FBI assists NPD in search for Florence Okpealuk
The coordinated search for Florence Okpealuk continues with the additional help of six FBI officers who came to Nome on Friday, Sept. 11.
Florence Okpealuk, 33, was last seen in the early morning hours of August 31, on West Beach. After two community searches, two aerial searches by Coast Guard helicopters and Bering Air helicopters, AST fixed wing support, Okpealuk has still not been found.
With Nome Police Chief Mike Heintzelman on vacation, Deputy Chief Bob Pruckner is leading the investigative efforts at NPD. With the additional expertise from the FBI, the hope is to discern the circumstances of Okpealuk’s disappareance and to find her soon.
Bill Walton, Supervisory Special Agent for the Violent Crime Program at the FBI Anchorage office, Chloe Martin, FBI public affairs officer, and NPD Deputy Chief Pruckner sat down with The Nome Nugget for an interview on Saturday afternoon, as the second community search on the tundra north of West Beach and Dredge 6 had concluded.
Since then, the investigators were looking for a black truck with a flatbed and have, on Sunday, announced that they found the driver and vehicle.
Pruckner said that from the first report of Okpealuk’s disappearance, he initiated the steps to involve other agencies. “We immediately began our missing persons protocols. And with that we reached out to the Alaska State Troopers, the United States Coast Guard, the search and rescue department here in Nome as well as the FBI early in our investigation,” Pruckner said. Pruckner said that two NPD investigators are full time dedicated to investigate the circumstances of Okpealuk’s disappearance. Asked if it is unusual to have the FBI come in for help, Pruckner said, “The FBI has resources beyond ours and we wanted all the resources that would be available to us as quickly as possible to try to locate our missing person here.”
Walton added that it's very common for the FBI to get requests from other local agencies and departments for help. From the day NPD received the report of Okpealuk’s missing, the FBI started talking with the Nome police department, “providing them technical assistance to try and capture Florence's movements over a couple of the days in question to try and help focus some search efforts,” Walton said. “And then once we had completed that, Bob and I talked and he said, ‘You know, it would be great if you could bring some guys up here to help us to broaden our efforts.’”
Agent Walton supervises 12 agents in Anchorage and brought to Nome six of them, including specialists in abduction response. Prior to arriving in Nome, Walton said, the FBI helped with technical analysis. “Leading up to our arrival, we were doing some technical analysis around Florence's cell phone to try and see if we could recreate some of her movements around the days leading up to, and immediately following her reported being missing.”
The second community-wide search was held on Saturday, with approximately 38 volunteers plus Nome SAR volunteers, NPD officers and two FBI agents. “We picked up a few items today and whether they're a value or not is still to be determined, but it was great to have the community involved and people participating,” said FBI agent Walton. “I have to say that the people of Nome clearly care a lot. They're very committed. And they were in very good spirits. We had a lot of great interactions with various people from the community. I honestly wish that all searches that I conducted, I could recruit from the city of Nome because they were, they were great.”
The agents and NPD could not go into the specifics of the investigation. Walton said, “I don't think we can get into too much specific on our investigative efforts, but I'll tell you that Chloe and I were out with the community search today and other agents and other officers and investigators from Nome police department are pursuing other lines of inquiry in the investigation.”
At this point, FBI and NPD are investigating the circumstances of Okpealuk’s disappearance. As the officers and agents are doing this, they strongly encourage the public to reach out to them with any information they may have. “We’re trying to put together her movements, people that she may have come into contact with, anyone that may have spoken to her, no matter how brief that interaction was, any of that information could help us better understand the circumstances around her disappearance,” Walton said. Chloe Martin, the public information officer, added that no matter how small or insignificant a conversation with Florence may have been in the days leading up to her disappearance, it could hold clues. “Please come forward with any information, no matter how small because we're trying to paint a complete picture here. And somebody in the community could have that small little piece to complete the puzzle and might not realize its value,” Martin said.
Callers can remain anonymous, she added.
“We want to hear from the family and those who are close to Florence,” Agent Walton said. “Anything, any concerns that they have. I think the most important thing is to trust that we are going to do the work to try and bring Florence home and that they need to allow the Nome police department, the FBI, and the folks who are working this investigation to do our jobs.”
Asked if there are any indications that there is a threat to others in the community, Walton said, “At this time we have no information indicating that there is an ongoing threat to the community of Nome.”