A violent season — Part 4

AUTHOR’S NOTE: When a crime has no witnesses other than the accused perpetrator, investigators must search hard for other forms of evidence. While that search takes place, speculation may be rife. Such was the case during late 1961 and early 1962 before the trial of Jim Bush for the killing of bar owner Jack Griffiths in Soldotna.

Twisted Path

The young James Franklin “Jim” Bush, who stood accused of the Soldotna murder of Jack Griffiths in October 1961, was a good-looking young man. He had been a talented athlete in high school back in Maricopa (Kern County), California. But his physical gifts had failed to keep him out of trouble once he had graduated.

His parents, Franklin and Irene Bush, had been teenagers in Taft (Kern County), California, in December 1939 when Jim was born, eldest of what would become a family of 10 children. The Bushes moved their large clan in Alaska to homestead in 1959, settling in the Kasilof area.

Sometime after this move north, Jim returned to California to “attend to business affairs,” according to his family’s writings on findagrave.com. On April 3, 1959, he married for the first time. His bride was Patricia Ann Horton, and the marriage was brief. They were divorced by at least late 1961—after the birth of their only child together, Cynthia Ann Bush.

Patricia remarried in 1962, but Jim Bush still owed her child-support payments as part of the divorce settlement. His failure to keep up with those payments would catch up to him later, but he ran afoul of the law before that.

On April 11, 1960, Bush was arrested in Washington on charges of vagrancy and contributing to the delinquency of minors. Two days later, he was placed in the Clark County jail as prisoner #30331. At his processing, he posed for front- and side-view mugshots.

He had been sentenced to serve one to three days for the first charge and two to 30 days for the second. At his murder trial in 1962, he indicated that he had been released on both Washington charges before the end of the month. After his release, he testified, he had returned to Alaska.

However, he testified that he had also been arrested in California and convicted for burglary.

After the Jack Griffiths killing, Bush had initially been picked up by state police, not on suspicion in the Griffiths case but because he was wanted for “non-support” of his child and ex-wife in California.


From the beginning of the investigation into and during the trial concerning the death of Jack Griffiths, there were problems. First, there were no witnesses to the actual killing, so determining whether Bush’s confessed actions were believable and constituted murder or self-defense was problematic. Second, there was plenty of hearsay concerning the character of the people involved.

These problems may account for the reason that, in the end, the verdict at the trial would not be what the prosecution had been hoping for.

As people are wont to do, they speculated. Eugene and Della Hansen, for instance — Eugene was the son of Wilford and Ann Hansen, who had recently purchased the Circus Bar — spoke about strife within the Griffiths family and about the crime scene.

“Jack and his family had been fighting,” Eugene Hansen recalled. A major point of contention, he said, concerned the relationship between Jim Bush and 15-year-old Delores Griffiths. The problems were amplified, said Della Hansen, by Jack and Alice’s drinking — a point reinforced at trial by witness testimony.

Della Hansen added that a scrubbing of the crime scene might also have hindered the investigation. The Mormon Church, in which Jack Griffiths had been raised in Utah, she said, had a group called the Relief Society, which often went into a home after someone had died and performed a thorough cleaning. Hansen contended that the cleaning in the Griffiths Quonset hut was so thorough that law-enforcement officials were stunned.

“They said, ‘You destroyed all the clues by cleaning up like this,’” according to Della. “I guess there was a lot of blood…. Anyway, it was a mess. The Relief Society, bless their hearts, they went in there, and, boy, they cleaned that house and picked up all that blood and the whole bit. And the police were just dumbfounded.”

At the trial, the witnesses were able to comment on character and conflict, but the motive behind the killing itself remained murky. Over the course of the trial, including two days of testimony by Jim Bush on his own behalf, a general story emerged. Ultimately, it was left up to the jury to decide whether murder had been done.

