Courts & Crime

Alaska town plagued by alcohol crime considers going 'wet'

BETHEL, Alaska — Nearly every crime here in Alaska's largest rural hub is soaked in liquor.

"Pretty close to 99 percent is alcohol-related," said Jerry Herrod, a fishing guide turned Bethel police officer who spent a recent weeknight refereeing street-side arguments.

The main grocery store keeps mouthwash behind the counter so people won't steal it to get drunk. Out in the parking lot, undercover troopers watch for bootleggers. The hospital serves as a makeshift sleep-off center and hired two workers to make sure inebriates don't wander over to other beds and bother patients.

"I can name three staff that have got black eyes," said emergency room nurse manager Heather Hamblin.

Here's the catch: For all its alcohol-related troubles, Bethel doesn't have a single liquor store. There are no bars. You can't even order a beer with your burger at a local restaurant.

The city of 5,700 people is the biggest of Alaska's so-called "damp" communities, meaning it's illegal to sell booze in city limits but you can order it by plane from Anchorage. The restrictions are meant to act as a kind of funnel, slowing the flow of alcohol into surrounding "dry" Yup'ik villages that use Bethel as a fountainhead for bootlegged liquor.

Next month, a potential major change will be on the ballot here. With Yup'ik translators at every polling place, voters will decide whether the city should cast off the booze ban for the first time in more than 30 years and go "wet." It's an evergreen question for rural Alaska voters — one that pits the common-sense failure of liquor prohibition against fears of worsening crime and social ills in a region already crippled by alcohol.

Bethel is one of two damp rural hub cities with proposals to loosen alcohol rules on Oct. 6 municipal election ballots. In smaller Kotzebue, voters will decide whether to allow the municipal government to own and operate a liquor store or bar, plus channel all imported alcohol through a single distribution center.

The question in Bethel is at once much simpler — should the city do away with local liquor restrictions altogether? — and in some ways far more complicated.

That's because key supporters of the vote say they don't really want liquor stores and bars in Bethel. Their real aim, they say, is to free the city from ever-tightening state restrictions.

Last year, for example, the state liquor control board launched a database that tracks how much individuals in damp communities buy from liquor stores across the state to make sure they don't break monthly limits. Last winter, a bill pushed by then-Gov. Sarah Palin sought to cut the import limits in half.

That's around the time a small group of Bethel old-timers rebelled.

"We want the citizens of Bethel to be able to choose what they want or don't want on these alcohol issues. We don't want the state to continue to flog us with these rules," said Tom Hawkins, 60. He moved to town in 1978, the year after Bethel banned liquor sales. He's one of 11 sponsors who collected hundreds of signatures to put the question on the city ballot.

The plan to lower alcohol limits for damp communities faded in the Legislature, but the petitioners pressed on anyway. They argue that the bureaucracy of getting a liquor license will allow residents to thwart any attempts at opening a bar or liquor store.

It's a confusing case to make to voters. It's also a gamble.

If the vote passes, Bethel would be eligible for two bars and two liquor stores based on its population, according to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board that awards the licenses.

Opponents of the change argue that removing the ban would spread cheap liquor across Southwest Alaska.

The Lower Kuskokwim district school board, which represents students in Bethel and 22 villages in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, on Aug. 28 urged voters to defeat the proposition. It could lead to more underage drinking and bootlegging in Delta villages, the board said in a resolution.

Mary Atchak, 62, grew up the daughter of a priest in the Yukon River village of Russian Mission. Now her husband is head of the local search and rescue team -- meaning it's his job to find people lost on the ice or the river that connects Bethel to nearby villages. Often, those people have been drinking.

Atchak drank when she was younger. "I tried it for about a year and I quit." She said she is voting to keep the liquor ban.

In the '60s, when Bethel was wet, you used to have to look around before you went home to make sure no one had passed out along the winter roads, she said. "It's a lot better now than it was back then. It's still scary when people go out on the river."

Up the road from the trooper station is a dusty airplane hangar with 60-inch moose antlers on the walls and a burly guy in a yellow hoodie behind the counter.

Meet 33-year-old Jeremy Westlake, a mechanic and pilot who by his estimate handles at least 70 percent of the legal alcohol that arrives in Bethel through a contract with ACE Air Cargo.

On the counter is a clipboard with an ever-growing list of names that says "booze inventory" on the top. Bethel residents come here, fill out an order form and get their alcohol from Anchorage in a day or more.

"It's almost like a cooling off period for a gun," Westlake said of the wait.

Under state law, people in damp communities can order 10.5 liters of hard liquor -- that's 14 "fifths" -- plus 32 bottles of wine, plus 12 gallons of beer each month.

