Liquor, drugs smuggled by mail to Alaska villages

Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Alcohol sales are banned in scores of Alaska's remote communities far off the road system, so scofflaws frequently smuggle their booze - and drugs - through the U.S. Postal Service.

In the northernmost town of Barrow, state troopers, postal inspectors and North Slope Borough police last week intercepted liquor and marijuana mailed to four locals and a resident of a nearby village during a two-day crackdown.

In a separate case, borough police arrested Barrow restaurant and massage parlor owner, Sonny Phetcharat, who is accused of receiving mailed packages of whiskey and vodka, then selling the booze at a huge profit in the town of 4,000.

In Alaska, many communities, largely Native, have opted to go "dry," banning both possession and sales of alcohol, which has taken a terrible toll in the state. Alaska Natives have a high rate of suicide and premature death, and drinking has long been considered a major factor.

Some communities, including Barrow, opted to be "damp," allowing limited consumption but no alcohol sales. In Barrow, residents must obtain an alcohol permit, and all imports go through a local distribution center.

But residents in "damp" communities frequently prefer the smuggling route, often to subvert monthly purchase limits.

Authorities don't like to give away their monitoring secrets or advertise mail sweeps, but similar efforts are conducted in other communities, according to Postal Service inspector Mike Kaminski. The agency works closely with the Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team, who are the only state troopers in the country authorized to serve as postal inspectors.

It's a partnership born out of necessity in a state where the mail is believed to be the preferred way to smuggle contraband to villages far from a limited road system. Other popular methods include hiding goods in air cargo, flight carry-ons and, in colder months, snowmobiles.

"The mail is cheaper," Kaminski said Wednesday. "And people know you can't look at U.S. mail like you can with cargo. The mail is also under a time constraint and also very, very convenient."

Sgt. Chris Thompson, who heads the troopers team, said borough police in Barrow have been seeking interdiction help and authorities finally set up the time to go there en masse.

Intoxicants seized in the Barrow sweep included four gallons of alcohol concealed in juice jugs inside a package addressed to an 18-year-old man in the village of Atqasuk, which is 60 miles south of Barrow.

Three of the interceptions involved marijuana, including a package containing 3 1/2 pounds of pot mailed to a Barrow woman from San Jose, Calif., under a fictitious name. Authorities estimate the street value of the pot at nearly $24,000.

The interdictions stemming from the sweep have been forwarded to prosecutors in Anchorage, but charges have yet to be filed, Thompson said.

Anyone convicted of crimes in these cases will see time behind bars, he added. In Alaska, even the first illegal importation carries a mandatory minimum sentence of three days, and "people do go to jail," Thompson said.

But the temptation for smugglers can be great. A fifth of hard liquor, which equals one fifth of a gallon, normally costs $12 but can command as much as $300 depending on the accessibility of booze in any given village.

Phetcharat, the Barrow restaurant owner, sold three bottles of Rich and Rare Canadian whiskey to an informant for $100 a bottle just before his arrest Saturday, according to a criminal complaint alleging illegal alcohol importation and sales.

Nearly 80 fifth bottles were seized after authorities served search warrants on the restaurant and massage parlor.

Phetcharat has been advised to not comment on his case, said a man who identified himself as his pastor when reached by phone at the restaurant.

Authorities had been watching Phetcharat since postal inspectors discovered a package that had broken apart, according to borough police Sgt. Nick Sundai. Inside the package, which was addressed to Phetcharat, were four half-gallon bottles of vodka, the complaint said.

Other packages containing liquor were intercepted later and opened with Phetcharat's permission, according to the court papers.

Sundai said the surveillance also showed suspicious visits to the restaurant in the middle of the night.

"You see traffic well after hours," Sundai said. "For me, that's a red flag."

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