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FBI: Suspected serial killer Keyes strangled, dismembered Alaska barista

Ben Anderson
FBI photo

After more than 10 months in which authorities released little public information, on Tuesday new details came out about the abduction and murder of 18-year-old Anchorage barista Samantha Koenig on the night of Feb. 1.

Anchorage police and the FBI now say that confessed serial killer Israel Keyes sexually assaulted and asphyxiated Koenig in a shed at his home in Anchorage’s Turnagain neighborhood on the night of Feb. 1 and Feb. 2.Authorities said Keyes then left for more than two weeks on a cruise before returning, dismembering her body, and dumping her remains in Matanuska Lake, located on the Glenn Highway between Palmer and Wasilla. Keyes also reportedly wrote a ransom note demanding $30,000 and used Samantha’s stolen debit card numerous times, which ultimately led to his arrest in March in Lufkin, Texas.

The revelations come in the wake of Keyes’ apparent death by suicide in his Anchorage jail cell on Sunday. Among the other shocking reports following his death are that he may have killed as many as seven other people in addition to Koenig, and details have already been released in the 2011 murder of a Vermont couple in which Keyes was the primary suspect.

The District Attorney assigned to the Vermont case called Keyes “a force of pure evil” on Monday.

When Koenig went missing in early February, it became national news as local and federal authorities sunk thousands of man-hours into the search for her abductor or information that she was still alive. But little information, even after Keyes’ arrest, was made publicly available, including the reported video of her abduction. Police said that releasing the video provided no identifying information on Koenig’s kidnapper, and chose not to release it.

On Tuesday, that video was made public with the additional details of Koenig’s final few hours after her abduction, and the investigative clues that led to the arrest of Israel Keyes.

A cold Alaska night

At about 8 p.m. on Feb. 1, Samantha Koenig was wrapping up her shift at the Common Grounds coffee stand on Tudor Road in Midtown Anchorage. The small shack, brightly painted in turquoise, sits in the parking lot of one of the several branches of an Alaska health club.

That night, Koenig was wearing a lime green t-shirt, which family and friends said was her favorite color. They would later wear shirts of that color to Keyes' court appearances as a show of solidarity and remembrance.

Police say a man approached the coffee stand from the west side at about 8 p.m., and walked up to the window of the shop and requested Koenig make him an Americano, providing his own cup. The security footage shows Koenig make the coffee and hand it to the man, whom police identified as Israel Keyes. He was wearing a facemask with eyeholes and gloves, police said, and nondescript clothing.

Police said Keyes selected the coffee stand for a number of reasons: a snowy winter in Anchorage had seen the snowberms piled high on the side of Tudor, helping obstruct the view from busy Tudor Road, and the shop also closed later than many of the other coffee kiosks around town.

Authorities have called Keyes “methodical” in committing the murders he confessed to before taking his own life, and said that he picked his targets carefully. After the abduction, police scoured security video for the weeks preceding the incident, looking for clues to tie something to the kidnapping. They came up empty-handed, said Monique Doll, a homicide detective with the Anchorage Police Department.

“What Israel Keyes later told us was that was because he had never been to Common Grounds before that night,” Doll said. “He had driven past it, but he had never bought coffee there, he had never stopped there, he had never walked around in the parking lot.”

After Koenig handed Keyes his coffee, police said he both told her and showed her that he had a gun. In the surveillance video, Koenig is shown putting her hands up and taking a step back. Keyes reportedly told her to turn off the lights to make the coffee stand appear closed.

When she hit the switch, Doll said, her hand passed within inches of a button that would have triggered a silent alarm that would have alerted Common Grounds owner Michelle Duncan -- out of state at the time -- to a problem at the shop. APD officer Jeff Bell said that all the employees had been trained on how to use the alarm, but it wasn’t clear if Keyes said anything to Koenig about it.

After turning off the lights, Koenig emptied out the coffee kiosk’s register, coins and all, and hands the money to Keyes. Koenig then laid down on the floor, and at this point, authorities said that Keyes ziptied her hands behind her back and cut away the loose ends of the zipties.

Authorities said Monday that Keyes had used zipties during his kidnapping and murder of Bill and Lorraine Currier in Vermont in 2011.

At about this time in the abduction of Samantha Koenig, a person exiting the health club where the Common Grounds shop sits got into a vehicle and backed out. The man identified as Keyes pauses and watches the vehicle closely, but it drives off without incident.

