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Rural Alaska

Village asks governor to close Bethel liquor store

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: March 19, 2018
  • Published March 15, 2018

An Alaska Commercial Co. worker stocks the shelves of the AC liquor store in Bethel in 2016. (Lisa Demer / ADN archive)

A dry village in Southwest Alaska says it has suffered too many alcohol-fueled deaths and accidents since the first liquor store in decades opened in the nearby city of Bethel two years ago.

Now, the Napaskiak tribal government is calling on Gov. Bill Walker to shut the Bethel operation down.

There have been five drinking-related deaths in the village of 450 since the Alaska Commercial liquor store opened in May 2016, Napaskiak tribal administrator Sharon Williams said Thursday.

"I don't want to count any more deaths," Williams said. "We want that place closed."

The AC store is the only liquor store currently operating in Bethel, a hub of 6,400 residents in a region with a long history of alcohol-related woes. Many nearby villages voted long ago to ban alcohol within their borders, and the liquor store was the first in Bethel in more than 40 years. Napaskiak is about 7 miles south of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River.

AC wants to work with villages to better regulate alcohol sales and ensure safe drinking, the company said in a statement Thursday.

"As long as legal sales of alcohol are permitted in Bethel, we believe it is in the community's best interest to allow (Alaska Commercial) to operate as we have a track record of being a responsible operator as we have never been cited for alcohol related violations by the city or the state," the statement said.

AC has made efforts to be a "good steward," including by limiting the store's operating hours, the statement said.

The resolution from the Napaskiak Tribal Council, unanimously passed March 5, says Napaskiak and nearby villages have suffered "numerous, preventable deaths" and accidents from alcohol since the liquor store opened.

It says emergency responders are overwhelmed with calls, minors are drinking and school attendance is falling.

Napaskiak residents are traveling to the Bethel store by snowmachine or boat on liquor runs, residents said.

Some people in the village have died in snowmachine and four-wheeler crashes, Williams said.

Williams said one of the alcohol-related deaths in Napaskiak involved a relative, Adam Williams, 19.

He's charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Kyle Wassillie, 26, in the village in August.

Witnesses said Williams shot Wassillie after a night of drinking and a fight, according to a charging document filed by a state trooper. Williams told the trooper he "got really drunk and blacked out," and couldn't remember what happened, the document said.

The village has not heard from the governor's office, Williams said, though the tribal government faxed its request to his office March 6. The Walker administration did not provide a comment for this article.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, is traveling to Bethel with a delegation from the governor's office for a hearing to address Napaskiak concerns Saturday evening, said Michelle Sparck, in Zulkosky's office.

Zulkosky organized the hearing and invited the Walker administration, which responded quickly, Zulkosky said. Planning to attend are Alaska Assistant Attorney General Alex Cleghorn, Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan and Barbara Blake from Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott's office.

The group will also listen to concerns from Marshall and other villages across the Bethel region.

The Native Village of Marshall passed a resolution March 8, calling on Walker to declare a state of emergency and provide law enforcement for dozens of villages like Marshall without local officers.

Marshall residents sometimes make liquor runs to Bethel, 75 miles to the south, said Nick Andrew Jr., administrator for the tribe. Sales from the Bethel store are adding more alcohol to the region and contributing to problems in villages such as high rates of assault, he said.

Chris Larson, honorary chief in Napaskiak, said he was one of those who voted to shut down the liquor store.

Larson, like Williams, wouldn't name those who had died in alcohol-related events since the liquor store opened. They want to respect the privacy of neighbors and relatives, they said.

Larson lives along the road passing through the village. He said he hears hollering almost every night from people acting drunk.

"It's a giant problem," he said. "It's a village that's going wild every doggone night."

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