Welcome to Alaska Update, the first of what we hope is an occasional series in which the Defector Alaska News Team, Maitreyi Anantharaman and Chris Thompson, try to explain to you just what the hell is going on in Alaska.
Chris Thompson: We would like to share the story of an insane scandal, set in the darkening, far-flung town of Anchorage, Alaska. It involves a man named Ethan Berkowitz (above, center), who until very recently was the mayor of Anchorage and a presumptive contender for the governorship of Alaska; it involves a woman named Maria Athens (above, right), who until very recently was a reporter at a local TV station; it involves a local cookie-maker named Molly Blakeley (above, left), and Molly Blakeley’s adult daughter. There are more characters and many moving parts, but those are the principals. This will take two of us, because frankly no single human brain can process all this and still be capable of human language at the end.
On Friday, October 9, Maria Athens, who at the time was a reporter with a local station that is a confusing co-affiliate of both Fox and ABC, posted a super-heated video to her Facebook page teasing what sounded at the time like a killer scoop: Berkowitz, then the mayor of Anchorage, had allegedly posted his “male genitalia” to an “underage girl’s website,” and Athens herself would be breaking the salacious details on several evening broadcasts. Hours later, in response to a categorical denial from the mayor’s office, Athens posted to her Facebook page a photo, taken from behind, of a nude man, which she insisted was evidence of the central claim of her scoop, which is that Berkowitz was sending nudies to a teen. The caption of the photo included a hyper-rude stray shot at Berkowitz’s wife:
Nice try damage control, certainly First Lady Killer Mara Kimmel can confirm that is her husband’s hairy ass and bathroom tilesMaria Athens, Facebook
Maitreyi Anantharaman: Athens actually posted the photo to Facebook twice; the other time the caption read simply, “PROOF Mayor Ethan Berkowitz #TakeThatHaters.” A number of Anchorage residents, being normal, wondered in the comments whether this was actually proof of anything and not merely a photo of some guy’s lower back. Others reassured the skeptics that Athens would present more thorough, concrete details that evening.
CT: She did not. What instead happened was Athens was arrested in a parking lot outside her place of business before any of those evening broadcasts went to air. J’accuse, you are shouting for some reason in French, a language that, incidentally, is not allowed at a COVID-denying diner that will soon come into play. The police are being utilized to silence consequential truths! Not so! Not in this case, anyway—as we will soon learn, this story is far too weird for such a straightforward narrative as press suppression.
For you see, what got Athens arrested was her alleged participation in a physical altercation outside of Coastal Television Broadcasting Company, which owns the various affiliates that employ her. That afternoon Scott Centers, the head of CTBC, “emphatically disavowed” Athens’s Facebook behavior. The parking-lot altercation, according to reporting from the Alaska News Source, stemmed from a workplace dispute having to do with the dubious sourcing and overall unsubstantiated nature of Athens’s explosive accusations.
Jeff Landfield of the Alaska Landmine shared with Defector that Athens, who was charged with assault, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct, may even have slugged the responding officer who showed up to break up the fight. At any rate, with Athens under arrest and consequently banned from CTBC premises, the big scoop would have to wait.
MA: This guy Centers, the station manager, was also in some kind of romantic relationship with Athens, she said in court on Saturday, but that ends up being a pretty forgettable detail in the scheme of things.
CT: Then, Saturday afternoon, there came another twist. Twitter user @angelbbx2 shared details of what she claimed was the source of Athens’s big scoop: an interview Athens conducted late last week with a locally famous cookie-maker named Molly Blakeley, who is @angelbbx2’s mother. According to @angelbbx2, during a chat about Blakeley’s signature booze-infused cookies, the conversation somewhat randomly turned to the subject of Athens’s strong dislike for Berkowitz.
