‘You took her away from me’: Kotzebue man sentenced to 99 years for murder of Ashley Johnson-Barr

An emotional hearing saw pleas to end the ‘epidemic’ of sexual abuse in Alaska
Ashley Johnson-Barr's killer will spend 99 years behind bars.
Ashley Johnson-Barr's killer will spend 99 years behind bars.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 21, 2021 at 1:28 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 21, 2021 at 3:54 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A Kotzebue man who pleaded guilty to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr in 2018 has been sentenced to serve 99 years behind bars.

Peter Vance Wilson, 44, was sentenced in a Kotzebue courtroom on Tuesday morning by Utqiaġvik judge Nelson Traverso during an emotional hearing. Jenna Gruenstein, an attorney with the Office of Special Prosecutions, argued in favor of the long sentence, saying Wilson’s actions were “clearly among the most egregious conduct.”

“This is one of the most serious cases that I’ll probably see in my career,” she said.

Gruenstein described the kidnapping of Johnson-Barr from a crowded playground as “truly predatory.” Wilson’s attorney, Jessica Toft, cried while agreeing with the sentence, saying visiting the playground now named in Johnson-Barr’s honor showed how much her murder had impacted the community.

“This is primarily Ashley’s day, and a day for her family,” she said through tears.

Traverso handed down the 99-year sentence, saying the circumstances of Wilson’s crime were “grave and cannot be diminished.” He described how Wilson, who is related to Johnson-Barr, lured her away on an all-terrain vehicle to an isolated spot on the tundra before he gave a graphic account of how she was sexually assaulted and murdered.

“The need to protect the community is demonstrably clear,” Traverso said about the long sentence and how Wilson had tried to hide evidence of his crimes.

Family members spoke at the sentencing behind a picture of Ashley holding a bucket full of blueberries, including Mona Norton, Johnson-Barr’s aunt.

“You didn’t have to kill her,” she said addressing Wilson, a phrase she used repeatedly during a passionate speech about domestic violence and sexual abuse in Alaska and how it had been hidden for decades. Norton described the trauma of reliving Ashley’s murder every time friends and family celebrate a child’s eleventh birthday, saying Ashley would never celebrate her eleventh birthday.

“You took her away from me, you took her away from her mother,” said Scotty Barr, Johnson-Barr’s father. He and other family members wore purple shirts with Ashley’s smiling face on them.

Barr said the “epidemic” of sexual abuse needed to end in Alaska as did the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. He has hoped Ashley’s legacy will be in inspiring change.

“At some point, real men choose respect,” Norton said.

Wilson sat largely impassive in court in an orange jumpsuit. He apologized to the small gathering of family members present and to the community of Kotzebue.

“I wish I could take back what I did to Ashley,” he said. “I am very, very sorry.”

Wilson pleaded guilty in June to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering Johnson-Barr. She disappeared from a crowded city playground late in the afternoon of Sept. 6, 2018. Alaska State Troopers and FBI agents flew into Kotzebue and joined a desperate community-wide search for her.

Dozens of Kotzebue residents came together to scour the town and surrounding areas for any sign of Ashley. Her disappearance shook Alaska and made national and international news.

After eight days of exhaustive searching, Johnson-Barr’s body was found on the tundra. Wilson was arrested a short time later.

Three years ago, almost to the day, hundreds of mourners packed the school gymnasium for Ashley’s funeral while hundreds of pounds of food and other supplies were flown in from across Alaska and donated for a community potluck.

“How does one thank complete strangers for their time, their support and their (selfless) love?” Norton said.

Memorial services were held statewide before the Alaska Legislature passed a bill to commemorate Ashley Johnson-Barr on her birthday.

Court hearings had been delayed due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. Judge Traverso explained Wilson had also shown signs of malingering by claiming he was not competent to stand trial.

He said the community has continued to support the Johnson and Barr families and hoped the delayed resolution of the case would provide relief for family, friends and for Kotzebue.

“I know it concludes this in one sense, but it doesn’t conclude it in another,” Traverso said.

Barr told he court he was seeking forgiveness through Jesus Christ. He said after Tuesday’s sentencing that he was feeling “a whole lot better.”

“The heavy burden is gone and now it’s time to heal and move forward with our lives and become a stronger family,” he said. Tuesday, was all about Ashley.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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