Alaska News

A PEOPLE IN PERIL: Haven for bootleggers

Originally published Jan. 10, 1988

On a damp Sunday in October, two youthful brothers from a village along the Kuskokwim River motored up to Bethel for whiskey to drink with the second game of the World Series. To make the bootleg buy, they didn’t have far to go.

They pulled up their boat on a beach littered with empty plastic bottles of Windsor Canadian and walked across a sandy boardwalk to a collection of plywood shacks and Aframe huts.

One of the two disappeared into a hut, then reappeared a few minutes later. He had a bottle hidden under his clothes, his brother said. They hopped back into the boat and turned downriver for the halfhour trip home.

Such sales are the mainstay of Alaska's bootleg liquor industry, and Bethel is its capital. Bootleggers find the city's tentative approach to prohibition allowing the importation of alcohol, but not its sale and its role as an air and river crossroads, an ideal climate.

The cases of liquor that arrive each day from Anchorage are sold, bottle by bottle, from riverfront shacks, the trunks of taxi cabs, abandoned freezer vans or the backpacks of teenagers. Law enforcement officials estimate the illegal trade at $2 million to $5 million a year.

"Right now we see pallets, literally pallets of alcohol arrive at the airport," said Bethel Police Chief Kevin Clayton. "We know where it's going. We know what's going to happen with it, but we're powerless to stop it."

Much of the liquor is sold to local residents or the people who visit Bethel from the villages that dot the broad delta of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Some are social drinkers, but many are binge alcoholics unwilling to wait for liquor to arrive by air freight from Anchorage. They want their whiskey immediately, and will pay up to $40 for a $7 bottle of it.

Other bootleggers use Bethel as a base from which to smuggle booze into villages where both importation and sale are banned. In the "dry" villages, that same $7 bottle can sell for $120.

Aniak, a village along the upper Kuskokwim River that also allows unlimited importation of liquor, is another distribution hub for bootleggers. Cargo and passenger planes bring in daily shipments of booze, which a halfdozen bootleggers sell to local clients or send up and down the river.

In both towns, the bootleggers operate just out of sight, often using "runners," some as young as 12 years old, to make the actual sales. The runners dispense bottles from small packs, then turn over the cash, minus a $5 to $10abottle commission, to the bootleggers.

Bootleggers who sell directly to customers protect themselves by refusing to deal with strangers.

In the early '80s, some of the biggest bootleggers were ethnic Albanians from Yugoslavia.

"I remember when Albanians from Bethel came in they would buy about 10 cases of Windsor whiskey in plastic bottles," recalls Edith Turkington, a former employee of Party Time Liquor in Anchorage. "That is 10 cases for each person."

A BIG MARKET

"There's plenty of business for all," said one bootlegger in his early 20s who agreed to be interviewed only if his name were withheld. He is a handsome man who would look more at home on a California surfing beach than the soggy tundra of the delta. He tried a 9to5 job, he said, but bootlegging proved more alluring, first as a way to earn quick cash, and then as a fulltime occupation. Today he peddles whiskey from a small freezer van in the seedy section of town known as Bootlegger's Alley.

"I just kind of got into this and things started working out real good," he said.

He spoke on a Friday evening while at the Bethel airport awaiting a shipment of beer. The order was for another bootlegger, who planned to smuggle it into a dry village.

The young man said he launched his bootlegging operation two years ago with a special introductory offer: $25abottle whiskey, which he hoped would quickly attract a core of customers. The price created "quite a bit of conflict" with other bootleggers, he said, so he raised it to $30.

Now, in a good day, he may sell two 12bottle cases of whiskey at a profit of more than $500. Less enterprising bootleggers, the ones he calls "subsistence bootleggers," order only a halfdozen bottles at a time, earning just enough to support their own alcohol habits.

At first, he said, he used his van as both an illicit liquor store and a tiny, oneroom apartment. But last fall he finally tired of drunken clients pestering him through the night even after the booze was all gone and moved out. Now he operates only part of the day from a different van. But that approach has caused him other hassles: "I've had problems with breakins three or four times. And my windows have been shot up."

He also had trouble with alcoholic runners who drank his booze instead of selling it. Now he uses only sober ones. In early October, his three runners were aged 16, 17 and 25.

Despite the problems, he estimates he earned more than $20,000 last year. "When I didn't drink," he said, "it was really quite profitable."

