‘We are working on this’: Troopers get significant tip in 2020 Interior missing-persons case

A state trooper SUV parked outside of a yellow piece of tape on a dirty road
(Elyssa Loughlin/KYUK)

Alaska State Troopers are investigating new information in one of four cases of Alaska Native people who were reported missing in the Fairbanks area during 2020.

Troopers Capt. Eric Spitzer, commander of AST’s Interior Alaska detachment, mentioned the break during a Thursday meeting held by the Fairbanks Native Association and the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

The gathering at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall brought together local Native, city and law enforcement representatives to update the community on the cases of Frank Minano, Debbie Nictune and Doren Sanford, who went missing in August 2020, and Willis Derendoff who disappeared three months later in November 2020. Fairbanks residents organized a community-wide search for the four during the following spring, but none of them were found.

Spitzer said he learned new details about one of the cases on Wednesday, after discussing them with a group of seniors.

“I can’t disclose what happened exactly, but I will tell you this: when the meeting left, everybody left after the meeting, someone came up to me, and they provided me a tip,” Spitzer said.

According to Spitzer, four troopers are following up on that lead.

“I am bubbling over with things that I want to say to you right now,” Spitzer said. “But in the interest of transparency — there’s transparency, and then there’s preserving the integrity of investigation. I will tell you this: In the near future there’s going to be some legal movement on a case. I can’t tell you which case, but I’m telling you that we are working on this. We are going to hold those people responsible who are accountable.”

Law enforcement has in the past stated that there appears to be no connection between the four unresolved cases, so a break in one does not indicate progress toward resolving the others. Spitzer also highlighted policies and tools aimed to improve missing persons case response and investigation, including an anonymous AKtips reporting form on AST’s website, which allows information to be shared and troopers to ask questions without knowing who they are communicating with.

“Some people are suspicious about it; they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not anonymous, they’re gonna find out who you are,’” Spitzer said. “It’s an actual app that’s designed — it’s encrypted so we can’t swim upstream. We can’t go back to find out who it is.”

Fairbanks missing persons cases from 2020
A poster with information about four Alaska Native people who went missing in the Fairbanks area in 2020. (Courtesy Fairbanks Native Association and Tanana Chiefs Conference)

Several others who spoke at Thursday’s meeting also asked for the public’s help. One of them, Willis Derendoff’s aunt Rosie Simon, referred to a poster of the four missing people.

“People miss these people right here,” Simon said. “They have family. They have big families. And there’s someone out there. Everyone know…they can’t just disappear all one time…with no, nobody knowing nothing.”  

New efforts to increase cooperation and transparency between the public, local government and law enforcement, as well as FNA and TCC, were stressed by several speakers. The focus includes investigation of existing cases and proactive action on new ones. TCC chief and chair Brian Ridley said the Interior tribal service organization’s village public safety officer program has received special designation from the state.  

“Where we can initiate searches in the Fairbanks North Star Borough when a tribal member goes missing,” Ridley said. “This allows families to begin searching for missing persons immediately, and for missing-persons reports to be officially filed as soon as the person goes missing.”

TCC and FNA are crafting a memorandum of understanding about how they’ll work together on the issue. FNA justice director Shirley Lee emphasized the importance of cross-community and agency unity.

“And I’m so hopeful about the work we are about to do jointly with TCC, improving our working relationship, with (Fairbanks Police Department) and the troopers and the new mayor,” Lee said.  

Lee said FNA and TCC will continue to hold quarterly meetings to update the public on missing and murdered Indigenous persons cases.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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