“Keyes thinks, potentially, this person has seen him,” Doll said. He then reportedly gags Koenig, closes the window, and walks out of the coffee stand into the cold Alaska night, taking Koenig and her purse with him.

Koenig, wrists still bound, was being taken to Keyes’ truck, police said, which was parked across Tudor Road in the parking lot of a Home Depot and International House of Pancakes, a short walk in a crosswalk.

At some point during the walk, the FBI said, “Samantha broke away from Keyes and tried to run away. Keyes chased her and tackled her to the ground. He put one arm around her and pointed a gun at her body with the other hand; telling her that she needed to cooperate, that the gun had very quiet ammo and that she should not do anything to make him kill her.”

From there, Jeff Bell with the APD said that Keyes walked with his arm tight around Koenig, the gun pressed into her ribs. He put her into his truck, a white Chevy pickup, and ziptied her further, possibly to the seatbelt, to prevent her trying to escape again.

Keyes then drove Koenig around town, telling her that he was going to hold her for ransom, the FBI said.

“Samantha told Keyes that her family did not have much money, and that Keyes was not likely to get much in ransom,” the FBI reported. “Keyes explained that they will raise money for the ransom by seeking the public’s help. “

“During this contact and later in the evening he had convinced her that he only wanted to ransom her, and that as long as her family came up with the money that he wanted, that he would let her go,” Doll said.

But Keyes apparently already had other plans.

“When he was talking to us, and when he was confessing, he knew all along that he was going to kill her,” Doll said.

Doll said that Keyes told investigators that he didn’t really engage Koenig in conversation, except when necessary to calm her down.

While Keyes was driving with the kidnapped teenager, Koenig’s boyfriend arrived at Common Grounds to pick her up, but found it empty. Koenig’s cell phone, left in the kiosk, lights up on the security video as her boyfriend and possibly others try to call it.

Authorities said Keyes, realizing later that Koenig forgot her phone, and planning to use it to send a ransom demand via text message, returned to the coffee stand and retrieved it. He then immediately walked back in and picked up the loose ends of the zipties he had snipped off earlier. Koenig remained tied up in the truck in a neighborhood nearby

A mere four minutes later, Koenig’s boyfriend returned to the coffee stand looking for her. He parked his truck outside, and peered into the windows while holding his phone to his ear. If he’d arrived only a few minutes earlier, he may have seen her phone buzzing on the counter inside, or possibly even encountered Keyes.

Keyes then sent two text messages from Koenig’s phone, the FBI said, one to her boyfriend and another to Duncan. He told them that Koenig was leaving town for the weekend.

Keyes reportedly asked Koenig for her debit card, which she said she shared with her boyfriend and that it was in their truck. The FBI said Keyes then took Koenig to his house on Spurr Lane in Anchorage’s Turnagain neighborhood.

“Keyes put Samantha in the shed in front of his house, bound her, and turned the radio up in the shed so no one would hear her if she screamed. He also told her that he had a police scanner and would know if she attempted to alert the neighbors,” the FBI reported.

He went to Koenig’s house and found the ATM card in the truck. Koenig’s boyfriend reportedly came out at that time and yelled at Keyes, who ran back to his own truck.

Then, he returned to the shed, where police say he raped Koenig and asphyxiated her. He reportedly left her in the shed, returned to his house, packed his things, and went on a cruise for more than two weeks. He wouldn’t return until Feb. 17.

A paper trail

Upon his return, the FBI said that Keyes posed Koenig’s body in a position making it appear that she was still alive, and snapped a Polaroid. Also reportedly in the frame was Keyes’s arm, holding a recent edition of an Anchorage newspaper. He made a copy of the photo and used a typewriter to write a note on the back requesting $30,000 in ransom for Koenig’s safe return.

After preparing the note and photo, he placed it in Connor’s Bog Park, under a memorial flyer of a dog named ‘Albert,’” The FBI reported. “Then, using Samantha’s cell phone, he texted her boyfriend, in substance, that the ransom note was ‘under Albert’ in Connor’s Bog Park. The note was recovered by APD.” That text was sent on Feb. 24.

Koenig, however, would never come home safe. The FBI said that in the following days, Keyes dismembered her body before driving to Matanuska Lake and using a chainsaw to cut a hole in the still-frozen lake and stuff Koenig’s body into the abyss.

James Koenig, Samantha’s father, deposited money into the account tied to the debit card, using -- as Keyes had predicted -- money raised by the public in an effort to return Samantha safely.

