Ronald Oquilluk walked away from a Mat-Su assisted living home on April 29, 1987, and vanished.
His whereabouts remained a mystery for the next 32 years. In March 2019, a DNA test identified partial remains that had been found in 1996 near Central, more than 450 miles away from Oquilluk's last-known sighting. Alaska State Troopers announced on Friday that the remains were Oquilluk's, closing a story that began when Ronald Reagan was president.
It wasn't unusual for Oquilluk, a 38-year-old man with special needs, to walk away from the assisted living home near Butte on the Old Glenn Highway, according to Alaska State Troopers. He was usually found within hours and returned home. But in 1987, hours, days, weeks and then years went by with no sign of him, according to a news release.
At the start of 2019, the Alaska State Troopers' Missing Persons Clearinghouse held about 1,350 unsolved cases, including Oquilluk's. Missing persons cases stay open until they're solved, and with the persistence of Malia Miller, who manages the clearinghouse, and Oquilluk's sister, Alice Topkok, who had never given up hope that information about her brother would be found, some answers to his disappearance would be found with the help of modern DNA technology.
But there was an additional twist.
In September 1996, two target shooters found human remains in a dry creek bed about 2 miles outside Central, a community of about 100 people 120 miles northeast of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway. The remains amounted to little more than a jawbone and some hair. DNA technology did not exist at that time, and with little more to go on, troopers stored the remains away with those of other unknowns.
They had a suspicion the remains might belong to a Fairbanks woman who disappeared in 1995, so when DNA technology did become available in 2001, they sent the remains to the FBI to be sequenced.
"In 2003, we were notified they had a DNA profile," Miller said. "It ruled out the missing person we thought it might be."
While the results ended one line of inquiry, it shed no light on the identify of the bone fragments. That would take another 16 years and better technology. In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the President's Initiative to Advance Justice through DNA Technology, which provided an initial $223.6 million in funding to advance the development of forensic DNA technology. It specifically sought to speed up the process of identifying missing persons. Miller welcomed the funding.
In 2018, Alice Topkok checked in on the status of her missing brother's case, as she had many times over the decades. This time, she allowed an officer to collect her DNA via a cheek swab and signed a consent form to have it added to the federal Combined DNA Index System. In only a matter of months, the FBI reported they had found a match. The remains found near Central in 1996 were those of her brother, Ronald Oquilluk, who had been missing for 32 years.
Topkok never got to hear the news that her brother had been found, however. She died on Oct. 30, 2018, three months before the FBI announced the match. A niece was located in Fairbanks and received the news about her uncle. One more missing persons case was closed.
Miller, however, still has a backlog of hundreds of cases. One more was solved in late May, when the remains of a man, Patrick Chambers, who had gone missing in August 2006 near Klawock in Southeast Alaska, were identified using DNA analysis.
How to help
If a loved one has just gone missing, please contact your local law enforcement agency to file an initial report.
To learn more about providing DNA, which could possibly help identify the remains of a missing family member, contact the Missing Persons Clearinghouse, 907-269-5038 or email manager Malia Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"It doesn't matter how long ago your loved one went missing," Miller said. "With family DNA, we might be able to solve a case decades old."
Contact staff writer Julie Stricker at 459-7532.