'Fight like hell:' Anchorage abduction rallies local baristas to new vigilance

By Andrew Sheeler / Sun Star Reporter
Feb. 14, 2011

College Coffee House barista, Micaiah Liebhober, a business student at UAF, promotes awarness for the recent barista kidnapping in Anchorage. Kayla Hajdukovich/ Sun Star

On Wednesday evening, more than two dozen coffee stand workers decided it was better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

The Feb. 1 abduction of Anchorage barista Samantha Koenig, 18, put a face to the fears of baristas across Alaska. Suddenly, they had something more to worry about than bitter cold or angry customers. Koenig’s kidnapping offered a chilling reminder that many baristas  work in vulnerable positions, often alone or in the dark.

In Fairbanks, the abduction served as a call to arms. Dozens of baristas and coffee stand owners gathered with lit candles and green ribbons at the Illinois Street Sunrise Bagel and Espresso to honor Koenig and to discuss taking action for their own safety. First to speak was former barista and UAF broadcast journalism senior  Jaime Ames. Ames held a large donated sign showing Koenig’s picture as she spoke of her own close call while working at the coffee stand just feet away from where she stood. A man tried to pull her out of the coffee hut window. Fortunately, she was able to trigger an alarm and police quickly responded.

“Probably one of my biggest fears is what happened to Samantha,” Ames said, before handing the floor over to Sgt. Brian Wassmann of the Alaska State Troopers.

“The reality is that stranger kidnapping is pretty rare,” Wassmann said. Most abductors know their victims, and it’s possible Koenig’s kidnapper was no exception. Wassmann warned that baristas should always be vigilant, especially during opening and closing hours when it’s still dark and traffic is light.

Workers should trust their intuition and that “safety is always in numbers,” he said. “Abductors are always looking for that window of opportunity.”

In the event a would-be kidnapper did try to make a move, “the simplest thing to say is fight like hell,” Wassmann said.

The gathered baristas took those words to heart. Ames said she was in talks with the owners of Frostbite Gym, a local mixed-martial-arts training facility, to provide self-defense tips to coffee hut workers. Doug Whorton, general manager of Sunrise Bagel and Espresso, is in talks with the owner of Midnight Sun Martial Arts Academy to  provide all his employees with a free class, he said.

Koenig’s abduction drew new attention to the security of coffee stands. James Koenig, Samantha’s father, has criticized the stands for having large windows that are easy to pull someone through. He called for the stands to install window screens to prevent anything larger than a 20-ounce coffee from getting through.

Bonita Taylor, owner of College Coffee Hut and College Coffee House, said a window screen wouldn’t work.

“Somebody could still put a gun through it,” she said.

Taylor and other stand owners have taken steps over the years to protect their employees, she said. Taylor had a loud push-button alarm installed at her stand on College Road and University Avenue. The alarm draws attention to a would-be assailant and notifies the police. Whorton’s Sunrise stands feature a similar alarm, he said. While Taylor’s employees have never had to use the alarm, she laughed and said they’d accidentally set it off a few times.

Though Wassmann stressed the idea of safety in numbers, often a single employee opens and closes coffee stands. Taylor said this was largely for cost reasons. “There’s no point in putting two people on it (the shift) if we can’t pay their wages,” she said. To counter that the risks of short-staffing, most Fairbanks coffee stands feature multiple locking doors. Taylor is also considering providing her employees, most of whom are UAF students, with pepper spray, she said.

Taylor has also provided donation jars to local coffee shops that want to take them.  She also will host a fundraising concert at College Coffee House from 7 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18. The concert will feature several local bands, Taylor said, and proceeds from the event as well as the jars will provide  law-enforcement-taught self-defense classes for local baristas with the rest going to the Koenig family in Anchorage.


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