Police continue search for missing Nome woman last seen in August

Agents from the FBI search for Florence Okpealuk alongside Nome volunteers by the Snake River in September. (Photo by Emily Hofstaedter / KNOM)

Florence Okpealuk went missing from Nome over two months ago. But the Nome Police Department isn’t ready to let the case go cold yet.

Scott Weaver is an investigator newly hired by NPD. He said they continue to receive analyzed cellphone data provided by the FBI field office in Anchorage. As that continues to come in, Weaver hopes the Nome police can better direct their investigation.

“So, we’re still actively investigating some evidence that hasn’t even come in yet, which will help us hopefully, with some directionals and understanding where people were and who was where that could stir up a new lead for us,” Weaver said.

A spokesperson from the FBI did confirm that the Anchorage office continues to aid the Nome Police with technical assistance in this missing person’s case.

The 33-year-old, Alaska Native mother was last seen leaving a tent on Aug. 30 about a mile outside of Nome on West Beach. Okpealuk’s shoes and jacket were left behind.

Numerous search and rescue efforts, including large community searches and trained cadaver dogs, have yielded no major breakthroughs thus far. Community-organized search efforts have brought volunteers and funding from across the state, including from regional communities like Brevig Mission, Teller, Wales and Savoonga. That’s been the most impressive and most helpful aspect of the whole search for Weaver, who is used to working with large police departments in Florida.

“Look at our department, we have like six or seven people that are officers,” Weaver said. “And maybe one or two that could help on the case at that time, because we’re still handling all these calls for service. So without the help of search and rescue efforts, and all the volunteers in town and the family members, we would have been at a loss, you know, it was a big help.”

Since early September, the department has faced some criticism for what some community members perceive as a delayed search effort on NPD’s part. But the Nome police continually reaffirm they started their missing persons’ response and protocol as soon as Okpealuk was reported missing.

Kawerak Inc. President Melanie Bahnke said in September that she offered to put Nome in touch with FBI resources when she realized that Okpealuk was missing.

“Thankfully they were already in touch with the FBI themselves, so I was really pleased when I found out about that,” Bahnke said.

As November presses on and police continue their investigation into Okpealuk’s disappearance, Weaver is hoping that some technical analysis will reveal a lead sooner rather than later. But Weaver also realizes that winter is no longer on their side.

“I know it’s becoming more difficult with the snow hitting the ground now,” he said. “So search and rescue efforts are going to become more strained with the weather.”

It’s a challenge but her family maintains hope.

“We will not give up,” said Florence’s older sister Blair Okpealuk. “We want answers and closure.”

She continues to organize search efforts and stresses her gratitude for the outpouring of searchers and support for her sister. Some of that has included donations of $1,000 each from Kawerak Inc. and Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation.

Anyone with any information regarding the whereabouts of Florence Okpealuk can call the Nome police at 907-443-5262. Callers can remain anonymous.

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