The ballot proposition would wipe away the shipping restrictions altogether. Westlake, one of the petitioners who put the question to a vote, says it's a smaller-government thing. "I don't want the state involved in our day-to-day life."

The state's push to halve limits fueled the backlash, he said

Palin told reporters about the proposal Feb. 11 in Anchorage, saying lower liquor limits "would help a damp community actually be damp and not wet."

Dave Trantham, a former Bethel city council member and another of the petitioners, warned lawmakers at a Senate committee a week later that tighter restrictions would only encourage people to turn to booze alternatives like Listerine and Lysol, according to minutes.

If the new state rules passed, the city would likely toss out liquor restrictions altogether, Trantham said.

Lawmakers removed the limits from the bill and Palin appeared to back away from the push, said Rep. Bob Herron, a Bethel Democrat.

It seemed as if the protesters had won, said Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters. But petitioners pushed ahead with Trantham's threat, handing roughly 370 valid signatures to the city clerk in order to put the question on next month's ballot.

Hawkins gathered names from friends at his backyard steam house. To him, the vote to go wet is about more than the failed attempt to tighten liquor limits. The problem, he thinks, is that lawmakers in Juneau have imposed restrictions on the city for more than 20 years, making them slap "ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE" labels on their luggage, putting their names in a database of booze buyers and trying to chop liquor limits without asking voters.

"I don't think the state will ever get off our backs. They will come back year after year -- until we opt out -- with more restrictions," Trantham said.

He predicts that if the vote fails, someone in the Legislature will try to resurrect the limits.

At 82, Trantham is still a regular at the meetings and grows a lush garden of broccoli, turnips and cauliflower on summer days that stretch to 20 hours of sunlight. He drinks a beer a day. Or a glass of wine.

Opening a liquor store is a "no-no in my" book, Trantham said. He said he'd fight it. But allowing a local restaurant to sell wine with meals or giving a liquor license to a club like the VFW?

That might not be so bad, he said.

Troopers investigator Jerry Evan grew up speaking Yup'ik in the Kuskokwim River village of Napaskiak. Before he was assigned to drug and bootlegging cases in Bethel, Evan tackled domestic violence, and liquor-fueled drownings and suicides in dry villages.

"When I think about the types of crimes I investigated -- probably over 90 percent of times, the person was intoxicated," he said.

Now a wide poster hangs on a cubicle wall in Evan's Bethel office, mapping a spider web of connections between local drug dealers, bootleggers and underlings.

This spring he and an undercover trooper conducted a two-month sting that resulted in charges against 15 people for bootlegging liquor, Evan said.

In one case, a trooper walked up to two men standing in front of a local video store, asked about buying booze, and had an $80 bottle of R&R Canadian whiskey within 15 minutes, according to charging documents.

In Anchorage, that same 750 milliliter bottle goes for about $11. In one of the Kuskokwim River villages, the price rises as high as $200 on the black market. Bethel booze smugglers sometimes sidestep the monthly limits by getting others to buy their liquor in exchange for a couple bottles of R&R, Evan said.

This is known as "subsistence bootlegging."

If the liquor vote passes, authorities will lose control over how much booze arrives in Bethel, Evan said. "I can imagine we're going to see a lot more problems out in the villages."

On a recent weeknight, Herrod, the 26-year-old Bethel police officer, worked the graveyard shift, patrolling quiet roads that circle the city in a wide loop. Kids in the village uniform of hoodies and jeans walked in clusters, glancing at the police SUV.

A 911 call crackled over the dispatch. A man phoned to say a woman had slapped and kicked him, and that he'd fight back if police didn't show up soon. Herrod pulled into the asphalt driveway, taking notes as a woman told her side of the story, wind blowing her ponytail outside a two-story apartment.

Later, as he talked about alcohol addiction and the resulting problems he sees, Herrod described a bizarre trend. Some people desperate for liquor, he said, will spray air freshener into a loaf of bread and drink what drains through. Hawkins, the petitioner, mentioned the same thing. He doesn't know how it works, he said, just that people do it. That's why air freshener is kept behind the counter at the grocery store.

Still, Herrod doesn't want Bethel to come off like a town of drunks, he said.

"It's a small percentage of the people that we deal with. Most the people in this town, in the villages around here, are really good people." Bethel hasn't had a murder in years. Unlike Anchorage, no one has been finding homeless dead between city streets this summer.

Herrod got another call just before midnight. This time to the boat harbor, where he listened as a group argued outside a steam house. Something about sex. One man asked another for a drag of his cigarette, and police spotlights lit the plywood walls an angry yellow.

On many nights, Herrod's job is more about defusing disputes than making arrests. No matter who he's talking to, they've usually been drinking.

Bethel leaders declared an alcohol crisis in 2007 and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., a regional nonprofit, hired an Anchorage consultant to study the problem.

