Richard Olmstead had testified before two Grand Juries that John Peel resembled a man buying regular gas on the day of the Investor fire. It would have been a gift for the prosecution to have back-to-back witnesses pointing out John Peel as the Tuesday gas-buyer. That Mary Anne Henry would decline to call him to the stand at trial was a foregone conclusion, however, after his disastrous voir dire appearance. The plot, such as it was, had already gone sideways.
Henry tried to soften the setback by saying her decision was based, in great part, on the “strength and credibility” of Jim Robinson’s identification. In acknowledging problems with Olmstead’s new claim about John Peel, she made no mention of his courtroom disaster. Instead, she focused on other issues with his potential testimony.
At the top of that list was that Olmstead’s new ID were the unusual — even suggestive — circumstances surrounding his revelations. The Anchorage TV show that triggered Olmstead’s a-ha moment used only one photo during their Investor trial coverage: John Peel’s high school yearbook picture. That was a little too on-point to survive scrutiny. Worse yet, Olmstead himself admitted he was half-asleep at the time.
Looking back, troopers had talked to Jim Robinson twice after his initial interview in 1982. Both times he proved unable to identify John Peel as the gas buyer. Richard Olmstead was himself twice-questioned about the gas buyer.
On the day after the fire Olmstead said he’d seen the suspicous-acting man purchase gas the previous day, but didn’t know who he was. Olmstead was questioned again in the days after John Peel’s arrest. His ID was inconclusive: he chose two photos of John Peel and one of someone else. This plot was going nowhere.
But in 1986, the plot thickened. With John Peel on trial, both Robinson and Olmstead changed their stories. Robinson “updated” his story at the time of a February 10, 1986, Ketchikan hearing on a defense motion. Olmstead came forward with his new revelations two months later, telling Trooper Bob Anderson about his half-asleep, half-awake moment of recognition.
Just a Coincidence
In a February 1991 story for the Anchorage Daily News, Richard Olmstead told reporter Charles Wohlforth that “he only knew Robinson casually.” That it was just a coincidence “that both had been at the gas station, and that both had remembered Peel at the same time, four years later.”
When Wolhforth interviewed Jim Robinson’s attorney, however, it emerged that Robinson had known Richard Olmstead’s son, a banker at First Bank of Ketchikan, for 15 years. Robinson’s wife, Charlotte, had “coincidentally” taken out an April 12, 1982, loan at that same bank, First Bank of Ketchikan, to purchase Jim’s Craig gas station.
By the time of the first Peel trial, in 1986, Robinson had declared bankruptcy, sold his Craig garage, and moved to Ketchikan. Once there, he purchased an engine repair shop, a few pieces of heavy equipment and a house with a shaky foundation.
He life was still intertwined with the Olmstead family. And the plot was about to get as thick as ketchup.
Bligh Reef Intervenes
On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef. Exxon reached out to local vessels for help in the clean up. Jim Robinson spotted an opportunity.
Robinson called up Richard D. Olmstead, the First Bank of Ketchikan branch manager, and they invested in four boats that were to be used in the spill clean-up. While he was at it, the younger Olmstead also purchased Robinson’s Ketchikan house. Jim Robinson would offer Richard H. Olmstead, the father and Craig gas station witness, a job during the oil spill cleanup. Olmstead senior’s other son, Tony, would in fact work for Robinson during the ill-fated Exxon cleanup.
What could possibly go wrong?
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.