FBI serial homicide experts have been called in to investigate a chain of disappearances and suspicious deaths of Native villagers visiting Nome.
The cases date back to the 1960s, with 10 since 1990. The victims were mostly Native men who had traveled to the Seward Peninsula's commercial hub from smaller villages of the Bering Strait region.
A prominent Native organization in Nome last week released a list of 20 such suspicious cases, along with offers of a reward, in an effort to get help from the public.
Whispers that danger awaits travelers on the streets of Nome have circulated in the region's Inupiat and Siberian Yupik villages for years. The accounts of missing cousins and in-laws have been colored by allegations of police indifference and even hostility toward visiting Natives, especially those who pass through the bars on Front Street.
But no official investigation ever was launched until earlier this year, when the region's Native community was galvanized by the sensational murder trial of a Nome police officer who stood accused of killing a young village woman.
The trial added to community concerns over yet another disappearance. Eric Apatiki, 21, had come from St. Lawrence Island in October 2004 to meet his pregnant girlfriend and spend his Permanent Fund dividend check. After he vanished, his mother wrote a heart-rending letter to the Nome Nugget.
By February, villagers trembling with emotion were stepping forward in meetings to tell stories of missing family members. The U.S. attorney for Alaska and the commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety flew to Nome with FBI officials in June.
Now the FBI Behavioral Analysis unit in Quantico, Va., has been called in, agreeing to profile each case in a search for possible links. The unit, part of the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, has made the case a priority, said FBI spokesman Eric Gonzalez.
"A concern expressed by the community is that there's very clearly some pattern to these disappearances and there might be a serial killer," U.S. Attorney Tim Burgess said.
'PEOPLE DISAPPEAR OVER THERE'
Delbert Pungowiyi, a tribal council member from Savoonga who has been pushing for an investigation since 1998, believes more than one person is preying on Natives in Nome.
"People disappear over there and where are the bodies going? Where are the remains going?" Pungowiyi said last week. He called Nome "a boneyard for the region because there are so many remains there that have never been found. We're in 2004, 2005 -- and it's still happening."
Burgess and other officials say talk of a serial killer is only hypothetical now, with no schedule yet for hearing back from the FBI.
There are other ties linking many of the cases.
The path of many victims led through Nome's Front Street, where booze has flowed from the bars since the Gold Rush and more than a few Permanent Fund checks have evaporated. The bars make Nome different from other regional hub communities like Bethel, Kotzebue and Barrow, which have attempted to regulate alcohol more tightly.
The tragic sequence of people getting drunk and then dying because of cold, drowning or fights plays out across Alaska, to be sure. What's different here is that obvious cases like that have been culled from the list in Nome, leaving so many cases with an air of lingering mystery. Even so, it seems possible more than a few on the list fell victim to some combination of alcohol, cold, despair and maybe opportunistic thuggery.
"I don't think they'll go out and solve any of these cases," said former Nome Mayor Leo Rasmusson, who has been involved in local search and rescue efforts for years. He said drinking played a part in some of the cases, and the town's old jetty, a vertical steel breakwater at the local river mouth, probably beckoned some to their deaths.
"Somebody disappears up here, there's a lot of land and sea they can get enveloped in," Rasmusson said. He added that he understood why family members were nevertheless seeking closure in the cases.
COMPLAINTS OF POLICE MISCONDUCT
The fog of intrigue and suspicion is thickened by a history of mistrust and bad feelings between the region's Native villagers and the Nome police. The investigations of the past few months have included Native complaints of a too-ready willingness by officials to shrug off each succeeding case as another accident or suicide.
The cases never would have lingered had the victims been Nome residents instead of villagers, Pungowiyi said.
"Can you imagine the outcry they would be having, demanding that these be solved?" he said. "It should have been given attention years ago. I'm just really glad it's finally happening. ... The region is just overwhelmed with this. They're tired of this. They're tired of living with these big gaping holes and no closure."
Complaints of actual police misconduct -- including allegations of rough handling and police driving drunks out to the tundra to walk off their booze -- emerged last winter as Nome police officer Matthew Owens went to trial for the murder of Sonya Ivanoff. A Nome jury was unable to agree on a verdict, and Owens is currently being retried in Kotzebue on the same charges.
Last spring, the Norton Sound Health Corp. board passed a resolution seeking a federal civil rights investigation of the "extraordinarily high" number of missing and dead Natives, citing complaints of inadequate investigations and "discriminatory harassment and excessive force" by Nome police. Other groups expressed similar feelings.
Kawerak Inc., the Native nonprofit agency that has pushed the cases into the open, says it is not trying to point fingers at past problems with police.
"Our attempt is to come to some resolution of these cases and to work with our Police Department to make Nome a safer place," said Kawerak executive vice president Melanie Edwards.
"We want people to feel someone took a good hard look into their family member's case -- whether they were drinking or not, whether they were from a village or a city, whether they were from a wealthy family or a poor family. Justice should be served."
POLICE CHIEF TRIES TO REPAIR RELATIONS
Nome's police chief resigned in the aftermath of the Owens investigation. The new chief, Craig Moates, was hired 18 months ago and has made repairing relations with the Native community a top priority. Assembling the case files for the FBI was part of that process, he says.
"We're trying to separate this urban legend from fact," said Moates. "We're diligently looking at any cases that might have outstanding issues."
