Alaska News

'They just thought he didn't matter': Friends question Juneau police effort in case of missing Native man

When a 22-year-old Juneau white man with autism went missing last week and was found in less than 24 hours, questions arose from family and friends of a missing Alaska Native man — who is the same exact age — about police priorities in Native and non-Native cases.

"(An officer) was like, 'Your brother was highly intoxicated and he runs with a crowd that's transient,' " Liddie-Marie Armstrong, 34, told the Empire in an interview Tuesday.

Armstrong is Christopher Orcutt's sister and lives in Washington state, where Orcutt is from. She said her brother is not homeless or a transient as a public information release from the Juneau Police Department states outright. Instead, she said her brother has a home in Washington, works as a cook at different restaurants and only traveled to Juneau to visit family and friends because it's where he spent most of his youth.

"I don't know if it's because they thought he was homeless — they just thought he didn't matter," Armstrong said by phone.

JPD Lt. Kris Sell said initial contact with the family may have not gone perfectly and she understands that family's defensive attitude about police work. However, Sell said finding Orcutt is a priority for her and the police department.

On Tuesday, three weeks after Orcutt's disappearance on Aug. 25 when he left a party in downtown Juneau, two JPD police officers guided four dog teams from Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search over the Thane Campground area, Sell said. That's where police were told Orcutt had been spending his nights while in Juneau. The search came up empty.

"We searched our best guess today," Sell said in an interview Tuesday. "On one hand, we're glad we didn't find him because that would suggest he was deceased. That was our worst fear."

Sell said the police did not publicly talk about the search for Orcutt on Tuesday or solicit the public's help because they wanted to keep the area as clear as possible for the SEADOGS canines to work.

She and JPD Chief Bryce Johnson also discussed the department's search efforts for Orcutt at Tuesday's Coffee with a Cop session hosted by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Johnson said he asked Sell to come give a briefing on the search to put to bed the idea circulating on social media that the department cares more about missing people cases when the person who's missing is white.

Last week, when Ryan Harvey went missing near the University of Alaska Southeast, the department had a mobile command center set up by the campus with teams of searchers working through the night to find the man. Police called him a "vulnerable" missing person because of his autism. He was found the next day, less than 24 hours after going missing, by hikers who had heard about the search and seen Harvey's picture.

"You were able to find the Autistic guy in 24-hours. Over two weeks later, and you don't have any leads on the whereabouts of my very good friend??" reads one social media post by Carriah Marie Smith on JPD's Facebook page.

"Messed up you guys go searching asap for the other guy this guy was missing before the other one I have not seen any Search party going up yet," another commenter chimed in on the same thread.

Police Chief Johnson said the difference in those two searches had to do with the available information police had to aid their search — not the race of the missing.

"I think we need to do a better job at explaining those differences, because on its face, you got one kid who's a white kid and one kid who's Alaska Native. Why are you looking for one and not looking for the other? It's a natural thing to wonder," Johnson said during a table discussion at the Coffee with a Cop event, with Central Council President Richard Peterson sitting to his left.

Harvey was reported missing to police immediately; Orcutt was reported missing to police five days after he was last seen. Harvey, who has autism, has a stricter schedule that his family is aware of, whereas Orcutt is traveling alone and didn't have a set schedule to follow. In Harvey's case, police knew where to begin their search because he had just been seen a few hours ago at the university library; in Orcutt's case, the lead was no longer hot.

After the Coffee with a Cop, Peterson said he was glad Sell and Johnson were on hand to help the community understand how police work differs in certain missing persons cases because it's not common knowledge and it can lead to some false impressions.

"It's sort of that knee-jerk reaction," Peterson said in an interview. "You can't help but wonder. You don't know. There's this non-Native and, oh, the whole world responds. … But it totally made sense."

JPD's post about Harvey's disappearance was shared more than 1,000 times. Orcutt's information has been shared 69 times.

Regardless of what may appear to be the public's interest, Sell said the department is dedicated to finding Orcutt. She also said she understands the family's frustration with how the search has gone so far.

"These familes are scared and we don't take it personally," Sell said, adding that no one at the department meant any disrespect by describing Orcutt as a homeless man or as someone who was seen intoxicated.

With the search at the Thane Campground over, Sell said there isn't another place in mind for the department to search. Police are waiting for another clue from the public about where Orcutt may be, and keeping their eyes open for him in the meantime.

"At this point we need some sort of an indicator. … Where would he have gone?" Sell said.

Armstrong said it's been hard for her and her family to be so far from where her brother might be, unable to assist in the search. Watching her ill mother cry over the youngest child has been the hardest part, she said.

To help the family travel to Juneau, Armstrong started a GoFundMe account. She estimates her family will need upward of $5,000 to come to Juneau. As of Tuesday, only $100 in donations had been made to the account.

Orcutt is described by police as a 5-foot-11-inch Alaska Native man, weighing approximately 180 pounds. He was last seen wearing an orange-red button-up shirt with gray jeans. Anyone with knowledge of his whereabouts can contact JPD at 907-586-0600.

This article originally appeared in the Juneau Empire and is republished here with permission.