Wednesday, November 30, 2005

NDN NEWZ: The Lost People of Nome, An Outrage of Abuse

Meetings discuss Nome's missing or dead
Law enforcement, Native leaders venture to villages to listen, mend fences and search for clues

Anchorage Daily News

SAVOONGA -- It was dark with blowing snow and waves battering the shore as Nome Police Chief Craig Moates stepped off the airplane on St. Lawrence Island on Thursday morning.

Two years ago, the 47-year-old Moates was living in Tennessee, where he'd spent his career as a small-city cop. Now, as police chief of the biggest city in this part of Alaska, he had flown 160 miles to an island in the middle of the Bering Sea to try to repair decades of mistrust between Nome police and the Siberian Yupik villagers of Savoonga.

By late morning, nearly two dozen snowmachines and four-wheelers were parked around the door of the village's city hall. Inside, Moates and U.S. Attorney Tim Burgess were ready to listen.

Forty people sat at folding tables more commonly used for bingo as Ada Niksik told how police had beaten up her brother when he went to Nome, once in 1998 and again in the spring of 1999.

"He told me cops in Nome did that to him," said Niksik, 57. "He didn't say who." She never went to authorities to report the beatings. She promised her brother she wouldn't, she said in an interview, because he didn't want to worry their elderly mother.

Then, in October 1999, her brother disappeared in Nome. Lancelot Immergan is now on a list of about 20 people, most of them Native villagers, missing or found dead under questionable circumstances in Nome since the 1960s.

The cases, long a concern in the villages, finally caught the official attention of Native organizations and state and federal law enforcement authorities earlier this year. The FBI has assigned serial-homicide profilers to the cases.

Most of the cases remain under Moates' jurisdiction. One big reason for his whirlwind tour of villages last week -- to Elim, Koyuk, Brevig Mission and Savoonga -- was to elicit new leads in those cases. The chief said one of his purposes is to sort out "urban legend from fact."

In the villages, Moates heard some pointed questions and comments that revealed a deep-rooted mistrust of Nome police. But he also was thanked repeatedly for reaching out to the villages, and a number of people opened up.

"He choked me, kicked me," said Joseph Akeya, 40, speaking softly with a toddler on his lap. It was 1988 when, as he recalled, an officer barged into the room at the Polaris Hotel in Nome where he was sleeping off a few drinks. The officer beat him up, he said, calling him a "drunk Eskimo."

Court records say the officer was called to the room about a fight.

"He threw me down, handcuffed, stepped on my neck real hard on his hard boots, brought me downstairs from the hotel. I was choking and couldn't breathe. On the way down, he opened the door and banged my face on the door. And my mom saw that because she was working for that hotel."

Akeya said he fought back.

"I went to court for that," he said. "I lost the case. I felt powerless and scared 'cause that cop threatened to kill me. He said it to my face. I was so scared I had to be with friends all the time. I had to run from police cars, knowing it might be him. ... I could have been one of the missing persons."

"Did you report this to anybody?" Burgess, the U.S. attorney, asked. Akeya said he didn't.

Burgess told the villagers that anyone with concerns about excessive force by city or state police should call the FBI. He gave them the number.

Moates said they should also call him -- a point he made at several meetings. The chief said, however, there probably was not much he could do about things that happened many years ago.

"I want to ensure everybody in the room -- and you can tell anybody that you talk to -- the members of the Nome Police Department are professional police officers, and you should be treated with professionalism. You should be treated with dignity. If you're not, then you need to let me know, because that's not going to be tolerated."


The meetings, organized by the regional nonprofit, Kawerak Inc., were polite. Villagers wanted to know if police had installed audio or video recording devices in their cruisers (the answer: no), if they patrolled alone in their vehicles (sometimes, with the force short-handed), and how far back their records go.

"I have a question. Do your records go back as far as the '40s and '50s?" asked a woman in Brevig holding a toddler. She pointed to an elder sitting nearby. "Her brother was missing the late '40s and another from Teller was missing in the '50s."

The police chief said his department's records probably don't go back much further than the mid-1970s.

Moates has found that memories are long on the Seward Peninsula -- especially when they involve allegations of police misconduct.

