Vigil for Robyn Gray held at Fairbanks courthouse after guilty verdict delivered

Community members hold a vigil for Robyn Gray
Community members hold a vigil for Robyn Gray(Julie Swisher)
Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 7:27 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -As the snow fell in front of the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks on Wednesday, February 16, 2022, family, friends, and members of the Fairbanks community held a vigil for Robyn Gray.

Gray had died from asphyxiation on July 8th, 2017, she was 29 years old.

Many of Gray’s friends and family remembered her and who she was. “Oh man, she was just the light in the room. Everybody loved her, she was so bubby always laughing. She was a very big girl so she was always like the focal point in any room that we went in,” said Gray’s cousin and best friend Antoina Commack. “She was five weeks older than me and she always made sure to point that out to everybody.”

Sign reads "justice 4 our murdered sister"
Sign reads "justice 4 our murdered sister"(Julie Swisher)

42-year-old Roberto Leal Jr. of Fairbanks was Gray’s boyfriend. In 2017 Leal Jr. plead not guilty to the murder of Gray. According to court documents, Leal Jr. contacted a neighbor to check on Gray after she was found “unresponsive and cold and blue in the face.”

When the police arrived Leal had conflicting statements. He was reported saying at first he “woke up and found Gray like that,” then later changed his story.

Leal also stated the master bedroom was trashed by Gray, but later family members came forward and said they saw Leal trash the room himself. Police also reported the scene looked staged.

The blankets and her clothing were bunched up and her hair extended off the side of the bed as if she was pulled onto the mattress by her feet.

In court Wednesday, a Fairbanks jury found Leal Jr. guilty of the murder in the second degree in the killing of Gray. Leal was found guilty on both counts of murder in the second degree. He will be sentenced on June 30, 2022.

“They called us in at 11 for the verdict and he was found guilty on both counts of murder in the second degree. The first one was with intent, and the second one was knowingly,” Commack added.

Commack says after the judge read the verdict, they were happy to finally find justice for Robyn.

“It’s been hard. When a member of your family is murdered it’s obviously really hard to think about. And then it was dragging on for five years and that was even harder, that was difficult, but today we are just so happy,” Commack confessed.

The mother of Robyn Gray holds a cross for her daughter
The mother of Robyn Gray holds a cross for her daughter(Julie Swisher)

As sad of an occasion the vigil was, the family of Gray felt a sense of relief. They stood in front of the courthouse hugging one another. Gray’s mother held a cross in one hand, and in the other, she held the hand of Gray’s young son.

“Oh, we haven’t smiled this much in years. Her mother, I haven’t seen her smile that much in a long time. All of our cheeks were hurting. My aunts want to jump and they have bad knees. We are just overjoyed,” Commack said smiling.

Commack says she like many others will continue to advocate for the lives of women and girls who have been wrongfully murdered. She says moments like this are huge for the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls act, mentioning Alaska is only a small part of the movement.

“We want people to know that it’s not only in Fairbanks but in the villages, and they don’t have any way to let people know what’s going on. We want to let people know we need to be there for each other and help each other out, that’s the only thing we have to do, is help each other out,” said Gray’s mother. “We need more counseling, especially up in the villages because they don’t have anybody to talk to, especially these days with COVID, and we lost a lot of our elders, people we really looked up to. I live in Fairbanks so I talk to counseling, but I know up in the villages it’s really hard for women.”

Commack says they can finally have some peace, but added it is still difficult to understand why.

Family of Robyn Gray
Family of Robyn Gray(Julie Swisher)

“You know, you don’t ever really move on. It stays with you. It is difficult especially when you lose your family, your friend, and your daughter, your sister, your mother to domestic violence, and it’s not taken accordingly,” she said. “It’s very hard, we are obviously going to remember them. My other best friend, her trial is going to come up next month, so I will be back doing the same thing for her.”

Commack was acknowledging her other friend Kristen Huntington, who was missing until her body was found in a vacant apartment in the same building that she lived in. Huntington’s boyfriend Eric Palmer-Rustad is being charged with 1st-degree murder, tampering with physical evidence and misconduct with a corpse.

The message those at the vigil wanted to share with the community is to listen to family members more.

Commack remarked, “You know, listen to your family members more. The women, if they are having a hard time listen to them, help them out. If they are in a domestic violence situation try and help them through it because it is very difficult. You don’t want to get to the point where they are killed.”

Robyn Gray is an Alaska Native woman from Shungak, Alaska. She leaves behind four children.

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