Missing Sitka woman declared dead after 3 years, homicide suspected

Lael Grant (Photo from KCAW)
Lael Grant (Photo from KCAW)

A Sitka woman missing for nearly three years has been declared dead. Police are now investigating her disappearance as a homicide.

The inquest for 33-year-old Lael Grant was held last month in Sitka Superior Court.

Judge Leonard Devaney and six jurors gathered to hear testimony on the circumstances of Grant’s disappearance in 2012. Grant’s family filed the presumptive death request this spring in order to obtain her death certificate.

Former search and rescue director Don Kluting described the exhaustive effort his department made to locate Grant, who was last seen buying snacks and soft drinks in a local grocery store at 2 a.m.  on October 15, 2012.

Five days later, her car was found at the end of the Nelson Logging Road, with the receipt from the grocery store, her ID, her favorite pair of headphones, and other personal effects.

Kluting told the jury that he began a Type I search, which presumes a missing person to be alive. But as the days went by, and the man hours began to number in the thousands, Kluting said the search evolved into a Type III.

“We were searching for a body,” Kluting said. And he added this: “There was a criminal aspect to the case.”

Other details emerged over the course of three hours of testimony at the inquest. Former Sitka Police detective Jason Sexton told the court about Grant’s involvement with drugs and Sitka’s drug culture. He said Grant liked to hike — often alone — but the Nelson Logging Road was not where she usually went. He had no explanation why her car would be parked there.

Ryan Silva, who is still working as a detective with the Sitka Police Department, was even more direct. “This case remains open as a potential homicide.”

Silva told jurors that he was on a first-name basis with Grant. She was candid about her drug use, and her struggle to hold her family together.

He had seen her a few days prior to her disappearance — also in the early morning at the grocery store — and said she was high, most likely on meth.

Silva said Grant was under stress: She had broken up with her boyfriend and her father had just died — his funeral was the day before she was last seen.

Silva told the court he is still actively pursuing leads in the case — especially from the grocery store surveillance video taken the last time Grant was seen.

Silva was unable to talk about the details of the investigation, only to say “my focus now is to find her remains.”

That Grant never left Sitka was also the conclusion of the jury. The three men and three women deliberated less than 20 minutes before returning a verdict. They ruled that Grant died in Sitka on or about the 20th of October 2012, “due to circumstances yet to be discovered.”

Grant’s older sister, Erika Burkhouse, also testified at the hearing. She told the jury that even at her worst moments, as she was taken over by drugs, Grant always tried to do her best by her children.

Speaking to reporters while awaiting the verdict, Burkhouse said obtaining a death certificate has been an important step toward closure for her family. Grant’s two sons are age 15 and 12 now, living in Sitka with Grant’s mother, and they all would like a memorial.

Burkhouse also wants some good to come from her sister’s death.

“It is really eye-opening to see how much the drug world has affected everything in this town. My hope, obviously, is to get closure, but my hope also is that people open their eyes a little bit, that this is a huge problem. It really is,” Burkhouse said.

Burkhouse says that her sister lived and died under “horrific” circumstances. The pictures circulated by law enforcement at the time she went missing show a young woman consumed by addiction. But Grant had a caring family — a solid backstop of support. Burkhouse believes she might have made it back, if only she had the chance.

“She just got too far in, you know. She was in a really bad place after my dad had passed away … . She was a strong person, she really was, and those boys meant the world to her. Despite what was happening in her unhealthy lifestyle, she still managed to be a good mom.”

Burkhouse was aware that police were investigating Grant’s death as a possible homicide. She says rumors surrounding her disappearance complicated the investigation at first, and a large reward generated many false leads.

Nevertheless, now that the family has closure for Grant’s life, they’re hoping for justice for her death. “If I had one wish at this point in time,” Burkhouse says, “that would be the wish.”

KCAW - Sitka

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