A Murder Acquittal Gives One Young Man His Life Back, But Miles Away, A Mother Grieves

Feb 21, 2020

Kyle Wassillie left behind two children that his mother is raising. Eliza Wassillie described her son as a good provider, with a ready smile and laugh.
Credit Courtesy of Eliza Wassillie

A young man from Napaskiak who was charged with murder for killing an off-duty village police officer in 2017 was acquitted at trial last month. While the defense did not dispute that he killed the VPO, the jury decided that he was acting in self-defense and that his actions didn’t qualify as murder. 

"I could not believe what they came up with,” said Eliza Wassillie. “It was not right."

When Adam Williams went to trial, no one disputed that he killed her son, Kyle Wassillie, who had been a VPO. But a jury decided that Williams was acting in self-defense and his actions didn’t qualify as murder, so he was acquitted. Eliza is taking care of her son’s two children now.

"What am I supposed to tell his, my son’s kids?” she said. “Every day, every single day they come in and ask me to pray with them to send for their father back. Good grief. And [Williams] goes scot-free?"

According to Andrew Dunmire, the lead public defender for the case, the story that led to her son’s death began with the gray whale that swam up the Kuskokwim River in 2017. Locals from the village of Napaskiak harvested the whale and distributed its meat and blubber to nearby villages. People from nearby communities came down to see the whale. One of them was Wassillie, 26, an off-duty village police officer from Nunapitchuk, roughly 30 miles away.

Wassillie traveled with a friend, Kenyon Alexie, and brought several bottles of liquor with him. While in Napaskiak, according to the affidavit from the Alaska State Troopers, village police officers put him in protective custody twice because of his drinking. After being released the second time, Wassillie made his way to a house belonging to Williams' grandmother. The jail guard and Alexie, who accompanied Wassillie, testified that Wassillie started drinking again when he got to Williams’ house. After that, the details were "pretty murky," Dunmire said.

Dunmire said that Williams didn’t remember what unfolded next, but two witnesses testified during the trial that Wassillie instigated a fight with Williams. The charging document said that Williams' little brother, who was 9 at the time, told troopers that Wassillie had started the fight at the house. During that scuffle, Williams shot Wassillie in the stomach.

A neighbor heard the first shot, and then saw the second one. A village public safety officer responded and found Wassillie still alive with a bullet lodged in his stomach. The charging document said that health aides came to the house to administer care; Wassillie died an hour later. Williams was taken into custody and charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. It took nearly three years before the case came to trial. Dunmire said that turnover at the Alaska Public Defender Agency was a key reason. Dunmire took the case when the lead defender left and argued that Williams acted in self-defense.

"Adam never did anything wrong. He was a 19-year-old and drank, I will admit that, but beyond that he didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t put himself in a position where he or anyone can reasonably expect to have to shoot another human being," Dunmire said.

The state argued that Williams knocked Wassillie to the ground and then fetched his gun to shoot him. The defense argued that Williams shot him in the midst of a fight while both men were still standing, an account which eyewitness testimony supported.

On Jan 25, 2020, nearly three years after the night of the shooting, a jury acquitted Williams on all charges. Dunmire said that justice was served when the acquittal came in.

"I knew, and Adam knew that it was a possibility that he could be convicted on one of the murder counts, but thankfully it didn’t happen," Dunmire said.

The District Attorney’s office declined an interview, but said in a statement that they respected the jury’s decision.

Williams returned home to a family dinner in Napaskiak in a caravan of vehicles and a snowmachine. The reunion was bittersweet; Williams has spent the past two-and-a-half years in jail. Williams and his mother declined an interview.

Meanwhile, as Williams returns home, Eliza is left to grieve her son and comfort his children. Wassillie loved to hunt, she said. He was a good provider.

"He was everything to me. Every day he helped me around the house, cut fish, cut birds that he caught. He gets wood. He made everyone smile and laugh whenever he’s around," Eliza said.

In her eyes, justice wasn’t served on Jan. 25. She’s not sure what to do next, but she said that she’s trying to figure out her next steps.

The state cannot appeal the verdict because of a clause in the U.S. Constitution that prevents a person from being tried for the same crime twice.