The Coldest Crimes Aren’t Always Unsolved

Cold Crime: How police detectives solved Alaska’s most shocking cases9780974501444

by Tom Brennan

Illustrated by Brian Sostrom

Epicenter Press 2006






The first editor I ever had loved that word. Whenever he’d hear something going down on the scanner, he’d jump up and yell that word.

He used a deep, guttural voice that started deep in his chest and rumbled all the way up, so it sounded like a volcano letting go. He managed to make that one-syllable word last for 30 or
40 seconds, drawing it out so it sounded like this: CRI-I-I-I-I-IM-M-M-M-ME.

Maybe that’s why I love the police beat so much — when you learn from a guy who can’t get enough of it, there’s no way not to become a cop groupie. Which is why I enjoyed Tom Brennan’s books. I read his previous book, “Murder at 40 Below,” a compendium of horrific crimes in Alaska that had the residents fearful their Last Frontier was becoming the Wild West (I actually remember a few of those cases from my childhood in Anchorage).

Cold Crime: How Police Detectives Solved Alaska’s Most Shocking Cases, is more a police procedural than true crime documentary. Whereas in the first book, Brennan focused on the crimes, in this one, as the subhead indicates, he spends more time on what part the police and Alaska State Troopers had in solving 13 of Alaska’s more shocking crimes occurring within the last 50 years.

Brennan began his journalism career on the police beat, as most of us do. Brennan spent hundreds of hours interviewing detectives, investigators, troopers, and other police officers, asking them about their best work, collecting anecdotes and memories of cases that made headlines, and looking at evidence accumulated during the investigations.

Brennan has a dry, journalist style, which sometimes seems to lack compassion or empathy, but is appropriate for the type of stories he’s narrating. The crimes of which he writes aren’t minor misdemeanors or even slight felonies. He’s reporting on mayhem and violence, greed and passion killings, and too much passion or emotion might be overwhelming.

Of course, he’s not always the dry, dispassionate reporter, as evidenced by some of the titles he (or perhaps his editor, I’m not sure) chose: Ketchikan Burning; Mystery of Mendeltna Lodge; The Deadly Dentist; A Cold-Hearted Undertaker; well, you get the idea.

Before going into the crimes themselves, Brennan “profiles,” to use some law enforcement jargon, the investigators and detectives who solve crimes. He talks about what motivates them and how they manage to keep coming back to scenes of carnage and murder, day after day, without losing their humanity.

Most of us don’t think about the human equation in the solving of crime, except for maybe the victim. We sometimes forget investigators have families and friends, and we tend not to wonder how seeing the nastiness human beings inflict on each other affect one’s relationships with other human beings.

Brennan, whose son is an officer in the Soldotna Police department, can be forgiven for his often rah-rah rapport when talking up the members of law enforcement. But he does spell out what it takes to be a good cop and why many people would do no other job, despite the horrors and dangers often associated with it.

He also peels back the myths and mysteries of police work, explaining why investigators operate the way they do. In one paragraph in the Preface, he clarifies why officers often ask the same question over and over again, albeit in different form:

“Asking the same questions again and again and again in recast form often trips up the guilty. As one investigator put it, “‘People can tell the same truth over and over, but lies are hard to remember.’”

Didn’t Mom tell us that?

The cases he documents made state-wide headlines during their day: In the early 1950s, Ketchikan and its all-volunteer fire department were plagued by blazes that sprang up everywhere, unpredictable and unstoppable. By 1960, the blazes had become frequent and serious: Losses climbed and people were fearful — some even sent their children to live elsewhere for safety, Brennan reports.

The FBI got involved, and eventually, a volunteer fireman by the name of Bill Mitchell was identified as the firebug. He left the state, but returned numerous times before trial to set more fires, disguised as a woman. He eventually spent a few years in prison in Washington and returned to live in Manly Hot Springs.

Brennan documents the Anchorage dentist who, in the late 1960s, had numerous patients die of cardiac arrest in his chair; he over sedated and under-monitored, killing at least five patients before being caught. A public uproar arose when he was sentenced to six months in jail, suspended, and five years of probation, along with loss of his Alaska license.

And again in Anchorage — it’s just that it’s a big city, with more population, not that it’s a crime metropolis — in 1973, an undertaker was caught cheating customers, mistreating the dead, recycling caskets and liners, and cremating many bodies together.

The Fairbanks stripper who had her husband murdered by her lover rather than divorce him in 1972. Cab drivers, hikers, superfluous husbands, cheating wives; Spenard, Eagle River, Alyeska, Tazlina; stabbing, shooting — even a car bombing. There’s enough crime and justice to satisfy the most enthusiastic cop groupie.

Brennan has meticulously researched these 13 cases. He gives a great deal of background on both the locale and the criminals, and is able to describe the crimes without getting too graphic or putting in too many gory details; a result of his journalistic training, I imagine.

For true crime aficionados, this is a must-read. It’s also a good read for those who are interested in darker Alaskan history and the malevolence of some of our neighbors and friends. In conjunction with “Murder at 40 Below,” this is a different way of seeing the 49th state, and a reminder that the place most of us enjoy because of its lack of formality and crowds is exactly what attracts those with evil in their hearts.