Seeking Justice: ‘I love you, check in’
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When you first learn someone you love has been murdered, the wave of pain doesn’t always strike you right away. Nancy Furlow, whose Tlingit name is Sutxwaan, spent those first moments informing family members her 20-year-old grandson had been killed and telling police all about his heroin addiction. Only later on that cold night in December 2017 did she find herself wailing.
“When I hear those words ‘he did not survive’ it was like an atomic bomb went off inside me, and everything I understood about birth and life and death and after life, everything I understood was gone in that split second,” Furlow said, “and I literally fell to the floor and understood what wailing was for the first time.”
Brandon Irlmeier, Yeil Yúgoo, died the year Anchorage recorded its highest number of homicides at 35. That number does not include four additional deaths in 2017 that were classified as self-defense and two shootings by police, according to Alaska State Troopers, the agency that compiles statewide crime statistics.
Irlmeier had turned 20 in May of that year and had just finished high school at Benny Benson Secondary School.
The same weekend he was strangled, beaten and shot to death, another man was also shot and killed in an unrelated homicide. A third man was shot but survived.
Police found Irlmeier’s body near Sixth Avenue and Oklahoma Street around 11 p.m. as they investigated a call about two men spotted with guns nearby. At the time, one person from the scene was taken into police custody for questioning and police released a photo of three people they called persons of interest.
Three years later, no one has been arrested or charged for Irlmeier’s death.
The Anchorage Police Department declined to talk about the cold case and instead sent an email saying, “Every homicide investigation is a priority. It’s about justice for the victim, their family and their friends. One homicide is too many.”
Police say the case is still under investigation. The picture of three people, the “persons of interest” who might have been involved or known who killed Irlmeier, have never been located or publicly identified.
Detectives believe there are more people who haven’t come forward. Anyone with information about this case should call 311 or call Crime Stoppers (907-561-STOP) to remain anonymous.
Irlmeier is among the disproportionate number of Alaska Natives who die violently each year in Alaska.
In October, President Donald Trump signed Savanna’s Act, a bill that requires the Department of Justice to strengthen training, coordination, data collection and other guidelines related to cases of murdered or missing Native Americans.
It aims to address the alarming number of cases involving Native women, but men are also impacted. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the seventh-leading cause of death for Alaska Native and American Indian men from data collected in 1980 and 2017.
“This is not to say attention on MMIWG should also not take place. I believe that focus is very important too. But I am also committed to expanding that conversation in ways that help us understand what is happening to our men, our young men, and our children, along with our women. There is a pattern of violence towards us as Native people that should be disturbing to everyone. It’s a pattern that needs to become clearer and more visible and brought into the light. And isn’t the murder of our young men, and men, also a form of violence against women? Their murders condemn us — the women who loved, raised, and nurtured them — to a lifetime sentence of trauma, pain, loss, and an absence of their presence that cannot be adequately put into words. We are forever changed. That is also a form of violence against women,” Furlow wrote in an email.
Indigenous activists say that generations of killings and disappearances have been disregarded by law enforcement and lost in bureaucratic gaps concerning which local or federal agencies should investigate.
In August, Tara Sweeney, the Department of Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs and an Inupiat from Utqiagvik, opened an Anchorage office for Operation Lady Justice Task Force. The group looks at cold cases across the country to concentrate on the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Irlmeier’s family agreed to interviews with Alaska’s News Source in the hope someone would come forward with new information about his death.
“I’m not naive enough to think that doing this is going to — the killer is going to come out and confess, or, you know, you know, it’s going to lead to anything directly, but just anything, any evidence any testimony, any kind of information, I would hope that somebody would,” said Mike Urena, Irlmeier’s uncle.
Recently they met with a reporter at the bottom of the steps where they believe Irlmeier died.
“There is a chip in the edge of the step. That is where the police dug the bullet that killed Brandon out of the step. To most people it looks like the edge of the step simply chipped away. But when I look at it I see it as the end of Brandon’s life, of his potential, of all the love we shared. I take pictures of it when I go to the steps and that helps me see it age. Today is 34 months since he was murdered. After your child is murdered time is measured by these dates. Dates that break your heart,” Furlow wrote in an email.
Furlow’s daughter and Irlmeier’s aunt, Carrie Urena and her husband Mike Urena say that before COVID-19 they’d visit the stairs once a week.
“He was pretty amazing. I miss him. A lot,” Carrie Urena said as she cleaned ice off a makeshift memorial that adorns the stairs.
Irlmeier was raised by his grandmother and was close to his cousins. Carrie Urena jokingly called him her “little booger.”
“He was just a ray of sunshine, all the time,” Carrie Urena said. “He had these little eyes that when he smiled, he just looked like life.”
The family says Irlmeier had battled drug addiction for years. He finally got clean and was proud of his Alcoholics Anonymous sobriety coins. Then, after a death in the family, Irlmeier relapsed, they say.
“I guess I used to worry more about him OD’ing. I never thought he would get murdered — never,” Carrie Urena said.
What happened next is what the family says they pieced together based on conversations with police and Irlmeier’s friends.
Carrie Urena says the night Irlmeier was killed, he had been at a friend’s house and that another friend of his came over and asked him for help. The family says the two left together. They say police told them Irlmeier, at some point, began running down Oklahoma Street in Muldoon.
It is unclear if Irlmeier was beaten on the stairs, which are at the end of the street, or before he got there. Furlow says police showed her pictures of him severally beaten, strangled and shot. Furlow says police showed her a video of the people they called persons of interest.
“In the videotape of them, there were three of them that they walked away,” Furlow said. “And that’s hard to take.”
The year Irlmeier was killed, police told Alaska’s News Source that “[...] in a large percentage of uncharged homicides (from 2017), the issue is that witnesses have refused to speak with police and share what they know.”
Carrie Urena says she believes police didn’t pay enough attention to the case because Irlmeier had a drug addiction.
“So many people fall to drugs, and it’s not that, doesn’t mean they’re worth less than anybody else. Good gracious, if we were all judged by our mistakes, so many of us make mistakes. He had an entire life ahead of him,” Carrie Urena said.
Furlow says she doesn’t think it was a drug problem that slowed progress on the case.
“I mean, I’ve wondered, actually, if it’s because we’re Alaska Native,” Furlow said.
Even though Irlmeier struggled against his addiction his family said he always kept in touch, often sending text messages.
“He said, ‘I know I love you… I’m trying I just don’t want you to worry,’” Carrie Urena said. “And then the very last one that I sent him, ‘I love you… check in…' He never saw before he died. It just sits there unread — forever.”
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