Courts & Crime

Man charged in Alaska abduction, murder of Samantha Koenig

A self-employed Anchorage carpenter police linked to the abduction of 18-year-old Samantha Koenig is now charged in her disappearance and slaying, according to a grand jury indictment.

The indictment charges Israel Keyes, 34, with kidnapping and killing Koenig, receiving ransom money and using a stolen debit card to pilfer a bank account. The charges -- punishable by life in prison or death if he's found guilty in federal court -- come 11 weeks to the day since Koenig was abducted from the Midtown coffee hut where she worked.

Keyes forced Koenig out of the coffee stand about 8 p.m. on Feb. 1 and walked her to his pickup, parked across Tudor Road at a Home Depot, the indictment says. He stole a debit card from a vehicle Koenig shared with someone else and sent text messages using her phone that were intended to conceal her abduction, the indictment says.

Keyes forced Koenig to give him the card's personal access number and scratched the number onto the card, the indictment says. He killed her on Feb. 2, then flew to Houston, Texas, the indictment says.

Federal authorities and Anchorage police announced the charges against Keyes on Wednesday, shortly after the indictment was filed in U.S. District Court. The court papers answer many questions lingering since Koenig vanished, but key details remain unknown.

"First of all, our sympathies go out to Samantha's family," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis. "It's important to her family and the community that justice will be done in this case. And now there's a judicial process under way."

"We hoped to see her return safely, but this did not happen," Police Chief Mark Mew said. "You have my promise to leave no stone unturned in making sure that the person responsible for Samantha's death be held accountable."

Police reported Koenig missing the day she died. Divers would later find her body in Matanuska Lake, north of Anchorage, but it is still unclear how they located her. After viewing surveillance video from the coffee stand, owned by Common Grounds Espresso, detectives upgraded the case to an abduction.

The video showed an armed man force Koenig from the Midtown coffee hut where she was closing up shop for the night, police said. The man was "significantly taller" than the 5-foot-5 Koenig, who appeared frightened in the video, a detective said. Keyes stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall, according to court documents. The investigators refused to release the video.

In the midst of the early abduction investigation, more than a foot of snow fell on Anchorage and the coffee hut remained open for business.

Volunteers fanned out across the city and other parts of Alaska with fliers emblazoned with "KIDNAPPED" across the top.

In the weeks that followed, a reward fund for information on Koenig's whereabouts swelled to about $70,000.

Keyes flew back to Anchorage on Feb. 17, according to the indictment. The court papers say he sent a text message from Koenig's phone a week later to demand ransom money, asking that it be deposited in the bank account he could access with the stolen debit card. Keyes made two withdrawals from the account in Anchorage, then flew to Las Vegas on March 6 and began making withdrawals from the account in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas over the next several days, according to the indictment.

While Keyes' run through the Lower 48 continued, few new details about the investigation emerged in public. Police said an unprecedented number of detectives and police officers were involved in the investigation, which they asserted was making good progress daily. A detective supervisor working on the case said at one point that he had reason to believe Koenig was still alive.

Then, six weeks after Koenig vanished, authorities in Lufkin, Texas, arrested a man that Anchorage police linked to the case: Keyes.

According to a charging document, Keyes had the debit card on him and there were rolls of cash in his car, along with a disguise used in the withdrawals. The same day in Anchorage, police arrived at his West Anchorage home with search warrants. Neighbors said officers came and went from the blue Spurr Lane house, owned by Keyes' girlfriend, and seized his white pickup.

The neighbors said Keyes and his girlfriend were quiet and polite. A man who paid Keyes -- the owner and lone employee of Keyes Construction -- to build an apartment called Keyes "as honest as the day is long."

Police later said Keyes was connected to Koenig's disappearance but refused to say for weeks what role he played in the apparent abduction.

Keyes was first charged in federal court with access device fraud and pleaded not guilty. Answering questions about his finances at his first court appearance, Keyes said he was broke and in debt. He also said he had a 10-year-old daughter.

A charging document revealed that Keyes had used the stolen debit card to steal about $2,400 from the bank account of an unnamed man. Koenig's father said the card was not his and, in a separate interview, said that his daughter shared a pickup with her boyfriend.

On March 31, federal agents descended on Keyes' home, this time to seize a tool shed from the driveway. The shed was loaded on a flatbed truck and driven to the FBI's Anchorage headquarters.

FBI divers found Koenig's body in Matanuska Lake on April 2, police said. The grim discovery came after two months of searching for Koenig and pleas from her family and friends for help finding her.

Feldis, the federal prosecutor, would not say how the divers were able to locate Koenig's body, nor would he say precisely how she died or whose debit card Keyes had stolen.

A decision to seek the death penalty for Keyes is up to the U.S. Attorney General, Feldis said.

Keyes is charged with kidnapping resulting in death, receiving and possessing ransom money and fraud with an access device. He is scheduled to make an appearance in Anchorage federal court and enter a plea on the charges Thursday morning, Feldis said.

A memorial for Koenig is scheduled for Sunday.

Koenig's father, James, declined to comment on the charges announced Wednesday.

"The investigation into Israel Keyes and his criminal activities continues," Chief Mew said.

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