Search for missing Nome woman continues with little new information

Missing woman last seen Aug. 31, 2020 on a beach west of Nome.
Missing woman last seen Aug. 31, 2020 on a beach west of Nome.(Alaska State Troopers)
Published: Sep. 14, 2020 at 12:52 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Two weeks after Florence Okpealuk was reported missing in Nome, the search is ongoing. Multiple community searches have not yielded any signs of her, or at least any made public, and authorities are asking community members to report any information they may have to the Nome Police Department.

“We continue to ask the public to provide any information that they think may be relevant to the investigation, no matter how small,” said William Walton, Supervisory Special Agent for the Violent Crime Program at the Anchorage FBI field office. Walton is among the six FBI agents currently in Nome aiding in the search.

One new avenue of information that came up Sunday was the search for the driver of a pickup truck seen in the port vicinity on Aug. 30. The driver has since been located, but Walton said investigation policy prevents them from sharing information about the driver or why officials wanted to speak with him or her.

“As a general practice, in order to protect the integrity of investigation, we generally don’t discuss any investigative leads or the results,” he said.

That policy is common among law enforcement agencies across the U.S., and while designed to protect the integrity of the investigation, the lack of publicly available information has also led to frustration among friends and family of Okpealuk, including her relative Lucille Weyapuk.

“It’s an investigation going on, and there’s still no answers to why she’s missing, why she’s not found," Weyapuk said, “which yes, we are very frustrated.”

Weyapuk described herself as a “distant cousin” of Okpealuk’s, but added that they were very close, in part because Okpealuk shares a name with Weyapuk’s mother.

“Flo was always a big part of our life,” she said.

While the many questions — with so few answers — have become a source of strife for Okpealuk’s family, Weyapuk said that she felt the search was also receiving less urgency because she and Okpealuk’s family are Alaska Native.

According to a 2018 study by the Urban Indian Health Institute, Alaska has the fourth highest number of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, which has in part led to the creation of the Operation Lady Justice Task Force Cold Case Office in Anchorage. That task force is helping in the search for the missing 33-year-old.

Weyapuk isn’t the only one who’s raised concerns about that urgency. KNOM recently reported that a group of Alaska Native women had also been searching for Okpealuk. One of them raised concerns that it took six days for a larger community search to begin. This has left Weyapuk and her family feeling even more anxious.

Walton referred questions about search efforts to the Nome Volunteer Fire Department’s search and rescue team, which is the main organizer. The FBI, while aiding in those search efforts, is performing its own investigation.

Alaska’s News Source reporters called the search and rescue team on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, requesting comment and leaving voicemails, but no response was received by the time of publication. Calls to the city manager were also not returned and requests for comment to the Nome Police Department were referred to the FBI’s public information officer.

In the end, though, the most important thing to Weyapuk is Okpealuk herself.

“We just want to make sure she’s safe,” she said. “We just want to let everyone know, ‘thank you for helping and searching for her,’ and anyone if you’re [reading] this, just bring her home.”

Along with the searches, the agencies continue to analyze closed-circuit television footage and cell phone records. Community and family members are also being interviewed to gather information on Okpealuk’s disappearance.

correction: This story has been edited to correct that KNOM did not report that Alaska Native women were the first people to start searching for Okpealuk, just that they had also coordinated search efforts.

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