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In Bethel, allegations of abuse taint once-respected couple

Suzanna Caldwell
Peter Tony and his late wife Marilyn lived in this house in Bethel, once respected members of the community. Peter now stands accused of sexually abusing a 4-year-old girl and other children. Suzanna Caldwell photo

BETHEL -- When rain sweeps into this Western Alaska city of 6,000 along the Kuskokwim River, the gray sky seems to match the landscape. Thick, dark clouds drop big, heavy rain drops onto muddy gray roads, which parallel the equally gray, muddy river along which the town was built. Only the flat, boggy, green tundra stretching away forever in every direction disrupts the grayness.

On the edge of this tundra are sprawling clusters of neighborhoods that emerge out of nowhere. In one of those neighborhoods -- so-named Tundra Ridge, though the subdivision rises only slightly over its surroundings -- lies the former home of now-accused child sexual predator Peter Tony, 69, and his late wife, Marilyn.

The Tonys -- Marilyn especially -- were once admired members of the community. Marilyn often worked with special needs children. 

“She took in kids no one else would take,” said longtime Bethel resident Susan Murphy. “Everybody really loved her.” 

Many were still grieving Marilyn’s death on June 2 when the news hit that Peter had been arrested for sexually abusing a 4-year-old girl, along with speculation of how many more victims there might be given the couple’s long association with foster parenting and childcare. Accusations have since emerged that Peter sexually abused his stepdaughters in the 1970s. 

Alaska’s other world

For decades, the Tonys made their life on the edge of civilization, though civilization is in this case a loose term. The largest city in Western Alaska, this regional hub is a long way from anywhere. It is 400 miles -- by air, the only method of transportation other than a long walk -- east to the big city of Anchorage. The in-between miles are sparsely populated. 

The remoteness of the region has made the community a vital hub for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, an area roughly the size of Oregon across which are scattered a mere 56 villages, none of them connected by roads. Peter Tony grew up in one of those villages. Marilyn came north from the Lower 48, a place a world away.

The former Tony home, a ranch-style structure, sits on a sandy lot, like all other homes in the neighborhood. Balanced on pilings, its foundation has to be adjusted every few years. Like other houses in the neighborhood, it is built on ever-shifting ground that is at the mercy of the freeze-thaw cycles of the tundra.

The Tonys don't own the home anymore and haven't for almost a year. But it was in this structure with the spruce-paneled walls weathered and water-stained that Peter is now alleged to have abused a 4-year-old girl and other children -- crimes he has confessed, according to Bethel Police. 

Since these charges against Tony were filed, his stepdaughter, Kimberley Hahn Bruesch, has come forward with her own allegations of abuse dating back to the 1970s.

The stories have left the community stunned and heartbroken. 

‘This is sad’

Michael Isom, a protective services manager for the state Office of Children’s Services in Western Alaska, said the accusations against Peter have cast a shadow over almost everyone.

“My interactions with the community are that this is sad. A member of our community has committed a crime,” he says. “One of our most precious assets, which are children, has been at risk at the hands of Mr. Tony.

“Until the investigation gets fleshed out, we don’t know all the details. I’ve believe it’s in its infancy. (But) there is a somber feeling” in town.

Marilyn and Peter Tony were licensed to care for foster children for more than a decade, from 1984 to 1998. In 1998, one of those foster children accused Peter of sexual abuse. The accusation was “substantiated,” according to the investigator, but Peter was never charged with a crime. Why more didn’t happen then is among many unknowns. 

After being dismissed as foster parents, the Tonys went on to run an unlicensed daycare in their home. The 4-year-old girl Peter allegedly abused was attending that daycare. Friends find the accusations hard to believe given Marilyn’s reputation in the community.

“She had the touch,” says friend Marilyn Laraux, who often saw Marilyn Tony at the town’s health clinic with the foster kids she took in. “I admired and respected her.”

“Shocked, saddened, betrayed’’ is how artist Drew Michael describes his feelings. “I thought they were on the good side of this,” he says. “It’s a sad situation for everyone. It keeps coming back to that feeling of betrayal.”

Michael, a respected Alaska Native artist who now resides in Anchorage, was between ages 1 and 2 when he was placed with the Tonys as a foster child. He was later adopted by a family in Eagle River. He, his brother and an adopted sister all lived with the Bethel family for a short period in the mid-1980s. 

Michael and his siblings returned to the area numerous times over the years to visit with his foster family. Michael always thought of Peter as reasonable and caring. There was never any indication Peter might be committing crimes, Michael says.

He doesn’t remember much from his early years in the care of the Tonys, but expresses love for his foster family, specifically Marilyn. 

“There was so much good intent” from her, Michael says. “Her work wasn’t in vain.

“Peter stole the beauty of it all.”

It's unclear exactly how many foster children the Tonys had in their care over the years. The state Office of Children's Services  is expediting its review of the Tony files. A spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services said Monday more information might be available later in the week.

Meanwhile, those in Bethel who knew the Tonys, already grieving over Marilyn’s death earlier this month at 69, are left to ponder what has happened and -- if the charges against Peter are accurate -- how many of the children among them might have been scarred.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com