Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Frontier justice: All’s well that ends in a well

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Jerry Hobart was sleeping peacefully on a cold, dark February night when he was awakened by the sounds of damage being done. It was about 1:30 a.m. in 1960. Almost immediately he knew that the place was being robbed.

A ticket agent for Pacific Northern Airlines in Kenai, the 22-year-old Hobart, his wife, Carol, and infant daughter, Katie, lived in a one-bedroom efficiency apartment off the back of the PNA office. Hobart quickly rose from bed, signaled to Carol to stay where she was, and headed for his gun.

“It was pretty evident what was happening,” Hobart said. “I could hear the guys talking.”

He speculated that the thieves might not have realized anyone was living in the PNA facility.

His rifle was hanging in its case in the bedroom closet.

“I went in and unzipped the case,” he said. “I didn’t know how many (rounds) was in the magazine, but I knew there was at least one. I didn’t keep anything in the chamber.”

His hands wrapped around his rifle — a bolt-action .308 used mainly for moose hunting. He moved quietly down a narrow passageway separating the apartment from the lobby.

“I went out into the lobby, and that’s when I jacked a round into the chamber,” he said. He got the immediate attention of two men behind the ticket counter busily attempting to break into what Hobart called a “tin-can type of cabinet (used) as a safe.”

“There was a night light so I could see ’em. I told ’em to get out from behind the counter and get down on the floor. And they did.

“I got ’em lying down, and the older guy, who was the one with the big rap sheet, turned out, he kept wanting to get up in somewhat of a sitting or squatting position. So I pointed the rifle near him — I don’t know that I pointed it right at him — and I told him, ‘Get back on the floor, flat on your stomach!’”

If the burglars wondered whether Hobart was prepared to shoot, they didn’t have to wait long to find out.

As Hobart was attempting to call for help, the older man took off running. “I shot at him, but I shot for the legs. I didn’t shoot for the torso,” he said.

Hobart was cradling the rifle at the time, so his shot came more or less from the hip.

“I missed him but sure took a lot of wood off the door jamb,” he said. “Then I turned back into the room, and the other guy melted into the floor. He wasn’t going anywhere.”

The thieves had left a car parked outside, and the escaping man fled for it. Assured that the younger man would stay put, Hobart poked his head outside. Judging by the taillights, he guessed the car to be an Oldsmobile.

Back inside, he called Stan Thompson, who at the time was the U.S. commissioner for most of the Kenai Peninsula.

In 1960, Kenai had no jail, no marshal or regular magistrate, and only sporadic highway patrol. On that day, the closest state trooper was in Anchorage, more than three hours away on a narrow gravel highway.

“I was the only judicial figure (in the area),” Thompson said. “I had to do all the law work and the prisoner work and everything. There weren’t any other officials out there.”
Thompson told Hobart to bring the prisoner over.

At the time, the PNA office was across from the current Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, while Thompson was living with his wife, Donnis, above their Kenai Korners building materials store next to where Paradisos is now. Although the distance was not great, Hobart decided to enlist some help in escorting the prisoner.

“I figured if I’m going to march that sucker over there, I’ll put in a call to the MPs (military police at the Wildwood military base, where Hobart had served for two years) and see if I can get somebody to give me a hand.”

A short time later, two MPs appeared, with sidearms. Confidentially, they informed Hobart they were willing to help as much as possible but they wouldn’t be able to fire upon a civilian prisoner if he caused a problem. Hobart told them he was willing to do the shooting.

Once Thompson had the prisoner “in custody,” he called for trooper assistance and reached Officer Wayne Morgan. With Hobart’s help, he described the escaped burglar and his vehicle.

Thompson and Hobart then had to decide how to detain their prisoner until Morgan arrived. They considered several options before Thompson remembered the hand-dug well beneath the floor of his building.

They removed the floorboards covering the well and switched on the single bulb dangling in the cribbed 6-by-6 shaft. More than 10 feet down, on dry ground, sat an electric pump, and they sent the prisoner down a ladder to wait.

They also sent down a chair and some magazines. Just before they replaced the floorboards, they decided to increase the young man’s incentive to stay put.

“I told him I was setting my big dog right on top of the well, so he didn’t want to try to come out. And believe me, he didn’t,” Thompson said.

Instead of a big dog, they actually stacked crates of paint on top of the floorboards, Hobart said. Prisoner detention accounted for, Hobart walked back home and went to bed.

About four or five hours later, Officer Morgan arrived and took the prisoner into custody. Earlier, he had apprehended the older man at a roadblock on the outskirts of Anchorage, where he had parked his patrol car and watched for the suspect Oldsmobile.

Both men were tried and convicted. Later, FBI officials came by to examine Thompson’s well to see whether the prisoner’s treatment qualified as cruel or unusual punishment. They decided it did not.

Hobart ¬later briefly became a state trooper himself.

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