How a stolen phone led to a murder trial for deaths of 2 Alaska Native women

The defendant is accused of killing Kathleen Henry and Veronica Abouchuk.

February 9, 2024, 5:01 AM

A double murder trial is underway in Anchorage for the killing of two Alaska Native women.

Graphic video and photographs of a hotel-room assault found on a memory card turned over to police in 2019 helped lead investigators to the remains of one of the victims and a suspect in her murder, authorities said.

Brian Steven Smith, 52, was arrested in connection with the death of 30-year-old Kathleen Henry, the victim depicted in the photos and video, in October 2019, police said. Amid that investigation, he was arrested in the killing of Veronica Abouchuk, 52, days later.

Smith faces 14 charges, including first- and second-degree murder and tampering with evidence, in their deaths. He has pleaded not guilty.

Here's what to know about the case amid the ongoing trial.

PHOTO: Brian Steven Smith arrives in a courtroom in Anchorage, AK, Feb. 6, 2024.
Brian Steven Smith arrives in a courtroom in Anchorage, AK, Feb. 6, 2024.
Mark Thiessen/AP

Phone 'linchpin' to case

Police were led to Smith when a woman claimed to have found an SD card labeled "Homicide at midtown Marriott" lying on the ground on Sept. 30, 2019, according to court documents.

The woman -- Valerie Casler -- later admitted to stealing the phone from Smith's truck and transferring the contents to an SD card that she then turned over to police, she testified on the stand. She said she lost the original phone.

"She had no idea what was on that phone, but that phone contained the linchpin to this case," Anchorage District Attorney Brittany Dunlop said during opening statements, according to The Associated Press.

The memory card contained a video from September 2019 that showed a woman being beaten, raped and strangled in an Anchorage hotel, according to court documents. Some of the footage showed a naked woman "moaning and struggling to breathe," and trying to fight back, documents said. A man can be seen stomping on the woman's throat with his foot and laughing as he strangles her, documents said.

Images also showed the victim, later identified as Henry, in the back of a truck, documents said.

Detectives determined that Smith's phone was in a location near Seward Highway around when the last still image from the SD card was taken, according to court documents. Henry's remains were found on Oct. 2, 2019, near Seward Highway, the documents said.

David Cordie, a detective with the Anchorage Police Department, testified that the voice of the man in the footage made him think of Smith -- a native of South Africa whom Cordie had become familiar with through a prior investigation, the details of which have not been disclosed. Casler also testified that she recognized Smith's voice in the footage.

During his opening statement, Smith's lawyer, Timothy Ayer, questioned the origins of the video footage and noted that Casler's story regarding "material details" on the phone has changed over the years. He claimed that police tried to "reverse engineer a crime based on what they think they saw on the video," the AP reported.

An alleged confession to 2nd murder

Abouchuk was last seen by her relatives in July 2018 and reported missing by her family in February 2019, police said.

When Smith was interviewed for the Henry case in October 2019, he allegedly confessed to shooting a woman between 2017 and 2018 and provided the location of her body, court documents said.

A skull with a gunshot wound that had been found near that location in April 2019 was identified as belonging to Abouchuk, court documents said. Nine days after his arrest in Hunt's death, Smith was indicted on charges including murder in connection with Abouchuk's death.

Dunlop told the court that Smith picked up Abouchuk, who struggled with homelessness, and took her to his home in mid-August 2018 and shot her when she refused to take a shower, the AP reported.

Prosecutors alleged the suspect preyed on vulnerable women. Ayer told the court there are a "lot of holes" and "issues" related to the state's evidence, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

The case has faced delays before the start of the trial this week. The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.

ABC News' Emily Shapiro contributed to this report.