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Seeking Justice: The women who vanished in Alaska in 2012

Published: Dec. 12, 2020 at 5:08 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Content Warning: This article contains information, including references to self harm and suicide, that some readers might find disturbing.

From Dillingham and Nikolai, the Sifsof and Alexie families share common grief: the sudden disappearances of a loved one in or near Anchorage in 2012.

Despite initial searches, the women — Valerie Sifsof and Mary Anne Alexie — were never found. The cases have gone cold. Eight years later, both families still seek closure and say at times, they’ve felt overlooked by law enforcement.

Left with few answers and feeling abandoned by people in positions to help, they’re sharing their stories in hopes of making a difference.

Alaska State Troopers and the Anchorage Police Department declined to talk about the cases for this report due to the cases’ ongoing investigations.

The camping trip

Valerie Sifsof, 43, grew up fishing with her dad, Victor Sifsof in Bristol Bay, Alaska’s world-class salmon fishery. The family also spent time in the state’s interior at Clear Air Force Base while Victor Sifsof worked there as a radar technician. After high school, Valerie, known as “Val,” stuck out on her own.

“She was always so adventurous and carefree, and she just loved getting out and meeting people and having fun,” Victor Sifsof, said in an interview with Alaska’s News Source.

By 2012, Valerie Sifsof had made her way back to Alaska after spending time in Seattle. She had a long-term boyfriend and was living in Anchorage, Victor Sifsof said.

In July, the couple planned a weekend getaway at the Granite Creek Campground south of Anchorage. The evening of July 7 would be the last time anyone would see or hear from Valerie Sifsof.

Her boyfriend told her family and police that the couple had had a fight and that Valerie Sifsof walked off around midnight. It wasn’t unusual for the couple to give each other some space after a disagreement, Victor Sifsof said.

But after this argument, Valerie Sifsof never came back. She’d left behind keys, her ID, her phone and other belongings, according to Alaska State Troopers at the time.

“I was fishing out in the bay when I got the call. My wife said, ‘You got to come home right now.’ I didn’t ask any questions. I flew down immediately, and then we immediately went to Granite Creek and started mobilizing a search for her,” Victor Sifsof said.

The weather that week in Southcentral Alaska was cool and rainy.

Victor Sifsof worried about whether his daughter was hurt, if she was out in the cold, exposed to wet, windy weather. He also questioned if she’d had a run-in with someone unknown.

“When we first got down there we didn’t know what happened. We thought maybe someone abducted her. You know, I was thinking all kinds of things, ‘Well, maybe she was lost out in the woods. Wet. Cold,’” Victor Sifsof said. “I was pretty shook up.”

The search

The family and — in time — law enforcement, the military and volunteers searched by ground, air and in the nearby river.

“Every clue that came up, we followed up on. We walked miles and miles on the roads looking for where she might have got hurt, or in the woods. [Her boyfriend] and my boys we walked every square mile of that area down there,” Victor Sifsof said.

Looking back, he said at the time he wished more could have been done.

“Initially I was pretty upset because you have a daughter missing, you want everybody there now, to start searching. I thought it took a while for them to get organized and I was upset about that. But overall, I think they did the best they could with what they had. They didn’t have many officers in the area, and they cover hundreds of square miles for just a couple police,” he said, referring to whether he thought Alaska State Troopers did a good job.

“I think that was the problem. They didn’t have the personnel,” he said.

Presumed dead

After several weeks of searching, a green shirt and a black DKNY hoodie were recovered from the river — the same pieces of clothing Valerie Sifsof was seen wearing the day she disappeared.

Victor Sifsof, a fisherman, knew from searches in the water for other people that sometimes clothing gets pulled off of bodies by the current when people drown.

“It was like a stab to the heart,” he said after the clothing turned up.

After considering multiple possibilities — including that his daughter had walked away and traveled somewhere else, or that someone kidnapped or hurt her — Victor Sifsof is now convinced his daughter is dead and that it was a place and not a person that killed Valerie.

“I feel more likely she fell into the water,” Victor Sifsof said. “It was a swift creek and most people wouldn’t be able to get out of it if they fell in.”

Court records show that a presumptive death was granted for Valerie Sifsof in 2016.

Her body has not been recovered.

A second disappearance

The same year Valerie Sifsof went missing, Mary Anne Alexie, 32, disappeared from Anchorage after a late-night phone call to a friend.

The mother of four had traveled from Fairbanks to Anchorage to attend school. Within a day of her arrival, she vanished.

“We know that at one point she contacted family members, she contacted friends and then she stopped making calls,” Sgt. Slawomir Markowicz with the Anchorage Police Department said in 2012, after Mary Anne Alexie’s disappearance.

