Winter 1992 was a pretty heady time. Butcher, Baker had just been published. It was selling like wildfire right out of the gate. Walter Gilmour and I had flown east for a promotional appearance on the Sally Jessy Raphael show in Manhattan. And, perhaps best of all, we were already pulling together our next book. That book would become What Happened in Craig. It was a book that birthed some of our fiercest debates.
Walter believed we should take a fresh look at the crime. Because it was unsolved. And because we could.
For me, that meant digging deep into the hidden corners of this case. First, there were Alaska State Troopers to be interviewed. Parallel to that were the State v Peel files at the Alaska State Archives in Juneau. The latter held (and still holds) every document and interview associated with the Investor case, many of them never seen by either of the two juries. Somewhere in that tangled mess was a spark, a clue, a solution.
By the time I found Jim Robinson, aka Kenneth Robertson, Walter was already there. Now, if you knew Walter Gilmour, you realize that he seldom gave answers. Instead, he posed questions. It was within that framework that he advanced any solution.
“So, what jumps out at you?” he casually asked as my inquiries were seeing their first blossoms.
Doing My Homework
“The evidence was almost completely destroyed,” I answered confidently. I got lucky. Gilmour was asking on the heels of our meeting with homicide sergeant Chuck Miller. That “insight” was also supported by my initial reach into the case materials. The Investor debrisment, I knew, turned up precious little.
“And why was that?” Gilmour devilishly asked.
“The fire. The arson fire.”
“It seems to me you should look for an arsonist. In fact, you have an arsonist right there in town. A guy who’s already done the crime.”
“Not only that,” I added, rising to the bait, “he even bought a 12-gauge to kill his ex-wife’s entire family.”
“See what I mean? This guy was a professional criminal. What else does your research tell you?”
Fly in the Ointment
I listed what I knew. It started to add up. Explosives. Concealed weapons charges. Assault. You definitely didn’t want to get on the wrong side of this guy. But. There’s always a but. This one was a here-comes-the-fierce-debates kind of a but.
“He doesn’t fit the description,” I reminded my co-author.
“Witnesses aren’t always reliable when it comes to descriptions,” Gilmour declared. He was right.
“But in this case,” I suggested, “you have six witnesses who all describe the exact same person. Scruffy, early twenties, five-ten, 150 pounds. Robinson was six-foot two or three and skinny as a rail. By 1982 he was 40 years old. And a local.”
“So? What does that mean? A local.” Gilmour squinted his eyes into their most skeptical configuration.
“The Investor docked in Craig on Sunday, September 5th. She was seen leaving her moorage at North Cove in the early morning hours of Monday, September 6th. And on fire by 4:00 pm Tuesday, September 7th. That’s three days. What are the chances that Robinson could meet the Investor crew, develop a grudge against them and then commit mass-murder almost simultaneously?”
“Stranger things have happened,” Gilmour declared. “Maybe they already knew the guy. And maybe all the witnesses were wrong about who they saw.”
I scratched my head. To a one, all six witnesses said they’d never seen the suspicious skiffman before. There was that.
But two of them — Sue Domenowski and Paul Page — were also locals. They were building a house in Hollis and often came to Craig for supplies. There was only one gas station in Craig. They were sure to have stopped there in their raggedy gas-guzzling truck. That was Jim Robinson’s place. They’d have known Jim Robinson. They’d have recognized him on that Cold Storage dock.
It was one of those debates that cried out for a resolution. And one of those debates that never ended.
Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale. That manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archive, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2020). All rights reserved.