Alaska’s MMIP investigation unit is making progress
Seven months into his job as Alaska’s missing and murdered Indigenous persons (MMIP) investigator, Lonny Piscoya says he’s making progress. His team is growing and cracking open new leads in at least one cold case.The Alaska Department of Public Safety created the MMIP investigator position last April, with retired trooper Ann Sears the first to fill that role. When she left to go back into retirement in early September, Public Safety Commissioner James Cockrell asked Piscoya to take the job. Piscoya, who was born and raised in Nome, had retired in 2018 after a 25-year career with the Alaska State Troopers. He said he spent a week thinking about it before saying yes. He committed to staying for at least a year.
Piscoya told the Nugget in a phone interview that he spent the first few months trying to figure out how the program was going to progress. In October, another retired trooper, Lantz Dahlke, joined the MMIP investigation unit. Then, once Piscoya got settled into the job, he picked up a two-year-old unsolved homicide from the Anchorage area and started working. They got some productive new leads in January.
“We took that information ran with it,” Piscoya said. “Right now, we’re in the process of waiting for DNA evidence and some other forensic evidence that we were able to gather from suspects in the case. So we’re getting close to solving this case…Hopefully, we solve it. We’re not there yet. But we’ve made progress on it.”
Next month the unit will add another investigator: retired trooper, Joe Whittom. The team also regularly works with Mike Ingram, an AST cold case investigator.
There are dozens of cases Piscoya could choose to reopen, but he said he does not want to take on too much at a time. “I want to concentrate and do the best we can in each case,” he said. After he and his collaborators finish working on the case they are currently immersed in, they plan to pick up unsolved cases in Bethel, Kotzebue and Juneau.
Piscoya said his unit may eventually take on the case of 33-year-old Florence Okpealuk. She was last seen on August 31, 2020, at West Beach in Nome. Piscoya said he got a copy of the case from the Nome Police Department and has read everything about it. “I can envision us taking that case on at some point, I just don’t know when,” he said. “They’re all important. We just have to make a decision about which case to pick up.”
In between investigating, Piscoya is also meeting with tribal groups as well as families of victims and communities affected by the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. He said one takeaway from these meetings is that relatives often feel stung by a lack of communication.
“There’s strong communication at the very beginning of all these cases, and then it dies off, and then eventually, there’s no communication between those agencies and victims’ families,” he said. “That may be for good reason. Maybe the case is at a standstill. There are cases where there are no leads to follow up. And that’s where we come into play. We take another look at these cases. With a fresh set of eyes on an old case, we might think of something.”
He holds out hope that people might want to talk after more time has passed for some of these stalled cases.
“Dynamics change,” Piscoya said. “People are more willing to talk over time. Maybe they’re feeling guilty about something and want to get it off their chest, and they want to give us information that will produce more leads.”
His one-year mark on the job is coming up in September. “Odds are I think I’ll probably continue working, especially if we’re involved in a case where we’re making progress,” he said. “I don’t have I don’t have it within me to just leave a case midway. I have to finish things once I started.”
He said the biggest misconception about his work is that his unit is not doing anything.
“Just because you haven’t heard anything from us, doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything,” Piscoya said. “We have been working feverishly.”