Alaska News

A PEOPLE IN PERIL: “Damp” doesn’t work

Originally published Jan. 10, 1988. Part of a series.

BETHEL — In 1974, leaders of Bethel’s sobriety movement rejoiced as voters passed a law to prohibit all sales of liquor. Alcohol would have to be purchased elsewhere and brought here for personal consumption only.

Sobriety advocates hoped the law would reduce alcohol abuse by cutting off binge drinkers from instant access to booze.

Experience has proved them wrong. The "damp" law hasn't stopped the binge drinkers. It has simply turned them over to the bootleggers.

"Bethel's riding the fence. Either you have to go wet or absolutely dry no importation," said Kevin Clayton, the town's police chief. "When voters chose to ban only sales, they voted to lose control of liquor. They pushed it underground."

Bethelbased bootleggers rake in millions of dollars from customers who hail largely from the stronghold of dry Alaska the YukonKuskokwim delta villages that surround Bethel. More than 30 of these villages staggered by an epidemic of alcohollinked violence and accidental death have voted to ban both the sale and importation of alcohol.

Law enforcement officials attempting to crack down on the illicit liquor sales have been stymied by a lack of manpower, the difficulty of building cases that will stick in court and lenient state laws that treat most firsttime bootlegging cases as simple misdemeanors.

Police spend most of their time struggling to cope with the aftermath of binge drinking: street drunks, rapes, murders, beatings, and snowmobile and boat accidents. During the first nine months of last year, the Bethel force handled 9,000 calls for assistance, roughly four times the Anchorage rate.

Meanwhile, Bethel's leaders wrestle with the future of a town where bootlegging is one of the few prosperous industries. "Look at the kids, the high school students," said Diane Carpenter, a community college teacher recently elected Bethel's mayor. "This is the model they are given of how to make a living. They become predators. They start to think in exploitative terms about . . . people who are helpless and drunk and could be rolled."


Before 1974, Bethel was the wet hub of a dry delta. The town had a bar, the Wild Goose, and a communityowned liquor store.

The drunks were never far from sight. They gathered in Lousetown, a collection of tarpaper and plywood shacks along a slough, to pass whiskey jugs from hand to hand. They staggered down the town's main streets. They collapsed among the junked cars that helped shore up the eroding river front.

Some never made it home.

In the fall of 1972, thenpolice Chief Tom Dillon went through his files with a visiting reporter: A man frozen to death 15 feet from the house where he had been partying, a woman who never woke up after passing out in an abandoned, unheated house. The year before, Dillon said, 14 people had died "alcoholrelated" deaths.

Two weeks after the interview, Dillon was dead, killed by a drunk.

Such tragedies fueled Bethel's sobriety movement. A coalition of church and Native leaders proposed a ban on all liquor sales. But Bethel's large nonNative population opposed the plan unless unlimited amounts of liquor could be imported for personal consumption. A political compromise was struck and, in 1975, voters gave their blessing to the damp approach.

Six other towns also have taken that approach: Barrow, Nondalton, Iliamna, Coffman Cove, Aniak and, after a close election last October, Kotzebue.

In Bethel, during the first years after the vote, the law appeared to work.

"Initially, there were some real calculable benefits," recalled Rosie Porter, editor of the Tundra Drums, the town's weekly newspaper. "Daily attendance at schools was up immediately. Parents were sober, so school children had to get out of the house in the morning and do something. There was more available cash in the community. People were buying homes and snowmobiles. . . . There was a little internal economic boom. People were paying rent and utility bills."

But by the late '70s, the bootleg operations were flourishing.

One white brothersister team became a human vending machine. Customers slipped money into a slot in the side of a shack and out came bottles of whiskey. A group of ethnic Albanians ordered booze by the palletload from Anchorage and sold it from taxicabs.

Village bootleggers used Bethel as a supply point for liquor smuggled into dry communities.

Presentday Bethel is the bootleg capital of Alaska, supporting a halfdozen major operators and more than 50 smaller ones, according to police.

To bust the bootleggers, police and troopers have tried to use undercover agents to buy liquor with marked money. But agents are hard to come by, even in Bethel, where the city offers a $1,000 bounty for a successful conviction.

"We have a major problem in getting a credible agent to do the buy," said Dale Curda, an assistant district attorney. "People are afraid to do that. And I don't blame them."

The few agents willing to risk the wrath of the bootleggers often are binge drinkers who have difficulty recalling what happened during the bust. One Bethel agent drank the evidence before police could grab it.

Since January 1985, according to state records, 10 of 15 bootlegging cases have been dropped by prosecutors or dismissed by judges. In three of the five cases that were prosecuted, defendants pleaded no contest or guilty. The other two went to trial, and both times, the defendants were found guilty.

Law enforcement officials say they are also frustrated by what they view as a lenient state criminal code. Unlike drug sales, which are felonies on a first offense, a first offense of bootlegging up to 12 liters of alcohol is a misdemeanor. A second offense of bootlegging is a felony. As a result, bootleggers do not spend much time in jail.