MA: A little TOO randomly, if you ask me…
CT: Blakeley, the cookie-maker, was apparently holding onto some personal angst from the not-especially-recent revelation that her daughter, @angelbbx2, had previously made money as a paid escort, and in that line of work had done business with at least one Alaska official. When Athens started in on a local politician (during an interview for a local flavor segment about booze-cookies) who in the very most superficial terms resembled this anonymous former client, Blakeley made an incredibly dubious connection and pointed the finger at Berkowitz:
This tale, assuming @angelbbx2 is correct about the timeline of events, was evidently enough for Athens to start publicly breaking the story of a liberal mayor getting involved sexually with a teen. But before she did that, Athens sent Berkowitz what can only be described as one of the most unhinged, boiling-angry voicemails ever recorded, in which she explicitly threatened to kill him and his wife. The voicemail was first reported by Landfield of the Landmine, who has been all over this story:
“I just learned from, uhh, Emmy award-winning journalism, you are also a pedophile and like little girls and children. And there’s a website. I’m so fucking exposing you, I’m gonna get an Emmy. So you either turn yourself in, kill yourself, or do what you need to do. I will personally kill you and Mara Kimmel my goddamn self, you Jewish piece of living fucking shit. You have met your match, motherfucker. You have met your motherfucking match. I can’t believe—I am such a good person, and thought I loved you. I fucking hate—I don’t even hate you. I will pray for your Zionist fucking ass, you piece-of-shit loser. And! I am putting this on the news tonight. Bye! Have a great Friday, you motherfucker.”Maria Athens, via The Alaska Landmine
Did you catch it? “I am such a good person, and thought I loved you.”
There would seem to be more going on here than a garden-variety antisemite reporter landing the scoop of a lifetime. Berkowitz himself filled in some of the missing details when his office released a statement Monday in which the mayor copped to having once had “a consensual, inappropriate messaging relationship” with Athens, which if true would account for how Athens came to be in possession of nude photographs of someone she claims is Berkowitz.
Berkowitz asked for forgiveness for his infidelity and privacy for his family, but indicated that he would finish out his term by focusing on the business of Anchorage. This made sense: Anchorage will elect its next mayor in April, so Berkowitz could hunker down and ride out his term with minimal disruption to the management of his city. Then, Tuesday afternoon, Berkowitz reversed course and released a statement through his chief of staff announcing that he would resign his position on October 23, citing his “unacceptable personal conduct,” which in his version of events refers to his old sexting deal with Athens, who now evidently hates his guts.
MA: I think ours is now a fairly permissive, post-affair society and today’s married office-holding rogues can get away with consensual, inappropriate messaging relationships if they want to. That said, if I were Berkowitz, I’d be extremely keen to peace out of this job. Anchorage’s electoral politics seem deeply unpleasant, one example of this being his first mayoral race in 2015, which devolved enough that Berkowitz needed to make the statement “I was angry. It was a hypothetical insinuation, and let me repeat again: I oppose incest” the day before the election.
CT: This sudden mayoral transition could get very messy for the Anchorage government. The city assembly announced Wednesday that it will shuffle its hierarchy in order to facilitate the passing of mayoral power to an interim who is not currently running for the permanent job; if the situation gets any more tortured from there, it’s not inconceivable that Anchorage could find itself negotiating a runoff election for the remainder of Berkowitz’s term just months ahead of the scheduled election for the real job. Yes, I do now know far more than any non-Alaskan ever should about Alaska politics.
Nevertheless Berkowitz’s resignation counts as something of a victory for an unhinged Facebook group calling itself Save Anchorage, which exists to express vehement opposition to Berkowitz’s efforts to manage the raging pandemic. A queasy coalition of freaked-out business owners and lunatic QAnon types, Save Anchorage has as a sort of Mecca a restaurant called Kriner’s Diner, which earned this role when it openly defied Berkowitz’s order to suspend indoor dining after a surge of COVID-19 infections last month.
MA: Ah, Kriner’s Diner, where French fries and French toast are called American fries and American toast because there is “No French on our menu, just proud American classics.” Kriner’s tried picking a legal fight over re-opening with the city of Anchorage, but finally relented after a few days, facing a court injunction and mounting fines. Maria Athens is a big fan of Kriner’s Diner. In a Facebook post last week, she called Kriner’s her favorite local spot and took a photo of a message written on the windshield of a car in the parking lot there that I guess she found cool. It reads “Biden Likes Minors,” so that’s something. Per texts shared with the Landmine by @angelbbx2, Kriner’s is also where Athens was when she left the bananas voicemail.