One such incident was recalled in an interview last week by John Jemewouk, who served as a Nome police officer in the mid-1970s. Jemewouk, who went on to serve as chairman of the Norton Sound Health Corp., recalled a night on duty with an officer who had come from the Lower 48.

The two officers pulled up behind a Native walking down the middle of a street late at night. The other officer got out and began pushing the citizen around. When the Native finally pushed back, the officer tried to enlist Jemewouk's support in charging him with assault on an officer. Jemewouk said he refused and the matter was dropped.

"The guy was doing nothing. He was minding his own business,"
Jemewouk recalled. Jemewouk later became involved in the 1987 search for his brother-in-law, who remains on the missing list, and said he was frustrated by the lack of police help.

Secondhand stories of alleged police misconduct came pouring out after a Nome officer, Matthew Owens, was charged in 2003 with murder in the death of a 19-year-old Unalakleet woman who had moved to Nome. His high-profile trial in Nome earlier this year ended in a hung jury. A second trial of Owens is now under way in Kotzebue.

Among the complaints was that police took nearly a month to follow up on reports from Native witnesses linking the victim's disappearance to a police car. State troopers eventually took over the investigation. Nome's police chief resigned after the arrest. Moates, who had worked his way up through the ranks to become deputy chief of the 100-member Franklin, Tenn., police department, answered an ad on the Internet and arrived in Nome 18 months ago.


As Owens' first trial wrapped up last February, Moates joined the panel at a public meeting on missing persons in Nome, where Natives complained that police had not adequately followed up on family members' cases. Strongly worded resolutions from Native organizations followed, citing "discriminatory harassment and excessive force" among other things.

One common complaint involved police supposedly driving drunks out of town and leaving them to walk home and sober up.

"My nephew who was driven way out of town will not even talk to me about it," said Delbert Pungowiyi at the Savoonga meeting. "He's traumatized about it." Pungowiyi said the bright floodlights at the Anvil Mountain Correctional Center, on the outskirts of town, had guided other people back to safety.

Even former Nome Mayor Leo Rasmussen said he'd heard such reports, though he said they were from several decades ago and only involved summer incidents.

Moates said he has investigated reports of past police misconduct but has been unable to substantiate any cases at this time.

Aside from trying to improve trust of police, Moates flew around the Seward Peninsula last week to deliver a cautionary message about safe and responsible behavior when villagers travel to Nome, the region's commercial hub.

Alcohol is a huge factor in crimes and accidents in Nome, which has busy late-night traffic through its bars. It is not uncommon in Nome to see people stumbling drunk on the street, in taxis, at the airport.

Moates told villagers that while it is not illegal to be drunk in public, state law requires police to take into custody those who cannot take care of themselves, like someone stumbling around on a freezing night without a coat or shoes. If a hotel room or a relative isn't an option, then jail is usually where the person lands.

"I wanted to bring that out because sometimes people may think we're picking on them and we're not," Moates said in Brevig. "We're mandated to do certain things by state law.

"If you come to Nome, I don't want you to drink," the chief said. "But if you come to Nome and you are going to drink, we are going to ask that you drink responsibly."

He asked that villagers not flash money around, know who they are hanging out with and buy their plane tickets and rooms in advance.

"We have a lot of people who come to town and they won't do the room thing, they won't get their round-trip ticket and they'll end up drinking up their money. And then we've got a situation where they've got no place to go."


In Nome, many officials and residents dispute the notion that local people don't try hard to keep visitors safe and search for missing persons. The town often goes all out, they said, with businesses letting employees off work to help with searches.

"You look until your heart just goes to pieces," Rasmussen said.

But volunteer fire chief Wes Perkins, a lifelong resident, said it can be wearing for police and rescue workers to answer repeated calls involving alcohol. However nice people can be when sober, he said, they are often relentlessly combative when drunk, even on medical calls.

"They've got a mouthful of booze and they're ready to tear the world in two," Perkins said. "Here we are volunteering to help them."

Melanie Edwards, Kawerak's executive vice president, returned with Moates and Burgess on Thursday to Savoonga, where she grew up. She told villagers at the city hall that more than 100 people, both Native and white, have volunteered to do late-night safety patrols during Permanent Fund season and the Iditarod.

"They don't like having this bad reputation that Nome is a dangerous place to be," she said.

