Fairbanks residents, Alaska Native leaders and families of the missing gathered over the weekend for a vigil to increase awareness about an unusually high number of local missing persons, including several Native people.
The outdoor vigil offered families of the missing an opportunity to share their stories, thank those who are aiding the ongoing search for answers, and call for new action.
Eight people have been missing in the Fairbanks area since last May. Five of them are Alaska Native.
That’s unusually high, according to former Tanana Chiefs Conference VPSO Program Coordinator Jody Potts, who helped organize a Saturday afternoon vigil in front of TCC’s Chief Peter John tribal building.
“I know that a lot of people in our community are just really very concerned,” Potts said. “Obviously, the families — the heartache that they’re experiencing, we just want to lift them up and bring more awareness to this”
The latest missing person is 54-year-old Steve Hjelm of Stevens Village who was last seen leaving his sister’s 16th Avenue apartment on Jan. 9. Lori Hjelm spoke at the vigil.
“We know all of you are hurting for your family. And so are we. I just want to thank everybody for being here helping us,” she said.
Rory Nictune’s sister, 59-year-old Debbie Nictune of Bettles, disappeared after leaving the Northwood apartment building in downtown Fairbanks back in August. Nictune appealed to anyone who might have information that can help solve the cases.
“I know there’s someone out there that knows something, someone saying something. I asked them, please step forward. You don’t have to give us your name. You can be anonymous. We need to find these people,” he said.
Native community leaders and family members of the missing expressed appreciation for law enforcement’s work on the cases, but also called for more action. Fairbanks Native Association Executive Director Steve Ginniss asked for regular case status updates.
“Be more transparent. Share with the rest of us what’s going on here. Maybe by doing so, we may find a solution,” he said.
City Mayor Jim Matherly responded by pledging to better communicate with the public about the cases.
“I know it can get frustrating because there’s work you see and there’s oftentimes work you do not see. And that’s when we have to communicate with the public,” he said.
There’s talk on social media that the missing may have been murdered and possibly are victims of a serial killer. Jody Potts said that’s causing fear in the community.
“We don’t want to make any assumptions that any of these missing person cases are connected somehow, but we also don’t want to make any assumptions that they’re not connected. And so with that, that’s why we are asking to create a Fairbanks Missing Persons Task Force,” she said.
Potts also requested the FBI be brought into work the missing person’s cases.
City Acting Police Chief Rick Sweet underscored that there’s so far no evidence of murder or that the cases are linked. Sweet said that although the city has not officially asked the FBI to step in, the federal agency is aware of the situation.
“We’d love to meet with the FBI, the Alaska State Troopers, we’ve been on taking part in the Missing Murdered Indigenous persons working groups with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the state of Alaska agencies. So everybody’s kind of coming together and trying to figure this out across the board,” he said.
Chief Sweet said at this point the public’s assistance is needed to advance the investigations.
“We have no other leads that we’re actively working on the missing people that are here. Not that we’re not working the case it’s just that we’ve run everything down,” he said.
Sweet said a meeting with Native community leaders to discuss the missing persons cases is planned for this week.
Meantime, Potts urge people to look out for one another.
“If you see someone in a vulnerable position, check on them. Don’t just keep going, stay aware, watch over each other. Mahsi – be safe!” she said.