Under a sky smudged by smoke from fires in Southwest Alaska, about 250 people gathered Sunday at the Homer Public Library to honor the memory of Anesha “Duffy” Murnane, a Homer woman who went missing on Oct. 17, 2019, near her Homer home. The afternoon also recognized Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, including a Kotzebue girl kidnapped and killed and a Nome woman who has yet to be found since vanishing in 2020.
Visitors gathered to see the installation on the library lawn of the Loved & Lost Memorial Bench, a work created by Homer artist Brad Hughes. Dedicated during the ceremony, the bench was formally presented to city officials by Murnane’s stepfather, Ed Berg. Composed of two L-shaped panels, the bench depicts people who have gone missing on one panel as they reach out, but never touch, depictions of their families searching for them.
Speaking by phone at the memorial, Hughes called the bench “the most wonderful and important project of my career.”
After 30 months of investigation, Homer Police last month charged a former Homer man with kidnapping and murdering Murnane, 39 at the time of her disappearance. In a presumptive death hearing, a Homer jury ruled Murnane legally dead, determining she most likely died of homicide. Murnane’s body has yet to be recovered.
At the memorial, friends and family remembered Murnane as a shy but adventurous woman who adored children. They spoke of her creativity, her joy in simple pleasures as well as her struggles and healing from mental illness.
In the dedication of the bench, Pastor Lisa Talbott of Homer United Methodist Church gave a prayer for Murnane, for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, for the officers and investigators who worked to find her, and for the community.
“We remember her life, her joy, her gifts,” Talbott said of Murnane. “We honor the impact that she made on her friends and family in her life, and we acknowledge the profound way that her death has drawn us closer as a community. May she know that her life and her love echoed through each and every one of us, and we will never be the same.”
Her mother, Sara Berg, said Murnane “created so much joy, not because she was sunny and engaging when she could be, but because she could be content with what she was, and where she was, and how things were going.”
“Traveling and babies were her passion,” Berg said, citing trips to Mexico and Florida to save turtle eggs or backpacking six weeks in Thailand. When Murnane turned 14, Berg asked her what she wanted to do before she graduated from high school, and she said she wanted to visit a third-world country where they spoke Spanish and learn the language. Murnane had a passion for children, Berg said.
“She drew them in a like a magnet. They trusted her with their bodies and emotions,” Murnane said. “She respected them and treated them with dignity.”
Murnane’s struggle with mental illness went on for six years, Berg said. She bounced between mania and depression. In the months before Murnane disappeared, a clinic in Portland, Oregon, came up with a diagnosis — bipolar disorder — and treatment. With proper care, Murnane could have a normal life, Berg said. In the fall of 2019, Berg went to Mexico, with plans for Murnane to join her at Christmas to volunteer at schools there.
When Murnane went missing, children in Mexico came up to Berg and said, “Dónde está Duffy? Where is Duffy?” Berg said.
“Once again I am known as Duffy’s mom, and I’m proud to accept that title, but I don’t like how I got it,” Berg said. “Let’s remember the joy, the sweetness, and treat our babies like Duffy would. Let’s make the world a better place one baby at a time.”
Murnane’s childhood friend, Tela O’Donnell Bacher, remembered how Murnane, a year older, had been a leader to Bacher, making sure she did the right things. On one memorable trip, Bacher and Murnane went to the Florida Keys with a 4-H group to meet with Florida 4-H kids. They had never seen lizards before and picked up a lizard to show to a Florida girl, “fluffy and fancy.” The girl put the lizard to her head and then the lizard bit her on the ear and hung there like an earring.
“It was so silly and like so perfect,” Bacher said. “And we’re just these mischievous, free teens just exploring the world and seeing it for all of its humor and its silliness and its awkwardness and its wonderfulness. … When I think of Duffy, those are the things I tap into.”
One of Murnane’s cousins, Heather Huelsman, spoke of the joy that came with Murnane’s birth and having her first girl cousin. Murnane had been a beautiful and content baby, Huelsman said.
“What was magic about her was that somehow she retained that even into adulthood, that child’s joy in the everyday,” she said. “… You forget all of the wonderful, maybe small but actually really important things kind of going on around you.”
A diplomat now stationed in Turkey, Huelsman mentioned how she had friends over at her apartment and tried to tell them about Murnane. She said that was hard to put into words, so she showed her friends things Murnane had made — a quilt, a fabric book.
“In every room of our very big apartment there was at least one thing that Duffy had made, if not two or three. And that to me was somehow the spirit of Duffy,” Huelsman said. “She was always making. So in her quiet way she was this force of good making in the world.”
The Loved & Lost Memorial Bench doesn’t just honor Murnane, but also Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. Several people whose family disappeared or were murdered also spoke at the memorial. Blair Okpealuk of Nome spoke of the disappearance of her sister Florence, who went missing Aug. 31, 2020, from the West Beach near Nome.
“She grew up in Wales, was known to many as friendly, humble, and huge heart filled with determination with whatever was in front of her as well she did,” Okepaluk said. “She never forgot you if you did something for her. … She had a huge slumping heart that made her so very careful and being friends with them.”
Ingrid Cumberlidge, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons coordinator for the U.S. attorney’s office in Alaska, spoke of the work she and others have been doing to shine light on the issue of victims who until recently have gone unnoticed by the criminal justice system. That’s changing, Cumberlidge said.
“We are so committed, so committed,” she said. “You are here at the right time to get involved in this conversation. This conversation is an Alaska conversation. You heard it in the prayer that (we) will want people, you heard them talk about the fact that we need to all be responding to this.”
Before the formal dedication, Sara Berg spoke once again. She asked the community for one more favor.
“We have a trial coming up,” she said of the man accused of murdering her daughter. “… The legal process will be grueling and heart-wrenching, and we ask that you stand beside us once again.”
Ed Berg then presented the bench to the city, as represented by Homer Public Library Director David Berry and Julie Engebretsen, deputy city planner and special projects coordinator.
“Thank you for letting us put it here,” Berg said. “This is really the perfect place for it to be.”
In her prayer, Talbott noted the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“‘Let us remember that goodness is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death,’” she said. “As we dedicate this bench today to all the loved and lost, may it be a place of grieving, of hope and healing for all.”