Dutch Harbor, Alaska: The police blotter read ‘round the world
It was shortly after 7 in the morning when police spotted the man on a bicycle, a smear of blood around his mouth and more dribbling from cuts on his forearms.
But he had an explanation.
An ex-girlfriend “turned me on to vampirism,” he told the officers, but he was ready to put all that behind him. Was there somewhere he could find a priest?
“Officers advised the man to conceal his predilection, in order to avoid alarming the public,” said the police report, apparently mindful of the trouble that can ensue in a boisterous fishing port when the public gets alarmed.
The weekly police blotter that chronicles the bar fights, eagle attacks, yowling foxes, distraught psychics and dockside melees in Dutch Harbor -- part of the small city of Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands, about 800 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Bering Sea -- has become a must-read all over Alaska and other far-flung parts of the globe.
“I got an e-mail not long ago from Scotland, a child psychologist, writing about one of our registered sex offenders,” said publisher Veda Webb of the Unalaska Advertiser, which along with the Dutch Harbor Fisherman posts the stuff of day-to-day life in this town of about 4,000 on its website.
“Two weeks ago, I heard from the Mensa chapter in Pennsylvania. Or was it Tennessee?” said Webb, referring to the social network for those of unusually robust intelligence. “They said the person that writes this police thing is probably the only person in Unalaska that qualifies for Mensa.”
A literate, witty and often hilariously calm voice of reason in this outpost of human foibles, the Unalaska police report documents what happens when thousands of fishermen from all over the world descend on one small port for shore leave:
Bunkhouse roommates throw lamps and nightstands at each other. Ethiopian and Somali immigrants engage in raucous but obscure tribal disputes. Drunks pass out -- in ditches, on bar stools, in other people’s bunks and in unfamiliar living rooms.
“Harbor officer reported shots had been fired at or near the Spit Dock,” said a blotter entry from a cold January night. “Officers obtained information suggesting someone on board a . . . vessel had been firing a gun sporadically over the last week, with several shots coming near pedestrians, vehicles and vessels. . . . Yuriy Gureev admitted to firing a .22 rifle several times in the last week, allegedly aiming at the Dumpster.”
Four nights later, someone set off a seal bomb -- a concussion grenade used to scare seals away from fishing grounds -- in the parking lot of the Grand Aleutian. Last week, the hotel’s former bartender got arrested on suspicion of driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.345%, four times the legal limit.
“A woman in California called and asked an officer to tell her husband’s Unalaska mistress not to phone their house anymore,” the blotter reported.
Sgt. Jennifer Shockley, a wildlife biologist from Texas who joined the Unalaska police force 11 years ago, is the author of the weekly “activity report.”
“What you get basically is drinks, drugs and domestic violence. That’s pretty much our three Ds,” said Shockley, who also has served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon and trained police forces with the United Nations in Kosovo.
A slight woman with an easy laugh who manages to look intimidating when she strolls through the local bars in her heavy boots, Shockley has honed the art of understatement in her reports.
Take the one about the local bad boys -- the bald eagles who lurk on almost every treetop, fence and Dumpster, glaring at passersby.
“Three juvenile boys phoned police and reported they had taken refuge inside a piece of playground equipment because they were in fear of imminent attack by a bald eagle,” the report read one day last summer. “The suspect eagle hissed and puffed his chest feathers at the responding officer before flying from the area.”
In some blotter items, however, she employs poetic devices. Notice the alliteration:
“A herd of hostile horses harassed a cyclist as he was riding his bike near Morris Cove,” one said. “The complainant positively identified the suspect equine. The responding officer informed the cyclist that the stallions might be gelded soon, with resultant decreased testosterone levels and concomitant displays of aggressive behavior.”
“Some calls are amusing from the moment our dispatcher gets the request for service,” Shockley told the Dutch Harbor Fisherman recently, “and others simply become silly as they progress.”
Most Americans know Dutch Harbor as the home base for “Deadliest Catch,” the Discovery Channel series about the insanely perilous crabbing expeditions that battle 30-foot waves, subzero temperatures and ice that has to be knocked off the railings with baseball bats. (The show’s popularity, along with word spread on the blogo- sphere, has a lot to do with the police blotter’s notoriety.)
