Changing seasons, lack of clues slow search for Florence Okpealuk
It has been nearly two months since 33-year-old Florence Okpealuk disappeared from Nome’s West Beach. Since August 31, friends and family from Nome and the region, the Alaska State Troopers, Nome Volunteer Search and Rescue, the Nome Police Department, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have devoted countless hours to the search for Okpealuk. Despite these efforts, however, there have been no signs of Okpealuk. The late fall weather makes searching difficult, so, as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, the search has slowly wound down.
An independent group of volunteers, many of whom were family and friends of Okpealuk, turned out in force to search for the missing woman. Okpealuk’s friend Billi Jean Miller has been an instrumental part of a private search for Okpealuk from the beginning. Miller said that due to both the changing seasons and exhaustion, her group has paused search efforts until next spring. In the meantime, they have transferred their energy into fundraising for another search after the snow melts in the spring. The plan is to conduct aerial and ground searches and to potentially bring search dogs back. If Okpealuk is found before the spring and the funds are not needed, the money will be put into a trust fund for her daughter. Miller and her group are optimistic for future efforts. “Her family asks that we remain hopeful and pray,” Miller said. Should individuals wish to donate money, Miller said to contact herself, Wendy Deering or Alexandria Okpealuk.
Nome Volunteer Fire Department and Search and Rescue Chief Jim West Jr. said that Nome SAR’s search is currently “on hold.” Given how long ago Okpealuk disappeared, the search is in recovery mode, according to West. However, there have been no clues that could suggest a body, such as flocks of birds. “It’s a tough one,” he said. Further complicating search efforts, the weather has made it difficult to get outside. But West added that SAR continues to follow leads in an effort to keep the search active. Additionally, on Friday West said that a helicopter would canvass West Beach within the next few days to see if the dropped foliage has revealed anything. Okpealuk was last seen on West Beach. Therefore, search efforts have been concentrated on that area. The fact that no signs have been found led West speculate that her body could have been moved; if this was the case, it is impossible to know where to look. West compared the search for Okpealuk to the 2016 disappearance of Joseph Balderas, who, despite hundreds of hours and various search tactics, was never found. As to whether SAR will continue searches in the spring as the group of independent searchers plans to do, West said that is too far into the future to know.
Nome Chief of Police Mike Heintzelman said that there is no new information in Okpealuk’s case. NPD is currently following leads and interviewing people that may have information about Okpealuk’s disappearance. He emphasized that it is still classified as a missing persons case and that at this time there is no evidence to suggest foul play. “We don’t have anything solid to go on,” he said. Similar to Miller and West, Heintzelman said that the change of seasons has curtailed searching. “The weather puts a damper on field efforts,” he said. If the weather is more conducive to ground searches, he said it is possible that more volunteers will go out. Another potential resource is the newly opened Bureau of Indian Affairs missing and murdered Indigenous peoples cold case office in Anchorage. Heintzelman said that NPD has not coordinated an effort with the office, but may do so going forward.
As an overview of the past few months, Heintzelman said that NPD became involved as soon as Okpealuk was reported missing on August 31. “A massive search effort” began, involving a multiple entities. NPD reached out to the Troopers, the Coast Guard, Nome SAR and the FBI for help. In the first week, Nome SAR conducted both aerial, water and ground searches, mostly in the area surrounding West Beach. Individuals began searching independently as well. USCG helicopters flew up and down the beach and the Troopers flew the area from the coast west to the Cripple River and east to the Beam Road. A local trained K9 was used.
On Saturday, September 5, nearly a week after Okpealuk was reported missing, NPD coordinated a community search in which about 100 volunteers canvassed the area around West Beach on foot. A second community search was held a week later. In the meantime, six FBI agents flew in from Anchorage to assist in the search. Private groups traveled along all three roads and conducted foot and 4-wheeler searches. Searchers from six villages came to Nome, including several ivory divers who scoured the port’s breakwater and causeway. An individual from Mountain Village brought in sonar equipment and a Bethel resident brought a search dog. More dogs were deployed earlier this month, as independent searchers raised $6,000 to bring in three trained search dogs and their handlers from MAT-SAR K9. The dogs searched West Beach for several days without success.
Heintzelman said that the case remains open and that the Nome Police Department encourages anyone with information regarding Okpealuk’s disappearance to contact NPD at 907-443-5262. Callers may remain anonymous.