A Homer jury last month decided that a woman missing for almost two years can be presumed dead. In a presumptive death hearing held June 17, the six-member jury also determined that Anesha “Duffy” Murnane, then 38, died of a homicide.
According to online court records, Homer Superior Court Judge Bride Seifert issued a death certificate for Murnane on June 25.
Murnane has been missing since Oct. 17, 2019, after she was last seen in a security camera image leaving her Main Street apartment. Murnane’s mother is Sara Berg and her step-father is Ed Berg. Sara Berg filed a presumptive death petition for her daughter in April.
Under Alaska law, a presumptive death petition is the process for determining someone has died when no body has been found. A person missing for five years or more is automatically presumed dead, but family can file a petition asking for such a ruling earlier. In a hearing, a jury inquires into the facts of the case and considers the testimony of witnesses and other evidence. The jury then makes a decision on if the person is presumed dead, and if so, how and when the person died. A finding of presumptive death and the issuance of a death certificate allows a missing person’s estate to be settled.
If a missing person is found alive, or if their body is found, the court holds a hearing to consider the facts and enters an order for a correction or substitution of the death certificate.
Ed Berg said they filed a petition because “We were interested in getting a presumptive death to close various accounts and paperwork.”
Berg said Murnane had a modest estate.
The finding that her daughter died of homicide surprised her, Sara Berg said. They did not expect that. The jury could have ruled that Murnane died of unspecified causes.
“It validated me,” Sara Berg said. “I know she was murdered. There was never any question in my mind about that.”
Murnane disappeared after leaving her Main Street apartment, presumably heading for an appointment at the SVT Health & Wellness clinic on East End Road. The last confirmed sighting is the security camera photo showing her leaving the Maintree Apartments, a supported housing complex, about 12:15 p.m. that day. Murnane had a 1 p.m. appointment at SVT Health and Wellness Center on East End Road, about a 1-mile walk from her home. She did not show up for that appointment.
Murnane was wearing a blue jacket, light-blue shirt and blue jeans the last time she was seen. She was almost 6 feet tall, weighed about 160 pounds, had shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes. She carried a pink-and-black plaid purse with a shoulder strap and carried her wallet, cellphone and identification. Police said she did not drive or own a vehicle and got around by walking.
The weekend after Murnane went missing, search and rescue dog teams from Anchorage tracked her in the downtown area, picking up scents from Main Street to Lee Drive, Svedlund Street, Pioneer Avenue and Kachemak Way — the path Murnane would have taken to get to the SVT Health and Wellness Center. Search dogs followed strong scents to Pioneer Avenue area near Thai Cosmic Kitchen, in front of Homer’s Jeans and the Kachemak Bay Campus. There the dogs acted as if there had been what search dog handlers call a “car pickup.” Volunteers did ground searches, and in 2020, search dogs also did another search. Nothing was found.
Based on those circumstances, the Bergs have said since November of 2019 that they believe Murnane was abducted.
“There is no other explanation. There is no other explanation,” Sara Berg said. “She was picked up by somebody she knew well and then murdered. There was no way she would have gotten in a car with a stranger. Someone she knew well murdered her. I’ve never seen that any other way.”
Homer Police consider Murnane’s case to be active and under investigation, according to a June 23 press release.
“We will not close it or shelf it. We are committed to finding Duffy’s remains and the person or persons responsible for her disappearance,” the statement said.
At the presumptive death hearing, the jury heard testimony from Homer Police Detective Matt Haney, a special investigator hired to assist in the case. Haney worked for Homer Police more than 20 years ago, leaving the department in 2000. He then went on to gain experience investigating missing person’s cases in Washington and other states. Haney confirmed in the hearing many of the facts known in Murnane’s case: that she left behind a passport and other possessions, that she did not use plane tickets for planned trips in late 2019 to Oregon and Mexico, and that her cellphone only had one brief signal or “ping.” Haney said he interviewed 158 people and reviewed numerous records. He said he had no suspects in a possible abduction.
According to court records, when asked by a juror what he thought happened to her, Haney said, “I don’t know how to phrase this. I have to maintain an open mind. I don’t have her existing after Oct. 17.”
The jury also heard testimony from a social worker and both Sara and Ed Berg. They all provided background on Murnane’s mental health issues. Murnane suffered from bipolar disorder and took medication, but she had shown improvement. Murnane was close to her mother, Ed Berg told the jury, and would not have left home and not gotten in touch with her.
“It was just another step toward closure,” Sara Berg said of the presumptive death verdict. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get real closure. We have to get through this.”
She said that in deaths of other family members, being able to see the body helped her know the person had died.
“And I can’t do that,” Berg said of her daughter. “… I know it’s a dumb little piece of paper. Six other people agree with me.”
Ed Berg said that before Murnane went missing, he didn’t understand why the military went to great lengths to recover remains of lost soldiers. He remembered reading a book about a Vietnamese man who worked to find graves from the Vietnam War.
“What’s the point?” Berg said he thought when he read the book. “I think I understand better. For the relatives, it’s important to have that closure.”
As part of that grieving process, the Bergs have commissioned Homer artist Brad Hughes to design and create a memorial bench, the Loved & Lost bench. This summer, Hughes has been working with fellow artists Gary Lyon and Murnane’s brother, Gregory Murnane, to make a clay mold that will then be used to make a cast for the bench supports. In a statement, the Bergs explained why they wanted to create a bench.
“Because her body has not been found, we don’t have a grave and we want to create a memorial. Since she went missing, we have learned just how many women and children are taken every year, especially among the Native populations, and indeed around the world,” they wrote. “We are certainly not alone in our plight and our grief, and so we decided to create this memorial for not just our daughter, but for all the others who are suffering as well. We want the bench to serve as a memorial and to raise awareness of this tragedy. This bench will be dedicated to all the lost ones, to all the taken ones, and to all those who loved them, left behind with so many questions.”
Homer Police said they seek any information regarding Murnane, including people who might have had any contact with her in the months before she disappeared.
“‘Any contact with her’ means just that, anything at all,” according to the press release. “Even seeing her at some type of event without actually speaking with her, walking somewhere or in a vehicle could prove helpful.”
Anyone with information on Murnane can call Homer Police at 907-235-3150.