Investigators were desperate for answers after a loved 19-year-old woman was murdered, stripped and left in a pit outside a small Alaskan community.
A staged shootout led to the arrest of Nome Police Officer Matt Owens, who was implicated in the disappearance and death of local woman Sonya Ivanoff.
Ivanoff enjoying a night out with friends on August 10, 2003.
Around 1 a.m. that night, Ivanoff said she wasn’t feeling well and decided to go home.
Two days later, on August 13, her roommate called the Nome Police Department to report her missing after she failed to return home.
A search and rescue team got to work immediately and eventually discovered her naked body in a gravel pit. She had been shot in the head.
“Sonya was very prominent in the community,” former Alaska State Police Officer Eric Burroughs told Oxygen.
“She was very well known in the [surrounding communities] as a very good basketball player. She was known and loved.”
Described as “goofy” and “funny,” Ivanoff, one of six children, settled in Nome despite having moved there a year earlier.
Her family said she saved money to go to school in Hawaii that fall.
With a population of 4,000 people, there are few secrets in Nome, Alaska, and investigators immediately went to work to find out what could possibly have happened to the young woman they loved.
Police decided the best place to start was with a man Ivanoff sometimes dated due to his bad reputation in the close-knit community.
However, investigators were unable to find any clear evidence against him, and he was acquitted as a suspect.
Finally, a woman called with an anonymous tip that she had seen Ivanoff alone the night of her disappearance.
The tipster said a police car pulled up to her and after a moment Ivanoff got in.
Weeks after the woman’s tip, one of the city’s three police SUVs disappeared, and police began searching for the vehicle.
Retired officer Byron Redburn said he was contacted by another officer named Matt Owens, who said he spotted the vehicle.
“Over the radio, Officer Owens said shots were being fired and they are shooting at Officer Owens,” Redburn said.
Redburn arrived at the scene to find Owens unharmed and alone.
He also found the police car. The windows were broken and inside was an envelope containing Ivanoff’s missing ID and a startling letter.
“Pigs. I hate cops, I hate you all,” the letter said.
The anonymous writer threatened any police officer investigating Ivanoff’s death, saying, “You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.”
“I’ll shoot you in the head too if you get too close,” Dateline reported.
Owen’s description of what happened raised suspicions among investigators and they decided to press him on the matter.
“We believed the incident was staged by Owens,” Trooper Burroughs said.
Investigators had Owens and the other officer on duty the night Ivanoff disappeared take a polygraph test.
While the other officer passed, “Owens failed miserably”.
Owens denied having anything to do with Ivanoff’s murder, but investigators had already found plenty of evidence to use against him.
The dirty cop was arrested on October 25, 2003.
After his arrest, women in the community came forward about interactions with Owens.
Several claimed he sexually harassed them and threatened to kill them if they ever spoke out.
“We were informed that he told them no one would choose a police officer over a drunk active woman,” Burroughs said.
Because there was no evidence Ivanoff was sexually assaulted, investigators believed Owens had attempted to molest the victim and panicked when he realized she was not intoxicated.
They also found that Owens had been seen burning things after Ivanoff’s death.
Finding a burn pit, they discovered buttons that matched the pair of jeans Ivanoff had last worn.
Owens was charged with first-degree murder on November 4, 2003.
While his first trial in 2005 ended with a jury, he was later found guilty and sentenced to 101 years in prison.
NBC’s Dateline will air an episode detailing Ivanoff’s story Friday at 9 p.m. EST.
https://www.the-sun.com/news/6448171/sonya-ivanoff-murder-by-cop-dateline/ Shocking reference to Sonya Ivanoff’s murder that led to the arrest of police officer Matt Owens after the 19-year-old’s naked body was found in the pit