By KYLE HOPKINS, BARROW — In a small house in the middle of this oil-rich whaling town lives a former bootlegger and drug dealer. He stopped selling illegal booze sometime last summer, yet hopeful buyers still knock at the door all night looking for a jug.
“I could have sold 10 bottles last night. People kept coming by,” the man said on a recent Saturday.
A woman playing “Call of Duty” nodded in agreement as zombies exploded on a widescreen TV.
The bootlegger, speaking on condition of anonymity, leaned against a coffee table and made a mental calculation: A case of Budweiser, a bottle of Rich & Rare Canadian whiskey and a box of Franzia wine each sell for $100 here. For $500 you could order your weight in alcohol and triple your money by selling it to friends and neighbors.
Outside the man’s door, a ceaseless wind cleared the streets. It’s quiet now, but the black market liquor trade in this northernmost U.S. city is about to get very, very busy, he said.
Beginning Wednesday more than $30 million in cash deposits and checks will flood this North Slope community of 4,300. Demand for illegal booze, and drugs, runs high all-year-round in Barrow. The nearest liquor store is 300 miles away. Only people who can clear a criminal background check can legally import even a limited amount of alcohol from Anchorage and Fairbanks. But bootleggers and drug dealers prepare for this week in particular, when many Barrow residents will receive an average of $10,000 in dividends as shareholders of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.
The storm of cash presents a test for the 40-officer North Slope Borough Police Department, which has quietly spent the past two years ramping up its anti-bootlegging efforts in one of the most remote corners of Alaska.
Since March, the department has placed full-time detectives in Anchorage and Fairbanks to work with U.S. Postal Service inspectors to identify suspected bootleggers at their airports. In April, the first full month after adding an Anchorage-based investigator, the department seized 115 bottles of hard liquor being shipped illegally — more than the previous four months combined.
Late last year, Barrow police used money seized in drug and liquor busts to buy the only booze-sniffing police dog in the state, Police Chief Leon Boyea said.
The dog’s name is Banjo. Barrow detectives say the shepherd can smell liquor in an unopened bottle hidden deep in a suitcase while ignoring other alcohol products like aftershave or hand sanitizer.
Women here are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the statewide average and six times more likely to report domestic violence.
In the North Slope Borough, when people disappear, kill themselves or get hurt, liquor is almost always involved.
Detective Sgt. Nick Sundai and his partner, Anthony Fonua, pull on bulletproof vests and squeeze their linebacker frames into an unmarked Ford Explorer.
It is 10:36 on a Wednesday night, the wind blasting like a firehose. Four officers on the Barrow force are from Hawaii, Sundai says.
“We have a large Tongan community, Samoan community, Filipino community, so our officers are matching those communities.”
The police radio crackles. “Gun call.” A dispatcher tells the detectives a man out on bail is drinking — a violation of his release from jail — and appears to be carrying a gun down the street.
Police know him well. Earlier in the year he nearly ran over an officer during a drunken-driving arrest.
Behind the wheel of the Explorer, Sundai holds a semi-automatic AR-15 on his lap. From the front passenger seat, a series of metallic clicks signals that Fonua has racked a round, preparing his weapon to fire. Front yards piled with bowhead whale meat and frosty baleen whir by. A half-dozen caribou heads sit on the roof of a snow-covered car across from the city’s gleaming new hospital as the detectives stop on a roadside next to the tundra.
If they want to catch the man, they’ll have to hike along the snow fence. All the police department’s snowmachines, it seems, are in the villages.
Borough Assemblyman Forrest “Deano” Olemaun drives up, towing his Ski-Doo. Oil industry property taxes fill the borough coffers, which is why the borough pays for policing the regional hub instead of the comparatively cash-strapped city government. Olemaun, who swore off alcohol after he was nearly killed in a drunken crash, said he came as a civilian, just to lend his sled.
“We’ve seen too many people buried,” he explains later.
Fonua climbs on the borrowed snowmachine and drives about a mile across the tundra. The man has no gun in hand, but he refuses to climb on the sled.
“Go ahead and kill me,” he tells police, Sundai says.
Finally the man lights a cigarette. Trailing smoke, he slowly walks to the waiting police cars.
The flow of alcohol and drugs into Barrow is “reaching epidemic proportions,” Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower wrote in letters to Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich in May. Brower and the police chief are lobbying the U.S. Postal Service and Alaska’s congressional delegation to deputize North Slope detectives and postal inspectors, which would allow local investigators to search mail for drugs and alcohol.
