Juneau has had a number of high-profile missing person cases this year, with several being reported in the last three months alone.
The disappearances don’t appear connected, according to local authorities, but the numbers are still troubling.
“We take all cases very seriously,” said Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer in an interview. “I feel a lot of compassion for those family members when a family member is missing and it feels like nothing is being done.”
Clifford John White, 29, reported missing on Oct. 31 and last seen in Switzer Village, is the subject of current and ongoing efforts to find more information on his whereabouts. Earlier in the year, Juneau residents and search and rescue specialists searched Juneau’s trails, woods, bodies of water and neighborhoods for missing friends and family.
“We (Juneau Mountain Rescue) have had a fairly normal amount of call-outs in 2021,” said Jackie Ebert, president of JMR, in an email. “Each SAR is always unique, and Juneau is especially unique in assisting with missing persons cases because of the overlap between the urban and the remote/wilderness environment. I think the mission persons cases the past year have that in common, in that you have to balance the urban factors of searching along with immediately adjacent remote areas, both of which can hold clues, or not.”
All search and rescue operations in Alaska are coordinated by the Alaska State Troopers. In Juneau and the surrounding region, that usually involves assistance from organizations like Juneau Mountain Rescue, Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search, Juneau Police Department, or the U.S. Coast Guard. There’s also a difference between searching for a live person in distress and searching for someone who might be unconscious or deceased, said JPD’s Deputy Chief David Campbell.
“Search and rescue and search and recovery are two totally different things,” Campbell said in an interview. “The way you search (for a non-active person) has to be a lot smaller. Somebody could be 10 feet away under a blueberry bush and you’d never know.”
In the case of a recent missing person, their body was found only a short way off the road by a state employee on an unrelated task. A search and rescue case that becomes a missing person case is always looked at closely, Mercer said.
“I think because we live in the state of Alaska, the wilderness that surrounds us, it’s very easy to go into the woods and turn up missing, and very hard to find those individuals,” Mercer said. “We always look at these suspiciously. We will always investigate them.”
While not all search and rescuecases or missing person cases happen by accident, bad weather, accidents and injuries will naturally befall hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts at a higher rate. Fortunately, a lot of common-sense practices can help prevent someone from requiring the assistance of emergency personnel or search and rescue specialists, said Lt. Paul Fussey, the statewide search and rescue coordinator for the Alaska State Troopers.
“It doesn’t seem like you’re going into the backcountry,” Fussey said in a phone interview. “But as soon as you leave the parking lot, you’re in the backcountry.”
Even deviating from the trail by a few dozen yards can make it very difficult to locate someone in Juneau’s thickly forested terrain. A hiker who recently went missing and was found dead after a relatively brief search was less than a quarter mile from the trail in a commonly hiked area.
“When you get into those big forests there, all that mature spruce, you can get turned around,” Fussey said. “This time of year as we know it gets dark really quickly. You should always have a flashlight or a lamp. I don’t recommend using the flashlight on your phone. You might need that to call for help.”
Owning and, importantly, knowing how to use a compass can help someone navigate toward civilization, Fussey said. Having a pack for the possibility of sheltering somewhere overnight, a knife and food and water, as well as appropriate clothing can also make the difference between being rescued or recovered. There’s also simple contingencies that one can put in place, Fussey said.
“Letting at least two people know where you’re going is an excellent first step to avoid getting into trouble,” Fussey said. “We all get busy in our daily lives and if you just tell one person, that person might go into work or have a family emergency and forget to check on you.”
For JMR, this part of the year marks a transition in the kinds of searches and rescues they practice, though the number of calls stays reasonably stable, Ebert said.
“As we transition to winter we (obviously) expect the nature of calls/type of work we do to transition to snow and winter travel rescues, be it hunters, skiers, climbers, etc.,” Ebert said. “We focus on practicing our avalanche and snow rescue response, sharpen up our cold weather medical response skills, and continue to regularly train on search management and planning response.”
JPD also recently started its At-Risk Community Program. The program is for family members or caregivers taking care of an at-risk person, for Juneau residents who may have conditions that might make it difficult for them to communicate or prone to wandering off unattended, as happened to an elderly Juneau resident earlier in the year. It also provides police with locations that that person might habitually visit, saving precious time in the early stages of a search,
“When something happens, when your grandfather with dementia walks out the door, at that point you’re playing catch-up,” Campbell said.
For the best outcomes, Campbell said, the first couple hours of the search are the most crucial. Filling out the form furnishes the JPD with best information possible to begin a rapid and effective search, Campbell said. The form is available at juneau.org/police/arc
“The public needs to know we do not stop or close that case. That is an open case. We will follow up on any tips,” said Mercer, speaking of missing persons cases. “It can be very intensive for our staff to follow up on all those leads.”
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or email@example.com.