The village store in Kivalina, 80 miles up the Arctic Coast from Kotzebue, stocked up on $20s and $100s so residents could cash their Alaska Permanent Fund dividends starting this week.
But last week, $189,000 went missing from the store's safe -- an unusual crime in a village built on sand and surrounded by sea, tundra and a lagoon with no road out and almost nowhere to spend the money -- except at the store itself.
On Monday, Alaska State Troopers said two teenage boys stole the $189,000 and stashed it around town before being turned in by village residents.
Some $17,000 is still missing, the troopers say.
Troopers say it's unclear where that kind of money could have gone in the two days between the Sept. 27 break-in and the Sept. 29 arrest of suspects Brandon Swan, 18, and Robert Swan, 19 -- especially since the Kivalina Native Store is the only retail enterprise in the Northwest Alaska village of about 370 people.
Troopers say a staff member at the village store, which sells essentials like Pilot Bread, canned food and duct tape, reported the break-in at around 10 a.m. on Thursday.
The vast quantity of cash, which was mostly in $20 and $100 bills, was at the store because of expected Permanent Fund divided payments in the month of October, said Sgt. Duane Stone with the Kotzebue trooper detachment.
Store management wanted people to spend their checks in Kivalina and so had a large amount of cash on-hand, said Stone.
The Kivalina Native Store is owned by Alaska Native Industries Cooperative Association, according to NANA Regional Corp.
Phone calls to the store were not answered Monday evening.
The burglars appeared to use a pry-bar to get in, Stone said. A safe containing the money may have been left unlocked.
"These guys are not safe-crackers," he said.
Troopers found that video surveillance equipment had been damaged. Other items, like tobacco, were also missing.
The store was closed while troopers investigated, Stone said. Within days multiple tips from the community pointed to the two suspects.
Stone said the two are cousins.
"When the store was closed the whole community was ready to give them up," Stone said.
By Sept. 29, two days after the break-in, Kotzebue troopers returned to the village to arrest both Swans and recover the cash, which had been stashed in bags and scattered throughout town.
"They buried some and some they hid under houses," Stone said.
While the two teenagers are thought to have initially acted alone, others were involved in receiving stolen property, Stone said.
Stone did not say how many people they believe knew the whereabouts of the stolen cash.
"There's going to be other people charged," Stone said.
Brandon and Robert Swan are in jail in Kotzebue facing charges of burglary, theft, criminal mischief and tampering with evidence.
It's been a troubled few months for Kivalina.
Summer storms damaged a water supply pipeline, leaving residents without access to clean water. The fall semester of school was postponed for five weeks while crews tried to fix the problem.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News