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Family members hold out hope of finding Sifsof alive

Michelle Theriault Boots
Victor Sifsof searches for his daughter Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Brother Victor Sifsof Jr. searches for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Father Victor Sifsof and brother Brian Sifsof prepare for another day of searching for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Brothers Brian Sifsof and Jim Sifsof float Granite Creek as they search for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Family Friend Glo Chythlook at the search for Valerie Sifsof at the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Family and friends search for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Family and friends search for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Victor Sifsof at the search for his daughter Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Family and friends search for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from this campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Family and friends search for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Victor Sifsof searches for his daughter Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Brothers Brian Sifsof and Jim Sifsof get ready to float Granite Creek as they search for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Victor Sifsof, Glo Chythlook and Jim Sifsof prepare to resume the search for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Victor Sifsof at the search for his daughter Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Satellite phones and walkie talkies are ready as family and friends search for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Brothers Brian Sifsof and Jim Sifsof float Granite Creek as they search for Valerie Sifsof near the Granite Creek Campground on Friday, July 20, 2012. Sifsof walked away from the campsite in the Turnagain Pass area of the Kenai Peninsula on the night of July 7 and has not been seen since.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

GRANITE CREEK CAMPGROUND -- It has been two weeks since the rainy midnight when Valerie Sifsof walked away from a campsite in a lush green campground beyond cellphone reception on the Kenai Peninsula.

She has not been seen or heard from since.

The Alaska State Troopers consider her a missing person. The slight, raven-haired 43-year-old was last seen by her boyfriend there on July 7. Troopers searched the densely wooded terrain around the Granite Creek Campground for days, using ATVs, dogs and helicopters.

Troopers gave up their on-the-ground search last Sunday. Right now, there are more questions than answers, said Sgt. Mike Zweifel, a Girdwood-based trooper working the case.

"We don't even know if we have a crime," he said.

Meanwhile, the Sifsof family -- a tightknit clan from Dillingham of six siblings headed by father and family patriarch Victor Sifsof Sr. -- have continued to seek their missing sister, systematically combing the thick forests and icy creeks around the campground using ATVs, rafts and their feet.

They, like the troopers, have found no trace of her but hold out hope that she may be alive but unable to contact her family. They are desperate to keep Valerie Sifsof's name and face in the news in case someone has a tip that will lead them to her.

"There's a chance that she met with violence, or maybe she's not here anymore," her father said Friday, his voice wavering. "But there's a real chance she still is."

THE CAMPING TRIP

The camping trip that Valerie Sifsof disappeared on was a rare occurrence for her.

Valerie wasn't terribly outdoorsy -- a campsite, her family said, was about as far as she'd go into the woods, and she was more likely to be seen wearing heels than hiking boots. But this trip, said her 32-year-old boyfriend Eliot Freeburg, was something they both looked forward to.

On Saturday, July 7, the two drove down from Anchorage in their SUV and settled in at a campsite surrounded by purple wild geraniums and pushki with the sound of Granite Creek rushing by. It was early afternoon, Freeburg said

About 2 p.m., the couple of nearly a decade quarrelled over the campfire.

Sifsof wanted to start it as soon as they got there, Freeburg said, and he thought they should conserve fuel.

But despite the rain and arguing, they managed to have a good time, he said.

They listened to music on portable speakers. They drank Sam Adams Light beers and Glenlivet Scotch whisky they'd brought.

That night, there was a party atmosphere at the campground, a woodsy loop set in a towering valley of tall green mountains south of Turnagain Pass, he said.

Around midnight, Freeburg said, the two argued again, and Valerie walked off from the campsite in the direction of outhouses and other campsites, Freeburg told troopers.

She had been drinking, as had Freeburg, he said. But she wasn't stumbling or slurring her words, he said.

Freeburg says he thought Valerie was just leaving to cool off from the argument, which she had done before.

She wore a black DKNY sweatshirt, blue sweatpants and black rain boots and silver-rimmed sunglasses, Freeburg said. She left her Michael Kors purse and iPhone 4 -- items she was not known to easily part with -- in the car.

Around 2 a.m., when Valerie hadn't returned, Freeburg said, he walked around the campground loop looking for her. Around 4 a.m. he fell asleep.

He woke a few hours later and -- with still no sign of her -- drove back to Anchorage, he said.

He said he thought that possibly she had somehow gotten back to the city and was outside their apartment. She wasn't.

Over the next several days, he said, he made several trips back to the area to look for Valerie. He said he didn't know what to do. He reported her missing to troopers on Wednesday morning, more than three days after she'd walked away from the campsite.

