We all hope we live in a safe neighborhood. I know I hoped so. I grew up on a homestead at the end of Forest Lane, between Soldotna and Sterling, and, while I was aware of inherent dangers — a bear attack, angry hornets or getting between a cow moose and her calves — I was decidedly comfortable with the people living nearby.
But the blitheness of my childhood existence, while generally justified, may have been a case of “ignorance is bliss.”
Before I reached my teenage years, a killing occurred about a mile and a half down the road, just beyond my usual bike-riding range at that time.
I cannot remember my parents ever telling me about this crime. Perhaps they lacked the full details. Maybe they did not wish to speculate. More likely, they did not want to scare me, my 6-year-old sister and my 1-year-old brother; they may have believed that keeping us in the dark was a form of protecting us.
I do not recall exactly when I first heard about the killing, but I do recall my frustrating inability to learn the details. The rumors, meanwhile, were grisly, involving an affair and bloody retribution, dismemberment and a failed attempt to conceal the evidence.
It turned out — as it often does with rumors — that some grim truths lay in all that dark conjecture.
Nearly 15 years ago — prompted by someone telling me that a murder had occurred in a Quonset hut on an ancillary road of Forest Lane back in the 1960s — I asked my mother what she knew about the crime. It sounded familiar, she said, but her memory stopped there.
For the first time in my life, I drove down that back road until I discovered the Quonset hut — a collapsing ruin, like a sunken, sagging tin can on its side, draped in a rising tide of alders. Its front door stood agape like some cavernous, vertical mouth, with a smaller vertical window at each side serving as ghastly eyes.
As I snapped a photo of the structure, it was easy to assign to it all sorts of gloomy characteristics matching the story I thought I knew.
I drove away, still dissatisfied, still curious. I questioned a few more people here and there, reached numerous, dissatisfying dead ends, and soon the mystery drifted to back corner of my mind. I had other things to worry about — the final year of my teaching career, my middle-school-age children, a house remodel, and life in general.
Last October, though, my curiosity could no longer be contained. In a folder on my computer, I came across the photo of the Quonset, and I decided to try once again to scratch the nagging itch of history.
I sent a message to longtime Forest Lane resident Kathy Foster and asked her to ask her husband Jeff (who grew up on Forest Lane) if he remembered anything about the crime. I told her what I thought I knew. “Does any of that ring a bell?” I asked.
She wrote back: “Yes…. It absolutely rings a bell! Jeff and his brother Gary had somehow gone down there to feed the animals that were tied up starving to death. The police … told them to get out of there…. I think it had something to do with a military service guy.” She promised to ask Jeff, who was out of state at the time.
Eventually, Jeff and Gary conferred, and Kathy got back to me in early December. The brothers believed that the killing had occurred in about the summer of 1961, right after Gary graduated from Kenai High School. They said that a husband and wife had murdered a serviceman from Wildwood Air Force Station.
Someone living nearby had heard the shots, had driven up to see whether anyone needed help, had seen the husband and wife dragging a body to a shallow grave, and had called the cops. Jeff and Gary had tried to feed the animals a couple days later.
Finally! My search for the truth was getting somewhere.
Off and on, over the next several months, I searched through archived copies of the Cheechako News, the Anchorage Daily Times and the Seward Gateway for more information. I focused my efforts on 1961-63. By springtime 2021, my progress had halted completely.
My information was problematic, and I began to suspect that some of it was incorrect. The biggest issue involved Forest Lane, which had been built by Jeff’s father in 1961. Neighbors back then were few. And telephones for calling the authorities were even scarcer. I thought the killing must have occurred later, but I had no idea when.
On May 25, I turned to Facebook.
I posted on “A Work in Progress,” a personal history page aimed primarily at the post-homesteading-generation of the Kenai Peninsula.
At first, my post received a spate of reactions from people who were reminded of other, unrelated crimes. There were also posts from people who, like my mother, said the story seemed familiar, but they had no more information.
And then suddenly some key pieces began to fall into place.
LeeAnn Langan remembered going to the “Murder House.” She said she’d heard that a couple had lured a G.I. to their place and robbed and killed him. Brenda Manka said she thought the incident had happened when she was age 12, which meant 1969. The husband, she said, had worked for her father in the oil industry, but she couldn’t recall his name. The wife, she said, was called Sybil.
I focused on the date and the wife’s name and renewed my search through old newspapers.
Brenda had been exactly correct about the year. She had the woman’s name right, too, but the spelling was actually Syble. In a digital archive of the Anchorage Daily Times, I found an article dated Aug. 11, 1969, and entitled “Man Slain in Soldotna.”
The victim was 23-year-old Chicago airman Daniel William Wahlstrom, who had been stationed at Wildwood and was found near Forest Lane “shot and stabbed several times.” Charged with first-degree murder, according to Alaska State Troopers, was 37-year-old James E. Fermoyle and, with “being an accessory after the fact,” 22-year-old Syble Ann Brososky, also known as Mrs. James Fermoyle.
Fermoyle and Brososky were indicted by a grand jury in Anchorage a few days later. Air Force Sgt. Wahlstrom’s body was sent to his parents in La Grange, Illinois. His brief obituary in the Chicago Tribune mentioned no specific cause of death.
I have yet to find and read a trial transcript, so some of the details of the crime remain murky. However, there appears to have been no dismemberment.
Troopers said initially that circumstances around the death were unclear, but they did state that Fermoyle and Brososky had been arrested in “a wooded area,” that all identification had been stripped from the body, and that they had been alerted to the crime by neighbors who had heard gunshots at 4 a.m., had investigated and had found Fermoyle and Brososky digging.
As for the rest: Some say that Fermoyle and Brososky “lured” Wahlstrom to their home. Some say when Fermoyle caught Brososky having sex with Wahlstrom, she claimed rape, and Fermoyle killed the airman. And some say that removing all of Wahlstrom’s identification included cutting off his tattoos, which may be where rumors of dismemberment were initiated.
I have no idea, yet, whether what “some say” is true.
What I do know is this: In 1982, Fermoyle was serving time in an Eagle River penitentiary and was involved in an appeals case. The details of the appeal mention that Fermoyle had been sentenced on Feb. 22, 1974, to serve a 15-year sentence for assault with intent to rape, to be served consecutively with a previous sentence of five years for manslaughter.
I suspect that the manslaughter conviction relates to the killing of Wahlstrom, which may mean that a jury was unable to convict him of murder. Manslaughter seems like light punishment for shooting and stabbing a man to death and attempting to bury the evidence, but the rape claim, if true, may have cast considerable doubt for the jury on Fermoyle’s motive for the killing.
In any case, Fermoyle, just 50 years old at the time of his appeal, died the following year and was buried in Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.
I’ve been unable to learn whether Syble Brososky served any time at all. Born Syble Ann Hammonds, she was married at least three times and in September 1985 was living under her maiden name in Sarasota, Florida, when she was killed in an auto accident at the age of 39.
Whether karma was involved in either death is not for me to say.
There are still further truths to be gleaned from this story, but it has been gratifying to me to finally learn that this crime, which disrupted the sense of safety in my neighborhood, was more than just some figment of my imagination.