Photo courtesy of the National Archives
This is Arthur Vernon Watson at age 39, when he was transferred from the federal prison in Atlanta to the penitentiary on Alcatraz Island near San Francisco.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives This is Arthur Vernon Watson at age 39, when he was transferred from the federal prison in Atlanta to the penitentiary on Alcatraz Island near San Francisco.

Justice wasn’t elementary, Watson, Part 3

Anchorage probation officer Roy V. Norquist was monitoring Arthur’s movements and reported that he was pleased with what he saw

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In his Soldotna motel on Dec. 18, 1961, Arthur Vernon Watson shot and killed homesteader Marion Grissom. Although he claimed self-defense, a grand jury indicted him for first-degree murder. Watson, who was 53 at the time of the shooting, had a long criminal history that began with minor offenses and escalated quickly. After his release from prison in San Francisco in 1956, he came to Alaska, found more trouble and left, then returned again in 1960, hoping for better luck.

In October 1960, Arthur and Beth Watson traveled from Anchorage to Soldotna to investigate business opportunities in the young and sparsely populated community. Anchorage probation officer Roy V. Norquist was monitoring Arthur’s movements and reported that he was pleased with what he saw.

“During the past four weeks,” wrote Norquist on Nov. 2 to a probation executive in San Francisco, “[Watson] has carefully explored the commercial possibilities in Alaska and has come to the conclusion that the building of a motel in the community of Soldatna has considerable promise. He has purchased property there, but it is now too late in the season to begin construction. It therefore appears to be a wise move to return to San Francisco for the winter so that he might work for a few months while waiting for the building season to begin next year.

“He feels that he will probably want to return to Alaska during the latter part of April 1961,” Norquist continued. “This is entirely acceptable to us and we shall be happy to agree to a transfer of supervision at that time. I believe the area in which Watson made his property selection has considerable potential.”

Norquist mentioned oil exploration in the area, along with recreational potential. “I was very well impressed with Mr. Watson’s cooperation,” he concluded. “He has a fine personality and his drive and interest should help him to be successful in this venture.” The Watsons, he said, planned to depart for San Francisco in a few days.

In May 1961, a short article appeared in the Kenai Peninsula Cheechako News, beginning with the phrase “Signs of spring….” Under the subheading “Construction Booms,” the article noted that 19 “new building and development projects are underway in the Soldotna area.” One of projects listed was “Motel at Kenai Spur and Redoubt Boulevard,” about a quarter-mile from the Y-intersection in the heart of town.

Since no Bridge Access Road existed at this time, the Watson Motel would be in convenient reach of anyone traveling through Soldotna from Kenai, Anchorage and the southern peninsula.

To complete the “Kwik-Log” pre-fabricated structure, Arthur Watson hired Warren (“Red”) Wright of San Francisco to do the structural work and Soldotna homesteader Marion Grissom to do the cement work and build a cesspool.

A Question of Character

After Arthur Watson killed Grissom in December, Watson’s defense attorney, Peter B. Walton, and the district attorney, James Merbs, painted various verbal pictures of Grissom, with the defense attempting to portray him as dangerous and violent and the prosecution making him out as working stiff who liked to drink but was more obnoxious than harmful when intoxicated.

Warren Wright called Grissom “playful” when drinking. Homesteader Frank Mullen, who had known him for three years, called him “boisterous” and added that Grissom was “a man who made his living with a pick and shovel and chainsaw … a hard-working, decent man.”

Bar owner Maxine Bear testified that Grissom was “a happy-go-lucky type of guy … very friendly.” She said she’d never seen him display anger when intoxicated.

But Beth Watson offered a harsher, more critical and damning view. She said Grissom was a strong man who “couldn’t think for himself” and “always had a bottle hid around on the job.”

She recalled an incident from the previous October during which she said Grissom had brutally mistreated the Watson family dog. Another time, she said, Grissom “started grabbing me and pushing me around.”

She later told the court that at the Watson residence the previous summer she had witnessed her husband and Grissom fighting for possession of a rifle that Watson had taken up in order to force Grissom from their home; she said the two men had fought to an impasse that time, and Grissom had retreated and departed.

Defense attorney Walton used Beth Watson’s testimony to create an image of Grissom as “a savage beast,” something to fear.

Mrs. Watson’s story and the defense’s portrayal, however, initially worked against Arthur Watson during his trial. Walton had been attempting to prove that his client had been afraid of Marion Grissom, but the earlier battle over the rifle and the invitation to Grissom to drink whiskey on the night of the killing seemed to contradict that premise.

In addition, Watson claimed in court that after he and Grissom had wrestled over the rifle during the summer, Watson had reported the incident to State Trooper Wayne Morgan. Watson said he wanted Morgan to tell Grissom to stay away from him, especially if Grissom was drinking.

Officer Morgan, however, disputed Watson’s claim, testifying that Watson never came to him with that request. Instead, he said, he had gone to Watson after Warren Wright had complained to the police that Watson had shot at him with his rifle.

On Dec. 20, two days after Watson killed Grissom, Watson was charged with first-degree murder. A grand jury indicted him on Jan. 10. He was held in the federal jail in Anchorage, and his bail was set at $30,000. The trial came quickly.

In March 1962, a Superior Court jury found Watson guilty of second-degree murder. In April, Superior Court Judge Hubert Gilbert sentenced Watson to 15 years in prison.

Watson filed an appeal and asked for a second trial.

Shortly thereafter, Beth Watson, who had moved into a rest home in Anchorage, sold the Soldotna motel to Victor and Nellie Frolich, who announced plans to expand the establishment and a contest to change its name.

Mrs. Watson soon entered Providence Hospital, suffering from cancer. Two weeks later, she slipped into a coma. She died, at age 65, on May 28.

While awaiting the result of his appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court, Arthur Watson was released from jail on a $30,000 bond.


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