In an interview Friday, Freeburg said he doesn't really know why he didn't contact police earlier but he wishes he had. Tears filled his eyes when he talked about how long Valerie had been missing.

He has since been interviewed by troopers. He continues to search with the family each day.

Valerie's father said he has unanswered questions too, about why it took so long for Freeburg to contact authorities.

"That's been hard for me," he said. "And a lot of people."

But Freeburg seems sincere, her father said, and he wants to keep him close, helping look for Valerie.

Sgt. Zweifel said the delay clearly hurt the search. "It really puts us behind the game. We don't have anything that's fresh out there," he said.

When troopers heard about the missing woman and began the search, he said, conditions were terrible.

"The weather was pouring and windy and horrible conditions," he said. "That, coupled with a several-day delay in getting notified, hampers our efforts. And in this case our results."

THE SIFSOF FAMILY

Victor Sifsof Sr. heard the news that his daughter was missing while he was commercial fishing near Naknek.

He flew first to Dillingham and then to Anchorage to start looking for his daughter. Soon the Sifsof siblings who did not live in Anchorage followed, some leaving work on the North Slope or commercial fishing in Bristol Bay.

The family has always been tightknit, says Victor Sifsof Jr., the second youngest.

"When someone needs something, we all come together," Victor Jr. said. "This is case in point. Our sister has gone missing. All of us have dropped everything to find her."

With the children living in Anchorage, the family often gets together for barbecues, family meals or to cheer on Olympic snowboarder Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, Valerie's niece and the daughter of eldest son, James.

With roots in the Dillingham area, Valerie had lived in Seattle for years as an adult but returned to Anchorage to be nearer to her family. She had worked at different accounting jobs over the years, her family said. A fashionable woman with a hip haircut, she liked city life, movies and going out to eat but was also planning to spend time this summer in Dillingham to help out with commercial fishing operations, they said.

At the time she went missing, Valerie was preparing for another big family event: the birth of her youngest sister Ashley's baby. Valerie was in charge of the baby shower, which was canceled when she went missing. She must be somewhere against her will, her brother Victor Jr. said, because there's just no way she'd drop the ball on the baby shower she'd looked forward to.

She was also especially close to her father. She spoke with him often, sending text messages reminders not to work too hard punctuated with smiley faces and gifts like a pair of new waterproof boots.

"She would never let my dad worry and she would never miss that baby shower," Victor Jr. said.

THE SEARCH

Troopers initially searched with a helicopter equipped with heat-sensing technology, trained dogs and teams on foot and ATV.

They canceled their on-the-ground search last Sunday, Zweifel said.

"We need something to tell us we're looking in the right place," trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said at the time. "It's just a matter of, we've used a lot of resources in this, and we haven't found anything."

Now they are continuing the investigation by interviewing anyone who may have been in the area when Valerie went missing. They have spoken with many people, Zweifel said, including Freeburg and a campground host on duty that night.

Troopers want anyone who was going through the area July 7 and July 8 who may have seen something to get in touch with them, Zweifel said.

"Right now there's a ton of possibilities out there as to what happened," he said. "We need to narrow them down."

The Sifsof family has set up a makeshift command station on a gravel bar just south of the campground.

With RVs, ATVs and rafts loaned by family friends the Sifsofs have organized their own search effort.

Volunteers came from Anchorage with trained dogs. Friends and even strangers have donated food and supplies and their time. Family members and volunteers have walked shoulder-to-shoulder through alder thickets and tall brush, sweeping the area. Victor Sifsof carries a three-ring binder filled with maps documenting the search and a spreadsheet of reporters he has spoken with.

His daughter must be out there somewhere, he says. He wants people to see her face on the posters. Someone, he thinks, must know where she is.

The family isn't sure how long they'll keep searching at Granite Creek. On Friday, Valerie's brothers Bryan and James donned survival suits to float the cloudy creek for the fourth or fifth time, looking for a clue they might have missed. They found nothing.

They'll keep looking, one way or another, said Gloria Chythlook, mother of Valerie's niece, Callan. Staying busy and focused on a goal is natural for a family that grew up on commercial fishing and subsistence. Each day of searching without finding Valerie is heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time, she said: It means she could be out there somewhere. But it means they haven't found her yet.

"It's so good not to find anything, and it's so bad not to find anything," she said.

Email the reporter: mtheriault@adn.com

Photos: Search for Valerie Sifsof
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News