Alaska News

Emmonak goes damp and finds a warehouse is targeted by booze thieves

BETHEL — Four months after the village of Emmonak legalized alcohol, the Yukon River community is reeling from the impacts, asking for help and taking some measures into its own hands.

After repeated break-ins at Ryan Air's Emmonak warehouse, where arriving booze was stored, air carriers have suspended liquor shipments into the village. People are drunk in the streets, and violence in homes is escalating, said Martin Moore, Emmonak city manager

"Unfortunately, the Alaska State Troopers do not have all the resources to investigate these troubling crimes," Moore wrote this week to U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan. The city is seeking a federal investigation and encouraging the restart of tribal court.

At least two recent deaths in the village were related to alcohol abuse, Moore said. One who died had health complications, including liver damage. Another hanged himself. Moore said he didn't want to talk about the deaths beyond that.

Emmonak, long a dry village, in October agreed in a tight contest to allow alcohol, 111 to 103. The fishing community of about 760 sits near the mouth of the Yukon River, 10 miles from the Bering Sea. The ballot question was whether to allow a city liquor store and in approving it, the community also lifted a prohibition on residents bringing in their own beer, wine and liquor, whether by ordering it from Anchorage or using their own luggage to transport it.

Problems started almost right away, according to Ryan Air.

"Our facility has been broken into seven times since December," said company president Wilfred Ryan.

His company flies out of Emmonak and also handles freight brought into Emmonak by two other carriers, Ravn Alaska and Everts Air Cargo.

Ryan stores freight and U.S. mail in its warehouse at the Emmonak airport until customers pick it up or it is flown to its final destination, the company president said.

Since the October election, more than 300 cases of beer, more than 350 bottles of wine and 700 bottles of hard liquor were shipped to individuals in Emmonak through Bush orders to liquor stores, according to Sara Chambers, acting director of the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. That doesn't count what people brought in their personal baggage on planes.

With alcohol arriving as cargo on about every flight, the airport warehouse became a middle-of-the-night target, Ryan managers said.

The windowless, 40-foot-by-60 foot warehouse has a locked steel entry door and an insulated bifold metal door for freight. After someone pried open the steel door, Ryan reinforced it. Burglars bent and ripped the freight door to get in, Ryan said. Its office-trailer — where no freight is stored — also was targeted.

A motion-activated still camera was in place and about three weeks ago Ryan added video surveillance that captured crimes in progress, according to company managers. Ryan turned over the information to Alaska State Troopers.

But the break-ins didn't stop.

On Feb. 17, Ryan announced that it had an agreement with Everts and Ravn to suspend alcohol shipments to Emmonak.

"I took the position we cannot continue to incur damage to our facility," Ryan, the company president, said.

People can still carry alcohol in their airplane baggage, said Moore, the city manager. But for someone not traveling anyway to Anchorage, Fairbanks or Bethel, where there are liquor stores, carrying liquor in baggage can be more expensive than than ordering directly from a store.

Deaths, burglaries and bootlegging

Alaska State Troopers say their statistics don't show an uptick in reported crime for Emmonak since October. That could be because the trooper post there has been short-handed because of health and family issues, said trooper Capt. Barry Wilson, who oversees Western Alaska. Reports on some incidents also haven't yet made it into the database, he said.

"My troops kind of feel there is an increase in alcohol-related events, but it is not showing up in our statistics," Wilson said.

To Moore, there is no doubt.

"Domestic violence. People drunk on the roads," Moore said. "We are going through it. We are living it."

The village hasn't had a village public safety officer stationed there since last summer, though a roving VPSO does come through. And until a week ago, it also didn't have a city or village police officer. Emmonak, which has a newly renovated apartment to provide free to a VPSO, still is hoping one will again be assigned to the village.

In January, community members upset about what they saw as a lack of law enforcement and increasing problems held a meeting to air concerns.

As a result, the Emmonak City Council in January agreed to amend its budget mid-year and hire a police officer, who just started, Moore said.

"Already on the job and doing good," he said.

