Fairbanks leaders plead for answers after string of unsolved missing persons cases

A man in a buffy blue jacket and a fur hat speaks on a winter street
Steve Ginnis, director of the Fairbanks Native Association, speaks at a vigil to raise awareness about missing Indigenous people on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. (Dan Bross/KUAC)

Fairbanks residents, families of the missing and Alaska Native leaders gathered at a vigil over the weekend to raise awareness about the unusually high number of local people who have gone missing, the majority of them Alaska Native.

The outdoor vigil offered families an opportunity to share their stories, thank those aiding the ongoing search for answers and call for new action.

Eight individuals have gone missing in the Fairbanks area since last May. Five of them are Alaska Native.

That’s unusually high, according to former Tanana Chiefs Conference VPSO Program Coordinator Jody Potts, who helped organize the Saturday afternoon vigil in front of TCC’s Chief Peter John tribal building.

“I know that a lot of people in our community are just really very concerned,” she said. “Obviously, the families — the heartache that they’re experiencing … We just want to lift them up and bring more awareness to this.”

The most recent missing person is 54-year-old Steve Hjelm of Stevens Village, who was last seen leaving his sister Lori’s apartment on 16th Ave. on Jan. 9, 2021. Lori Hjelm spoke at the vigil.

“We know all of you are hurting for your family,” she said. “And so are we. I just want to thank everybody for being here helping us.”

Rory Nictune also spoke.

Nictune’s sister, 59-year-old Debbie Nictune of Bettles, disappeared after leaving the Northwood apartment building in downtown Fairbanks in August 2020. Nictune appealed to anyone who might have information that could help solve the cases.

A group of people stand around outside ini teh cold. The people in the middle are beting drums.
Supporters gather to raise awareness about the unsolved missing persons cases in downtown Fairbanks on Jan. 25, 2021 (Dan Bross/KUAC)

“I know there’s someone out there that knows something, someone saying something. I ask them, please step forward. You don’t have to give us your name. You can be anonymous,” he said. “We need to find these people.”

Family members of the missing and community leaders expressed appreciation for law enforcement’s work on the cases, but called for more action. Fairbanks Native Association Executive Director Steve Ginniss asked for regular updates on the status of cases.

“Be more transparent. Share with the rest of us what’s going on here. Maybe by doing so, we may find a solution,” he said.

City Mayor Jim Matherly responded, pledging to better communicate with the public about the cases.

“I know it can get frustrating because there’s work you see and there’s oftentimes work you do not see,” he said. “And that’s when we have to communicate with the public.”

There’s talk on social media that the missing may have been murdered — possibly victims of a serial killer — and Jody Potts said that’s causing fear in the community.

“We don’t want to make any assumptions that any of these missing person cases are connected somehow, but we also don’t want to make any assumptions that they’re not connected,” she said. “And so that’s why we are asking to create a Fairbanks Missing Persons Task Force.”

Potts also requested the FBI be brought in to work the missing persons cases.

City Acting Police Chief Rick Sweet underscored that there’s no evidence of murder or that the cases are linked. Although the city has not officially asked the FBI to step in, the agency is aware of the situation, Sweet said.

“We’d love to meet with the FBI, the Alaska State Troopers, we’ve been taking part in the Missing Murdered Indigenous persons working groups with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the state of Alaska agencies. So everybody’s kind of coming together and trying to figure this out across the board,” he said.

Missing persons bulletins from Fairbanks. (Dan Bross/KUAC)

Chief Sweet said, at this point, the public’s assistance is needed to advance the investigations.

“We have no other leads that we’re actively working on,” he said. “Not that we’re not working the case, it’s just that we’ve run everything down.”

Sweet set a meeting with Native community leaders to discuss the missing persons cases. In the meantime, Potts urged people to look out for one another.

“If you see someone in a vulnerable position, check on them. Don’t just keep going,” she said. “Stay aware, watch over each other. Mahsi’ — be safe!”