"All we manage to do is educate bootleggers about what to do and what not to do," said Clayton, Bethel's police chief.


Police officer Santos Fultze spends most of the graveyard shift dealing with the kind of alcohol abuse the damp law was supposed to help stop. He patrols Bethel picking up drunks.

On a cold night last October, he was called to the Kusko Inn, where a visiting villager was causing trouble. He found a 34yearold man with a waist so thin his pants barely clung to his buttocks leaning against the hotel's entryway. The man said his name was Tom.

"We're going to get you a room," Officer Fultze said.

Tom looked up.

Fultze grabbed Tom's arms and twisted them behind his back and slapped on a pair of handcuffs. Tom howled. His eyes blazed with anger and fear.

Fultze pushed Tom into the back of the police van and drove a short distance to the detox cell at the YukonKuskokwim Correctional Center. By the time the van arrived at the jail's checkin station, Tom was calm.

"How long I'm in for?"

"Twelve hours," Fultze said.

A slender young woman with long brown hair donned plastic gloves for a quick body search. A second guard pushed Tom into a 9by8foot cell with a thick glass window and a single gratecovered drain for vomit and urine.

By dawn, 14 other men were sharing the tiny cell with Tom. It was walltowall flesh. No room to move. No fresh air, not even a hint of ventilation. When the door opened for a new arrival, hands, arms and legs flailed out.

The detox cells are seldom empty. Last year, Bethel police picked up 288 Bethel residents and 670 outoftowners, the vast majority villagers from around the YukonKuskokwim Delta.

"They are just stomping on Bethel," said Clayton, the police chief. To keep the peace, Bethel needs a police force equivalent to those of much larger cities. Fewer than 4,500 people live in Bethel, but the city has a police force of 12 twice the national average for a town its size and a $1 million a year budget, Clayton said.


In the face of such abuse, Clayton says, a damp law cannot work. He said the city should repeal the damp law and open a communityowned liquor store. Profits from the store should be used to deal with the problems caused by alcohol, he said.

Would legalizing alcohol result in even more binge drinking? "I don't think that's going to happen," Clayton said. "You see that guy face down in the dirt. You tell me (he) is going to drink more, whether it's $10 a bottle or $40 a bottle."

Clayton's view is shared by many. In a citysponsored survey last summer, 177 of 244 residents said they favor either communityowned or private liquor stores. Sixtynine other people wanted the law changed, but they favored a complete ban on importation as well as sale. Only 22 backed the current law.

Proponents of a wet Bethel include oncestaunch supporters of the damp law, such as Porter, the newspaper editor. "There is no good decision and probably no solution. But what we're doing by remaining dry is condoning criminal activity and inviting a criminal element that we simply cannot handle. . . . They're not the highcollar drug dealers, these are scumbags. And they're killing our people."

Carpenter, Bethel's mayor, said she wavered for a long time, then finally decided the city would be better off wet.

"I believe that legal sales would be the lesser of two evils," she said. "There would still be a lot of problems but I don't think that it would be as bad as it is now with the disrespect for law and the effects on kids."

Even some health officials are ready to try a liquor store.

"I think if there's going to be alcohol here, I'd like to see some sort of control," said Carl Berger, director of the YukonKuskokwim Health Corp., a regional health agency.

Last December, Bethel businessman Howard Elliott began a petition campaign to put the question of legal liquor sales on the ballot this year.

If such a measure were approved, others say, ready access to legal booze would inevitably mean more people drinking more than ever.

"The legal and law enforcement problems would be far worse," said Chris Cooke, a Bethel lawyer who recently retired after nine years as the region's District Court judge.

During his time on the bench, Cooke gained a reputation for harsh sentencing of bootleggers. He has no sympathy for law enforcement officials who want to give up on limited prohibition.

"If every cop in Miami decided that the cocaine in his city was overwhelming and we ought to legalize it that's just not an acceptable position to take. Just because a lot of people blatantly violate the law is no reason to give up."

The return of a liquor store to Bethel would also be opposed by Native leaders of the sobriety movement in the Delta. But one of their strongest voices was stilled last month with the death of 70yearold Eddie Hoffman, a former Bethel mayor and traditional chief. Just two months ago, in an interview in Bethel, Hoffman vowed a bitter fight against the reintroduction of a liquor store.

"This town won't go wet as long as I'm alive," he swore.

Hoffman, who came to Bethel in 1936, said a wet Bethel would undercut village efforts to keep out alcohol. He said the city needed to get tougher with the bootleggers.

Others say that even if a liquor store is opened, the bootlegging will continue.

“I lived in Bethel when they tried that before,” said Nathan Toots, mayor of the coastal village of Scammon Bay. “After the liquor store closed at night, the bootleggers came right back in.”

Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times

Hal Bernton is a a reporter for The Seattle Times and a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.