A violent season — Part 3

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Only a few months after the 1961 suicide of “Mrs. Oscar W. Pederson” behind a bar in eastern Soldotna, the central Kenai Peninsula was shocked by a second, violent death behind the same establishment.

Charlie Cunningham, who for nearly 50 years owned and operated Good Time Charlies, near the eastern edge of Soldotna, said recently that his bar had been haunted by two ghosts. The first spirit, he said, belonged to Ann Pederson, who shot herself in the bedroom of a trailer behind what was then called the Circus Bar in May 1961.

The second spirit, said Cunningham, belonged to Jack Griffiths….

A Second Death

Misinformation began to proliferate immediately after Oct. 8, 1961, when Jack Griffiths was found dead on his bed inside his family’s Quonset hut behind the Circus Bar. The next day, the Anchorage Daily Times reported that Griffiths, a co-owner of the bar, had been shot to death and that his body had been discovered by bar patron Arvin “Hap” Diggs, whose car was supposed to have had a new heater installed by Griffiths on Oct. 7.

An autopsy on Oct. 9 corrected one of the errors: Griffiths had not been shot. He had, in fact, been bludgeoned and had died as the result of a fractured skull. State Police officials made another correction: It was Steve Henry King, a part-owner of the bar, not Diggs, who had found the body.

Griffiths, age 38, was survived by his wife Alice and their six children (five daughters, one son).

As officials continued their investigation, Griffiths family members mourned their loss and prepared for Jack’s funeral. He was soon interred in the Kenai City Cemetery.

John Edward “Jack” Griffiths had been born Nov. 7, 1922, in Salt Lake City to parents Lewis and June Griffiths, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Jack’s wife had been born two years earlier, as Alice Estella McDonald, to parents Zenas and Alice (Wolst) McDonald in Detroit.

When 19-year-old Alice married her first husband, Norris Edward Aubrey Rumsey, in Los Angeles in the summer of 1939, soon-to-be-17-year-old Jack was still living with his parents in Salt Lake.

In 1942, when Jack (listed as 6-foot-3 and a lean 173 pounds) signed his draft-registration card in Huntington Park, California, he was working for the Lockheed Aircraft Company. After enlisting in January 1943 with the U.S. Army Air Corps, he joined the 27th Tactical Air Support Squadron. He was honorably discharged, with the rank of corporal, in February 1946.

Alice’s brief marriage to Norris Rumsey had ended in divorce. On June 3, 1944, in Santa Ana, Calif., she wed Jack Griffiths. In 1946, after Jack’s military discharge, he and Alice moved to Anchorage, where he became a civilian employee (airplane mechanic) for the Department of Defense. In 1950, they were living with their first five children, plus Alice’s father, in a part of Anchorage called Sunflower Village.

Soon, the Griffiths family established a new home in the Muldoon area of Anchorage, and Jack’s career shifted primarily to auto mechanics. He and Alice owned and operated the System Auto Paint and Body Shop in Mountain View.

They moved to the Kenai Peninsula in 1956, and in October purchased the Circus Bar and all of the former Jack Keeler homestead lying north of the Sterling Highway. At some point, they took in Steve Harvey King as a partner in the bar, and Jack continued with his auto-body repair and mechanic work in his nearby and blandly named Garage and Body Shop.

In September 1958, Jack filed on an 80-acre homestead immediately west of the bar. Alice, as a widow in July 1963, received patent to this land.

Jack’s death behind the Circus had occurred five years to the day that he and Alice signed a contract to buy the land and bar from John and Ginger Tallman.

The Accused

The state’s investigation into the killing of Jack Griffiths was led by local officer Wayne F. Morgan and by Anchorage’s Sgt. Ed Dankworth. Early on, their probe led them to James Franklin “Jim” Bush, a Kasilof resident with a connection to the Griffiths family that had angered Jack Griffiths.

Witnesses had claimed that Bush and Griffiths had recently quarreled over the attention being paid by the nearly 22-year-old Bush to Griffiths’ 15-year-old daughter, Delores. Bush and Delores had been dating since that summer, and Jack was displeased. Authorities suspected Bush but lacked sufficient evidence to arrest him.

By Oct. 15, however, Bush had been apprehended, arraigned in Anchorage Superior Court, and formally charged with murder. On the front page of the Kenai Peninsula Cheechako News on Oct. 20, this double-decker headline appeared: “Soldotna Man Confesses Brutal Slaying: First Degree Murder Charge Filed in Death of Bar Owner.”

Before his arrest, Bush, whom newspapers were calling an “unemployed laborer,” had gone to State Police headquarters purportedly to take a polygraph test. He told officers there that he planned to join the U.S. Navy and wanted to clear his name of any suspicion in connection to Griffiths’ death.

But, according to the Cheechako article, Bush “broke down” under questioning and admitted to striking the blows that had killed the bar owner. He claimed, however, that he had acted in self-defense.

Bush said that he had gone to Griffiths’ Quonset hut home and knocked on the door. Griffiths, who told Bush to enter, was in bed and alone. He pointed a rifle at Bush, who reacted by grabbing a piece of stove wood, knocking the rifle aside and then striking Griffiths on the head twice with the wood. He said he then turned off the lights, tossed the stove wood aside and left the Griffiths home.

The newspaper reported that Bush had waived a preliminary hearing and was being held in Federal Jail in Anchorage in lieu of the $30,000 bail set at his arraignment. Bush had sworn a pauper’s oath, meaning that he lacked the money necessary to hire his own lawyer. Judge Edward V. Davis then appointed Anchorage defense attorney Wendall P. Kay to represent Bush.

Bush and his lawyer successfully lobbied for a bail reduction, and in December, Bush, who had just turned 22, was released on a $20,000 bond while he awaited the next meeting of the grand jury.

On Jan. 11, 1962, the grand jury indicted Bush. During his arraignment in Anchorage Superior Court a few days later, Bush pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. He remained free on bond, pending his trial, which was set for May.


Shortly after the death of Jack Griffiths behind the Circus Bar in 1961, young Jim Bush was arrested and charged with murder. (Public photo from ancestry.com)

Shortly after the death of Jack Griffiths behind the Circus Bar in 1961, young Jim Bush was arrested and charged with murder. (Public photo from ancestry.com)

Public photo from familysearch.org
Jack and Alice Griffiths, owners of the Circus Bar, pose together in about 1960.

Public photo from familysearch.org Jack and Alice Griffiths, owners of the Circus Bar, pose together in about 1960.