Doll described the amount of money deposited as “a fraction” of what Keyes had allegedly requested. That was by design, she said, in hopes that Keyes would be forced to continue contacting Samantha’s friends and family, keeping a line of communication open.

Police had already been working the case hard, said APD Chief Mark Mew, but this supposed proof of life kicked the investigation into overdrive.

“We were desperate, running full bore on this,” Mew said.

Police, after viewing the security video from Common Grounds and another from across the street at Home Depot, began canvassing the city for a white, 3/4-ton Chevy pickup with black wheel wells. Detectives determined there were 750 in the Anchorage bowl alone, and officers from just about every department and law enforcement agency began looking at all of them.

They visited Keyes’ home twice, and looked at his truck. Bell said that Keyes was out of town both times, but officers checked the truck off the list due to the presence of a heavy ladder rack and toolboxes mounted to the bed of Keyes’ truck. The truck in the surveillance had no such rack, and Doll said that Keyes’ had likely removed the rack himself, prior to the abduction.

She said the truck didn’t register with investigators because the rack appeared to be permanently attached to the truck, and welded in the corners. They checked it twice only because it had somehow come up twice on the report that was printed of all the trucks matching the vehicle description.

Keyes reportedly made his first withdrawal, using the access number coerced from Koenig, in Anchorage on Feb. 28, almost a month after Koenig was initially abducted. He made another just a half-hour later, now Feb. 29, at another ATM in town. It may have also been his first mistake, though Doll didn’t call it that on Tuesday.

“It wasn’t a dumb mistake,” she said. “He disguised himself well enough that ... there’s a 10-15 minute lag time between that ATM card triggering, and triggering all the bells, all the alarms that we had set around it. So he had 15 minutes to get away.”

Bell said that after the withdrawals, they placed officers on every ATM in town for surveillance. But by then, Keyes had already left the state, bound for the Southwest U.S. and eventually Texas to visit family, and they wouldn’t get another hit on the card until March 7 in Wilcox, Ariz.

Keyes was again disguised in that ATM video, investigators said, but they were able to make out a white sedan and identified it as a Ford Focus. Then, they were able to continue tracking Keyes’s movements -- always 10-15 minutes behind -- until a sharp-eyed Texas law enforcement officer saw a car fitting the description of the suspect vehicle in a hotel parking lot.

A man, identified later as Keyes, got into that vehicle and officers followed. Keyes was pulled over, and after being handed an Alaska driver’s license, police knew they had their man.

After the arrest

Until Keyes was arrested, police had no idea who had been using the debit card.

“(The supposed killer’s identity) was a complete mystery to us,” Doll said, until they were contacted by Texas law enforcement and identified Israel Keyes as the man in custody. Keyes was returned to Alaska, where he quickly began sharing details of his crimes with law enforcement.

Police said that Keyes began confessing to Koenig’s murder on March 30 and into April 1. He gave them the general location of Koenig’s body, then narrowed it down. Her remains were recovered by a dive team on April 2, and the body was positively identified as Koenig a few days later.

Keyes was indicted on charges of kidnapping and killing Koenig, and had a dramatic escape attempt during a routine court hearing in May. Since then, the case has been mostly quiet. He was anonymously linked to the 2011 murder of Lorraine and Bill Currier in Vermont over the summer, and that Keyes was being looked at in connection to other unsolved cases was further confirmed in a court filing this fall.

Then, when Keyes was found dead in his cell early Sunday morning, the cases suddenly ended. Authorities worried that they may never know how many people Keyes -- who traveled extensively -- might have killed. The FBI has released a timeline of Keyes’ whereabouts in hopes of finding out more about possible victims.

Questions about how Keyes was able to kill himself while in custody have so far gone unanswered.

Keyes was also denied his day in court, which could have provided further closure for the families of his possible victims.

James Koenig, speaking with Alaska Dispatch on Sunday, said that his daughter had been denied real justice. Koenig had hoped to see Keyes receive the death penalty.

"I'm not happy with it,” James Koenig said. "He just robbed Samantha of him standing trial and being convicted so we can move forwarded on getting the death penalty back in the state of Alaska at the state level. It shouldn't be just a death penalty at the federal level."

Tris Coffin, U.S. District Attorney in Vermont, also acknowledged that some families may never get the closure they hoped for.

“This is, in some way, closure,” Coffin said, “but not quite the same as justice.”

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com