By Clark Fair
Murder in Alaska these days seldom fails to garner attention from the press and the public. Headlines and broadcasts, social media and rumors pump life into the story as the search for the truth plays itself out. Sometimes, the “truth” is a nebulous affair; other times, the facts are more clear-cut.
Back in 1960s, when the population of the central Kenai Peninsula was growing but much smaller than it is today, a murder was apt to make a bigger splash because it was likely that a larger percentage of the population knew either the person murdered or the accused, or both. And the reputations of those involved could keep the pilot lights of interest burning for weeks or months, as can be seen in these two October tales — the first from Kenai, the second from Soldotna.
Murder of Jackson Ball (1968)
On Saturday, Oct. 12, 1968, in the North Kenai cocktail lounge known as Larry’s Club, officer David Ulfers of the Alaska State Troopers arrived at about 3:30 a.m. to find one man moaning near the entrance and another man lying face-up near the bar.
The man near the door was Larry Edwards, and he was fresh from a fight. The man on the floor was Jackson Ball, and Ulfers reported that Ball had a hole in his neck and was bleeding heavily. Within a short time, Ball was dead.
According to the Cheechako News, Ball was 46 years old. According to the online Social Security Death Index, he had been born Aug. 24, 1921, which means that he was 47.
At a hearing Oct. 31, diver Phillip Howard Cook testified that on the night Ball was killed, a fight “with a pile of guys involved” had started at one end of the bar. Cook said that he tried to help the bartender move the men and their skirmish outdoors; he also said that he heard the accused, Jerry Thomas Edwards, say, “Don’t hurt my brother!” and then threaten to get his gun.
A few minutes later, Cook reported, the door flew open: “I saw Jerry first. Within seconds I saw Larry (Edwards) come in with his shirt off, and he fell down by the entrance. … Jerry paused and said, ‘Where is the fat guy (Ball)?’ Jackson Ball raised up from the stool where he had been seated, took three or four steps towards Jerry with his hands raised up and said, ‘You can’t.’ Jerry pivoted and shot him.”
Cook further testified that bar owner Larry Lancashire then managed to take the gun (a .38-caliber revolver) away from Jerry Edwards and attempt to calm him down. Cook said that Edwards had been “in a rage, yelling, screaming, cursing and staggering, saying, ‘I’m going to kill that fat man!’”
An inquiry into the character of Arlon E. “Jackson” Ball is likely to draw as many different opinions as the number of respondents. Most of them, however, will mention Ball’s penchant for drinking in bars, for talking loud and rough, and for his clear streak of bigotry.
Soldotna’s Al Hershberger, who knew Ball, said that Ball’s aggressive talk was “definitely more bark than bite,” but he admitted that Ball, who hailed originally from Connecticut, could be mean and had a low tolerance for people with an ethnicity different than his own.
“I think his notoriety was somewhat embellished,” Hersh-berger said. “He did not like newcomers and frequently told them to ‘go back to America.’ I did enjoy talking to him, as he always made me laugh. He definitely was opinionated. I guess it would be fair to call him a bigot, or at least very outspoken and vociferous. A lot of people thought of Jackson as more of a clown than a terrorist.”
But Ball’s opinions and attitudes occasionally led to confrontations: “(In the mid-1950s), he hit a guy over the head with a bar stool and was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon,” Hershberger recalled. “The jury found him not guilty, saying a bar stool was not a dangerous weapon.”
According to an obituary in the Cheechako, Ball had been a member of Pile Driver’s Local 2502 and was survived by a wife and four young daughters, all of whom apparently lived in Anchorage. Ball, the paper said, was an Anchorage resident who had a North Kenai homestead near Salamatof Lake and was the owner/operator of the fishing vessel Iron Mule.
Services for Ball were held at Green Memorial Chapel in Anchorage, and he was buried in Angelus Memorial Park.
Shortly after the incident in Larry’s Club, Larry Edwards was transported to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, where he was listed in “fair condition.” His brother, Jerry, who had only recently arrived in the state, was arraigned later that morning and then transferred to the state jail in Anchorage to await a preliminary hearing.
The state initially recommended $100,000 bail, but Dep. Magistrate Jess Nicholas Jr. set the bail at half that amount. In the hearings and trials to follow, the state was represented by Anchorage attorney Stan McCutcheon, while Edwards employed court-appointed counsel until he acquired Wendell P. Kay as his own attorney. In mid-November, an Anchorage grand jury indicted Edwards on first-degree murder.
Murder of Jack Griffiths (1961)
Very little about this killing was straightforward, except for the fact that Jack Griffiths, co-owner of the Circus Bar (the current location of Good Time Charlie’s) wound up dead.
The Cheechako News, in the same Oct. 13, 1961, edition, stated that the body was found by two different men, apparently not at the same time. Arvin Diggs, a customer, reportedly discovered Griffiths when he went looking for him to have Griffiths help him install a heater in his car. And Steve Henry King, the other co-owner of the bar, reportedly found Griffiths at 12:40 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8.
Regardless who discovered the body, the signs of foul play were clear: Griffiths’ body, with multiple fractures to his skull, was discovered in his bed in his Quonset hut home behind the bar. Investigating officer Wayne F. Morgan of the Alaska State Troopers found no murder weapon and stated that Griffiths had likely been dead for at least six hours before his body was discovered.
The rumor mill cranked swiftly into motion, particularly after 21-year-old Soldotna resident James Franklin Bush was questioned and released and subsequently arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
Many of the rumors concerned Bush’s alleged interest in Griffiths’ 15-year-old daughter, while others concerned the likelihood that Bush was merely attempting to protect members of the Griffiths family from the hard-drinking bar owner. A few gossipers even speculated that Griffiths’ wife, Alice — and not Bush at all — had finally had enough of Griffiths’ alleged abuse and had done the killing herself.
But in the end, it was Bush who was convicted of the murder and who received a 12-year prison sentence.
Griffiths, who was born in 1922 in Salt Lake City, was a World War II veteran and a five-year Soldotna resident who had first come to Alaska in 1946. He had worked initially as an autobody repairman and mechanic. He had married Alice E. McDonald in California in 1942, and together they had had six children (five daughters and a son).
Bush, who had been initially questioned after being picked on an unrelated charge in the vicinity of the Circus Bar, reportedly broke down later under questioning and admitted to striking the blows that killed Griffiths. According to the Cheechako, Bush said that he had knocked on Griffiths’ door and was told to enter. Griffiths, whom his co-owner Steve King claimed had been drinking that night, was in bed, and Bush said that Griffiths was pointing a rifle at him.
Bush stated that he grabbed a piece of stove wood, knocked the rifle aside, and then struck Griffiths twice in the head. After bludgeoning Griffiths, Bush said that he turned out the lights in the room, tossed aside the firewood, and left.
After his arrest, Bush waived his right to a preliminary hearing and was held in a federal jail in Anchorage on $30,000 bail. A “pauper’s oath” led Judge Edward Davis to appoint Anchorage attorney Wendell P. Kay to represent Bush.
In January 1962, Bush was indicted by a grand jury, and in June he was sentenced to prison.
The violence at the bar, however, did not cease.
About a year later, water-well driller Bill Hansen bought into the Circus Bar and later purchased the establishment outright and changed the name to the Hilltop Bar. In 1967, an argument over the payment for some hamburgers led to Hansen himself being shot and suffering serious injuries. (This story is available online in the March 25, 2009, edition of the Redoubt Reporter.)