Sales of bootleg booze peak in July as hundreds of fishermen converge on Bethel to sell their catches. On the Fourth of July alone, he said, he earned more than $2,000. Demand stays strong through the summer, then drops off sharply as villagers stalk moose in September. As permanent fund dividends begin to arrive in October, business picks up again and remains brisk through New Year's.

On a typical weekend, he gathers with other bootleggers in the parking lot of the town shopping mall. They smoke, drink, talk and watch for potential clients across the street at the Brass Buckle, a low, ranchstyle building that serves as the delta's only nightclub. By midnight, the Brass Buckle is jammed with Eskimo, Indian and white rock 'n' rollers.

The bar can't sell alcohol, just soft drinks, but that isn't obvious from the customers. Many are staggeringly drunk. On the crowded dance floor, two women argue over a man; across the room, two men fight over a woman, or would, if they were sober enough to manage a serious scuffle.

"It's a hot spot," the bootlegger said. "People don't go there unless they're really fd up."

At 1:30 a.m., as closing time approaches, the action shifts outside. Around the back of the building, amid a clutter of 55gallon drums and fuel tanks, a young Eskimo woman sips from a cup. "I'm getting drunk and looking for a good piece of a," she says with a laugh.

Out front, the parking lot of the Brass Buckle looks like a giant block party. "I'm on shruuums," says one woman who apparently has been eating psilocybin mushrooms. A young man standing nearby pulls out a plastic bottle of Windsor Canadian from his bluejean jacket. When he draws a few stares, the bottle quickly disappears behind his back.

A halfdozen cabs ring the parking lot, the drivers ready to make quick runs for booze, and the everpresent, backpackclad runners wander through the crowd.

The bootleggers stay as long as there is money to be made.

"THERE'S NO FUTURE'

"People will beg you and beg you," the bootlegger said. "They pay in food stamps . . . everything they got. One guy gave $65 in food stamps for one bottle." Sometimes they trade ivory.

Asked whether he worries about the ravages of alcohol on his customers and their community, he replied: "When it gets to the younger neighborhood kids, that makes you feel kind of bad. Knowing you are fing these kids' lives up."

Briefly last summer, he said, he feared a police bust. Then the heat slacked off. "Bootleggers are winning the war now. . . . It seems like nobody cares," he said.

Does he ever think about quitting? "I just got into this and things started working out real good." He thought about it some more. "This is so easy. . . . But there's no future."

THE "BUSH AIR COMPLEX'

Carl Berger spends much of his time trying to heal the wounds caused by alcohol. The YukonKuskokwim Health Corp., which he directs, provides suicide prevention and rape counseling, and helps villages cope with accidental death and acts of violence.

From the secondstory window of his riverfront office, Berger can look down at the beachfront conglomeration of Aframes and shacks with a reputation as one of the town's most notorious bootlegging sites. Locals call it the "the Bush Air complex" because of the air taxi headquartered there.

During the fishing season, Berger recalled, he watched in frustration as village seiners, their pockets stuffed with cash from salmon sales, lined up to buy bootleg whiskey and then scattered up and down the river to drink.

Some headed down the beach toward the neighborhood of state Sen. Johne Binkley, a forceful spokesman for local option laws that allow voters to ban alcohol. Others milled around the health corporation building. "It got to the point where we had to hire security so that people could get in and out of the building without getting harassed," Berger recalled.

The complex sits on a halfacre of land owned by the Moravian Church. The Moravians came to Western Alaska in the 1880s and helped found Bethel. The federal government deeded 129 acres of land to them in 1911. A church was built on one part, a school on another. Some of the land has been washed away by the river; much of what remains is being "held in trust for the Native people," according to Kurt H. Vitt, director of theological education for the church.

For the last 13 years, a portion of the "trust" land has been leased to Ron Peltola, the 44yearold proprietor of Bush Air. Peltola has been charged with flying booze into a dry village and is awaiting trail. He has a history of problems with authorities.

In 1974, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of selling wild game illegally and was fined $2,400. The state temporarily shut down his charter operation in 1985 because he lacked the required insurance.

Last year, his pilot's license was permanently revoked for doctoring his medical records, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. On June 22, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of harassment for repeatedly threatening to kill a police officer.

The Moravians first gave Peltola a 10year lease in 1974, according to court records. He built a plywood shack to serve as an air taxi office, and a collection of other shacks and Aframes, some of which he later sold.

When the lease expired in 1984, the Moravians sued to evict Peltola for nonpayment of rent. So far they have been unsuccessful.