CT: And this is where the story gets somehow murkier: Andy Kriner, the owner and operator of Kriner’s Diner, is the brother of Molly Blakeley, the booze-cookie-maker whose tenuous-as-hell linking of a politician she’d never met to an escort client who’d never been named, to a reporter unmistakably out for blood, started the cascade of events that led directly to Berkowitz’s downfall. So there’s a non-zero chance, then, that this mayor was brought down in a psyop perpetrated by a COVID-denying diner owner, a booze-cookie-maker eager for attention, a rampaging blob of Facebook crazies, and a QAnon-adjacent TV reporter scorned? Do I have that right?
MA: Well, I am not so reckless as to claim this whole plot was set in motion by the vengeful anti-mask Kriner’s Diner mafia, but I guess I’m reckless enough to consider the idea out loud and probably I will soon be kneecapped with a cast-iron skillet and never heard from again. On the day Berkowitz announced his resignation, Kriner’s Diner posted “We are very thankful tonight” on Facebook and offered a Thanksgiving lunch special the next day. Suspicious????
Andy Kriner did comment on a Landmine post about the scandal to say he “had nothing to do with any of this” and to point out that he and Blakeley are only half-siblings.
CT: Blakeley has publicly denied all connections to Athens’s scoop, which she can do because the ill-fated Cookie Interview, which somehow turned into a dish-session about the mayor, never made it to air before Athens was arrested and disavowed by her employer. The Landmine posted a spread of text screenshots and a voice recording that Blakeley’s daughter, @angelbbx2, shared which she says came from her mother, and that would seem to show that Molly Blakeley did in fact gossip out of turn about her daughter’s former line of work and start this ball rolling. Anecdotally, Landfield of the Landmine told Defector that he finds @angelbbx2 to be the most credible person in all of this.
MA: Blakeley’s daughter, who no longer lives in Alaska and says she doesn’t follow Anchorage local politics, told the Landmine that family members and friends of her mother’s had confirmed to her that Blakeley discussed her hatred of Berkowitz often. She said her mother is “an attention seeker who does this kind of thing often.” A horrifying thought! This does not seem like the kind of thing one should do often.
CT: Blakeley may have all the incentive in the world to keep her name out of this: According to Landfield, Blakeley has a deal with Nestle Toll House to market or sell or otherwise support her booze-cookie operation:
By now, Blakeley’s “teen escort” story had catalyzed a national news story, and Nestle presumably wouldn’t appreciate a business partner feeding a reporter false claims about the Anchorage mayor’s involvement with a teen escort.Alaska Landmine
MA: I wondered whether Nestle Toll House might be party to all of this. Anyway, perhaps for the same reasons of impulsiveness that led her to unwittingly slander a mayor and bring an entire Alaskan city to its knees, Blakeley hasn’t had great luck in business, so kind of a lot is riding on the cookies. (When she first began making them, she realized after a little while that she wasn’t actually baking them at high enough heat to burn the alcohol off.)
Landfield pointed us to her appearance on the Travel Channel show Hotel Impossible, in which an expert hotelier visits small, struggling hotels and attempts to overhaul them. In a 2016 episode featuring Hooligan’s Lodge and Saloon, the hotel Blakeley used to run on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Blakeley shares that one hotel manager she hired embezzled lots of money, and also that she spent $80,000 on defective bowling alley equipment for the hotel. In a conversation about the truly appalling lack of fire safety measures at Hooligan’s, it comes up that Blakeley’s business before the hotel, a restaurant, burned down.
CT: Seems like if you pick a random Alaskan and spend five minutes researching their family history, within at most three degrees of separation you will have arrived at a noteworthy tragedy or horror or display of stupidity, or all of the above. Molly Blakeley’s father is a man named Norm Blakeley, who is an assemblyman for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. In June he sponsored a resolution to make his borough into a “second amendment sanctuary” over fears that the kinds of social uprisings he’d followed in the news in places like Portland might one day require him to confront violent protesters in his sparsely populated ice-hell of a borough, which evidently he would prefer to do with a gun. Just a real weird place, Alaska. Hard to decide whether it’s Cold Florida or Cold Australia or Cold Twin Peaks.
MA: Landfield mentioned to us the local story that all this knocked off the front pages: A former Libertarian Party candidate for state senate was arrested on murder charges this weekend after point-blank shooting and killing a guy who hit his car while doing doughnuts in a gravel pit. For our own frail sanity, I suggest that we forget ever hearing any of this and together expunge all memory of Alaska and Alaskans posthaste.