From Murder to Recovery: Gambell Woman Recounts Family's Battle with Alcohol Abuse (KTVA.com exclusive)
Click on the video at left to see Pamela Apangalook's first visit to the site of her uncle's murder.
ANCHORAGE - With every step she took, Pamela Apangalook travelled a little closer to emotional restoration.
“I’m a little nervous,” she said, stepping carefully through the loose snow on the side of the road Wednesday afternoon. She wore brown snow boots and her feet were heavy as she walked north along Eagle Street, crossing the intersection at Third Avenue and finally came to a stop on a hill overlooking Ship Creek, where the road curved down to meet the railroad tracks.
The sky was a brilliant blue, but Apangalook said she carried a cloud with her: This was the place her uncle, Michael Apangalook, had been found dead after a night of drinking in a homeless camp nearly two years ago.
Police had ruled the death a homicide, but no suspect had been identified in the case and Apangalook, 39, said she still sought closure in her uncle’s murder.
Wednesday marked her first visit to the woods where he died, and she said she had not even attended his funeral. Instead, she had been bound to a newly issued ankle monitor, finding her own closure after a twenty-year battle with alcohol addiction.
Her addiction reached its breaking point four years ago, when she found herself facing felony robbery and assault charges after a six-day drinking binge. After a stint at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center and nine months of near-daily counseling, Apangalook was released on a strict probation.
“The first day they allowed me to call my family, I called every single one of my family members and they accepted me back,” she said, recalling her last great reunion. Now, standing in the sun overlooking the snowy sloping Ship Creek hill, Apangalook said she was looking for a different kind of reconciliation.
“I feel a lot of guilt, a lot of guilt,” she said, voice heavy. She wore a purple North Face parka and shrugged her shoulders against the mid-afternoon sun. “I would go to his home and I would bring alcohol, and he wasn’t supposed to drink, and I feel like, in a way, I’m responsible for getting him started again.”
The tears broke through and she choked up, covering her mouth with her hand and looking out over the trees. It wasn’t like this at first, she said.
Growing up on St. Lawrence Island with her five siblings, Apangalook recalled a school named after her uncle and a simpler life with her family around her. Her uncle lived there too, and she smiled at the memory and said he was like a second father to her.
Things changed when they began drinking the bottles of bootlegged liquor sold for as much as $250 in the dry village of Gambell. Apanglaook said it brought violence to the community and chipped away at relationships.
“My oldest daughter, she was taken from me because I didn’t stop,” she said, brushing a strand of long, chestnut brown hair out of her eyes and recalling her earliest struggles with alcohol. Apangalook said her three daughters, now 22, 19 and 14, had been witnesses to her addiction on and off throughout their lives.
But she said they had been some of the lucky ones.
“Just last month, my cousin was found on a Saturday morning,” she said. Apangalook’s nails were painted light pink, and matched the stone on the gold ring she twisted around her finger in agitation. “She had frozen to death. They said she had been drinking.”
Her cousin left behind three children.
There there were many families like that. The 2011 Annual Drug Report released by the Department of Public Safety stated alcohol was the most widely abused and harmful drug in Alaska.
Many on St. Lawrence Island had died accidently or by their own hands after becoming tied up in drinking, and Apangalook said the ripples were often felt most strongly by the youngest members of the community.
“Things will never be the same for families with kids,” she said, shaking her head. “For my kids, I can only wonder what could have been.”
She wished she could have had a closer family or been a better mother, but said she traded it for years of something else.
“It was misery,” Apangalook said. “I lost everything. Everything.”
Even after her daughters had been taken to live with relatives, she said she had kept in contact with her uncle. Michael Apangalook suffered from schizophrenia, and she said it was later compounded by his strong propensity to drink.
It was a proclivity she shared until her arrest in early 2008. After her release from Hiland, she took her last drink on October 16, 2009. Now, she lives in an apartment near Merrill Field and works a steady job. While Apangalook said she never saw her uncle again, she’s spent the last three years reconnecting with her daughters.
She said her oldest had graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and joined the National Guard; her youngest was “still sweet” and too young to hold a grudge.
“My 19-year-old, she’s the one staying angry with me, and I don’t know what to do,” she said, choosing her words deliberately. “I think time is the only thing that will show her I’m not that person anymore. And I’m not. And I miss them.”
Apangalook’s voice cracked and she looked away, hoisting her black shoulder bag up over her arm.
She said she thought her middle daughter may have flown to Wisconsin. It had been a while since they last spoke. Three days ago she tried to contact her again, hoping the anger and begun to fade with time.
“I sent her a text telling her, ‘You know that I’m sorry for those years that I was lost, I was drinking,’” Apangalook said.
Her daughter hasn’t responded.