At least 4,400 people were taken to the hospital emergency room for alcohol-related emergencies between 1997 and 2007, found consultant Mary Elizabeth Rider.

A July report summarizing efforts to combat the problem said Bethel "has the highest per capita rate of inebriates who end up in protective custody jail holds ... dwarfing the problems experienced in all of Alaska's other communities including Anchorage and Fairbanks."

The hospital visits include people who drank so much that they couldn't take care of themselves, and those injured while drinking.

"It's a bad use of limited resources to have people dry out in the emergency room. It means that kids with broken arms are waiting ... someone who is only inebriated is taking up an E.R. bed," Rider said.

Patients come to the emergency room drunk as young as 14, 15 years old, said Hamblin, the supervisor. "Occasionally you get the rare 12-year-old."

The city started a three-person community service patrol program in June to help Herrod and other officers with drunks. The Y-K Health Corp. is building a $2 million "sobering center" so the city won't have to take people to the prison or emergency room.

The goal is to open the center by 2012 with room for 16 people, said Jerry Drake, executive director for Bethel Community Services foundation.

Bethel voters allowed a city-owned liquor store to open here in the 1960s but banned local alcohol sales in 1977. Booze questions have made the ballot every few years ever since, with voters rejecting attempts to loosen or tighten local rules.

This time, the question simply asks if the city should opt out of the "local option" that restricts liquor sales. That would remove the shipping limits, meaning people could fly as much alcohol as they want into the city.

Mark Springer, the city public safety chairman and a grant writer for the Y-K Health Corp., thinks the vote will pass. Next, he predicts the cash-strapped city will propose a city-run liquor store -- just like petitioners are proposing in Kotzebue.

As the city struggles to pay its bills, council members have already talked about the idea, said Springer, who plans to vote against the ballot proposition.

Hawkins says he and other petitioners would be the strongest opponents if the city tried to start selling booze.

He's betting that if the vote passes, no one will actually be able to get a liquor license because residents and the city would likely protest any applications to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

Some local groups agree. "The ABC board would never issue a license because all the villages surrounding us would oppose it," said Drake, director of the Bethel Community Services Foundation.

The liquor board, which has final say over who gets a liquor license, usually accepts a local government's recommendation to accept or reject a new bar or liquor store, said licensing supervisor Dawn Holland-Williams.

But not always. State rules say such protests can't be "arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable."

"The city's going to have to have good reason for not allowing the application to go through if the law allows it," Holland-Williams said.

The Association of Village Council Presidents, a tribal nonprofit that provides social services to 56 Yukon-Kuskokwim villages, will pick sides on the alcohol vote this week, said AVCP President Myron Naneng. The agency will probably oppose the change, he said. "Voting yes would open a liquor store, even when the proponents are saying that it will not automatically open such a sales outlet."

The way you keep bars and liquor stores out of a community is by banning local liquor sales, said Masters, the state public safety commissioner. He declined to publicly choose a side on the Bethel vote. Same with Bethel elected city officials.

"I think most of the people of the city council are staying clear of taking a stance on it," said Mayor Joe Klejka, a physician who is also medical director for Y-K Health Corp.

That said, Klejka figures he'll vote to keep the local liquor ban. "I know what we have now. I don't know what we will have it we vote for it."

Whatever Bethel chooses, the decision will ripple up and down the Kuskokwim River. According to Drake the city is a hub for more than 23,000 people in dozens of villages -- some a short boat or snowmobile ride away.

Those surrounding communities ought to get a vote on Bethel rules too, said Steve Conn, a retired University of Alaska rural justice professor. Thirty years ago, Conn studied what happened to nearby villages when Bethel and Barrow allowed local liquor sales.

"Alcohol-related violence, one person to another, rises and falls in absolute tandem with the level of booze supply in that city (and) in certain communities near that city," he said.

Michael Nick stood shin deep in the Kuskokwim River on a recent weeknight, after a fruitless day of searching the Bering Sea coast for seal with his wife and daughters. The girls swatted biting gnats as their parents prepared to unload the skiff.

The latest state restrictions make life harder on bootleggers, Nick said. He likes that. After moving to Bethel from the dry village of Russian Mission, he thinks changing Bethel's liquor rules could lead to more sexual abuse, drownings and accidents.

Across town at the Alaska Commercial Co. grocery store, an army of taxicabs waited in the parking lot, where $7 will get you a ride anywhere in town. Clerk Dino McCarr took a smoke break, grinding a cigarette under his Reeboks. He's worried about bootlegging too.

In some ways, Bethel would be better off wet, McCarr said. He knows five to 10 people who work as bootleggers full-time. "They don't have a job, but they make a lot of money doing that."

Opening the city to local liquor sales could put them out of business.

"People would have more money left over for clothes and food," McCarr said.