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Dutch Harbor, Alaska: The police blotter read 'round the world

COLUMN ONE

The weekly cop report documents what happens when thousands of fishermen from all over the world descend on one small port: bar fights, eagle attacks, dockside melees and more.

February 05, 2009|Kim Murphy

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.

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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."

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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