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Village travelers feared lost under river ice had been drinking, troopers say

BETHEL – The trio of people lost when a four-wheeler went through thin ice near an open hole on Kuskokuak Slough near Bethel had been drinking and were warned not to chance the trip at night, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Volunteer searchers on Sunday pulled the body of a man from a hole they cut into the ice. But they did not find the couple who had been traveling with him on the four-wheeler, and they are feared to be dead under the ice. Crews resumed the search Monday on the slough, an offshoot of the main Kuskokwim River, at a spot roughly 18 miles from Bethel, but did not find the other two..

Troopers identified the man found as Ralph "Jimmy" Demantle, a 51-year-old from the Kuskokwim River village of Akiak. Still missing are Sally Stone, 27 , and George Evan, 26, of Akiak, troopers said. Stone originally is from the tundra village of Atmautluak, searchers said. That's about 20 miles west of Bethel. The couple had a young son together.

Troopers believe all three were on the four-wheeler when it went into the water.

The three travelers left Akiak on Thursday on a snowmachine and a four-wheeler. Then the snowmachine broke down, so they rode the rest of the way to Bethel on the single four-wheeler, said trooper Nicholas Wood, who is investigating what happened.

Wood said he had not been able to get much information on what they did in Bethel. The trio left the same day and stopped in Kwethluk, then at a property outside the village across the slough.

They spent a few hours there and drank what appeared to be hard liquor, Wood said. He is looking into where they got it. Marijuana was smoked by at least some in the group, the trooper said. A man who lived there urged them to stay the night. It had started to snow and it was dark on the frozen slough and river.

But they wanted to get going and all piled onto the single four-wheeler, Wood said.

"He watched them travel upriver until they were out of his sight," Wood said. That was about 1 a.m. Friday.

While parts of the Kuskokwim and the Kuskokuak are frozen thick enough for pickups, some fast-moving sections still have dangerous open holes surrounded by thin ice. Crews have been marking them with willow branches but in storms the branches may fall down.

Around 5 p.m. Friday, troopers were alerted that the group was overdue in Akiak. Wood was headed there by snowmachine Monday to learn more. The sale and importation of alcohol is banned in Akiak. Bethel technically is wet but functions like a damp community, with alcohol possession but no legal sales at this point. Bootlegging is a problem in the Western Alaska hub.

Saturday afternoon, searchers found Demantle's four-wheeler near an open hole on the Kuskokuak Slough. On Sunday, they found his body near that same spot.

Wood made a point of giving thanks to searchers from Bethel, Kwethluk, Akiak and Akiachak, all of whom were on the scene Sunday. Searchers from Tuluksak and possibly other villages were planning to help Monday.

"The troopers really depend on those guys," he said.

Bethel Search and Rescue had been warning of open holes on the ice roads, the frozen rivers that become superhighways in winter.

"The worst fears of Kuskokwim search and rescue groups may have been realized today," the rescue group said in a post Saturday night.

A friend of Demantle's who was helping with the search said Demantle was a friendly, happy man who lived the traditional subsistence life.

So did Sally Stone and George Evan, said Margaret Frye of Atmautluak. On Sunday she posted a picture of herself and Stone taken years earlier, before they had children, when they were goofing around with makeup. Within a day, more than 100 people had liked it.

"Miss u Sally Stone," one wrote.

"Prayers," said another.

Others hadn't heard. What happened? they asked.

The two women were close like sisters, though Stone actually was her auntie, Frye said. They spoke often on the phone. Stone called her Wednesday but Frye's phone needed to be charged so they didn't talk long.

"She sounded like she was having a fun time with George," Frye said. "He was singing some Eskimo dance songs." She asked Stone to call back later.

Then her mother called this weekend and told her they were missing.

"I keep thinking she's going to call," Frye said. But Stone is gone. Her phone just goes to voicemail. "I know she's not going to call me anymore."

Sometimes Stone called after she had been drinking, Frye said. People around her drank too much too.

"I told her to come home and have a break from that stuff, so her son wouldn't grow up around it," she said.

Lately, Stone didn't seem to be drinking so much, Frye said. Maybe she had learned how to control it.

Evan had gone caribou hunting this fall, then went to the village of Chevak for a job, Frye said. His Facebook profile says he worked for the regional housing authority.

The couple collected wood and punk ash, a fungus that is mixed with smokeless tobacco to make a supercharged chew. Evan hunted birds and Stone traveled the tundra for their eggs, those of swans and cranes, geese and sandpipers, Frye said.

On Thursday, the day she and Evan left Akiak, Stone posted on Facebook about finding a mouse and reminiscing about how as a young girl she would grab a mouse and keep it in a box as a "pet" hidden from her mom. "Lol those days," the post said.

She also posted pictures last week of Evan and their young son.

"Who I love the most," her post said. "George Evan and my son Wassilie evan."