Former Sen. Ted Stevens successfully championed a similar effort to deputize a small number of troopers, Brower wrote.
“Your support is critical as the North Slope Borough, our communities and the North Slope Borough Police Department are locked in what is literally a life-and-death struggle with the devastating effects that the illegal importation and sale of alcohol is having upon our people,” she wrote.
Court records reveal a series of violent, sometimes bizarre alcohol-related crimes in the past two years.
Early on the morning on Oct. 23, a woman ran three blocks in bare feet to Nanook Street to find her sister. She had just been attacked by a registered sex offender named Andrew Kagak, according to charges.
Kagak said “he was going to kill her if she did not let him rape her,” she told police.
Just as police began to investigate, Kagak showed up at their downtown headquarters and turned himself in. He admitted sexually assaulting a woman and “beating the hell out of her,” according a police statement.
Sgt. James Michels, who supervises the patrol officers, said he can’t remember a rape case in Barrow that didn’t involve alcohol. After the attack, Kagak’s blood alcohol level was .190, more than double the legal limit to drive. His victim was equally intoxicated, the charges said.
Asked why Kagak had turned himself in, Sundai said the 49-year-old had apparently been living in unheated hunting cabins just outside town, beside the frozen Chukchi Sea. Days were rapidly growing shorter at the time, with the sun about to disappear below the horizon for two months.
Temperatures average 14 below in December and nearly 20 below in January.
“Nowhere to run,” the detective said.
The violent crime rate for the borough is 50 percent higher than the state average, according to borough figures. In nearly every case, either the attacker, the victim or both had been drinking.
In 2012, two men drinking box wine kidnapped and tortured a security guard in Barrow, cutting his face with a kitchen knife when he wouldn’t give them money, according to a police statement. The pair held him captive in his home for four hours, police said.
A doctor said the assailants, Eugene Gueco and Edgar Matoomealook, stomped and hit the victim so hard they bruised his heart.
Matoomealook pleaded guilty to robbery. Gueco pleaded guilty to robbery and assault. During sentencing, an advocate asked for leniency, arguing that Gueco suffered from the birth defect Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which prevented him from being able to “fully realize the pain he has caused.”
Police, on the other hand, are pressing for tougher prison sentences and fewer plea deals from prosecutors for the people they work hard to catch.
Marjorie Solomon, social services director for the federally recognized tribe in Barrow, said the tribal council is considering resurrecting a different, older solution for some troublemakers. Generations ago, people who caused problems in a village were given a “blue ticket,” she said, a one-way ride to somewhere else.
‘SITTING ON $100,000′
With the big infusion of cash coming this week, ASRC urged shareholders to consider working with financial advisers and tax consultants, a spokesman said.
For some families, the money is a lifesaver, North Slope Borough School District President Debby Edwardson said. “Right now across the North Slope, we have a severe housing shortage. In some villages there’s three, four, five families in a house,” she said.
The money will allow some couples to build their first homes or pay college tuition. But way too much of it will land in the pockets of bootleggers and drug dealers. Methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine, locally called “apun,” for “snow” in Inupiaq, have all made their way to the city. Pot, in particular, is big business.
“If I had six pounds (of marijuana) here when these dividends came in … and a kilo of cocaine, all grammed up? I’d get rid of it in a weekend. All of it,” one former dealer said. “I’d be sitting on $100,000.”
Although bulky and expensive to ship, alcohol remains a good investment for bootleggers. A $10 or $15 bottle of vodka sells for 10 times that in Barrow, and even more in villages.
Prosecutors recently dropped a felony charge of illegal alcohol sales against a man accused of selling two bottles of R&R whiskey, for $100 apiece, to 30-year-old Richard Tilden in 2012. The day after the alleged sale, Tilden got drunk and locked his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter, Miley Gust, and her infant sister in a bedroom with the window open. The temperature dropped to 30 below, police said. Tilden later told police he’d locked the girls in the room because he was angry they’d wet the bed. When he woke up hours later, the older girl wasn’t breathing, according to the charges.
Michels, the patrol sergeant, entered the house first. The girl was purple in Tilden’s arms.
“The most horrible thing you can walk into,” Michels said. He and several other people spent the next four hours taking turns performing CPR on the girl at the local hospital before she died, he said.
Tilden pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. The punishment prompted a street protest from a small group of Barrow residents, who charged that someone could get more time in prison for illegally killing one of the polar bears that roam the outskirts of town.
