Crime & Courts

New state database shows circumstances around disappearances of hundreds of Indigenous people in Alaska

A new state database reveals for the first time the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of hundreds of Alaska Native people considered missing in Alaska.

The Department of Public Safety calls the Missing Indigenous Persons Report, released earlier this week, a first-of-its-kind effort to publicly release data on Alaska Native and American Indian people missing in Alaska. The data includes whether police believe the disappearance was related to criminal activity or not.

It’s important to remember that each of 280 names on the list represents a loved and missed person, said Charlene Aqpik Apok, executive director of Data for Indigenous Justice. Her organization independently created a database of missing and murdered Indigenous people first released in 2021, and has been advocating for Alaska law enforcement organizations to better track the issue for years.

“This report was definitely a step in the right direction,” Apok said.

The data is not a complete accounting of missing Indigenous people in Alaska: It only represents missing persons cases handled by the Anchorage Police Department or Alaska State Troopers, leaving out cases in smaller communities with their own police departments such as Fairbanks, Juneau and other elsewhere. People like Lori Dee Wilson, a Juneau woman missing since 2016, are not on the list.

In the future, the department hopes to get other law enforcement agencies to contribute data for quarterly updates, said Austin McDaniel, a Department of Public Safety spokesperson.

Most of the data is also already entered into two existing databases of missing people: the state Alaska missing persons clearinghouse and NamUs, a nationwide database overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice. The state says it has committed to regularly updating the NamUs data, something that it hasn’t always done before and isn’t mandated.


What’s new about the database is a public accounting of the circumstances around each person’s disappearance. Analysts with the Department of Public Safety and Anchorage Police Department reviewed each case and classified it as “environmental,” “non-suspicious,” “suspicious” or “unknown,” McDaniel said. McDaniel also cautioned that the report offers a point-in-time snapshot — it only includes people who were missing as of July 14, and it’s possible some may have been located since.

About three-quarters of the cases were ruled environmental — meaning a person is believed to have died or disappeared in the wilderness as the result of a plane crash, boat sinking or other outdoor accident but their remains were never found. Some of the cases date back to the 1960s. In Alaska, even when a person has been declared dead in legal proceedings they remain on a missing persons list until law enforcement “lays eyes on them,” said McDaniel.

Of the 280 total cases, 215 were ruled environmental, 30 not suspicious, 17 unknown and 18 suspicious. The database offers what is in some cases the first confirmation that police think criminal activity was involved in the person’s unsolved disappearance.

The information on the circumstances of disappearances is useful and will hopefully present a clearer picture to law enforcement of the overall situation, Apok said. It is also validating for families to see what they have long suspected about their loved ones disappearance: “For a very long time we’ve been hearing from families, this is what happened and it hasn’t been recognized,” she said.

“Going missing while going on a hike or hunting is very different than someone being abducted,” Apok said. “We really wanted to clarify those circumstances.”

The disappearances considered suspicious by police include:

• The disappearance of Mary Alexie in Anchorage in 2012

• The disappearance of Valerie Sifsof from the Granite Creek campground in 2012

• The disappearance of Willis Derendoff from the Fairbanks area in 2020

The data will be updated on a quarterly basis, the Department of Public Safety said.

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.