By RACHEL D’ORO, Associated Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — An Alaska man linked to a 10-year-old girl’s death through her cellphone pleaded not guilty Friday to lying to federal authorities investigating the case.
After entering his plea in U.S. District Court in Anchorage through an assistant public defender, Peter Wilson was scheduled for a Nov. 19 jury trial. Wilson, 41, is charged with making false statements to the FBI and others as they searched for Ashley Johnson-Barr in Kotzebue, a remote Inupiat town on Alaska’s northwestern coast 26 miles (42 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle.
The girl disappeared Sept. 6, and her remains were found Sept. 14 in rugged tundra accessible only by a four-wheeler or on foot.
According to a federal grand jury indictment filed Thursday, Wilson took a cellphone away from Ashley and lied when he said he found it on the ground. The indictment also alleges Wilson lied about knowing Ashley and using a four-wheeler the day she vanished.
No one else has been charged in connection with the girl’s death, which authorities say appears to be a homicide. The investigation continues.
After Friday’s brief proceeding, assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Russo, the criminal chief for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alaska, said the federal grand jury could still bring additional charges against Wilson, a Kotzebue resident. He declined to say if additional charges are anticipated.
John Skidmore, the criminal division director for the state Department of Law, said state charges are expected to be filed Monday in connection with the girl’s death. He declined to say what charges would be filed or if they would be filed against Wilson.
Ashley’s family asked that any further legal action he held off until after the girl’s funeral on Saturday, Skidmore said.
“They want to deal with just the funeral itself, and laying their daughter to rest,” he said. “How could I say no?”
For the federal charge of making false statements, Wilson faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release, according to Russo.
Ashley Johnson-Barr had her cellphone with her when she was last seen playing with friends at Rainbow Park. Authorities say the phone was found later that day in the pocket of a jacket belonging to Wilson, a woman named in the affidavit only by the initials of JJ told authorities. The woman said Wilson often stayed at her home.
Wilson told authorities that he found the phone on the ground about a half mile from the park.
On the afternoon the girl went missing, Wilson also disappeared with a four-wheeler for about two hours, according to authorities. The FBI affidavit said the girl’s body was found on tundra outside Kotzebue, in an area concealed by thick alder and willow brush.
After the girl disappeared, Kotzebue residents helped search for her, holding vigils at the park where she was last seen. Similar prayer vigils were held across Alaska. The FBI sent 17 agents to help investigate.
Kotzebue is 550 miles (885 kilometers) northwest of Anchorage. It serves as a regional hub for northwest Alaska villages.
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[Featured image: Ashley Johnson-Barr, Scotty Barr via Associated Press]