In Tilden’s home, police found seven bottles of whiskey, four cases of beer and two boxes of wine, according to the charges. Investigators estimated the street value of the booze at $1,450. Tilden told police he bought two bottles from Samisoni Kilifi Fotukava, 32, who was charged with bootlegging.
Prosecutor Eric Van Loock dismissed the case on Nov. 22 because Fotukava had completed community service work and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, according to an order signed by Superior Court Judge Michael Jeffery. Sundai, in an email, said he hadn’t heard that the charges against Fotukava had been dropped.
“I try to not pay attention because when I hear news like that it is demoralizing,” the detective wrote. “We had a video and audio confession, witness statements and physical evidence.”
SCHOOL EMPLOYEE CHARGED
There is no particular social, racial or economic demographic among Barrow’s bootleggers, the detective said. The poor sell. So do the rich.
In a city where a gallon of milk costs $10 and a gallon of gas is $7, the easy money can tempt anyone.
Postal inspectors last February intercepted 17 750 milliliter bottles of liquor mailed to a Point Hope man who works as an aide for intensive-needs students at the village Tikigaq School, court records show.
Ulius Johnson Jr., 30, planned to sell some of the alcohol for $200 a bottle, he told police, according to the charges. Police said he admitted receiving booze by mail and selling it. (The principal for the school and the district human resources director refused last week to answer Daily News questions about the case.)
Johnson joined students on basketball trips as a chaperone, traveling to Fairbanks with a school team, Sundai said.
If the case goes to trial, he will face an Anchorage jury because the booze was intercepted there before it was shipped.
Johnson has asked that some court hearings be held by telephone because — as of April — he was still working at the school, he wrote.
Police suspect some illegal alcohol arrives in Barrow hidden in airline baggage and cargo. Era Alaska allows detectives to inspect incoming freight for signs of bootlegged alcohol. Police might call a package’s owner for consent to search it, or use Banjo, the alcohol detection dog, to establish probable cause to open it.
Alaska Airlines has barred police from looking at its cargo, however, citing privacy laws, the police chief said. The carrier operates multiple flights to Barrow each day.
“They’ve chosen not to be part of the solution,” Chief Boyea said.
In recent years, police have found dozens of bottles of illegal alcohol — felony amounts — when searching airline employees’ homes in Barrow, Sundai said.
Police and two former bootleggers interviewed for this story agree that much of the alcohol sold illegally in Barrow simply arrives through legal shipments to the community-run distribution center across the street from the airport. Someone with a permit to buy alcohol might order a full shipment for a bootlegger and ask for a $350 “commission,” or maybe a half-rack of beer, said Thomas “T.A.” Ahtuangaruak, a former bootlegger with a long history of felony convictions.
“There’s about maybe half of the people I know that does that. … They just ask people around if anybody’s looking for a permit to use.”
Ahtuangaruak was 13 or 14 years old, living in the nearby coastal village of Wainwright, when he sold his first bottle. A friend’s parents spotted him walking to the school gym and asked if his mother had any “juice” for sale.
He thought she did, he told them, thinking they meant fruit juice, Kool-Aid or Tang.
He was surprised when his mother handed him a bottle of liquor. The buyers gave him $100 and slipped the booze in their sleeves. His mom let him keep $50, Ahtuangaruak said.
“That got me started right there.” Before long Ahtuangaruak was making deals with five or six Barrow residents at once.
Monthly shipping limits were looser then, and each resident could legally order two cases of liquor from a Fairbanks store. They’d give him the spirits and Ahtuangaruak would buy them as much beer as they wanted in return. He could sell 24 bottles, or jugs, a week. There was almost too much cash to count.
Once, when he went to jail, his family searched his room and found $10,000 he’d forgotten about.
“I used to take the money for the diapers for the (buyers’) kids. I didn’t care. I wanted their money,” Ahtuangaruak said.
He spent most of the 1990s in jail. Behind bars, Ahtuangaruak got a prison tattoo that says “Inupiaq” in a curving Old English font across his belly. On his forearm someone inked the crest for his father’s whaling crew.
“I think about my past and it hurts me inside. … I seen kids wearing the same clothes, going over to their grandpas, their aunts, uncles, over to their relatives to go eat due to their parents’ alcohol drinking.”
Ahtuangaruak now makes a living carving knives, letter openers and other crafts out of ivory and bowhead whale bone, he said. He sells his work outside the Alaska Commercial grocery store.
“It keeps my mind busy,” he said. “I don’t think about alcohol. I don’t think about drugs when I’m carving.”