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Homer remembers Duffy

Duffy bench one
Courtesy of Christina Whiting
Duffy's family sits on the new Loved and Lost Memorial Bench in Homer on Monday.

From search parties to vigils, the community of Homer has spent the last two and a half years rallying behind Sara and Ed Berg as they’ve searched for their daughter, 38-year-old Anesha “Duffy ” Murnane, of Homer.

Now, police believe they’ve arrested the man who killed her. On Sunday, the community gathered around the Bergs for a different reason — to remember.

“The big picture of when I think of Duffy is her ability to tap in, at all the different parts of her life, to the really specialness of childhood, where you’re present and in the moment and adoring everything it is to be innocent and sweet and cute. You know, she just embodied that," said Tela O’Donnell Bacher, Murnane's lifelong friend.

She was one of several people who memorialized Murnane on Sunday at the Homer Public Library, where there’s a new bench in honor of her and other missing and murdered people across Alaska.

Murnane’s mother, Sara Berg, was the vision behind the bench. On Sunday, she traced Murnane’s life from childhood.

“She was timid and shy, not a wave maker," Berg said. "Withdrew from conflict. Not a leader, just showed by example. Never idle, always making something. Every craft known to man was made in our house, all entered in the Ninilchik Fair, from pigs to pictures.”

Berg and Murnane took trips together to Mexico and Thailand, where they met kids and babies in orphanages.

Murnane loved babies. She looked after many in Homer as a babysitter and Montessori teacher.

Tom Kizzia remembers dropping his babies off with Murnane on his way into town.

“In spite of everything, that’s the image I’m left with, is safety and security with Duffy," he said.

Anesha "Duffy" Murnan
Bring Duffy Home
Anesha "Duffy" Murnane

Murnane’s friends said she was also a lot of fun. Leslie Kleinfeld said she was one of her favorite dancing partners.

“I met Duffy on the dancefloor when she was a preteen when Sara and Ed would bring her to the Dancing Bears Memorial Day Camp," she said.

She remembered Murnane being gentle and shy.

“And that gentle presence would get on the dance floor," Kleinfeld said. "And she’d be like a fairy dancing. As tall as she was and as short as I am, there was a lightness. And it was so gentle to dance with her, ’cause she was always on beat.”

It wasn’t all happy times. In 2014, Murnane began what would become a six-year battle with mental illness, eventually culminating in a hard-fought diagnosis of bipolar I.

Berg said Murnane was just getting her self back when she disappeared in 2019. She was set to join her down in Mexico, where they have a home.

Berg said the children they’d visit there and in Honduras would call her “Mama de Duffy” — Duffy’s mom.

“Now, here in Homer, I am once again known as Duffy’s mom," Berg said. "And I’m proud to accept that title. But I don’t like how I got it. Let’s remember the joy, the sweetness, and treat our babies like Duffy would. Let’s make the world a better place, one baby at a time.”

There are references to Murnane’s love for babies on the new Loved and Lost Memorial Bench.

Homer’s Brad Hughes has been working on the piece for the last nine months, sculpting and carving the clay for the bench’s arms in his backyard and trying to get the individual faces of every character just right.

“Doing people is the hardest thing an artist can do," he said. "There’s nothing more challenging than that.”

There are a lot of different characters — a little boy, a mother huddled over a baby, a woman with a dog at her feet.

“Every character took more than a month to pull out of the clay," Hughes said. "They don’t make any sense, or their emotions are wrong or their gestures are wrong or they’re not going around the corner.”

The characters come from either side of the bench — those who are lost on one side and their families on the other. Around the back, they reach toward each other, not quite touching.

It’s a solemn scene. And Hughes said he worried at first about putting a bench with a dark message in public.

But he said he’s since realized how important it is to spotlight the phenomenon of missing and murdered people around Alaska.

Homer artist Brad Hughes said the bench has been his primary project over the last nine months.
Sabine Poux
Homer artist Brad Hughes said the bench has been his primary project over the last nine months.

The Bergs said Sunday that through their search for their daughter, they’ve been pulled into a deeper understanding of that issue — and how it impacts Indigenous women, specifically, who are killed at 10 times the rate of non-Native women according to the Coalition To Stop Violence Against Native Women.

At the ceremony, several families spoke about their missing relatives.

Blaire Okpealuk, of Nome, hasn’t seen her sister Florence“Flo” Okpealuk, a mother of one, for almost two years.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t look at her picture or smile or both," she said. "August 31 was the day that changed my life forever.”

She said search efforts are dwindling but the family’s still looking.

Ingrid Cumberlidge from Sand Point is the first Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons coordinator for Alaska through the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I have listened to a lot of stories across Alaska in the last two years," she said. "And many of you are here, that I’ve listened to, across the state. This is hard work. And it’s amazing that Homer has come out to participate in this hard work and really share with your family.”

She said she’s noticed the resilience of families working to eradicate the issue

That’s something Hughes, the artist, incorporated into his bench, among the portrayals of sadness and suffering.

“One of the emotions of people is hope," Hughes said. "I mean, we can’t leave out hope.”

It’ll be one of the last touches on the bench. Hughes plans to put a lotus-shaped light behind the piece that will shine a soft glow on the sculpture night and day.

He also said they’ve made a mold of the bench. That means communities across Alaska can order their own to commemorate their own loved and lost ones.

You can see the new Loved and Lost Memorial Bench at the Homer Public Library on Hazel Avenue.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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