An Alaska man found with the cellphone of a missing 10-year-old girl was charged Monday in connection with her death after GPS coordinates of where the phone had traveled led authorities to the girl’s body.
Peter Wilson, 41, of Kotzebue, Alaska, was formally charged Monday with making false statements as police tried to find Ashley Johnson-Barr, who had been missing since Sept. 6. The girl’s body was found Friday just outside the remote town located on Alaska’s northwestern coast.
Wilson, 41, will make his first appearance in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on Tuesday. Online court records do not list an attorney for Wilson.
An affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Michael Watson says it appears the girl’s death was a homicide, but it remains under investigation. U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Chloe Martin said further charges would depend on what other evidence develops.
The girl was playing with friends between 5:30-6 p.m. on Sept. 6 at Rainbow Park in Kotzebue, according to the affidavit. She had her cellphone with her.
Her parents tried to call multiple times, but her phone rang unanswered.
Police interviewed a woman they identified only as JJ in the affidavit. She told investigators she found a cellphone in the pocket of a jacket belonging to Wilson, who occasionally stays with her.
JJ said that late in the evening of Sept. 6, she and Wilson were at her home. She heard a cellphone ringing repeatedly, and she followed the sound to his jacket.
“When she picked up the phone and tried to unlock it, she said Ashley’s name displayed on the screen,” the document says.
She knew the girl and her family and called Ashley’s parents, who told her the girl was missing. The girl’s father retrieved the phone and later gave it to police.
According to the affidavit, Wilson told the girl’s father and police that he found the phone a half mile away from the park.
JJ also told investigators that she and Wilson had been at her mother’s house through the day Sept. 6. About 5:20 p.m., JJ’s mother asked him to take the four-wheeler and pickup up JJ’s child and another child, who was not Johnson-Barr.
JJ told investigators that Wilson was absent with the four-wheeler for two hours, and he didn’t have any children with him when he returned.
Johnson-Barr’s parents told officers that the girl was related to Wilson, they knew each other and he had been to their home multiple times.
Police said a forensics analysis of the girl’s phone shows her name appears on the screen when it lights up when a call comes in. The affidavit also says the cell phone service provider determined by geolocation that the phone had been near Rainbow Park, near where Wilson said he found the phone and also 2 miles (3 kilometers) east of downtown Kotzebue. That last location is where police found the body.
The girl’s body “was located one quarter mile off the road on the tundra in an area that could only accessed by four-wheeler or on foot,” the affidavit says. “This was an area that was concealed by thick alder and willow brush and a depression in the ground.”
Authorities based the false statement charge on Wilson’s claims to them that he didn’t use a four-wheeler any time on Sept. 6, denied knowing the girl, claiming the phone screen remained black and not seeing her name come up when it rang, and asserting he found the cell a half mile from the park.
Residents in Kotzebue helped search for the girl in vain, holding vigils at the park where she was last seen. The FBI sent 17 investigators to the community of 3,100 people on Alaska’s northwestern coast.
The girl’s father, Walter “Scotty” Barr, and other members of her family could not be reached Monday. But Kotzebue Mayor Gayle Ralston said his wife was related to Barr’s father and has been in touch with the family.
“They’re doing as good as could be expected,” he said. Though devastated, they found a small measure of relief and closure that she was found, he said.
Counselors were available Monday at the girl’s schoolmates. Terri Walker, assistant superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, says counselors were on hand for students who needed them. The support will be available to students “as long as needed,” Walker said.
Kotzebue, 26 miles (42 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle and 550 miles (885 kilometers) northwest of Anchorage, is a regional hub for northwest Alaska villages.