When Victor and Nellie Frolich announced in the spring of 1962 that they were having a contest to rename their recently purchased Soldotna motel, they were doing more than merely stamping their own identity on the place. They were masking a stain from its past — its very recent past.
Only a few months before the purchase, the Frolichs’ establishment, then called the Watson Motel, had been owned by Arthur Vernon Watson and had become a crime scene.
Watson and his wife, Beth, had traveled from Anchorage to Soldotna in late 1960 to explore business opportunities in the small but growing community at the junction of the Sterling Highway and the Kenai Spur Road.
In October, they purchased from Jack and Dolly Farnsworth a small parcel of land, on which they planned to construct and operate a new overnight accommodation. In the spring of 1961, they began work on their dream business; by the time winter had set in, it was complete.
Then, shortly afterward, Arthur Watson was arrested and charged with murder. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to prison.
The Frolichs hoped their contest would begin to erase their establishment’s connection to Watson from the Kenai Peninsula’s collective memory.
Kenai Police Chief Charles (“Red”) Peavley received a phone call from Arthur Watson at about 8:40 on the night of Dec. 18, 1961. Watson said he had just killed someone in his home. Peavley notified State Trooper Wayne Morgan, and they rushed to the scene.
At Watson’s motel residence, they found Soldotna-area homesteader Marion Turner Grissom dead on the kitchen floor. A single rifle slug had passed through Grissom’s left breast and his heart, exited through his back and lodged in the wall of the Watson home at a point 39 inches above the floor.
As the officers investigated the scene, Grissom’s body was transported to the Central Peninsula Clinic. There, at 10 p.m., Dr. Elmer Gaede, a Soldotna physician, officially pronounced Grissom dead.
Watson, who said that his wife was at home but was asleep in their bedroom, readily admitted to the killing but claimed he had acted in self-defense.
After Morgan and Peavley had interrogated Watson for two hours, Beth Watson emerged from the bedroom. The officers noted that she had “suffered contusions of the neck, facial cuts and a blow on the head which caused swelling,” according to their report.
Beth Watson saw a dark red stain on the kitchen floor and asked what it was. Informed by the officers that it was blood, she asked, “From what?” After learning that Arthur had shot Grissom, she exclaimed, “Oh, no!” and then turned to her husband and said, “It’s your temper! Your temper has done it again!”
Despite this admonishment to her husband, Beth Watson then claimed to remember almost nothing about the events that had resulted in her head wounds and Grissom’s death.
Arthur Watson, on the other hand, was forthcoming with numerous specific details of the killing.
Grissom, a local laborer, had been an acquaintance of the Watsons and had worked for Arthur early in the construction of the Watsons’ motel. After a major disagreement during this time, Watson had fired Grissom and testified that he had not seen him for several months prior to unexpectedly meeting up with him in September 1961.
On that occasion, he invited Grissom over for dinner and drinks. He told the court later that the invitation was part of his attempt “to make a friend of him, not an enemy.” For the next three months, Grissom was a frequent visitor to the Watson home.
Grissom liked to drink, although he could be threatening if he drank too much, according to Arthur Watson. So their friendship, he said, had limits. If Grissom showed up to the Watsons’ place already intoxicated, Watson claimed that he would make excuses to get rid of him, even offering to drive him to a bar or take him to his own home.
Nevertheless, Arthur Watson said he had invited Grissom to his home for dinner and drinks on the day of the shooting.
That day, Beth Watson was writing Christmas cards, and both she and Arthur were pleased that she had just obtained a job she had wanted. They decided to celebrate their good fortune with a bottle of whiskey; however, Watson said he had had only a single dollar in his wallet.
It was at that point that Grissom showed up requesting a ride to Kenai. Watson complied. On the way back from their errand, Grissom contributed four dollars to the whiskey purchase. They picked up a bottle, and Watson invited him in for drinks. It was early afternoon.
At about 4:30 p.m., Watson testified that he told Grissom to make himself comfortable while he took his truck to a local garage to have it lubricated. After the vehicle had been serviced, Watson drove to a local bar and did some additional drinking, followed by a cup of coffee, before heading back to the motel.
When Watson returned home at about 8:30 p.m., he discovered his wife, her face bloody, lying on the kitchen floor. Grissom, clearly intoxicated, was standing nearby.
Watson said he exclaimed, “What the hell is going on here, Marion?” Grissom’s response, he said, was little more than a mumble. “I reached over to pick my wife off the floor,” he told the officers, “and when I did the roof fell in on me.” Grissom had struck him from behind.
The two men wrestled near Mrs. Watson, who was also intoxicated but had recovered enough to crawl or stagger into the bedroom and collapse on the bed. Arthur Watson, meanwhile, was able to grab a small knife from the kitchen drainboard and force Grissom out the door. When he then turned to go check on his wife again, Grissom came back inside.
“You could smell death walking back into the room,” Watson stated during his trial. “I’m the only person in the world between him and my wife.”
The knife he had used earlier was no longer at hand, so he reached into the bedroom where his .300-caliber Savage rifle was leaning against a wall. He levered a cartridge into the chamber, and, since Grissom showed no signs of stopping his advance, he fired.
Grissom staggered and fell and died.
Questioned later about why he would invite a potentially dangerous drunk into his home and then leave him alone with his wife, Watson said he had not been worried about his wife that day. Asked whether he and his wife were in the habit of regularly purchasing a bottle of whiskey, Watson replied, “Not every day.”
The early history of Arthur Vernon Watson’s life is murky. The clarity of his timeline suffers from frequent blank spots, and, judging from the records, he preferred to keep it that way. Even those who became close to him never learned the full story.
Watson was born in Clay County, Kentucky, on Dec. 5, 1908. A 1947 incarceration record stated that he had been “reared in a marginal rural home,” attended seven years of public school, mostly in Arkansas, and was on his own by age 19.
“He has led a migratory existence since that time,” the record continued. “He is divorced from his wife; there are no children. His work record is of little consequence.”
Watson would marry at least three times and change jobs with great frequency. As a young man, he apparently spent two years in the U.S. Army and worked as a cook for 11 years — some of which time may have occurred while he was behind bars.
Watson would also build a lengthy rap sheet that would include more than a dozen arrests for crimes ranging from vagrancy to first-degree murder. He would serve time in one state prison and four federal penitentiaries.
His move to Alaska was just one of his many bounces around the country.