ANCHORAGE - It was unlike anything the village of Emmonak had ever experienced: All over town salmon berries, blackberries and blueberries were disappearing from freezers.
"We knew something fishy was happening," said resident Darlene Andrews.
Emmonak takes its berries seriously. Residents of the close-knit Bering Sea community of 767 people at the mouth of the Yukon River have to travel at least 26 miles outside town in June and July to collect them, and it takes two or three days of picking to stockpile enough to make Eskimo ice cream through the winter.
"It's a lot of work," Andrews said.
Who would steal the coveted subsistence food off the front porches and out of the freezers?
For 10 days in September the calls came in - about 15 in all, said Daryl Schierholt, Emmonak's acting village police supervisor. At the height of the berry heists, one resident put an ad on the local TV channel.
"Please watch your freezers and porches," it said, according to village police officer Stephanie Paul.
On Sept. 17, the great berry boosting came to a shocking end: Village police and Alaska State Troopers busted what they claim was a berries-for-pot swap.
Authorities served a search warrant on a two-bedroom house in the center of town after "numerous reports" of drugs being sold there.
Three out-of-towners, a father and two sons, were renting the house, Paul said. The father, Michael Selvester, 48, of Nikiski was cooperative, Paul said. The younger Selvesters - Jason, 24, of Anchorage and Douglas, 18, of Nikiski - were not.
"They were being smart alecks," Paul said. "So the trooper escorted them out and handcuffed them to the Honda for about an hour."
The raid turned up a small amount of marijuana, drug paraphernalia and Hydrocodone, a powerful painkilling drug. Officers also found 29 stolen bags of frozen berries weighing 75 pounds in the freezer.
"It was a lot, believe me," Paul said. "Each Ziploc bag had different writings on them and different dates on them so we seized all of them."
Village police put an ad on television about the found berries and all but two bags have been claimed, Schierholt said. Community members were happy to have their fruit back.
"Berries out in Western Alaska are a very important subsistence food," said Franklin Murphy, who works for the state Division of Juvenile Justice in Emmonak.
Still, parents and elders were disturbed to discover how the berries ended up in the Selvesters' freezer: "A bunch" of teens in the village had traded their parents' and grandparents' berries for pot, Paul said.
"That was shocking to us, to the whole community," said Andrews, who works with elders and youths in Emmonak.
None of the teens has been charged, but some may go before the Emmonak Elders Group and be put to work picking up trash or helping elders, Schierholt said. They also could be required to receive counseling from elders.
What the Selvesters wanted with the berries is not clear, police said. Michael Selvester was charged with third- and sixth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance. Jason was charged with second- and sixth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance and violation of condition of release. Douglas was charged with second- and third-degree theft and sixth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance. All were transported to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Correctional Center in Bethel.
"There is supposed to be no drugs and no alcohol imported to this village, and we are making a stop to this," Murphy said.
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