Edwards took part in the safety patrols herself, saying later it gave her a new appreciation of the difficulties faced by local police.

"We need to start taking personal responsibility," she told the Savoonga gathering. "It really pained me when I was doing the safety patrol, when I would watch the bar break and I would see my own people coming out of those bars.

"We need to start changing what people consider is normal," she said. "Is it normal to see somebody stumbling down Front Street? (The police chief is) getting two to three missing person calls a week. I wonder how many of those have alcohol involved. I'm not trying to preach. I'm just saying we all have some responsibility."

I have a number of things to say about this.

First, I want to know why, if there have been missing and dead Natives under "suspicious circumstances" for decades, the FBI is only NOW getting involved? How many people must die before the government cares what happens in NDN country?

And then I read further, and see that they care now...because it's affecting the tourism trade. To say that I am disgusted is putting it mildly.

I am also disgusted by the many excuses the government officials in Nome have come up with for their inability to solve these cases. They don't have records from before 1970? Are you kidding me? And then they claim they don't have enough manpower...despite the many people who volunteer to search. And then there's the "we can't substantiate any claims of police misconduct." What kind of nonsense is THAT? You can't, or you haven't investigated? Is this another case of "missing records," or a case of the police not caring what happens to the Indians of Nome? And then there's the reports that it's taking the police a month or more to investigate. A MONTH? Would this be acceptable in ANY OTHER PLACE IN AMERICA? The cops are accused of beating man, of threatening a man...of being discriminatory and racist...of using excessive force on a man who then disappeared...and the police do NOTHING for a MONTH? Am I the only one hear who smells a conspiracy, a cover-up by the police in Nome?

Not to mention the reports of beatings, threats on the lives on Natives, and driving them out of town to walk home alone. The fact that the former Mayor claims, "Oh, it only happened in the summer," is REVOLTING. As if that made it somehow acceptable that the police were FORCING RESIDENTS OUT OF TOWN TO WALK HOME ALONE.

And I am also disgusted that the blame shifts so easily and carelessly to alcohol. Yes, alcohol is a big problem in NDN country. But nowhere else in NDN country are this many people turning up dead...or not turning up at all. The police whine about not wanting to spend so many "man hours" responding to "alcohol related calls," but I wonder how many really ARE alcohol-related...and how many they simply ASSUME are alcohol-related, as soon as they find out a Native is involved?

In addition...I don't blame the Natives in Nome for being hesitant to file reports of police misconduct and abuse. Fear of retaliation must be a very harsh reality to them, in a climate where cops beat and threaten men who disappear, and no investigation takes place for more than 30 days..and even then, they simply stay missing.

Two to three missing person calls A WEEK. And how many dead? I notice they fail to mention that in this article. I shudder to think what the number must be.

Do we have a serial killer targeting Natives in Nome?

And how many have to die, before the rest of America cares more about them than they do the tourists, the reputation of the town?

This article is why so many in the NDN community are disheartened. Let this happen anywhere else in America, and it would be on the news. It would be in all the major papers. But when it happens in NDN takes DECADES before anyone cares...and even then, they want to blame "drunk Indians" for the problem.

Two to three missing people a week.

Wake up, America. Your first people are dying.



At 12:27 PM, Blogger Pixie LaRouge said...

Have you ever read anything by fantasy author Charles de Lint? (if not, I recommend starting with Dreams Underfoot).

He has a short story in the collection "Tapping the Dream Tree" called 'Making a Noise in this World' that is about, among other things, police doing just the things mentioned in this article. *sigh* The world in general depresses me sometimes

At 7:47 PM, Blogger Zen Angel said...

Pixie: no, I haven't. I'll have to check him out, as I love fantasy novels. Thanks!

At 3:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am a native in montana, and after watching "the fourth kind" i looked into it more. they said there were people that were drinking and froze to death. i thought that was suspicious b/c that is a LOT of deaths and missing persons. yes, alcohol is a problem with american indians BUT that is beside the point. after reading your article, i became so angry at the 'justice' system in nome. the stories you wrote about make me sick, and i am completely sympathetic. it's not exactly a stretch to believe that some of the officers are racist bigots. im sorry for the natives in alaska. your article opened my eyes a little more about the deaths in nome.


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