Peninsula Crime: Bad men … and dumb ones — Part 2

Here, in Part Two and gleaned from local newspapers, are a few examples of the dim and the dumb.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Crimes were definitely committed on the central Kenai Peninsula between 1960 and 1980, but not all the perpetrators of those crimes were the brightest mental bulbs in the box. Here, in Part Two and gleaned from local newspapers, are a few examples of the dim and the dumb.

Putting the “juvenile” in juvenile delinquent

On the surface, this crime seemed like so many other incidences of vandalism perpetrated against area schools: Over the weekend in mid-June 1980, someone had broken into Sears Elementary in Kenai and damaged numerous classrooms.

When more details emerged during the following week, the public learned that the damage had been far more extensive than usual: Access had been gained through a broken window in the back of the school on a Saturday. Some of the destruction had been performed at that time, and then the vandals had returned on Sunday to inflict more damage.

According to Kenai police, 19 of the school’s 20 classrooms had been vandalized, 26 mostly interior windows had been broken, and virtually every book in the library had been knocked to the floor. Additionally, the vandals had emptied cans of spray paint on classroom walls and blackboards, poured glue on floors and some office equipment, and had spread ink on carpeting. Officials estimated the damage at as much as $10,000 (plus the cost of cleanup).

Ten thousand dollars in 1980 had about the same buying power as about $33,000 does today.

And yet, the most surprising aspect of this crime was probably the criminals themselves, who might not have been caught if not for the mother of two of them growing suspicious about what her boys had been up to.

Before this parent escorted her sons to the Kenai police station and forced them to confess, all that police had been certain of was the last day that the vandals had been in the building. On June 15, the Sunday custodian had noticed the broken exterior window when he arrived, and when he entered the building he heard a noise — the sound of the vandals fleeing. He notified the police, who began an investigation.

After the mother and her sons put in their appearance, according to The Cheechako News, police questioned nine “youngsters.” By the time that the story went to press on Friday, June 20, police had determined that four or five of them had actually caused all the damage.

The oldest of the vandals was 11. The youngest was four, and police said of him that he had mostly just “tagged along” to watch.

Crime does not pay … much

Two relative newcomers to the local crime-fighting scene needed less than an hour to nab a pair of burglars who hit one Kenai and three Soldotna businesses in one night and hardly came away with a big haul.

It was early Sunday, Jan. 7, 1962, and Jerry Hobart — recently hired as a night officer to assist Kenai Police Chief “Red” Peavley throughout the Christmas and New Year’s seasons — was on late-night patrol, making the rounds of local business establishments, checking to make sure they were secure. When he reached George’s Coffee Shop, he encountered a problem.

At 2:29 a.m., he discovered that the front door of the café had been pried open since his previous check on the eatery at 2 a.m. He entered the building and found that the door connecting the coffee shop to Kenai Pharmacy had been kicked open.

Hobart hurried quietly to his vehicle and radioed his findings to State Trooper Wayne Hagerty, who had been assigned to the peninsula only a month earlier and had been stationed in Soldotna because Trooper Wayne Morgan was already stationed in Kenai. Hobart issued Hagerty a description of a Volkswagen sedan parked nearby.

The details of the vehicle matched a description that had earlier aroused the suspicions of the Kenai Police, so Hagerty, acting on a hunch, decided to set up a roadblock at the Y-intersection in Soldotna. (It is important to remember that in those days, Bridge Access Road did not exist, and neither did many of the backroads in Soldotna. In fact, both Kenai and Soldotna had incorporated as cities only two years earlier.)

At 2:43 a.m., the Volkswagen passed through Soldotna, just as Hagerty had suspected it would. At the Y, he made the stop.

Inside the vehicle were David Eugene Gibson, 23, and Larry Dean Puddiecombe, 24, both of whom gave their address as the Arctic Trailer Court in Anchorage. A search of their car yielded nine new wristwatches, three boxes of coins, and a new Polaroid camera with a flash attachment.

Gibson and Puddiecombe were placed under arrest and became the first residents of the recently completed new Kenai Jail.

Further investigation revealed the scope of the two men’s questionably successful criminal escapade. On the night of Saturday, Jan. 6, and the early morning of Sunday, Jan. 7, Kenai Pharmacy and three businesses in Soldotna (the Sky Bowl, the National Bank of Alaska, and Lou’s Market) had been broken into.

From the pharmacy, they had made their only decent haul: the wristwatches, the camera and some cash. From the bank — obviously the location with the most money — Gibson and Puddiecombe had taken nothing. From the Sky Bowl, they had pilfered coins from pinball and vending machines. And from Lou’s Market they had come away with only a single quarter, the sole coin in the container used to raise funds for the Alaska Crippled Children’s Association.

Authorities estimated the total value of their loot to be $1,000, and as a reward for their efforts, Gibson and Puddiecombe — who were suspected of having participated in a number of other burglaries in Palmer, Anchorage, Seward and Soldotna — were arraigned quickly by Deputy Magistrate Jess Nicholas and hauled to the federal jail in Anchorage on Monday, Jan. 8. Their bail was set at $10,000 apiece.

These criminal minds not ‘Einsteins’

On Friday night, Jan. 16, 1970, thieves made a successful haul when they broke into the Peninsula Medical Center in Soldotna and escaped with drugs. At least that’s what the thieves themselves must have thought. A second look at their exploit, however, casts its “success” in a more dubious light.

To begin with, the two burglars struck at 9 p.m., when most folks aren’t in bed yet and, moreover, two boys who had been hired to clean the upstairs of the medical center were still at work. Additionally, the burglars made so much noise in the process of their break-in that the cleaning boys could hear them over the sounds of their own labor.

One of the boys locked himself in a bathroom for safety while the other sneaked outdoors and downstairs to check on the disturbance. Seeing evidence of a crime in progress, the boy raced through the night to the nearby home of one of the center’s physicians, Dr. Donald P. Mersch. The boy led Mersch to the scene of the crime just as the first of the thieves was exiting through a first-story window.

Mersch and the boy ducked out of sight, and the thief ran past them with his haul. A few seconds later, the second thief followed suit, giving the two witnesses an excellent view of both criminals.

The Soldotna Police Department was notified and received solid descriptions of both perpetrators. Police Chief Russell Anderson then took a look at the damage and assessed the losses. After his inspection was complete, he told the local press that the evidence demonstrated “the stupidity of drug users.”

If the perpetrators had any hope of inducing highs from their swag, he said, they were going to be mostly disappointed.

Included in the thieves’ haul was a small amount of mild tranquilizers. Other than that, the booty wasn’t exactly a bonanza: a supply of penicillin in vials and some pre-mixed penicillin in disposable syringes; three types of cortisone, various B-complex and B-12 vitamins, and four to five types of estrogen.

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