Alaska mother's disappearance, investigation still haunts locals


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On Aug. 30, 2020, Florence Okpealuk left behind her shoes, socks and a jacket in a miner’s tent. The Alaska woman has not been seen since.

Over the years, the Nome Police Department has enlisted the help of several agencies, including the Alaska State Troopers and the FBI. The Nome Volunteer Fire Department Search and Rescue Team and the U.S. Coast Guard conducted searches for Okpealuk. Concerned residents also stepped in to help. No trace of the 33-year-old has been found to this day.

The young mother is now the subject of a new episode of “Up and Vanished” titled “In the Midnight Sun.” The podcast explores the cases of missing people across the country.

MISSING IN ALASKA: THE MYSTERY OF FLORENCE OKPEALUK

Okpealuk’s pal, Deilah Johnson, reached out to host Payne Lindsey in hopes he could help raise awareness about the young mother’s case. He didn’t hesitate.

Florence Okpealuk holding a baby

Florence Okpealuk, a 33-year-old mother living in Nome, Alaska, was reported missing by family members Aug. 31, 2020. (Blaire Okpealuk)

“I think a place like Nome is lacking in so many different resources,” Lindsey told Fox News Digital. “It just seemed like a case that we could potentially help by putting it back in the spotlight. That’s what we’ve been trying to do since the beginning.

“Nome creates a challenging environment to solve a very puzzling, missing person’s case with little to go off of.”

Okpealuk was last seen leaving a tent on West Beach. According to reports, gold miners are known to camp in the area. One source alleged he heard Okpealuk had headed there to party with a gold miner.

“There’s a general narrative about Florence’s last steps,” Lindsey explained. “The night that she went missing, she was seen in West Beach in that one individual’s tent. So, we asked around in hopes of piecing it all together. It seemed like she didn’t in any way, shape, or form just walk away or become a victim of some tragic accident. It all seemed to point towards somebody or several people potentially being responsible for her disappearance.

Up and Vanished Poster

The case of Florence Okpealuk is the subject of the podcast “Up and Vanished: In the Midnight Sun.” (Beck Media & Marketing)

“No matter how you slice it, the story goes pretty much one way,” he continued. “She was with a particular individual, and this person also had some of her belongings. There’s no good reason or answer as to why he had those things, why she was with him and where she may have gone after that.”

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Okpealuk moved to Nome in 2013 while she was pregnant with her daughter. At the time, she was hoping to give her unborn child a better life. Nome seemed to offer better health care and schooling compared to Wales, a native village 100 miles northwest of the city. She went on to get a job at the Norton Sound Health Corporation.

Okpealuk’s older sister Blaire previously told “Dateline” her sibling struggled with alcoholism. Johnson told Fox News Digital that regardless of any challenges Okpealuk may have faced personally, she wouldn’t leave her child behind.

“I understand that something like this seems unreal, that this could happen in such a small community,” Johnson explained. “Everyone knows everyone. You see law enforcement everywhere because they go to your church, they shop at the same grocery stores as you. This is a very connected town. … So when I’ve spoken out about this case, I’ve had people tell me, ‘She probably took off. She just wanted to start a new life.’ That was typical. But my response has always been the same – no.

Payne Lindsey wearing a black shirt and sunglasses

Payne Lindsey is the host of “Up and Vanished.” (Mike Pont/WireImage)

“She had a young daughter that she would never, ever just abandon,” Johnson shared. “Also, the only way out is really with a Boeing 737. Unless you have a dog sled in the winter or if you’re coming in from a cruise ship, there’s no other way of getting into any kind of existing grid. Otherwise, you would just wander off and have to live off the tundra. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not feasible.

“There are people who know what happened.”

Johnson pointed out that Okpealuk is one of thousands of missing indigenous women and girls nationwide. According to the National Crime Information Center, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016 – also known as missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW).

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A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women (84.3%) have experienced violence in their lifetime, including 56.1% who have experienced sexual violence. More than 1.5 million American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime.

A ID photo of Florence Okpealuk

Anyone with information concerning the disappearance of Florence Okpealuk is encouraged to call the Nome Police Department at 907-443-5262. Callers can remain anonymous. (FBI)

The Bureau of Indian Affairs noted that, according to researchers, women are often misclassified as Hispanic or Asian. As a result, reports indicate there is no reliable count of how many Native women go missing or are killed each year.

“The problem is huge,” said Johnson. “The more you dig, the deeper and more intricate the problem becomes. … This won’t go away. We need to create proper awareness. … We are just seen as a lower level of society. … People just assume ‘She just ran away,’ or, ‘She was probably drunk.’ There’s a big disconnect. We don’t know who to trust. There needs to be more accountability in Flo’s investigation, along with the many other women and girls who need our help.”

Landscape of Nome, Alaska

The landscape of Nome, Alaska, has created challenges finding Florence Okpealuk. (ALAMY)

Lindsey described how it was difficult for some residents to come forward and share any accounts they may have in hopes of finding Okpealuk.

“When we started, it was pretty daunting,” he explained. “It almost feels like an impossible mission. It’s not easy for people to always open up and talk about something that was a traumatic experience, or even people who may be involved in some way and are protective of themselves. But, over time, dozens of people from the community came forward to help piece together this story. … We want to lay a new foundation for the narrative. Hopefully, that pushes the right buttons.”

A close-up photo of Florence Okpealuk

According to the FBI, Florence Okpealuk is about 33 years old, 5-foot-2, has dark brown hair and is about 130 pounds. (Nome Police Department)

Lindsey is hopeful that with the podcast episodes now out, someone will come forward with fresh leads.

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“Our entire pursuit is the truth,” he said. “Even though it feels like a cold case, and it feels like all hope and life is lost, it’s never really over. In a lot of ways, we’re just getting started. We’re going to find out what happened to Florence one day.

“In a case like Florence’s, there are people in the community who do know what happened,” he shared. “Maybe they’re afraid to come forward. Maybe they had some sort of part in something. But I think creating this pressure and shining a light on this case is what we need to do. We can’t let it get cold. It can’t be a secret in this town forever. … And the more people talk, the more it’s likely that the truth is going to come out. I’m very hopeful that, at some point, somebody will say the right thing and we will find the missing piece. And then all the cards fall.”

Johnson praised Lindsey for his efforts in interviewing people who were at first “terrified” to speak.

Florence Okpealuk with two women as they sit down and smile together

Payne Lindsey and Deilah Johnson are hopeful they will receive new leads on Florence Okpealuk, left. (Blaire Okpealuk)

“This is a really sensitive topic in our community,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that Flo was honored the right way. … I think the podcast has helped in starting new conversations, allowing us to continue with our work and heal. We want answers, and we want to make a change.”

Johnson is just as determined that her friend won’t be forgotten.

“She was human,” said Johnson. “She was a young mom who was loved by a lot of people. … We still have no answers to what happened to her. There’s still no justice.”

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According to the FBI, Okpealuk is approximately 5-foot-2 in height, has dark brown hair and is around 130 pounds. She was last seen in West Beach. Anyone with information is encouraged to call the Nome Police Department at 907-443-5262. Callers can remain anonymous.





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