BETHEL -- Even with no legal alcohol sales, the amount of hard liquor coming into this Western Alaska hub is considerable, with some individuals bringing in dozens of bottles of hard liquor in a single week.
In one remarkable transaction on Feb. 20, someone in Bethel bought 81 liters of liquor – or 108 bottles of what's generally called a fifth -- through the state-monitored Bush order program, according to state figures.
Since Jan. 1, more than 1,000 bottles of liquor have come into Bethel in big orders, and that doesn't count what individuals bring in on planes or what's bought through smaller Bush orders, Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board statistics show.
It's a situation that leads to bootlegging, and it's one of the things Bethel should be considering as it debates a proposal for the first liquor store in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in 40 years, the director of the ABC Board told a packed town hall meeting Monday night.
The board received an application Monday from Bethel Native Corp., through its new Bethel Spirits LLC, to open a liquor store in part of the shuttered Swanson's retail space. That starts a 90-day clock for the ABC Board to act. Alaska Commercial Co. also is seeking to open a liquor store in the building that houses its grocery store in the heart of Bethel but hasn't yet applied.
Bethel is unique in Alaska as a wet community with no legal sales, Cynthia Franklin, ABC Board director, told the crowd at Bethel's Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center.
"We know there is tons of alcohol coming into this community, and there's not a thing we can do about it," said Franklin, a former prosecutor. "You voted for it to be that way."
In damp communities, where possession is legal but sales are not, individuals are limited on how much alcohol they can bring in.
But Bethel residents can order unlimited amounts of alcohol from package stores in Anchorage and Fairbanks as long as they aren't barred from purchasing because of a record of bootlegging, Franklin said. Urban liquor stores still must report to the ABC Board written Bush orders to Bethel for amounts above 36 liters of hard liquor in a single week.
It's similar to federal requirements that large cash transactions be reported, Franklin said. The activity may be legitimate, or it may be a sign of something illegal. The board staff immediately notifies Alaska State Troopers whenever large Bush alcohol orders to Bethel are made, Franklin said.
With debate over a proposed liquor store in Bethel raging, the ABC Board provided the city of Bethel a summary of recent Bush orders that scrubbed out names of individual buyers. Bush orders must be requested through the mail and then usually are shipped out air freight.
From the start of the year through March 24, 816 liters of hard liquor came into Bethel through just 16 big orders, according to the ABC Board. Some people bought more than once in that window, said Bob Beasley, ABC Board enforcement supervisor. Some ordered 36 liters but others much more -- 54 liters, 60 liters, 72 liters.
The total represents 1,088 750-milliliter bottles of liquor in less than three months for a community of about 6,000, plus thousands more in surrounding villages, many of them dry or damp.
The count doesn't include smaller Bush orders, Beasley said. It also doesn't include alcohol that passengers bring in airplane baggage.
Some at the town hall said they were outraged that an individual can bring in so much alcohol. They said they wanted the names published. They want troopers to crack down.
Troopers say the information already is used in bootlegging investigations conducted by the Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team.
"The lists are pieces of information that can be used during an investigation into illicit or illegal alcohol transactions, especially if it's related to a known suspect or in instances where we've received tips regarding this type of activity," trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said in an email.
People at the town hall mainly spoke against a liquor store, bringing up familiar arguments about fetal alcohol syndrome, destroyed young men, early death and risk to villagers up and down the river. A group from Akiak that included longtime sobriety crusader Mike Williams chartered a plane to speak against it.
One young woman from the village, Lenora Gilila, broke down talking about three people who died over the winter after coming to Bethel to drink, then crashing through the ice on the Kuskokwim River on the way home. Tundra Women's Coalition representatives said the shelter will become more crowded and child abuse reports will grow.
But others urged an open mind. Stanley Hoffman Jr. told the crowd that Bethel now "is a bootlegger's dream." A person could bring in 100 cases of liquor. It's time to open a liquor store, he said. Allen Evon of Kwethluk said he saw the immense amounts coming into Bethel through air freight. Rules could be in place to prevent residents of dry villages from buying, he said.
But for stricter rules than what's in state law, the community would have to vote under the local option provision for a city-owned and -run liquor store, Franklin said. Even then, barring residents of dry villages from buying alcohol in a wet village would likely not hold up if challenged, she said.
Bethel voters agreed to go wet in a 2009 election but the next year in an advisory election rejected the prospect of various configurations including bars, restaurants with beer and wines sales, or liquor stores. Some didn't want the state to keep track of their purchases, as is done for even small Bush orders in damp communities. Some were upset at young people being charged with felonies for alcohol offenses.
There are 255 residents of Bethel on the state's restricted list who can't purchase alcohol through written Bush orders, according to Beasley. They may be buying illegally in town, Franklin said.
Ana Hoffman, Bethel Native Corp. president and chief executive officer, told the crowd that the proposed store would bring order to the situation.
"The question is whether we are going to have legal sales that are regulated or just continue to only have illegal sales where taxis and shady hotels prey on people," Hoffman said.
The Bethel City Council is considering whether to protest Bethel Native Corp.'s liquor license -- a position that the ABC Board must honor unless it's "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable."
Once the ABC Board formally notifies the city of the application, the city has 60 days to decide what action to take, if any. But individuals also can object, Franklin told the crowd.
City Council members interviewed at the town hall said they would not support the village corporation's application unless a public vote showed support. Bethel Mayor Rick Robb told the crowd he intended to introduce an ordinance to bring the matter to another advisory vote.
If an application for a liquor license is rejected, the party can apply again, Franklin said.