Every prosecutor wishes for emphatic proof. They want someone who can point to the defendant and say, “That’s the man.” Or some damning trail of irrefutable physical evidence. Or even a confession. In a case like this, which seemed to depend on the combined credibility of a thousand witnesses, that need was considerably more pressing. In a phrase, the prosecution needed someone to take center stage.
“He did a lot of explaining why he needed some gas.”Richard Olmstead
One tantalizing prospect was a Craig resident who had allegedly seen John Peel purchase gasoline at a critical juncture. Richard Olmstead was a construction contractor and he lived above Craig Auto, the only gas station in town. He had been passing the time in the gas station, chatting with the owner, on the day of the fire.
“We was just standing around there talking, and people coming in and out,” Olmstead related, “and this fellow showed up with one of those little two-and-a half gallon Jerry Jugs… and he did a lot of explaining why he needed some gas.”
Olmstead was ready to testify about that encounter, but was suddenly sidetracked by a startling revelation. While half-dozing and half watching TV, he had seen a news photo of John Peel. The man on the TV, he told defense and prosecution lawyers just before his scheduled testimony, looked like the man he’d seen purchasing regular gas only hours ahead of the Investor blaze. Before Olmstead could take center stage, the defense immediately demanded a voir dire hearing. They hoped to forestall an in-court identification of John Peel.
Indeed, the star witness had trouble during that special hearing. Because the question of identity was at issue, John Peel waived his right to be present in the courtroom. Peel’s absence led to a bizarre exchange. In an attempt to establish bias, defense attorney Brant McGee pointedly asked if the man assumed the gas purchaser was sitting at the defense table. The witness pointed at Phillip Weidner and said, “That, I assume, is Mr. Peel.”
The two men did not resemble each other in the least. John Peel was clean shaven, with light brown hair and a medium build. Weidner had dark hair and a beard. McGee, initially taken aback by the offhand comment, recovered quickly and asked if his hirsute colleague resembled the gasoline purchaser. No, the witness said. But he thought the attorney’s hair was the same color.
Needless to say, Richard Olmstead made an awkward exit off center stage.
“What will happen when he looks over to the defense table and sees three guys, I don’t know,” Schulz wryly commented afterwards.
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.