Akiak attempts to banish former VPO, alleged bootlegger

Akiak residents confront Jacques Cooper, a former VPO who multiple community members claim sold alcohol and marijuana illegally. The confrontation was live streamed on Facebook.(Photo courtesy Mike Williams)

On August 10th, Akiak’s Tribal Council banished a former Village Police Officer from their community. The trouble is, he still hasn’t left. 43-year-old Jacques Cooper is accused of bootlegging and selling marijuana to both adults and minors in the village. Cooper denies all of the allegations and remains in town. The community’s effort to drive him out has devolved into shouting matches and public threats of violence—some of which have been streamed live on Facebook.

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Last Sunday, Akiak residents angrily confronted Jacques Cooper at his home—and then live streamed that confrontation on Facebook.

Man in video: “You are banished from Akiak!

Woman in video: “We can ban anyone for—the tribe can ban anyone.”

Cooper: “For?”

Man in video: “For what you’re doing—drug dealing and bootlegging!… Mr. Refill-A-Jug”

In the video, Cooper is standing on his faded, yellow porch in his socks, slouched against a pillar. He’s packing two large knives, holstered at either hip. About a half dozen local mothers and tribal leaders are standing in front of his house. The video is about 40 minutes long, and as it continues it becomes clear that Cooper is recording the confrontation too. He mocked the crowd with a cartoonish voice, they yell back at him and then the allegations start:

Cooper: “I don’t trust any of ya’ll, particularly after people shooting at my house.”

Man in video: “That wasn’t us! That person isn’t even here!”

According to Tribal Council Member Mike Williams, Akiak’s Council voted unanimously to banish Cooper. The order was issued on August 10 and gave Cooper seven days to leave town, which he has yet to do.

Cooper moved to Akiak last year, when his wife was hired as a Special Education teacher at the local school. He worked briefly as a Village Police Officer, or VPO, and began raising goats and chickens in his backyard. According to Akiak Native Community Chief Ivan M. Ivan, it became an open secret that Cooper was selling alcohol and marijuana in town:

“This is a small village and it’s hard to hide whatever you’re doing from other people,” Ivan said.

Residents allege that Cooper invited minors to work on the small farm he started behind his house, and then may have paid them in marijuana or alcohol. Both Ivan and Williams claim that a series of locals have made statements against him. In an interview with KYUK, a 15-year-old girl who asked to remain anonymous recounted an incident last March when she and another girl visited Cooper and other underage people were there smoking marijuana. The girl said she and her friend left after Cooper tried to touch her.

According to Council member Williams, Akiak community members have complained to the State Troopers about Cooper.  He said this isn’t the first time that Akiak has banished someone for bootlegging.

“We just feel that we have enough problems here as it is,” Williams said. “And having an individual like that in the community just adds fuel to the fire, and we just cannot afford that anymore.”

There have been at least a dozen banishments in Alaska since 2015, many which targeted accused bootleggers and drug-dealers. And it can be a controversial practice. In an email exchange yesterday, Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills wrote that quote “banishment orders can present difficult constitutional issues that have to be evaluated on a case by case basis.”

“As far as the banishment is concerned, they never had a meeting I was notified about,” Cooper said.

Cooper claims he didn’t know about his own banishment order until it was issued, and that no evidence has been presented against him. And he denies all of the allegations. Cooper said that that while he smokes marijuana for medicinal purposes on his own time, he doesn’t sell it. And he claims that he has been harassed in Akiak for months. The trouble started, Cooper said, when he was working as a VPO and attempted to arrest a man named Kenneth Phillip — the mayor’s nephew.

“My issue has been complete despotic nature of the ruling families here, and the fascist manner in which they run the town,” Cooper said.

Cooper claims that he is scheduled to testify against Phillip on September 18th. While KYUK has been unable to confirm this, Kenneth Phillip has been charged with three counts of assault. His trial is scheduled to begin in Bethel on September 13th.

Cooper also said that he’s been threatened. He claims that someone shot one of his goats with a beebee gun. Another person shot a dog, which Cooper said they thought belonged to him. And then there was last Saturday, when Cooper claims someone shot at the side of his house. Akiak Chief Ivan M. Ivan denied that any shooting has occurred.

According to Council member Williams, Cooper will be able to get a proper hearing on his banishment if he wants one. We welcome it, Williams said. We request it. But so far, Williams said, they haven’t heard anything from him. And regardless of any controversy, Williams said he defends their decision to banish Cooper:

“We do not appreciate anyone coming here and selling alcohol and drugs or anything like that to our community members,” Williams said. “We just won’t stand for that. And our ancestors didn’t stand for that either.”

KYUK’s investigation into this story is ongoing.