8 months later, family of Kodiak man killed at naval base is still seeking answers

Jayson Vinberg with his wife Becky and sons Eaen and Duncan in September 2018. (Photo by Tony Furio)

Kodiak resident Jayson Vinberg was fatally shot last summer by a naval special forces guard at the Naval Special Warfare Detachment Kodiak. It’s known locally as the “SEAL base” because it trains the U.S. Navy’s elite commandos.

The facility is at the end of a wooded peninsula just outside of town. In the 1990s, before the facility was gated off, local kids used to ride their bikes there to buy sodas from the base’s vending machine.

“That’s before it became top secret,” said Tony Furio, Vinberg’s father.

Vinberg, 30, entered the base after 10 p.m. on June 30, 2020. His family says they still don’t know why he went there.

All that’s officially known comes from two short statements — one from the military and one from the state. The statement from the military says Vinberg tried to enter one of the compound buildings before he was confronted by a naval special forces member and “events led to the service member using deadly force.”

Alaska State Troopers offered a few more details. They said Vinberg had been tapping on the building’s windows with a knife. His stepmother, Esther Furio, says troopers told them their son had challenged the guard before he was fatally shot.

“That’s kind of the short version, but it is all on film,” she said.

Nobody from the family has seen the video — if it exists. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is leading the investigation and won’t comment until it’s completed. A spokesperson says its findings could be released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Jayson Vinberg on a fishing trip on Kodiak Island in 2018. (Photo by Tony Furio)

Family members say they’re confused by what they’ve been told. Vinberg spent much of that day painting his aunt’s deck and nobody knows why he would have been prowling around with a knife about an hour before sundown.

“He was very non-violent,” his stepmother said. “He’s never been aggressive or anything like that. It just totally sounds out of character for Jayson.”

The family says they never received any of his personal effects — including the knife he reportedly brandished.

Esther Furio says he wasn’t carrying a wallet or any identification. They learned of his death nearly 24 hours later. The call came from Vinberg’s wife in Utah, mother of his two sons — who were 5 and 11 at the time.

“He has his son’s name tattooed on his forearm, and that’s how they finally identified him,” she said.

Vinberg’s death certificate says he was shot an unspecified number of times in the arms and torso. That piece of paper, along with their son’s cremated remains, are the only things the family has received. The state medical examiner’s report, which includes details from the autopsy, remains sealed pending the outcome of the investigation.

Vinberg’s next of kin is his wife of 12 years. Through the family, she declined to speak about her husband’s death.

His stepmother recalls that when naval investigators visited Kodiak, they asked questions about a possible a motive for their son’s trespassing. They asked if their son had problems with the military or authority in general.

“And I said, ‘No, I have a son that’s in the Army. Tony was a Marine, he’s never had any issues with authority or anything like that,’” she said. “We’re very supportive of the military.”

Like many long-time Kodiak residents, Esther Furio has fond memories of the now sealed-off area. Kodiak Island has a lot of steep cliffs. But Spruce Cape has easy access to the water. She was a grade school teacher in Kodiak for 27 years and used to take classes there to go tide pooling. But after 9/11 it was fortified and made off-limits to civilians. The school field trips ceased.

His father says he wonders whether his son’s Alaska Native appearance could’ve been a factor in the guard’s decision to open fire. Jayson Vinberg’s mother is Alutiiq.

“He’s Native, he has curly hair and stuff,” he said. “He looked like a minority.”

It’s hard to answer the broader question of whether Vinberg’s Native appearance played a role.

University of Alaska Anchorage criminologist Troy Payne told CoastAlaska that “Alaska Natives are generally over-represented in all stages of the criminal justice system, including victimization.”

That means Alaska Natives are disproportionately killed by law enforcement.

The state university’s Alaska Justice Information Center is studying lethal force used by police in Alaska. He says its report would be published later this year.

“I think that Jayson’s family is asking fair questions about how their son was killed, why deadly force was used,” said Alex Cleghorn, legal and policy director of the Alaska Native Justice Center in Anchorage.

Cleghorn has cultural ties to Kodiak and was asked by the family to look into the case. He says the fact that the shooting occurred on a federal military base may be slowing things down.

“I think that what is challenging is how long it takes for families to get answers,” Cleghorn added.

A cursory look into Jayson Vinberg’s past shows some small stuff from his teens. But it’s kid stuff: driving off the road, a count for underaged drinking, buying tobacco. His father says his son spent a year at McLaughlin Youth Center, a state facility for at-risk youth in Anchorage. And the young man had bouts of drug addiction. In his 20s, Vinberg was arrested for property crimes in Utah.

“Everybody has their struggles, and we’re not saying our son is perfect,” his stepmother said.

But she and her husband say nothing in his past pointed to violence or threats. He was a devoted husband and father who she said hoped to bring his family to live on Kodiak Island.

“He loved the ocean, that’s one of the reasons he wanted to come back and just to have that feeling around him,” she said.

Jayson Vinberg with his father and stepmother Tony and Esther Furio in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Furio family)

The family is willing to accept the truth — however unpleasant. But they want to know what happened that night.

“We’ve always said that the truth will set you free,” she said. “We have prayed that at one time, the truth about what really happened to Jayson will come out — there’s so many questions.”

CoastAlaska contacted the federal prosecutors with a list of questions. Later that same afternoon, Tony and Esther Furio got a phone call from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Anchorage. The family says that federal prosecutors want to meet early next month to discuss the case. They’re tentatively set to sit down inside the Kodiak police station.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

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