Bush testified that on the evening of Oct. 7, the day before the killing, he had been invited to dinner at the Griffiths home behind the bar. After dinner, he said, Alice Griffiths went into the bar. Then Jack, who had already been at the bar, returned home and ordered Bush to leave. Bush told jurors that he finished his cigarette and departed, but other witnesses said he had to be asked twice before he would go.

Prior to this time, said Bush, he had had no trouble with Jack Griffiths, but, because Jack was so angry on this particular night, Bush claimed to have been afraid of him. He said that he knew that Griffiths “had used his gun in the past and had shot at his wife and beat her,” according to an article in the Anchorage Daily Times.

After Bush left, according to testimony from Alice and Delores Griffiths, Jack, in an apparent “fit of rage,” ordered his wife and all of his children to leave their own home. Steve Henry King, a part-owner of the Circus Bar who was staying in a nearby trailer, offered to take the family to Kenai and put them up for the night in a house he owned there. He testified that he personally drove the family to Kenai.

Jerry Gibson, a 20-year-old friend of Bush, testified that he had spent the night of Oct. 7-8 driving around with Bush, qualifying his testimony, according to the Times, by admitting that he had “only a hazy recollection of the evening because he had been drinking.”

After Bush left the dinner at the Griffiths house, Gibson, driving his own car, picked up Bush and took him to a local dance, he said. At Bush’s request later in the evening, Gibson returned his friend to the Circus Bar and waited in his car while Bush went briefly inside.

Arthur Alvin “Swede” Foss and his wife, Dorothy — who had bought into the bar with Bill and Ann Hansen and planned its grand reopening as the Hilltop Bar and Café — testified that when Bush returned to the Circus, he wanted to know where the Griffiths family had been taken. Bush left the bar again after receiving directions from Dorothy Foss. Bush and Gibson then returned to the dance, according to Gibson, but around midnight Bush asked to be taken to the bar one more time.

Once again, Gibson remained in his car while Bush went inside.

Inside the bar, said Steve Henry King, “Jim Bush told me he was going to go over there (to the Griffiths home) and have it out with Jack.” Dorothy Foss said Bush “seemed angry…. He was all shook up. He seemed all different, nervous. I got the idea he was doped. His eyes didn’t look right.”

Bush did not deny wanting to confront Griffiths, but he testified that he had no plans to “have it out” with him. He said he had returned to Griffiths’ place only to ask Jack whether Alice and the children would be allowed to return home the next day.

Sometime after midnight, said Gibson, Bush returned to the car with a companion from the bar who had asked for a ride home. Bush also had with him a bundle of “some old clothes or something,” said Gibson. Bush climbed in behind the wheel and drove while Gibson slept in the passenger seat.

Their first goal was Kenai, where Bush said he hoped to stop at King’s place and make sure the Griffiths family was all right. On the way to Kenai, said Gibson, he was feeling cold in the car and reached for Bush’s bundle — but Bush stopped him, saying that the clothing (work clothes, he later claimed) was wet.

They then stopped somewhere along the Kenai River, where, according to Gibson, Bush threw the clothing into the current. When asked during the trial about the clothing, Bush testified that he was “just cleaning his car,” according to news reports.


James Franklin Bush was arrested and jailed for vagrancy and contributing to the delinquency of minors in California in 1960, about a year before the murder in Soldotna of Jack Griffiths. (Public document from ancestry.com)

James Franklin Bush was arrested and jailed for vagrancy and contributing to the delinquency of minors in California in 1960, about a year before the murder in Soldotna of Jack Griffiths. (Public document from ancestry.com)

Public document from ancestry.com
James Franklin Bush was arrested and jailed for vagrancy and contributing to the delinquency of minors in California in 1960, about a year before the murder in Soldotna of Jack Griffiths.

Public document from ancestry.com James Franklin Bush was arrested and jailed for vagrancy and contributing to the delinquency of minors in California in 1960, about a year before the murder in Soldotna of Jack Griffiths.