Alaska man sentenced to 99 years in death of Kotzebue girl

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A Kotzebue man was sentenced to 99 years in prison Tuesday in the death of Ashley Johnson-Barr, a 10-year-old whose 2018 disappearance captured national attention.

Peter Vance Wilson, 44, had earlier pleaded guilty to charges of murder and sexual abuse as part of an agreement with prosecutors.

Jenna Gruenstein, an attorney with the state Office of Special Prosecutions, argued for the sentence Tuesday, Alaska’s News Source reported.

“This is one of the most serious cases that I’ll probably see in my career,” she said.

Wilson’s attorney, Jessica Toft, cried while agreeing with the sentence. She said visiting the playground named in honor of Johnson-Barr showed how the girl’s death had affected the community.

Utqiagvik Superior Court Judge Nelson Traverso said the circumstances of the crime were “grave and cannot be diminished.”

Traverso said he hoped resolution of the case would provide relief for family, friends and the community of Kotzebue.

“I know it concludes this in one sense, but it doesn’t conclude it in another,” Traverso said.

Relatives of Johnson-Barr spoke at the hearing. Her father, Scotty Barr, and other family members wore purple shirts with her face on them.

Barr said the epidemic of sexual abuse in Alaska needs to end, along with the rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Mona Norton, an aunt to Johnson-Barr, described the trauma of reliving Ashley’s death each time friends or family celebrate a birthday.

Wilson apologized: “I wish I could take back what I did to Ashley. I am very, very sorry.”

The Alaska Department of Law said Wilson was sentenced to 198 years, with 99 years suspended. State Attorney General Treg Taylor in a statement said the sentencing “shows that law enforcement in this state will bring to justice those who commit violent crime and sexual abuse in rural Alaska by working collaboratively and with the community. Hopefully this result brings some sense of closure to Ashley Johnson-Barr’s family and the people of Kotzebue.”

Johnson-Barr disappeared on Sept. 6, 2018. Her remains were found days later in rugged tundra accessible only by a four-wheeler or on foot.

Mourners filled a school gymnasium for Johnson-Barr’s funeral and food and other supplies were flown in from across Alaska and donated for a community potluck.

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill declaring March 12 of each year — Johnson-Barr’s birthday — as Ashley Johnson-Barr Day.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Donny Olson of Golovin, in a statement describing the bill, said: “Honoring Ashley’s life by wearing her favorite color purple, volunteering for child abuse prevention organizations, and celebrating the liveliness and youthfulness of Alaska’s children are all appropriate ways to spend Ashley Johnson-Barr Day.”