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Body believed to be missing Alaska barista found in lake

Ben Anderson

More than two months after Samantha Koenig was abducted from the coffee stand where she worked, investigators announced on Monday that they had found what they believe to be Koenig’s body at Matanuska Lake off the Glenn Highway near Wasilla.

It's a case that has seen heavy public scrutiny, with little information forthcoming on the intensive investigation. On Monday, Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew brought the speculation to an end.

"I know that the frustration extends beyond just the family and the community to the detectives and the agents that are working this case," Mew said. "I can only reiterate that our joint decisions not to release more information were driven exclusively by our desire to maximize the potential for Samantha Koenig's safe return. Unfortunately, that potential no longer exists."

Mew said a team of forensic divers discovered the body believed to be Samantha in the lake. The state medical examiner will conduct an autopsy and determine the official identity.

Mew added that investigators believe Koenig died “within hours” of her Feb. 1 abduction. The investigation will continue, as police scrutinize the only person of interest named in the case, 34-year-old Israel Keyes, arrested in Texas last month and charged with access device fraud for allegedly using a debit card that didn't belong to him -- stolen from an unnamed man's car on the night of Koenig's abduction -- to withdraw nearly $2,500 across at least three states. Keyes was returned to Alaska and arraigned last week on that charge, but has not been charged with any crimes in relation to Koenig's abduction.

"Investigators further believe that the person responsible for Samantha's death acted alone, and we are confident we have that person in custody," Mew said, though he didn't name Keyes. He added that "charges for Samantha's kidnapping and murder will be forthcoming."

Mew offered condolences to Koenig’s family, as did FBI special agent in charge Mary Rook, who expressed thanks to the public and investigators from Alaska to Texas.

“Although some questions have been answered today, I know those answers offer little consolation for the Koenig family and many questions remain,” Rook said.

Koenig was abducted from the Common Grounds coffee hut located along Tudor Road in Anchorage around 8 p.m. on Feb. 1, by what surveillance video revealed was an armed man. The abduction led to intense public scrutiny and interest in any possible developments, as fliers with Koenig’s face became ubiquitous around Anchorage, offering a sizeable reward for Koenig’s return.

During the investigation, authorities were unable to answer many questions about the case, saying merely that the investigation was ongoing, and that detectives were operating on the assumption that Koenig was still alive.

The investigation yielded a few leads and took strange turns at points, with the March arrest of Keyes in Lufkin, Texas. Keyes was a self-employed contractor who had lived in Anchorage for several years.

An affidavit alleges that the debit card, stolen in the early morning hours of Feb. 2 -- the night of Koenig's abduction -- wasn't used until the end of February, when it was used to withdraw $1,000 in the space of two hours at two ATMs in Anchorage.

Then, over the course of the next two weeks, the card was used at various times in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to withdraw nearly $1,500 more. The same individual appeared to be making the withdrawals, described as a "light-skinned male adult with a muscular build" and driving a white Ford Focus.

Israel Keyes was pulled over on March 13 for a speeding violation while driving a white Ford Focus. A local Texas television station reported that evidence was found in the car that led to Keyes's arrest. He was transported back to Alaska shortly afterward.

Keyes was arraigned last week in an Anchorage court, and he pleaded not guilty to the access device fraud charge, which could carry a maximum sentence of 15 years.

Following Keyes’s arraignment, investigators said that they were still looking for any information anyone had on Keyes’s whereabouts, particularly in late January and early February. Anchorage police chief Mark Mew said explicitly then that investigators believed that Keyes was involved in Koenig’s abduction.

But there were few clues as to what tied Keyes to Koenig: Koenig’s father James said that Samantha and Keyes didn’t know each other. Investigators also hinted, shortly after Keyes’s arrest, that the two weren’t acquainted. Rook did the same on Monday, and implied that the lack of anything to tie Koenig to her kidnapper made the investigation difficult in the early stages.

"The investigation continues," Rook said, "but I can tell you, investigators found no direct association between the abductor and Samantha or any member of her family. I believe it was largely the dissociative nature of this crime that so perplexed investigators, at least initially."

Keyes remains the only person of interest in the case. On the night that Keyes was arrested in Texas, police conducted a search of the home where Keyes had been staying, in Anchorage’s Turnagain area. Investigators had said they seized Keyes’s truck, but were still seeking anyone who had seen it in January or February. Late Saturday night, investigators seized an entire shed, loaded onto a flatbed truck, from that same Turnagain residence.

On Monday Rook asked specifically for anyone who had seen that truck in the vicinity of Matanuska Lake, to inform investigators. Anyone with information in the case can call 1-800-CALL-FBI.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com