As Unalaska deaths rise this year, police cite drugs, mental health concerns

Unalaska Department of Public Safety
The City of Unalaska’s Department of Public Safety headquarters. (Berett Wilber/KUCB)

Five people have died in Unalaska since the start of 2023.

Deputy Police Chief Bill Simms said it’s not uncommon to have a handful of on-island deaths over the course of a year. But in a community of fewer than 4,500 full-time residents, he said five before the end of March is different.

“It is kind of unusual to have that amount within a short period of time,” said Simms.

On Jan. 3, a long-term employee at the UniSea seafood processing plant died of natural causes, according to the State Medical Examiner’s Office. On Jan. 20, a crew member on a visiting fishing vessel died of an apparent drug overdose.

Then, in March, three people died in what police suspect were suicides.

A seasonal employee at UniSea was found dead in the water at the small boat harbor on March 5. Another seasonal worker at the Alyeska seafood processing plant was found dead at a bunkhouse on March 9. And local resident Charlene Malepeai Mamea, 34, was found dead in Unalaska Lake after she was reported missing, setting off an extensive community-wide search led by the fire department.

Malepeai Mamea is the only person of the five dead who police have publicly identified by name.

Simms said police do not suspect foul play in any of the deaths. The last four remain under investigation, and he said officers are waiting on final autopsy reports from the State Medical Examiner.

“There has been no determination on the cause of death for those yet, so those cases are still open,” said Simms. “Investigation is ongoing, and once we get more information, then we’ll let you guys know.”

Unalaska police have turned over the suspected overdose case to federal investigators, and they’re warning anyone who uses drugs to be extremely careful, especially as fentanyl continues to make its way through Alaska communities.

Simms said anything can be laced with the powerful synthetic opioid, which has driven a nationwide epidemic of fatal and nonfatal overdoses.

“All it takes is one hot dose and you can end up in the morgue,” he said. “If [there’s] any time in history that you really got to be cognizant of what you put in your body, it’s now. Because that fentanyl is just deadly.”

Police are also urging Unalaskans to reach out for help when dealing with mental health challenges — and to do the same for family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors.

Simms said support and resources are available through several organizations, including the Unalaska Department of Public SafetyUnalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence, and the behavioral health program run by the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.

“If you have friends or family who are experiencing emotional trauma or distress,” he said, “point it out to somebody. Because if not, the result could be catastrophic.”

Police are working with APIA on a public service campaign about recognizing the signs of emotional distress and suicidal thinking.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

Locally, APIA has two behavioral health providers on-island, and they can be reached at 907-581-2751. USAFV also has a 24-hour phone crisis line at 907-581-1500, and a text crisis line at 907-359-1500, which is available daily from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

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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