Laura Fehrs opened the door of the truck, speeding down a two-lane highway in the Kodiak spring twilight. The new mother closed it and opened it again.
The father of her baby was driving fast, weaving over the centerline.
It was May 2020, and it had been a long afternoon: The date that was supposed to clarify their future together had gone awry. By the time they left the Rendezvous Bar and Grill, ten miles west of Kodiak, both had been drinking.
A police report, court filings and testimony in Kodiak Superior Court would describe what happened next:
When Fehrs opened the door again, she jumped out. She hit the asphalt of Rezanof Drive with such force the tattoos on her skin were scraped off, the police report said. The truck wheel rolled over her, crushing her body. Her long hair caught in the wheel well.
When the medics arrived Fehrs was grievously injured but still conscious, her mother would later say in court.
“Oh my god,” she kept saying. “I have a baby. I have a baby.”
Who will raise the child?
Two weeks later, on May 28, Laura Fehrs died of her injuries in an Anchorage hospital. She was 24. Her baby was just two months old.
Kodiak prosecutors charged her boyfriend William Miller, 28, with assault and drunk driving, upgraded to manslaughter after her death. He ultimately pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and DUI, and is set to begin a three-year prison sentence in July.
A year later, the baby is at the center of an intense legal battle working its way through Alaska’s child protective and court systems. It boils down to a question: Should a father held legally responsible for the mother’s death be allowed to raise their child?
Laura’s family says the Alaska Office of Children’s Services has aggressively moved to return the baby to the father. Even for an agency that faces criticism for almost every decision it makes, the case stands out, said Mike Schechter, an attorney representing Laura’s brother and sister-in-law, who hope to gain custody of the baby.
“I’m not aware of a case where OCS has returned a child under circumstances where one parent was convicted in the other parent’s death,” Schechter said.
Miller’s attorney, Darryl Thompson, said he is barred by law from even confirming or denying that an Office of Children’s Services case involving his client exists. Miller’s priority is being a father fit to raise his son, he said.
“He is a loving, fully engaged father who wants nothing more than to raise his child,” said Thompson.
OCS would not answer questions for this story. The agency is prohibited by law from commenting on individual cases, said Alaska Department of Health and Social Services spokesman Clint Bennett.
But child protection authorities must weigh the imperative to return a child to a willing biological parent’s care with whether the home can be found to be safe and secure. Failing to pursue “reunification” can complicate a child’s chances of a permanent legal status, such as adoption. Still, in Alaska, a parent being convicted of homicide of the other parent is included on a list of circumstances that can lead to involuntary termination of parental rights.
Fehrs always wanted to be a mother. Born in Washington state, she moved to Kodiak with her mother and two siblings when she was a teenager. Because of a medical condition she thought she might never be able to have children, her mother Lisa Poulos said. When she found herself pregnant, she was delighted.
Yet things had not been going well with Miller, a commercial fisherman. The two were engaged but he seemed not to be prepared for fatherhood, Fehrs’ family said. Laura had told her mother about ugly fights.
After the baby was born she decided they needed some time away from him, and Kodiak, Poulos said. She planned to take the baby to her mom’s home in Arizona for a few months while she pursued training as an aesthetician. That way she could return to Kodiak with a skill and a way to support her family. She just had to tell Miller, in a narrow window between commercial fishing trips. They made a date for May 13.
In the immediate aftermath of Laura’s hospitalization, the OCS asked Levi and Kalynn Fehrs to take in their two-month old nephew.
Levi and Kalynn were busy with owning a furniture store in Kodiak and the life of a young married couple without kids of their own yet. They turned a spare room into a bedroom, bought a crib, a stroller and rearranged their lives to put at the center an infant who had been breastfed until the day his mother was hospitalized.
“He was completely unaware of why everything had changed in his life, why his mom was suddenly gone,” Levi said. “We had to make him feel as comfortable and loved as humanly possible and shield him from that, and our grief.”
Their relationship with the baby’s OCS caseworker soured when it became clear that a caseworker was moving to return the infant to the father as the criminal case against Miller was still unfolding, Kalynn said.
“They were a path to return the child to a man very likely to be convicted of some form of homicide against the other parent,” Levi said.
The baby stayed with Levi and Kalynn until Christmas Eve, when OCS decided to return the child to the father, they say.
“My older sister had to take him to hand him over,” Levi said. Both were so distraught that “neither one of us could do it ourselves.”
Maggie Fehrs, Laura’s older sister, was astonished. She had worked for OCS as a foster parent and visitation supervisor in the Kodiak office. She watched over and over as the agency moved in the opposite direction — moving to take children from biological parents for much less, she said.
“There are cases where the parent has shown tremendous progress and they’re 100 percent against the child having anything to do with that parent.”
In March, Miller pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminally negligent homicide and drunk driving. The choice to accept a plea agreement was in service to the hope of being with his son, Thompson said.
“Minimizing the risk of time he was going to be away from his child was pivotal in his decision making,” he said.
At the change of plea and sentencing hearing, Laura’s family brought an urn containing her remains to the courtroom. Poulos spoke at the sentencing, both about losing her daughter and about her grandson.
“There was a beautiful part of Laura living through him,” she said. “Until that was taken as well.”
“This tragedy has affected everyone that’s involved,” he spoke, his voice wavering. “We’re all victims in this.”
“I don’t think there’s one person in the world that regrets more about some of those decisions that night than myself,” Miller continued. “Especially looking in the eyes of my son every morning and every night.”
Today, Laura’s family is fighting for custody of the baby. So far, OCS is moving forward with plans to permanently place the child with his father, said Schechter, the attorney.
“OCS has a lot of power to determine the safety and future of this child,” he said. “We believe they are not doing so in a reasonable way.”
The families are polarized, Thompson said. Each has fundamentally different views of what happened on that May night in Kodiak.
“That polarization will pour over onto this child,” he said. “At some point we need to stop, accept everyone’s role, and move forward for the benefit of the child.”
Thompson said Miller is trying to do the best he can for his child.
“He has refocused his energy into trying to be a better parent,” he said.