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Lisa Phu
Alaska Beacon

After five months on the job, Anne Sears is no longer Alaska’s investigator for missing and murdered Indigenous people with the Alaska State Troopers. When the Department of Public Safety hired her in April, the position was the first of its kind in the state. Now, the critical role is unfilled.

In late August, Sears “decided to go back into retirement to spend more time with her family,” according to Austin McDaniel, communications director for the Department of Public Safety.

“The Alaska State Troopers are currently working to identify and hire a new MMIP Investigator for this critical role. The investigation of missing persons and murder cases involving Alaska Natives is a top priority for the State of Alaska,” McDaniel wrote in an email Tuesday. The political website the Alaska Landmine first reported the news.

McDaniel said the department intends to fill the position as soon as possible. As MMIP investigator, Sears was tasked with working on unsolved cases across the Alaska State Troopers’ area of responsibility. The position works closely with trooper investigators and criminal intelligence analysts within the Alaska Bureau of Investigation.

Sears’ work

Sears’ last day on the job was Sept. 2. In her five months on the job, McDaniel said Sears worked on several cold cases, “including the murder of Arnoldine Simone Hill from 2020 and other significant cases.”

Sears also spent time traveling and speaking with community groups, Alaska Native communities and associations, and speaking to family members of missing or murdered indigenous people, according to McDaniel.

There are no subordinate staff associated with the position, but the next MMIP investigator will likely work with a tribal liaison on outreach and engagement.

“With the FY 2023 budget, the Governor and Alaska Legislature provided DPS with funding for a Tribal Liaison within the Alaska State Troopers,” wrote McDaniel.

Need for investigators continues

Kaax’kwei Leona Santiago said there needs to be more than one person in the state working on missing and murdered Indigenous people cases.

“I don’t think one person can do that job. There is a need for more than one person,” Santiago said.

Santiago is part of the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s Violence Against Women Task Force and helped organize the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People rally held in front of Alaska State Capitol in May, which Sears spoke at. Santiago hopes the position is filled quickly.

“It’s a position that’s very important to Alaska. We have very many murdered and missing women and people, even young, young teenagers,” Santiago said.

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Across the country, thousands of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people are unsolved and many go unreported. Of states with the highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls cases, Alaska is fourth, according to a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute. Anchorage ranks third in top 10 cities with the highest cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed murder as the third- leading cause of death for American Indian or Alaska Native women in 2016.

Sears originally came out of retirement to be the state’s MMIP investigator. She spent 22 years in law enforcement and was the first Alaska Native woman hired to be an Alaska state trooper. She worked as one in Palmer, Galena, Nome, Fairbanks and Kotzebue, and retired in October 2021.

She started the MMIP investigator job April 4. In May, she said she felt very fortunate to have been asked to take on the job.

“Being in law enforcement for 22 years, being an Indigenous woman, being born and raised in the state of Alaska, having lived all over Alaska growing up, then working all over Alaska as a state trooper and being in public service for 30 years has kind of all culminated in this one position, this one purpose, this one issue. I feel very fortunate that I was asked to take this on and privileged to have been asked to take this on,” she said.

Council report due in October

As the MMIP investigator, Sears was part of the 11-member Governor’s Alaska Council on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons. The council, which started meeting earlier this year, is tasked with delivering a final report to the governor by Oct. 15 that provides recommendations for improving interagency cooperation on missing person protocols, improving public safety in tribal communities that have no law enforcement presence and ways to improve investigations.

At a council meeting on Tuesday, Sears’ name was called in the meeting roll call. No one replied. About 20 minutes into the meeting, council member Sam Vandergaw mentioned Sears’ departure from the position.

“I don’t know if it’s been announced already, but Anne Sears is no longer working with us. She decided she wanted to remain retired, so that’s what she’s doing,” said Vandergaw, who is an assistant attorney general.

Council Chair Valerie Chadwick implied that Vandergaw’s comment was the first she had heard of Sears’ departure. She included that among several concerns related to the council’s work.

“And now I’m hearing about Anne leaving. So I’m seeing if anybody else has been feeling kind of lost as I’ve been feeling lost,” Chadwick said.

Chadwick asked the council’s support staff how the council moves forward with noticing the governor that there’s now a vacancy left by Sears’ departure.

According to McDaniel, Department of Public Safety Commissioner James Cockrell “holds the seat that Investigator Sears had on the Governor’s Council on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons. Commissioner Cockrell will resume attending these critical meetings and working with the council on their final report.”

Cockrell was not at the Tuesday council meeting. 

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This article was first published in the Alaska Beacon.