According to police, on Oct. 10, 2012, Mary Anne Alexie called a friend late at night. She sounded intoxicated, lost and in need of a place to stay the night.

Her family told Alaska’s News Source that Mary Anne Alexie had come to Anchorage in search of a better life.

“We really proud of the fact that she was ready to go to school and get her life together,” said Balassa Alexie, Mary Anne Alexie’s niece during an interview from her home in Nikolai.

Checking sheds

Volunteers helped tack up posters with Mary Anne Alexie’s picture in the Spenard neighborhood from which she is believed to have gone missing.

By November, around the time of Mary Anne Alexie’s 33rd birthday, her niece, sister and mother flew to Anchorage from Nikolai to help the search.

They arrived to find police searching the waters of Lake Hood, a busy seaplane base in Spenard close to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

“Someone knows what happened to her. The family needs some kind of closure,” Josie Guynes, Mary Anne Alexie’s sister, said during a candlelight vigil in Anchorage held in November 2012.

By December, Anchorage police had asked the public in the surrounding neighborhood to check properties, just in case Mary Anne Alexie had maybe stopped somewhere to take shelter and rest.

“One theory is she was so intoxicated maybe she went into somebody’s shed, somebody’s property that hasn’t been checked. So we’d like to ask the homeowners in that area to check their properties, especially unsecured sheds on their property,” Markiewicz said in December 2012.

‘It could have gone a little better’

Balassa Alexie said the family could have used a support person or police liaison to help them adjust to what was happening and to help guide them through what to expect.

Instead, they felt very left out.

“Honestly, it could have gone a little better. We didn’t know what was going on. We were kind of lost and trying to figure out what was happening, how to find her. The concerning thing to me was that they had us meet with a homicide detective and that kind of set off alarm bells,” Balassa Alexie said.

During an interview on Dec. 4 about their newly launched cold case unit, the Anchorage Police Department told Alaska’s News Source they regret that families may feel disconnected but emphasized their main focus is figuring out what happened. They often can’t share many details because it could harm an investigation, said unit commander Lt. Jack Carson.

Too much grief

Mary Anne Alexie’s niece does not believe her aunt would have harmed herself.

“There was a time period when I was a teenager and I was personally having a hard time, and she kind of like whipped me into shape,” Balassa Alexie said.

“She said ‘Don’t you ever think about that. You know, self-harm is not the way to go. Life is tough, but you are tougher.’ So, she just wouldn’t do that,” said Balassa Alexie, describing her aunt as being like her second mom.

But for Mary Anne Alexie’s brother, Robert Alexie, the loss was too much.

Balassa Alexie said Robert Alexie’s suicide in December 2014 was fueled by his sister’s disappearance.

“He was just stuck thinking about her and kind of upset with himself that he wasn’t there to help protect her,” Balassa Alexie said.

Over the years, Balassa Alexie has wondered whether Mary Anne Alexie’s Alaska Native heritage impacted the quality of the investigation by law enforcement.

“I do feel like there’s been some kind of prejudice,” Balassa Alexie said. “I feel like if we were a different skin color we would have gotten a little more action from police, a little more public support.”

Carson told Alaska’s News Source race has no impact on how his team evaluates and pursues cases.

“Race does not affect the way we look at cases,” Carson said, explaining that detectives look at the crime that was committed and attempt to bring justice and closure for victims and families. “The ultimate thing for letting families know that we care is solving [cases] for them, and that is our number one goal.”

Life moves forward

For the families of both women, living with their loved one’s absence hasn’t been easy.

Every time Balassa Alexie enjoys a treasured moment with her own children, she grieves the moments her aunt and her aunt’s children are missing.

And the women in the family, Balassa Alexie and her aunt’s sisters, still aren’t able to talk much about Mary Anne Alexie’s disappearance. It’s too painful.

“We just want to find her. I personally don’t believe she’s alive anymore. It’s been too long. We just want to find her and bury her,” Balassa Alexie said.

Victor Sifsof has accepted that his daughter is likely dead, but knowing it and feeling it are not always in alignment. At times, he still thinks he’ll hear his daughter’s voice on the other end of a phone call.

“I always thought there was a chance that we were going to get that call, and this is one reason I am having so hard a time putting the cross up on the grave,” Victor Sifsof said.

Grief comes in uninvented waves.

First, there is denial. Then, acceptance, as an intentional act of a father’s love.

“She always wanted me to be happy, so I’d like her to know that we did the very best we could to find her. We love her very much and always will, and someday I hope to see her again,” he said.

Resources: If you are considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Stop Suicide Alaska at 1-877-266-HELP.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Mary Anne Alexie’s mother flew to Anchorage to assist in the search.

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