Over the course of 2019, the Kenai Peninsula dealt with several major criminal cases, including missing persons, drug distribution and homicide.
The peninsula also saw many examples of people coming together — from the opening of a men’s recovery home with the help of Freedom House founder Jennifer Waller to local organizations once again hosting Project Homeless Connect, community efforts to create a cold-weather shelter and public outreach events hosted by local law enforcement.
On July 21, a mother and daughter were shot and killed in their apartment in Kenai. Rachelle Armstrong, 60, and Lisa Rutzebeck, 39, were found by police on a Sunday morning after witnesses reported hearing gunshots. By that Wednesday Kenai police had arrested Masonn Byrd, 25, and charged him with murder in the first degree.
Texts found on Armstrong’s phone indicated that she and Byrd had been arguing over money owed for drugs, and the conversation between the two ended about 20 minutes before the shooting took place, according to the affidavit filed at the Kenai Courthouse. A witness also told police that Byrd allegedly admitted to throwing the murder weapon in the Kenai River. A few days later the Nikiski Fire Department’s Dive Team recovered a weapon in the river under Bridge Access Road.
Byrd is currently awaiting trial at Wildwood Pretrial Facility, and his trial is scheduled for the week of April 6, 2020.
On Aug. 25, Preston Atwood, 21, of Seward, went missing. His body was found four days later, 9 miles north of the city along a power line trail. After three months of investigation, five people were arrested in connection with Atwood’s death.
Laurel Correa, 19, James Helberg, 18, Tyler Goddard, 19, Timothy Ryan, 24 and Jennifer Harren, 46 allegedly lured Atwood to a trail near the beach where he was beaten to death with a baseball bat, according to the criminal complaint filed by investigators.
Helberg allegedly told police that Atwood had made unwanted advances towards Helberg’s girlfriend, and he and the others confronted Atwood in order to “teach him a lesson.”
The trial for Helberg and the others is scheduled to take place on the week of Feb. 18, 2020.
On May 7, 62 inmates of Spring Creek Correctional Facility barricaded the entryway to their housing unit and began damaging property inside, eventually causing an estimated $100,000 in damages.
Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Sarah Gallagher told the Clarion that the inmates had convinced the correctional officer inside the housing unit to step out for trash bags and other cleaning supplies before barricading the door and preventing the officer from reentering.
The riot began at around 9 p.m. and lasted about 10 hours until a Special Operations Response broke through the barricade and subdued the prisoners using restrains and non-lethal munitions and chemical agents. No injuries to inmates or officers were reported during the incident.
On Oct. 8, Lavern Davidhizar, 74, was arrested on charges from the Drug Enforcement Administration that he had illegally distributed large amounts of opioids and other narcotics by writing medically unnecessary prescriptions.
Davidhizar allegedly prescribed more than 700,000 narcotic pills between 2017 and 2019, according to the affidavit filed in support of the DEA’s criminal complaint.
Davidhizar has been a licensed osteopathic physician since 1978, and if convicted could face a maximum of 20 years in prison.
His case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Stephen Corso and Jonas Walker.
On March 13, Carmen Perzechino, 57, was indicted by a Kenai grand jury on two counts of first-degree sexual assault and one count of kidnapping for a crime he allegedly committed 18 years ago, in 2001.
After the sexual assault kit connected to the case was finally tested as part of an initiative to address the statewide backlog of untested kits, Perzechino’s DNA profile was matched to the DNA that was found in the kit, authorities reported.
Perzechino allegedly fled to the Philippines after being contacted by State Troopers in January about the case. On April 4, Perzechino was arrested in the Philippines and was eventually extradited to Seattle in August.
Perzechino is currently awaiting trial, which is scheduled for the week of Feb. 18, 2020.