Reopened case into the 2021 death of Bethel woman leaves ‘more questions than answers’
In late 2021, Bethel police responding to a report of an intoxicated man at a home on 1st Avenue Access found an unconscious woman on the back porch. A black windbreaker was twisted around her neck. When they removed it, they noticed ligature marks, a common type of bruising when someone is strangled or hung.
Nikki Taylor didn’t have a pulse and she wasn’t breathing, according to their report, so they started CPR until medics arrived. Taylor was revived and medevaced to Anchorage, but the 31-year-old was declared brain dead three days later on Aug. 25, 2021.
Taylor’s parents were devastated.
“That is my daughter. I took care of her,” said Timothy Evon.
The State Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a suicide, but Evon and Taylor’s mother, Sophie Pinder, weren’t satisfied with that explanation. Pinder said that she called the state examiner’s office.
“When I talked with the medical examiner, I told her that it's not suicide,” Pinder said.
But the cause of death did not change, and Taylor’s case was closed on Aug 27, 2021.
“Grief has no expiration,” Pinder said. “You die with them.”
The case could have ended there, another grim statistic in a state where the suicide rate is twice the national average, but Taylor’s family kept pushing for someone to listen to them. They found that man when Bethel swore in a new police chief, Leonard “Pete” Hicks, in late 2022.
Hicks, a transplant to Alaska from Alabama, encouraged members of the community to talk to him about their concerns. So Taylor’s parents called and asked him to look at the case.
“After talking to them, I told them I would look at the report again,” Hicks said. And when he did, Hicks said that what he found was concerning.
“There were a lot of unanswered questions that should have been addressed when you’re dealing with any death investigation. The last thing you want is a report that generates more questions than answers. And that was kind of the case here. A lot of statements didn’t make sense,” Hicks said.
Hicks told officers to reopen Taylor’s case.
“I definitely think that there's more that occurred that day than just a simple suicide. And we need to know the truth as to what happened that day for the sake of the victim, the sake of the family,” Hicks said.
When Bethel police reopened the case, the investigator who reviewed the case, Sgt. Brandon Boyle, eventually found more than a dozen “points of contention," essentially red flags in the initial investigation.
For one, it would have been difficult for Taylor, who was 5 feet tall, to hang herself in the spot where she was found. According to the report, there wasn’t anything found nearby for her to use as a step. The investigator said that the windbreaker found twisted around her neck would likely have come undone with her full body weight on it.
Many of the investigator’s other questions about the case revolve around Taylor’s former fiancé, a man named Walter Williams.
According to police reports, Williams was found near Taylor’s body when Community Service Patrol officers arrived at the home. Those officers later told Bethel police that he was kneeling over her body and then yelled at them and fled the scene. He was caught moments later by Bethel police and handcuffed. Then, according to their report, he told police that Taylor had tried to hang herself.
The initial investigation details that police read the heavily intoxicated Williams his rights and then questioned him. According to that report, Williams said that he and Taylor had been arguing, and that he had stepped away to talk to someone else. He told police that when he got back, he noticed she was hanging.
“Follow-up that should have been done hadn’t been done”
The initial investigating officer concluded that Williams was too intoxicated to lift Taylor off the ground and tie her up by her jacket. The officer wrote that Taylor attempted suicide. But Williams has a history of assault convictions, and Hicks said that should have been investigated further.
“You had a suspect or boyfriend that had a history of domestic violence. So there were things that needed to be addressed. There was follow-up that should have been done that hadn't been done,” Hicks said.
After the case was reopened, the new investigator got a search warrant for Taylor’s medical records and found no history of suicidal ideation. In fact, a note from Taylor’s doctor casts doubt on her suicide as well.
“I do not think Ms. Taylor’s injuries are consistent with hanging by a windbreaker. I am highly concerned for non-accidental trauma and possible homicide, especially since she had been assaulted within 48 hours prior to these injuries,” reads the note.
Despite the red flags, the reinvestigation of the case stalled in March 2023 when the Bethel Police Department asked the State Medical Examiner's Office to reopen the case for review. There has been a lot of turnover at the department since then, and the case has changed hands three times.
Taylor’s father used to be in law enforcement. When he talks about this investigation, his frustration is palpable.
“The investigating officer, there's many of them, two of them quit. And this last one right now, I told the investigating officer the only time I'll shake your hand is when this thing is done in the court. Then I will shake your hand,” Evon said.
Now Hicks, the police chief who pushed for the case to be reopened, has stepped down too, leaving Taylor’s parents back where they were more than two years ago when she died: unsatisfied and still pushing for answers.
Williams, who is currently being held at Goose Creek for violating a protective order another woman has against him, has not been charged with anything connected to the investigation into Taylor’s death.
The District Attorney’s Office would not comment on the open case into Taylor’s death.
The State Medical Examiner’s Office would not comment either, but Taylor’s parents said that her death is still officially categorized as a suicide.
Pinder said that she doesn’t believe her daughter’s death is an isolated case. She thinks there are a lot of other families out there struggling with unresolved questions around the death of a loved one.
“We deserve justice,” Pinder said. “How would you feel if this was your child or if this was your sister? How would you feel? What would you do?”