Remains of missing Bethel man discovered

Jerzy Shedlock

Alaska State Troopers say a tribal police officer in the Southwest village of Tuntutuliak reported finding the remains of a man who went missing after leaving Bethel and never arriving for a funeral in the nearby village last October.

Troopers wrote in a Monday evening dispatch that the Tuntutuliak officer said a body had been found on the bank of the Kuskokwim River just south of the mouth of the Kialik River. The village of more than 400 residents is three miles from the confluence of the Kusko on the Qinaq River.

“The remains are believed to be a man that was the subject of a search-and-rescue” that began in late October, the dispatch says. The body was sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for positive identification.

Troopers say the man’s family has been notified. Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta public media outlet KYUK reports the family confirmed that the body found was Nick Cooke’s.

Cooke, 37, of Bethel and Jim Lee Napoka, 46, of Tuluksak were reported missing Oct. 25. They departed Bethel in a boat for a funeral in Tuntutuliak but never showed up.

Cooke is the son of Chris Cooke, a prominent Anchorage attorney who represented many Alaskans in a lawsuit against Jesuit priests who sexually abused children under their care in rural Alaska. Nick Cooke's sister, Ana Hoffman, is the CEO of the Bethel Native Corp. and the co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Two days after the missing persons report, Bethel search-and-rescue personnel found the men’s 16-foot boat partially submerged in mud at the mouth of the Kialik River. Tracks found along the banks of the river raised the hopes of searchers that Cooke and Napoka were still alive.

Intense searches continued for several days, but come November, village elders decided to shift from rescue to recovery operations, according to a detailed account of the search for the men on the Bethel Search and Rescue website.

The efforts reportedly continued until mid-November. The Kialik and Qinaq rivers started to freeze up, and crews decided to halt the search.