After burying Marshall mother, friends and family ask why it took so long to find her

people stand around a casket
(Courtesy Of Kimberly Fitka O’Domin’s Family)

About 50 people gathered around a coffin last month in Kimberly Fitka O’Domin’s home in Marshall to welcome her home and say their goodbyes. 

Friends, family and community members were finally able to bury her almost two months after she went missing from the Southwest Alaska village on June 15. Many are now asking why it took so long to find her in the first place. Her best friend, Jackie George, led the search to find her.

“Kimberly and I started our friendship when we were teenagers. We used to always go to teen dances and singing. There was times when we danced until three or four in the morning. We had so much fun,” George said. “Eskimo dancing brought us together. Later in life we became parents of our own kids, but our friendship still remained strong.”

George has been leading Marshall’s search and rescue for more than 15 years and he is intimately familiar with the Yukon River. The night Fitka O’Domin disappeared, she told her mother someone had hit her and that she was going to break up a fight. She didn’t return, and her mother reported her missing on June 16. Somehow she ended up in the Yukon River.

“There were some scratch marks on top of the bank, which kind of indicated that we assume that’s where she went in,” said George. “So we concentrated from her residence all the way down. At least 2 miles was our target area. And at the time, the river condition here was high water, the current flow is pretty fast.”

(Francisco Matínezcuello/KYUK)

He coordinated with other villages. Even now he has a detailed memory of who did what, when.

“On June 18, [we had a] search and rescue meeting at 10 a.m.,” George said. “At 1 p.m., five boats from Marshall are utilizing drag bars and lead lines with hooks. That’s when the five Marshall boats went back out again to continue the search. At 3 p.m., two boats from Russian Mission, three boats from Pilot Station. At 5 p.m., three boats from Mountain Village join.”

George said he also reached out to search and rescue in Bethel, where Fitka O’Domin lived for a time.

He said that search and rescue volunteers used boats equipped with fish finder sonar in the hope of finding her body.

“You start doing that figure eight, just back and forth going down the river slowly,” he said. “That would detect more of what would be, say, the bodies in the river. They would detect it a lot faster using a figure eight grid. So they did that from below Kimberly’s residence all the way down to about 4 miles, 4 miles below Marshall.”

These communities rallied without hesitation. George said that even the mining company Donlin Gold put together a Costco order for the search volunteers. Someone downriver brought up 200 dragging hooks; another sent money from Anchorage.

Troopers’ response

Alaska State Troopers did not send anyone to Marshall until five days after Fitka O’Domin went missing. Online and in private, family and friends have criticized the troopers for what they see as a lack of urgency.

Alaska State Trooper Capt. Andrew Merrill leads the team that covers Western Alaska. He said that they got a call about Fitka O’Domin’s disappearance on June 16 and started reaching out to village police officers and community members to find out what was happening.

“We did a lot of different things,” Merrill said. “We worked with the cell company to see if there was a way that we could try to locate her cell phone. And GCI, unfortunately, didn’t have the ability to do that. Their system wasn’t working. And so we did some of those investigative steps throughout the 16th.”

Merrill said that the village police officers also pulled video footage from the local stores to search for clues.

(Francisco Marínezcuello/KYUK)

Merrill said that troopers were told that this wasn’t the first time Fitka O’Domin had gone missing.

“That impacts kind of the immediacy of our response and how we’re going to do things,” Merrill said.

Two troopers from St. Mary’s arrived in Marshall on June 19 and spent the day talking to people.

Later, a couple not involved with the volunteer search efforts found her body about 100 miles downriver. 

Friction points

No one is saying that if the troopers had responded sooner, they think that Fitka O’Domin would still be alive today. But George wants accountability.

“We believe that if they had come earlier and properly investigated, this case would have been solved. There was some visible sign that there had been a struggle where her eyeglasses were found. We had also found handprints where someone had been dragged into the beach below her home. All that evidence was gone by the time the troopers arrived. The blood from an assault had pretty much dried up and washed away,” George said. “This was a neglect of duty on part of the Alaska State Troopers. We need answers.”

The trooper response time is not the only point of friction for the Marshall community. Fitka O’Domin’s mother, Elizabeth Fitka, attended the last Governor’s Council on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons meeting held in Anchorage on July 24. Trooper Merrill has been involved with that council since it started three years ago.

(Francisco Martínezcuello/KYUK)

Fitka told the council that troopers botched the investigation and she believes that the State Medical Examiner is culpable.

“I was the one that had to go through her contents. They gave me ah, they gave me a sealed muddy wet bag of her contents that were in her pocket. Maybe if they took a couple of seconds to wash those contents, they would have been able to find out that her phone can actually turn on,” Fitka said.

Fitka said that the State Medical Examiner’s Office is located near the Alaska Bureau of Investigations.

“Maybe if they were to took a couple of seconds to go over and ask for her contents, they would have been able to see her credit card that had her name on it. They had her keychain with her ‘Kim’ on it, and then a phone that was in a muddy, wet, sealed bag when I washed it out and ran it to GCI and to Apple. Put it on the charger, it turned right on,” Fitka said.

What isn’t clear about this case is how it happened, who was responsible and exactly why it took so long to get Alaska State Trooper resources mobilized when Fitka O’Domin was reported missing.

What is clear is that the Marshall community lost their tribal administrator, a woman who was revered in the community, and that Fitka O’Domin’s seven kids will grow up without their mother; the youngest is just 2 years old.

The family set up a GoFundMe account to help cover the cost of living for her children.

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