 vaccine is now available to elderly and essential workers in Sitka, with more vaccine availability anticipated in early 2021.

Click here to schedule a vaccine.