ANCHORAGE, Alaska – An Alaska man linked to the disappearance and death of a 10-year-old girl made his first appearance in federal court Tuesday.
Peter Wilson, 41, of Kotzebue is charged with making false statements as authorities tried to find Ashley Johnson-Barr.
A grand jury also could return an indictment against Wilson this week, assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Russo, the criminal chief for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alaska, said in court Tuesday. If that happens, Wilson would be arraigned Friday. If not, he would return to court Sept. 27.
The girl had been missing since Sept. 6. She was found dead Friday just outside Kotzebue, a town of about 3,100 people on Alaska’s northwestern coast.
An FBI affidavit says Wilson had the girl’s cellphone after her disappearance, and the girl’s body was found through GPS co-ordinates of where the phone had travelled. The affidavit says the girl’s death appears to be a homicide, but her death remains under investigation.
U.S. Department of Justice officials say further charges would depend on what other evidence develops during an ongoing investigation.
At Tuesday’s brief hearing, the federal Public Defender’s office was appointed to represent Wilson, a thin, wiry man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair.
“So you’re requiring an attorney at the government’s expense?” U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Smith asked Wilson, who wore a yellow jail smock.
“Yes, your honour,” he said.
Ashely Johnson-Barr was last seen playing with friends at Rainbow Park. Authorities say she had her cellphone at the time, and it was later found that day in the pocket of a jacket belonging to Wilson, a woman named in the affidavit only by the initials of JJ told authorities. She said Wilson often stayed at her home.
The woman said the phone’s screen lit up with Ashley’s name on it when repeated calls came in. She knew the family, and called Ashley’s parents, who told her the girl was missing.
Wilson told authorities that he found the phone about a half mile from the park.
The girl’s father, Scotty Barr, retrieved the phone and eventually gave it to police.
Barr’s Facebook page is filled with tributes to Ashley, including a post after the day her body was found. She’s shown in a restaurant, holding a sandwich in the shape of a heart. Barr wrote: “Love u my dimples.”
He declined to speak to The Associated Press on Tuesday, but did share pictures of Ashley, including one of her proudly displaying her honour-student certificate.
On the afternoon she went missing, authorities say Wilson disappeared with a four-wheeler for about two hours. The FBI affidavit said the girl’s body was found in a rural area, on tundra so rugged it could only be reached by four-wheeler or on foot.
The body was found in an area concealed by thick alder and willow brush.
When questioned by authorities, they said Wilson denied knowing the girl, even though the family says he’s a relative and had been to their home numerous times.
The false-statement charge was based on Wilson’s claims that he didn’t use a four-wheeler that day, his denials of knowing the missing girl and assertions that he found the phone a half mile from the park.
After the girl disappeared, Kotzebue residents helped search for her, holding vigils at the park where she was last seen. Similar prayer vigils were held across Alaska. The FBI sent 17 agents to help investigate.
Kotzebue, 26 miles (42 kilometres) north of the Arctic Circle, is 550 miles (885 kilometres) northwest of Anchorage. It serves as a regional hub for northwest Alaska villages.
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