FBI explains role in Nome investigation of missing woman

The Nome Police Department remains the lead agency in charge but FBI agents are assisting with technical analysis.
FBI agents help in the search for Florence Okpealuk, missing in Nome since August 30.
FBI agents help in the search for Florence Okpealuk, missing in Nome since August 30.(FBI)
Published: Sep. 17, 2020 at 7:34 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) -The Nome Police Department remains as the agency in charge of the investigation into the disappearance of Florence Okpealuk.

The 33-year-old Nome woman was last seen on West Beach on Aug. 30. Nome police officers called the Federal Bureau of Investigation for help a couple of days later.

Supervisory Special Agent William Walton said the bigger federal agency can provide more resources to assist smaller departments. That includes people on the ground searching and conducting interviews, as well as help with submitting search warrants and collecting and analyzing technical data like cell phone records.

“Those aren’t tools and resources a smaller department has or if they do, it requires them to dedicate an investigator to that activity, removing them from the actual investigation. So that’s an area that we try to provide support to free up the local department to continue their investigation,” Walton said.

Walton said time counts in missing person cases and credits the Nome Police Department with recognizing they needed more people to help right away.

The FBI typically takes the lead on cases that involve missing or abducted children, Walton explained, or if there’s a federal element involved, like firearms.

So far, in Okpealuk’s case, there is no “federal nexus,” meaning it’s still under local jurisdiction.

Walton said it’s important for the FBI to have relationships with rural police departments, especially when a case like this comes up.

“We don’t often travel to many of our remote villages and when we are on the ground there we don’t know the community, we don’t know the resources and we certainly don’t know the dynamics of particular communities. So as much as it’s helpful for those communities to know they can reach to the FBI for resources, it’s equally important for us to have established relationships on the ground there to further our own investigations,” Walton said

FBI agents spent about a week in Nome collecting cell phone data and surveillance camera video. They’ll analyze the information to find a timeline of where Okpealuk was before she went missing.

Walton said the FBI is still working closely with the Nome Police Department. While they can’t release much information about the investigation, Walton said the agencies want to be as transparent as they can.

“To protect the integrity and to allow us to get to that next step and get closer to resolving the case we can’t release that information to the public for fear it may damage the investigation through destruction of evidence or contributing to other rumors or theories around,” Walton said.

He wants to assure people that investigators are actively involved in the search for Okpealuk and hope to find her.

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