The communities of Napakiak and Bethel are trying to come to grips with the circumstances surrounding the death of Robert Nick, age 25, after an extended search that ended when his body was found near the Bethel airport runway.
After scouring the vicinity for 10 days, Search and Rescue members from the two communities located Nick’s body within four hours of listening to phone calls he had made to Bethel Police the night he went missing.
The length of time it took for searchers to access the phone audio raises questions about procedures at the Bethel Police Department, which the department and Bethel Search and Rescue will have to address to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Here is the story as put together by Bethel Search and Rescue President Mike Riley.
On Saturday, November 18, Robert Nick and his older brother John Nick bought alcohol in Bethel and took it to a fish camp in Clark’s Slough, towards Oscarville, where they started drinking. Later, the two began walking to Napakiak, located about seven miles away, but decided to return to Bethel because it was closer.
The night was cold, with freezing rain that turned everything to ice. Snow soon followed.
According to Riley, at around 8:27 p.m. Robert Nick called the Bethel Police Department multiple times. The two police officers on duty were responding to another call, and the BPD dispatcher called Bethel Search and Rescue, who immediately rallied members and began searching for Robert Nick. Search and Rescue President Mike Riley was one of the members who went out.
“We went in the area with four wheelers, the two guys who were out there, along with two other guys in vehicles who were driving down the roads looking for him,” Riley said.
The searchers determined that Nick was near the Bethel airport. The dispatcher told them that Nick had mentioned blue lights, a few buildings, and a gate. The airport had those features and sat between the fish camp, where Nick had been, and Bethel, where he was heading. Later they learned Nick’s direction. The police calls he’d made pinged southeast off a GCI cell phone tower.
Riley says that he could hardly see that night because of the weather. "It was cold, started with rain, wind. Started snowing. And we were out until 2:30 in the morning."
Searchers didn’t find Robert Nick that night. Instead they found his brother, John Nick, in the Bethel sandpit, hypothermic and intoxicated. Robert Nick’s phone call may have saved John’s life, because searchers hadn’t even known he was out there.
Over the following days, including Thanksgiving, searchers from Bethel and Napakiak combed the miles of tundra surrounding the airport, Kasayuli Subdivision, and BIA Road. They kept returning to the south fence, which blocks people from approaching the airport runway and is lined with signs reading “Restricted Area.”
Snow continued to fall, burying the ground and everything that lay beneath. One day the searchers found Robert Nick’s backpack and marked the spot with a tall orange flag. After a few days they began looking for signs of animals gathering, signaling that they were scavenging.
On the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after Robert Nick went missing, Bethel Search and Rescue President Riley requested the audio from the phone calls that Robert Nick had made to Bethel Police. Riley did not submit a written request, ans instead asked for it verbally.
Interim Police Chief Burke Waldron, the only person with the authority to approve all records requests, was out of state. He had left town hours before the search began and returned a week later.
“My understanding is we released to Bethel Search and Rescue all the information that was given to us to help locate him: his name, how old he is, what he’s wearing, the direction he was believed to have been going or told us he was going, and those kind of things, but we did not let them listen to the phone calls,” Chief Waldron said.
Phone calls can contain protected information that would prevent them from being released. Information like social security numbers, the names of sexual assault victims, or juveniles. Once Chief Waldron had screened the calls, he could see that they did not contain such information.
Tuesday, November 28, a couple days after he returned to Bethel, Chief Waldron released the phone audio to someone who had submitted a written request on behalf of the Nick family. It would be the search’s tenth and final day.
Around 11:30 a.m., the Napakiak search crew listened to the audio. Armed with new details, searchers found Robert Nick’s body four hours later at 3:20 p.m. Riley says that Nick was 500 feet from the south end of the Bethel runway.
“Him being covered with the snow, he was very hard to see until you walked up on him," Riley said. "He looked like he’d just laid back and went to sleep.”
The searchers released his body to the Bethel Police.
According to Riley, the police phone audio held critical details needed to locate Nick. At one point, Nick read aloud a sign to the dispatcher and told them the number of lights that he could see. Searchers found the sign on a wire fence blocking people from approaching the runway; the lights lay behind. Gaps large enough for a person to crawl under the fence were visible, and behind it stretched the runway's restricted area.
Riley says that searchers had scoured the fence’s perimeter since the search began. That Tuesday, they got permission from the Department of Transportation to enter.
A quarter mile beyond the fence, the searchers found Nick. He had walked 3.7 miles from the fish camp in the freezing rain and snow. During the entire search he had been close to people and buildings. The searchers, separated by a fence and lacking the details in the police calls, took 10 days to find him.
Search and Rescue President Riley says that if they hadn’t heard the phone audio, they’d still be looking.