Law enforcement is not publicly reporting any new leads as the search effort for Nome resident Florence Okpealuk continues into the third week. Officials from the FBI are working on the ground with local agencies and as KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter reports, their increased involvement has been a relief for some members of Okpealuk’s family.
Like many people in Western Alaska, Florence Okpealuk would go back and forth to Anchorage for medical treatment. Lucille Weyapuk, a distant cousin and close friend in the city, would look forward to those visits. Weyapuk says Florence would always bring baked goods or Native foods to a visit.
“She always did things like that. You know, little things like that. Even if it wasn’t very much- like a good little snack of berries, to say ‘Here, I thought of you!’”
She describes the 33-year-old mother as generous and friendly. Okpealuk is the second youngest of seven siblings and mother of a toddler who also lives with her in Nome.
Okpealuk was last seen on West Beach on August 30th.
Agents from the FBI arrived in Nome on Friday to help with on the ground investigations, according to Chloe Martin, Public Affairs Officer of the FBI.
Nome’s Deputy Chief Robert Pruckner reported to the City Council Monday night that the federal bureau was involved in the search long before.
“Despite no federal nexus to this case, the Nome Police Department contacted the FBI on September 3rd for technical assistance. The FBI is able to provide evidence recovery support, along with technical assistance, to re-create the movements of an individual by analysis of cellular records.”– Robert Pruckner
Information regarding Okpealuk’s latest movements and the location of her phone are currently not being disclosed by the FBI or NPD, citing the integrity of the investigation.
During Saturday’s community search just under 40 people joined local trained searchers, NPD, and the FBI. They combed high willows by the Snake River and about a mile down to Dredge 6, the area close to West Beach where Okpealuk was last seen. Pruckner reports the search lasted over three hours that day.
“There were a few items found but it’s still to be determined whether they were significant or not.”– Robert Pruckner
Supervisory FBI Agent William Walton is from the Violent Crime Program out of the field-office in Anchorage. That agency only assists at the request of the local department, in this case, the Nome Police. He describes the early response in cellular analysis as “critical”.
“So the goal of that initial analysis was to help Nome Police Department focus on particular areas for effective ground search operations. Obviously once that happens then the investigation begins to expand into a more traditional style investigation involving interviews and other investigative techniques.”– William Walton
Walton says two out of the six FBI agents have already left Nome to work on further evidence analysis, or to assist other cases.
“There’s initially what we call a surge in investigative resources to focus those efforts. I don’t want Nome to get the impression that because they don’t see FBI jackets in the city that we’re not still assisting Nome Police Department or working on it. There are a variety of things that we can do.”– William Walton
That now includes analyzing CCTV footage which law enforcement used, with input from the public’s, to identify a flat-bed pickup truck over the weekend. They reported the truck owner, who is not listed as a suspect, might have important information related to Okpealuk’s case.
And Walton insists that local agencies are following through on every lead, even though residents may not have full access as to how that happens based on the integrity of the investigation.
Meanwhile, Nome community members have been out searching every day since the initial days following Okpealuk’s disappearance, including her older sister Blaire.
“I’ve been going right out to searching when I get up.”– Blaire Okpealuk
At first, Blaire Okpealuk had only heard once from the Nome Police and didn’t know where the investigation stood. Now she says she’s been able to get some details from the FBI about her sister’s case.
“At some parts it felt discouraging and I felt disappointment but I didn’t realize how much work they’re doing.”– Blaire Okpealuk
It’s been helpful for her to know that leads are being followed and interviews are taking place. The FBI and Nome Police do not have a timeline for when the active search or investigation in this case will end.
Even when all of his agents return to Anchorage, Walton says the FBI will still assist with the investigation in whatever way is needed. Blaire Okpealuk isn’t going to stop looking either.
“I’m not giving up and I hope they continue to do what they’re doing so that my family can get some answers.”– Blaire Okpealuk
Authorities encourage anyone who thinks they may have any information regarding the disappearance of Florence Okpealuk to call the Nome Police at 443-5262.
Image at top: The search for Nome resident Florence Okpealuk continues into the third week. Officials from the FBI are working on the ground with local agencies and their increased involvement has been a relief for some members of Okpealuk’s family.