This port also is home to the biggest industrial fishing boats on Earth, the waterborne equivalents of B-52 bombers that scoop 200 tons of pollock at a time onto their decks. In 2007, Dutch Harbor was the biggest-volume fishing port in the U.S., landing 777.2 million pounds of fish -- worth $174.1 million.
“The people who come here are the people who go looking for adventure. They want to see the real Alaska, not the touristy, pretty little seaside town. It’s still pretty raw and wild out here,” said Shirley Marquardt, Unalaska’s mayor.
“When I first came here 28 years ago, king crab was basically all the city had. There was a teeny little City Hall, no clinic. If you got injured, you had to go over to where the sick dogs are impounded.
“None of the roads were paved. We used to play softball in a big muddy field that was full of rocks. By the end of the season, just about everybody had gashed knees and bloody lips.”
King crab stocks nose-dived in the early 1980s, and Unalaska would have stayed a frozen wasteland had somebody not figured out how to make cheap fish sticks and fake crab from the massive schools of pollock that populate the Bering Sea.
Big pollock boats started pulling into Dutch Harbor.
Along with the fishing money came improvements: Now there’s a blocklong main street with a new courthouse, a diner (called “Fast Food”) and a couple of shops -- along with a big supermarket out by the water. A few houses and cannery buildings date to when Dutch Harbor was a World War II military outpost, but most of the small frame homes appear to have sprung up wherever anyone got the inspiration to erect them.
The rocky softball field was replaced with an expanse of real imported turf and clay, and the streets -- some of them, anyway -- got paved. But not all the rough edges got smoothed away.
That’s where the 13 officers of the Unalaska Department of Public Safety come in -- a dike of relatively friendly body armor and handcuffs poised against the sea of chaos that invariably exists wherever three fishermen have plenty of money and no imminent deadline for getting on a boat.
“A boat comes in with 50 people. You’re a bunch of single guys, or your family’s back in Seattle -- what do you do for two days in town?” said Police Chief Jamie Sunderland, who ended up in Dutch Harbor after a 10-year career in Army intelligence as a Russian linguist. “You go play some basketball, you shop for some doodads, and then you go to the bar and drink.”
Of course, the locals manage to get into their own share of scrapes. Names aren’t included in the blotter postings unless someone has been charged with a significant crime. Still, most residents are able to read between the lines. Who was the woman who phoned the police and said her armchair was trying to kill her? That one was easy -- her furniture’s always after her. Who was the trawl fisherman arrested for driving while intoxicated after pulling out of the Harbor View Bar’s parking lot with a teacup Chihuahua in his lap? Do you have to ask?
“People read this and they think, ‘What kind of a place is this?’ “Webb said.
Last week, nobody had enough money to make much trouble: The bulk of the pollock boats had just gone out, the fish factories hadn’t cranked up yet, and nobody had gotten paid.
Officer Roger Bacon was cruising in his four-wheel-drive patrol vehicle through largely deserted streets, as the thwump of music and sporadic hoots wafted out the doors of the Harbor View. Down by the dock, a pair of large transport boats -- their lights glowing eerily in the frozen fog -- waited for loads of fish.
Soon a call came in from the huge Westward Seafoods processing complex, where an inebriated young Alaska Native woman from Bethel, far from home on her first job, was sitting, crying and murmuring, under the reproachful eye of a security guard.
“Do you know where you are?” Bacon asked gently, crouching down beside her.
“I don’t know. I’m scared,” she said.
“Where do you need to go to be safe?”
“I need to go be with my dad.”
Bacon walked her up to her room and made her promise not to leave until morning.
He took a minute to chat with the guard, then got back in his vehicle to cruise past the Harbor View. He locked eyes briefly with the bouncer, who smiled and nodded.
So far, so good. But here in Dutch Harbor, tranquillity is a temporary state of affairs.
By 1:02 the next afternoon, somebody was phoning for help from an office where he was cornered by a man with a baseball bat. The suspect, identified in the police blotter as 21-year-old Alberto Oropeza, “threatened to kill him, all while beating on the man’s office door and walls with a baseball bat.”
It leaves out the details of who said what to whom, but presently, “Oropeza was taken into custody without incident.” And none too soon.
Eleven minutes later, the dispatcher issued a Category 1 travel advisory, “due to poor visibility and cruddy road conditions.”