"ONESTOP SHOPPING'

In the meantime, the complex has developed into a base for bootlegging, according to Berger and Bethel Police Chief Clayton. It is the base for one of a halfdozen major bootlegging operations in Bethel, Clayton said, with revenue estimated at more than $100,000 a year.

Because the beach at Bush Air is one of the few breaks in a riverfront largely walled off by old cars and metal pilings, it is a favorite pullin spot for villagers arriving by boat. The beach also serves as a waiting area for charter passengers traveling to or from nearby villages.

"It was easy to get customers, when you knew (Bush Air) could give you a bottle and fly you," said Simon Brown, a state trooper who investigated Bush Air. "This was onestop shopping."

On Aug. 2, troopers, with the aid of an undercover agent, busted Bush Air. They seized Peltola's floatplane and arrested him on misdemeanor charges of importing alcohol into the dry village of Tuntutuliak and enlisting a minor to aid in the crime.

The minor was a young female employee of the air service. She told Trooper Brown she went to the Bethel airport to pick up liquor and delivered it to Peltola, who handed it over to Joe Newman, an occupant of an Aframe next to the Bush Air office, according to an affidavit by Brown.

Peltola instructed the employee to send any liquor customers to the Aframe, Brown said she told him. After the booze was sold, Newman brought the money to her, and she put it in a Bush Air money bag.

Bush Air still has a floatplane, and the charter service is open for business. Peltola spoke indignantly of his arrest, and flatly denied the employee's statements to police. He said passengers may have carried liquor on his planes, but he didn't know about it.

Peltola sold two of the three Aframes in May 1982, according to Peltola and his attorney. Some huts may be used for bootlegging, Peltola said, but they have no connection to Bush Air.

$120 A BOTTLE

Hooper Bay, a community of 776 people spread along the Bering Sea coast, is one of more than 30 villages along the Kuskokwim River that prohibits the importation and sale of alcohol.

But the prohibition, rather than stemming the flow of liquor, has merely altered its course by creating a powerful economic incentive for bootlegging. A bottle of whiskey that sells for $7 in Anchorage or $40 in Bethel can sell for $120 in a village like Hooper Bay.

As a result, subsistence or professional bootleggers bring booze into virtually every village by snowmobile or skiff, in the baggage of air charter passengers, or in a concealed package through the U.S. mail.

In Holy Cross, a village on the lower Yukon River, bootleggers use private planes to fly in liquor shipments from the nearby wet village of Anvik, or smuggle it in on cargo flights delivering groceries and other essentials.

"We get it every Friday. . . . There'd be a lot of repacked boxes for people," said Bill Turner, a convicted Holy Cross bootlegger who recently went through an Anchorage alcohol rehabilitation program. "Like, it might be a milk box or an egg box. And it'll be all taped up so you can't get in it real easy. And inside the egg box would be booze."

Where cash is scarce, drinkers often turn to sourtasting batches of homebrew made from crackers, yeast, sugar and fruit cocktail.

Last summer in Hooper Bay, a teenage boy killed himself during a game of Russian roulette, and four other youths attempted suicide, according to Ed Graham, the principal of Hooper Bay High School. Only one of the attempted suicides was directly linked to drinking, Graham said, but "without any question, the real problem is alcohol."

"Everybody in the village is affected by even one single drunk," he said. "The village is so small and so close that every little incident has an effect on everybody."

Much of the hard liquor sold in Hooper Bay is imported by homegrown entrepreneurs lured by the easy money. While fishing, firefighting and basket weaving all provide some income, much of life is still subsistence hunting and fishing. So when someone needs a new snowmachine, bootlegging is a quick way to raise the cash. A bootlegger can buy a roundtrip ticket to Anchorage, party in the city for a few days and still turn a profit on the trip by bringing home a single, 12bottle case of whiskey purchased for $86.

Other village bootleggers go only as far as Bethel, where an established bootlegger will, for a fee, order booze from Anchorage and have it delivered to the airport. From there, it can be concealed in luggage and flown into a dry village.

Once in a dry village, bootleggers offer liquor to a select group of customers, or use runners to peddle it. A case of whiskey can be sold in a halfhour or less, according to one parttime bootlegger. Sometimes, the last bottle in a shipment is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The bootleggers “know the people who like to drink,” said one 30yearold resident of Hooper Bay, “and they know the power of the craving. They know people need it.”

Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times

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

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