A far-flung Alaska town is known for having streets that are among the most taxi-congested in the U.S. in proportion to the small number of people who call it home.
For years, locals knew the cabdrivers as a source for illegal booze in Bethel, which has 58 taxis for its population of 6,200 — one for every 107 residents. State police heard the rumors and launched a two-year investigation that recently led to charges against 18 drivers accused of selling alcohol out of their cabs without a license.
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At play is a mix of strict liquor laws and cars being unable to reach the commercial hub for dozens of tiny villages on the tundra 400 miles west of Anchorage. Bethel voters lifted a decadeslong ban on alcohol sales several years ago, but the town's first liquor store in more than four decades opened just last year and closes by 7 p.m.
Taxi drivers, mostly from South Korea and Eastern Europe, have flocked to Bethel, situated in a vast region dotted with thousands of ponds where cars have to be flown in or sent by barge on a river. They shuttle tourists and people from 56 largely Eskimo villages who come to shop, see doctors or do other errands.
The proportion of cabs is far greater than in New York City, where traditional taxis number one for every 625 people. But New York also is stacked with liveries and limousines, as well as ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, which are not players in Bethel. Taking those into account, there's one vehicle for hire for every 68 New Yorkers, close to Bethel's proportion.
In the Alaska town, it was known that people wanting alcohol could simply call one of several cab companies and ask for a "charter" ride, City Council member and longtime resident Mark Springer said.
But more people illegally sell alcohol than just the cabdrivers charged, according to Springer, who said others in the community have also seen it as a way to earn a livelihood or supplement their income.
"We use the term, 'subsistence bootlegging,'" he said.
There are plenty of reasons that illegal alcohol sales can still be a lucrative business in Bethel, Springer said, citing the lone liquor store that closes early and locals who don't want to wait to drink. Other likely customers are minors, out-of-towners or residents of surrounding villages, some of which ban alcohol.
Alaska State Troopers made about 50 undercover buys from people without an alcohol license. Prosecutors say that in most of the transactions, cabdrivers sold undercover officers cheap hard liquor for $50 to $60 a bottle. Besides the 18 cabdrivers, several others accused of working with them and one individual with no connection to taxi companies were charged.
Most of the defendants were arraigned Wednesday on misdemeanor counts of selling alcohol without a license. They pleaded not guilty and have not been jailed. One local cab company also faces the same charges.
"The general concept is, we think it's important to have a license because alcohol causes a lot of problems in communities all over the state," Alaska Assistant Attorney General John Haley said.
Rural communities have long struggled with the effects of alcohol abuse. It has been particularly brutal for Alaska Natives, who have a high rate of suicide and premature death, with alcohol long considered a major factor. Many rural communities have passed laws banning or restricting the liquor sales.
Local attorney Myron Angstman represents four of the cabdrivers who have been charged. He said they are all from South Korea and that the language barrier has been a challenge.
Angstman said he had some help talking to his clients in an initial meeting but doesn't know enough about their cases to comment. He expects to bring in a professional translator.
Follow Rachel D'Oro at https://twitter.com/rdoro .