Since the uproar started last winter, steps have been taken to improve safety around Nome:
Late-night patrols by citizens have kept an eye on Front Street during the Permanent Fund and Iditarod seasons;
Public information campaigns and reward funds are aimed at raising awareness of past disappearances;
A new Community Safety Work Group has begun regular meetings between Native and public safety officials to monitor progress on the investigations and press for new policies and technologies, such as recording all phone calls to the Police Department.
Moates is flying out to surrounding villages to talk with leaders about his department's policies -- and about safe and responsible practices for villagers to follow when they come to Nome.
Moates said he has investigated all complaints he's heard of past police misconduct, but could not substantiate any. "If it's something that happened 15 years ago, it's going to be pretty difficult to do," he said.
The chief said he hasn't received any recent complaints about the eight patrol officers currently serving on the force. Any such complaints would be thoroughly investigated and misconduct will not be tolerated, he said.
"If there are issues that have taken place many, many years ago, if there is something we can do to resolve that, I would like to," Moates said. "We have a reputation to uphold."
DEAD AND MISSING
Case files on the mysterious deaths and disappearances were forwarded to the FBI by Nome police and the Alaska State Troopers. The FBI was given details of 24 cases, said Kawerak's Edwards, but a few appear to be confirmed drownings or disappearances of hunters, which Kawerak removed from its list.
The dead and missing all appear to be Natives, Edwards said. Seventeen of the 20 were men. Eight of the 20 disappeared and were never found, officials said. The others died under suspicious circumstances -- for instance, people with no known suicidal tendencies who drowned off the jetty.
The case files have not been released, so the reasons for suspicion in some of the deaths are unclear. Most of the names were released last week by Kawerak. Three families asked that their cases not be reopened, Edwards said.
Primary jurisdiction over each case will still be left with Nome police and state troopers, Burgess said.
While the FBI is first looking at possible homicide links, Burgess said, the agency could also address concerns of police misconduct if its investigation turns up such evidence. Another possibility, he said, is a final report that provides a public airing of each case, sorting fact from rumor.
Burgess said the FBI produced a similar study of anti-Indian crime near the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. That report didn't find any one cause but helped reassure the community and provide closure by taking a close look at unsolved cases, he said.
FAMILIES SEEK CLOSURE
For many years, Native villagers have been warned not to venture out alone when they go to Nome, Seward Peninsula residents say.
Myra Henry of Koyuk has organized two Missing People marches in recent years down Front Street to call attention to the problem. She got involved after her brother-in-law, Archie Henry Jr., disappeared on a 1998 Permanent Fund shopping trip to Nome. For a year, she called the Nome police daily, turning up several potential witnesses herself. But the case never went anywhere.
"The seven years has been very difficult for us, not knowing what happened," she said.
She also lost a cousin, Ernest "Sonnyboy" Saccheus of Elim. He disappeared in Nome in 1987, on a stopover coming home from Anchorage, after leaving his hotel to get a few drinks.
Apatiki's disappearance in October 2004 fit the pattern.
Apatiki was in a fight the night he disappeared. He was staying at the Polaris Hotel with his mother, who said four young men from other villages came in the room around midnight and dragged him into the street. She said they beat him and he ran off.
At first, Nome police believed he was probably hiding out with friends. But as the days passed, concern grew. Searchers covered Nome, from the jetty and seawall to the gold-dredge ponds behind town. He was gone.
"Today there are a lot of people missing without a single clue," his mother, Laura Apatiki, wrote in a letter to the Nome Nugget several weeks later. "If they didn't commit suicide, then somebody is very, very clever -- no clue! One last thing my son is not suicidal; he's a happy, shy person."
Two months later, the Owens case went to trial. Owens was a Nome police officer at the time of his arrest a year earlier in the August 2003 shooting death of Ivanoff, a 19-year-old former basketball star from Unalakleet who had moved to Nome. She was last seen climbing into a Nome police cruiser. Her body was found, naked except for one sock, in some willows in a gravel pit outside town.
The six-week trial, though inconclusive, brought things to a head. The day after closing arguments were heard last February, Kawerak's annual conference staged a workshop titled "Missing Persons/Unsolved Deaths." Law enforcement officials were invited to share information, but the crowds that pressed into the room took over the meeting with their emotional testimony.
From there, the issue snowballed. Strongly worded resolutions were approved by Kawerak, the Bering Straits Native Corp. and the Norton Sound Health Corp. The state's top federal and state law enforcement officials flew to Nome in June. The FBI agreed to get involved. In the past few weeks, case files were forwarded to the FBI behavioral analysis unit best known for its portrayal in the movie "Silence of the Lambs."
Last week, Kawerak announced a $17,000 reward fund in an advertisement in the Nome Nugget. The ad listed the names of 17 of those either missing or dead under suspicious circumstances, seeking photographs and leads.
Eric Apatiki is one of three missing people pictured in the ad. At the one-year anniversary of his disappearance, Apatiki's devastated family still assumes he was a crime victim, said his uncle, Evans Apatiki.
Eric Apatiki's girlfriend has had their baby. She named him Eric.
Apatiki's uncle said the family appreciates the efforts of new Police Chief Moates. "He's very concerned. He's willing to help. He's trying to do his duty."
But Nome police have no more clues in Apatiki's case, said Moates. "He ran off into the darkness, and that's all the information that we have," he said.
Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at email@example.com or in the Daily News' Homer office at 1-907-235-4244. Reporter Tataboline Brant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the Daily News Anchorage office at 257-4321 (or 1-800-478-4200, ext. 321).