The community also agreed to work toward restarting a tribal court so that it can deal with problems more readily, he said.

Moore said he asked Sullivan for help as the newest member of Alaska's congressional delegation.

"I wanted to see how he would respond," Moore said.

Burglars have gone after other buildings too, including the city laundromat and the health clinic, he said. He said the post office was hit as well, though the U.S. Postal Inspection Service — the agency's law enforcement arm — says no burglaries have been reported at its building in Emmonak in the last two fiscal years or so far in the current one. No mail was tampered with at the Ryan Air warehouse though some packages were, Wilfred Ryan said.

"In addition to the postal thefts, there have been deaths in Emmonak and the surrounding Yukon Delta Villages related to alcohol and drug abuse, and bootlegging," Moore wrote. Federal help is needed, he said, to provide tribal court facilities and training "to empower local autonomy based on Common Law and Righteousness."

Sullivan is working with the postal service and if the need arose would involve other federal agencies, said the senator's spokesman, Mike Anderson.

Man with an ax

Troopers say they are investigating but can't watch the warehouse round-the-clock. Ryan Air said it can't post someone there overnight either. There's no running water at the Emmonak airport, said Ryan's director of safety, Andy Angstman.

Trooper reports show a steady stream of alcohol-fueled trouble in Emmonak, even if overall numbers haven't spiked. In late December, a 33-year-old man assaulted four household members. In January, a 29-year-old broke a window and assaulted a relative. A 24-year-old hit two relatives in the head.

This month, a man was arrested in connection with two Emmonak alcohol break-ins. Michael Aketachunak, 30, was trying to get into his brother's room with an ax, their mother told a village public safety officer who had traveled to the village.

Aketachunak was outraged that day, Feb. 17, because his brother told authorities he had stolen alcohol, according to a sworn statement by officer James Kvamme. Aketachunak punched the brother, put him in a headlock, threw him onto the floor and threatened to kill him, according to what the brother told the officer.

The day before, Aketachunak told the officer he had broken into the Ryan Air warehouse twice, the VPSO wrote in the court filing. He said he broke the garage door and took a case of Black Velvet whiskey. He also said he took 20 bottles of Nikolai vodka on Feb. 14, the officer wrote. The officer wrote that he recovered 7 1/2 bottles of whiskey and six vodka bottles of which four were empty. Aketachunak was charged with felony and misdemeanor assault, burglary, theft and criminal mischief. He is being held at the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center in Bethel.

In addition, juveniles who were responsible for the office break-in have been identified, troopers said.

Tanana's secure store

Emmonak hasn't opened a city liquor store and doesn't plan to at this point, Moore said. It doesn't have a building for that, nor money to build one, he said. It also doesn't intend to build a secure distribution site. That is what the air carriers said is needed before cargo shipments of alcohol can be flown in.

In the Interior village of Tanana, liquor was stored in a jail cell for a time.

The city runs the liquor store there. For a while it was in an old building that, as in Emmonak, was targeted for break-ins, said Jeff Weltzin, Tanana city manager.

"We had enough of that," he said. The city financed a new building to serve as the city liquor store. "There are metal bars over the windows, heavy duty steel door, and steel in the roof. So it's a place you really can't break into," he said. The store is paid for, and generates about $100,000 a year in profits that go toward activities for youth, he said.

The change in Emmonak's alcohol status spilled over to nearby dry villages, Moore said.

Some people were ordering alcohol shipped to Emmonak, then traveling by snowmachine to pick it up. It's illegal for them to bring it home, Moore said. He sent a letter Feb. 14 to air carriers and nearby city councils, in Nunam Iqua, Mountain Village, Kotlik and Alakanuk, reminding them of that.

A man in the nearby dry village of Alakanuk was found dead next to his snowmachine on Feb. 16, troopers said. The snowmachine was stuck in the snow about 50 yards from his house.

Paul Ayunerak, 40, took off most of his clothing and lay down next to it. He appears to have died from exposure, troopers said. He had been drinking, troopers said, but they couldn't immediately say where he got his alcohol.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.

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