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After tribal court ruling, toddler killed in St. Paul could be buried next to his mother in May

Clara J. Melovidov, Jaylene Philemonoff, Nadesda Lynnette Rukovishnikoff and Joshua John Rukovishnikoff.
Courtesy of Jaylene Philemonoff
Pictured left to right: Clara J. Melovidov, Jaylene Philemonoff, Nadesda Lynnette Rukovishnikoff and Joshua John Rukovishnikoff.

A St. Paul toddler who authorities say was killed by his foster parents will be buried beside his mother on the remote Pribilof island.

That’s following a ruling by a tribal court last week over a dispute between families about where the 2-year-old boy’s final resting place should be.

Back in September, the small community of St. Paul had a devastating loss.

Thirty-seven-year-old Nadesda Lynnette Rukovishnikoff was killed, allegedly by her husband Joshua Rukovishnikoff. As he was taken to jail to face murder charges, their two-year-old son Joshua John Rukovishnikoff was put in the care of relatives in the community.

Less than three months later, the boy was flown off island to an Anchorage hospital nearly 800 air miles away with a serious head injury. He died at the hospital. Now, his foster parents face felony murder charges over his death.

But aside from the criminal charges, there’s also been a dispute over where the boy would be buried.

Jaylene Philemonoff, John’s 17-year-old half sister, said it was her understanding that he’d be laid to rest on St. Paul Island near their mom.

“But we found out on [January] 11th, that wasn't their plan all along,” she said.

So, Philemonoff started a petition to bury him in St. Paul. It had nearly 4,000 signatures by March 7.

The boy’s paternal aunt had power of attorney. That side of the family has pushed for him to be buried in Anchorage, where he died.

But a tribal court in Anchorage appointed his sister as “personal representative and administrator” of the boy’s estate last week. Philemonoff and her dead brother are enrolled citizens of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government. The court says the tribe has inherent jurisdiction in this case. That also means Philemonoff is in charge of his burial.

“Everything's there,” Philemonoff said. “He was enrolled in the tribal government. He was a resident when he died. St. Paul was the only home he has ever known and to be buried in Anchorage doesn't make sense – 770 miles away from his mom, who was also murdered. There's no logic in it.”

Philemonoff said this may not be the last word on the dispute. But if the tribal court’s opinion is appealed, she’ll continue to fight.

“You could call it a three-month battle,” she said. “But this is a lifelong battle. I'm going to have to deal with this for the rest of my life. But there's a lot of happy tears. It doesn't bring anybody back, but it brings my baby home. This isn't even half over. I still have to go to court for his murderers. And I have to go to court for my mom's murderer. But it's the first time I’ve felt really, truly happy since September.”

Philemonoff, who has missed more than two months of her junior year at Mt. Edgecumbe high school in Sitka, said she plans to hold a memorial service for John in early May after school lets out for summer. It’ll be held at St. Paul’s Russian Orthodox Church where he was baptized.

The boy’s father, Joshua Rukovishnikoff, is appearing in court on March 14 to face charges that he killed his wife.

The foster family members accused of causing John’s death – Sophie Myers-Melovidov and Steven Melovidov – are also scheduled to appear on the same day.

They’ll be the first murder trials tied to the community of about 370 people in more than a decade.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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