In an effort to bring Florence Okpealuk home a team of search and rescue dogs will be combing the beach and tundra west of Nome this weekend. KNOM reports that her family, friends, and community have all worked to make the search happen.
UPDATE: This report now contains more information regarding FBI assistance on the investigation of this case. 10/10/2020.
Family reported 33-year-old Florence Okpealuk of Nome as missing on August 31st. Search efforts by Nome Search and Rescue, the Nome Police, FBI, and various community search groups have yielded no public leads. The Coast Guard and Bering Air have also assisted with air searches by helicopter.
Alexandria Okpealuk is Florence’s younger sister. Along with her fellow search organizer, Billi Jean Miller, Alexandria wanted more done for her sister.
“They’ve [NPD] been trying the same thing for a month. And me and Billie wanted a different strategy.”– Alexandria Okpealuk
The women raised about $6,000 to bring three search and rescue dogs from the MAT-SAR K-9 kennel to Nome for the weekend. Half of that has come from a $3,000 donation from Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, as well as several community fundraisers like bake sales and online giving platforms. Alaskans from around the state have reached into their pockets and hearts for Florence Okpealuk: from Anchorage to Stebbins to Diomede.
Alexandria Okpealuk spent all of her money searching for Florence in Nome and eventually had to return home to Wales. She describes what has been a “rollercoaster” of emotions for her as all of the money quickly came into place within hours.
“We really didn’t think that we would really get it. But we put our heads together, we did what we could, we made as many calls and requests as we could. We worked as hard as we could and it came together.”
The Nome Police Department posted a news release on Wednesday night announcing that dogs would be assisting with search efforts on West Beach. Nome Police Chief Mike Heintzelman classifies them as search-and-rescue dogs.
“There’s no telling if [Florence is] still out there or where she is at this point but we’re just trying to make sure that we can try and check every place as thoroughly as possible.”– Mike Heintzelman
The news release initially called the dogs “police dogs” but Chief Heintzelman said that was an “error.”
Regardless, the City of Nome is not paying for the search dogs and the K-9s were not hired by the Nome Police Department. Those efforts were coordinated by Dennis Davis of Shishmaref along with some help from Nome Search and Rescue Team reports the police chief.
Right now, Chief Heintzelman says police don’t have any substantiated evidence that foul play is involved in Okpealuk’s disappearance.
“We’re working it as a missing person, so part of that is to search for Flo, hopefully she is alive but if not, hopefully dogs will be able to search areas where she may have traveled at her last known destination/location.”
The FBI Field Office in Anchorage is still assisting NPD with the case remotely. They continue to analyze cell phone records and data for any leads. But there are psychological factors to consider when conducting a search mission too, explains William Walton, the Supervisory Special Agent for the FBI’s Violent Crimes Program out of Anchorage. KNOM spoke with Walton on Thursday.
“We gave them [NPD] a psychological evaluation of lost person behavior that is often used to help focus a search effort on a particular environment or area.”-William Walton
Walton explains that individuals behave differently in certain environments if they feel lost or confused. Those patterns may look different depending on how familiar that individual might be with the area.
“That gives you a basis on where those individuals are usually contacted or found and how they generally move through that terrain giving the limitations they usually have.”-William Walton, FBI Violent Crimes Program
Those are all factors that search-and- rescue missions have had to consider as they search for Florence Okpealuk.
But Alexandria Okpealuk doesn’t know what to think about Florence’s disappearance.
“I know she wouldn’t just disappear on her own.”
It’s been a relatively long search compared to Nome’s last missing persons search for Joseph Balderas in 2016. The initial search for Balderas ended after three weeks and he has yet to be found.
But Okpealuk has ardent faith that this weekend’s efforts will provide some closure for her family.
“I am confident that this will be it.”– Alexandria Okpealuk
Formal searches conducted by Nome Search and Rescue began on September 1st and ended in late September. Heintzelman says search dogs were included in some of those previous efforts in the search for Okpealuk.
Nome Police Department requests that locals keep clear of the West Beach area as the search dogs work from Friday to Sunday. Anyone with any information regarding the whereabouts of Florence Okpealuk should call Nome Police Department at 443-5262. Callers can remain anonymous.
Image at Top: Police search for Florence Okpealuk of Nome. Photo: NPD.