Body of missing woman found in Unalaska Lake

Unalaska search crews
Unalaska’s Fire Department organized search efforts for Charlene Malepeai Mamea, 34, on Monday, March 20, from the Unalaska United Methodist Church and its parking lot. Her body was found and recovered Tuesday, March 21, in Unalaska Lake. (Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

The body of a missing Unalaska woman was found and recovered from beneath the ice on Unalaska Lake early Tuesday evening, just over two days after she was last seen.

Searchers found Charlene Malepeai Mamea, 34, at 4:48 p.m. in the lake on the north side of Broadway Avenue, at the intersection with Dutton Road, Interim Fire Chief Ben Knowles told KUCB Tuesday evening. Roads in the area were temporarily closed Tuesday night.

As fire officials were following up an unrelated tip in the area, which had been the focus of the search since it began Sunday evening, Knowles said a firefighter spotted what appeared to be shoes at the edge of the ice line. A group of officials waded into the water, discovered Malepeai Mamea beneath the ice, and transported her to the morgue at the Department of Public Safety, where her family positively identified her remains.

The state medical examiner’s office in Anchorage has requested Malepeai Mamea’s body be sent for examination. Unalaska police are coordinating with local shippers to transport her remains.

Knowles said the medical examiner’s request is a common one, and he declined to comment on how Malepeai Mamea may have ended up beneath the lake ice near her apartment on Dutton Road. She was last seen Sunday at 2:30 p.m. leaving home “abruptly,” according to Public Safety officials.

“We’ll all anxiously await the results,” Knowles said. “But I don’t expect anything outside the norm.”

On Monday, Deputy Police Chief Bill Simms said police did not suspect criminal involvement, but an investigation is ongoing. Knowles also said Monday that officials did not believe alcohol or drugs were involved.

After days of combing over many of the same areas, searching through periods of gusting winds and blowing snow, Knowles credited the weather with actually helping searchers to finally locate Malepeai Mamea.

“I think the wind was blowing just the right way,” said Knowles, “that it must’ve finally shifted things enough with the ice” and allowed searchers to spot her shoes.

Searchers had already canvassed the area where she was found, including with an underwater drone. But Knowles said three or four feet of mud and silt in the water, along with a lack of ambient light, likely hampered searchers’ visibility.

Knowles said fire officials, many of whom had pulled shifts 18 hours or longer, are “relieved” to be able to offer some closure to Malepeai Mamea’s family and the community as a whole.

“We’re saddened. We’re upset. But this is an outcome,” he said. “It’s not the outcome that we wanted, but it is an outcome for the family.”

Original story published 3/21/2023 at about 10 a.m.

The search for a missing Unalaska woman resumed Tuesday at daybreak.

Charlene Malepeai Mamea, 34, was last seen Sunday at 2:30 p.m. when she “abruptly” left her apartment on Nirvana Hill’s Dutton Road, Interim Fire Chief Ben Knowles said Monday morning while briefing search parties.

The search — which began Sunday at 7:30 p.m., led by Unalaska’s Fire Department and including dozens of community volunteers and members of city, state, and federal entities — has involved canvassing and recanvassing the areas around Malepeai Mamea’s home and deploying a remote underwater vehicle beneath the ice on Unalaska Lake.

The Fire Department temporarily suspended the search Monday around 4 p.m., when Knowles said most of his staff had been searching for 18 hours or longer and that searchers needed to stop, rest, and reset for their own safety before they resuming.

In a text message Tuesday morning, Knowles told KUCB that searching had resumed at daybreak, with search teams focused “on outlying areas directly adjacent to where our initial focus was. From there we will move beyond that radius.”

Knowles also said he’s exploring the possibility of bringing in search and rescue dogs for additional help.

“I have reached out to a few different organizations that have K9 resources to start the process of enlisting their services to aid in our search,” he said. “That is still developing and [I’m] unsure if that resource will be available to us.”

On Monday, Knowles said officials do not believe alcohol or drugs are involved in Malepeai Mamea’s disappearance. Deputy Police Chief Bill Simms said police do not suspect criminal involvement at this time either, but an investigation is ongoing.

Malepeai Mamea — who’s Samoan, 5’ 08”, and 280 pounds — was last seen wearing a T-shirt, dark sweatpants, and black boots with fur, Knowles said Monday. She has black hair and brown eyes.

A Public Safety alert released Sunday night also described Malepeai Mamea as an “at risk” person. On Monday, Knowles declined to explain what officials meant by “at risk,” but he said there is “no threat to the public.”

Charlene Malepeai Mamea
Charlene Malepeai Mamea, 34, was last seen Sunday, March 19, at 2:30 p.m. when she left her apartment on Nirvana Hill’s Dutton Road in Unalaska. She was last seen wearing a T-shirt, dark sweatpants and black boots with fur. (From Unalaska Department of Public Safety)

Laura Kraegel covers Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands for KUCB . Originally from Chicago, she first came to Alaska to work at KNOM, reporting on Nome and the Bering Strait Region. ( / 907.581.6700)

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