CRIME, ALASKA STYLE

 

As anywhere, Alaska has had its share of horrific crimes. However, we're not in the mood to discuss those, so we're going to concentrate on some of those criminals who were not the brightest pebbles on the beach.

It is important to realize most communities in Alaska are isolated by geography. The gold camps were usually quiet, rather well-behaved places since banishment was tantamount to death. In winter the cold, in summer the mosquitoes, and the distances were forbidding. No kill a man or rob a bank and gallop away; not only no horses, but nowhere to go.

Even today Juneau remains the only state capital with no road access; marine or air transportation only. So exactly where would a miscreant go? Occasionally someone escapes from the jail here. One man hid out in the woods for a few days before turning his cold, wet, and hungry self back in. Others usually knock at the gate and humbly ask to be let back in after a few hours. James Wickersham, the first federal judge in the Interior, noticed with amusement when he arrived at his new post in Eagle, Alaska, in 1900, that there was a notice on the jail door that inmates who didn't return by evening would be locked out. Some things don't change.

Sitka is one of two towns on its large island 70 miles from the mainland. The towns are separated by not only 100 miles but also by mountains, glaciers, and thick spruce and hemlock forests with formidable undergrowth. The other town, Port Alexander, also has a year-round population of about 20. Giant Sitka is 8,000.

The great Pioneer Bar robbery occurred in the 1960s when Sitka had 2,000 inhabitants. Two men chartered a plane in Juneau and came into the bar around 9:00 in the morning when only a few patrons were around. One pulled a gun and demanded cash. The bartender emptied the register and gave the approximately $10,000 to the gunman. The men left, went to the plane and waved the gun at the startled pilot, instructing him to fly to Seattle. Unknown to the baddies, the pilot left the radio on so all the conversations were on the air. Somehow the Sitka radio station got a hook-up, so the entire enthralled town could listen along with the State Troopers.

Seems the robbers didn't know the coast, so the pilot flew up the Sitkine River and down the Stikine River and up the Sitkine River and back down until he could point to the gas gauge as showing empty. He managed to land on the beach of an island just ahead of the troopers' plane. The men ran into the woods pursued by the Law, with predictable results.

My family and I were bitter. We were on the only vacation the entire family took during our 27 years in Sitka, and missed the greatest excitement since Russia sold Alaska.

Sometimes machinery figures in crime. Last winter some young souls stole a front-end loader and attacked the Fairbanks jail, hoping to release an incarcerated buddy. It didn't work, although they did tear a hole in the fence and hit the building. They fled, but a police car goes faster than a front-end loader.

Then there's the ongoing problem of stolen airplanes. Every now and then someone steals a small plane and heads for remote Alaska. Little does he know that in the villages across Alaska, where roads and cars are few, children memorize the models and numbers of the airplanes that serve the communities, and a strange plane and pilot are instantly objects of great interest.

Juneau had the Cheetos Bandidos Caper a few years ago. One night a stolen car rammed into a Juneau liquor store and broke the front window. The thieves took several cases of beer and a whole display rack of Cheetos before driving off.

The next morning a woman discovered her car not only had the front end smashed but it had a lot of Cheetos in it. The police fanned out around the neighborhood, and sure enough, at a nearby house, an inhabitant opened the door and there were lots of Cheetos and beer cans in the entryway behind him.

Bank robberies also occur. Ketchikan gets around 200 inches of rain a year, which the robber who stashed his loot in a paper sack should have considered. He was walking down the street, dripping currency from his wet bag, when the police arrived.

Wet money can be a hazard. The Post Office shipped a lot of cash to Kodiak as fishers prefer cash when they sell on the fishing grounds during the summer. Around $100,000 disappeared without a trace. A young postal worker was suspected, but as there was no proof, nothing was done. He was a clever guy and knew to hide the money and not spend it right away.

The next spring the young man wanted to buy a car in Anchorage. He walked into a bank to open an account and passed over cash. The teller was instantly suspicious as the money was not only wet, it smelled of rotting muskeg. She called the police with results you've already guessed.

Speaking of money, Juneau produced a man who embezzled a largish amount of money from a local business and went off to New Orleans. There he ran into a pleasant couple who proceeded to fleece him. Outraged, he called the police.

Sometimes it's just not worth getting up in the morning. Or having that last beer. Two separate coffee shops in Juneau were just robbed. Or threatened to be robbed. Or perhaps it was only one shop. But it actually didn't get robbed either.

Here's the sad story. A man walked into a coffee shop, stuck his hand in his coat pocket, and said "Give me your money or I'll shoot you." The barista grabbed the tip jar and ran into the back room, slamming the door and calling the police.

A few minutes later the other coffee shop had a man in the shop who demanded money or he would shoot. The manager and patrons promptly tackled him and were beating him with a heavy flashlight when the police arrived.

Various items were brought out by the defense at the trial, such as the barista couldn't be sure it was the same person or that he had said he'd shoot, and how could a guy who was drunk (or sober) walk from one shop several miles from the other in 14 minutes.

Whatever, it is dangerous to attempt to rob coffee shops in Juneau, Alaska.

These are just a few of the true Alaska crime stories. Anyone who would like to add an account or two is invited to contact me. Thanks for reading!

 


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