The Seward City Council chambers overflowed on Monday as dozens appeared to press for more information and action in the case of Preston Atwood, who was murdered in late August. Many in the audience and at least one City Council member wore buttons emblazoned with Atwood’s portrait and the legend “Justice for Preston.”
Atwood’s aunt, Brooke Andrews, took the floor at the beginning of the meeting to voice her concerns about the case, in which there has so far been no arrest, although Atwood was killed over two months ago.
“Sixty-four days,” Andrews said. “Sixty-four days of waiting. Sixty-four restless nights, waiting and remembering, praying, crying, hoping.”
The Seward Police Department’s handling of the investigation has drawn criticism from many quarters, primarily on the grounds that Atwood’s murderer or murderers have remained free for so long after the incident.
Later in the meeting, Kris Lillemo made a comment that summed up many of the complaints: “I think a lot of us think that two months is too long for murderers to be running around our city.”
Little to no information had been available about the progress of the investigation until last week, when the department announced that it had sent its finding to the district attorney. Police Chief Tom Clemons has told the Seward Journal on several occasions that he cannot release any information about an ongoing investigation.
Law enforcement agencies and criminal prosecutors frequently refrain from speaking about open investigations, in part because publication of details from a case can interfere with convening a jury to try anyone ultimately charged. Potential jurors with knowledge of the case may be struck from the jury pool.
Clemons has shared this concern with the Seward Journal and he reiterated it to television station KTVA in a phone call, according to a story on KTVA’s website.
Monday night saw another front emerge in the controversy, with Andrews and others repeating a claim that the police department’s budget does not allow for more than one officer to be assigned to the case, a claim that the department denied.
Others were upset that Police Chief Tom Clemons and Lt. Alan Nickell were not at the meeting. The two officers were reportedly in Chicago for the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, on the board of which Clemons serves as an officer.
Andrews told the council that another family member’s conversation with Clemons was the source of her belief that the department’s budget was too thin for more than one officer to work the case.
“Our family was told by our police chief that the budget did not allow for additional officers in this case,” Andrews said.
SPD Sgt. Karl Schaefermeyer told the Seward Journal that the department has one lead officer assigned to the case, but added that “he has the whole department at his disposal if necessary.” He said that the budget was not a concern.
Approximately a thousand man-hours have gone into the investigation, Schaefermeyer told the Journal. One thousand man-hours is equivalent to two officers working the case eight hours a day for 62.5 days. Over three hundred of those were overtime hours. The department or its partners have so far executed 40 search warrants, the department said.
“The Kenai District Attorney’s Office, local Alaska State Trooper post, Alaska Bureau of Investigation, Anchorage Police Department, Alaska State Medical Examiner’s Office and the Alaska State Crime Lab have all provided assistance in the case,” the department said in an emailed statement.
Andrews told the Journal on Tuesday that she would have felt better if she had known earlier that the department had a lead officer who could call on the services of others.
“That was not my understanding at all,” Andrews said. “Had that been positively communicated to the family, none of this would have happened.”
Clemons did not respond to a voicemail and an email seeking comment before the Journal’s print deadline.