Early Bethel Story, by Diane Carpenter
So glad there are Bethelites and others out there who are still interested in the people and events of Alaska’s territorial and early statehood days. I have a new story to share about one of Bethel;s most colorful characters, Rocky deMontMullen Garcia. He was a gambler and bootlegger from Atlantic City and the defendant in one of Alaska’s most unusual trials after a string of events that could only have happened in Bethel. IIf anyone else has any recollections of Rocky, or remembers his famous trial, I would love to hear from you. I am sure Susan Murphy remembers him, and Don and Evelyn Elliott, and Bea Kritovich. Please share!
The Trial of Rocky deMontMullin Garcia
Rocky was a gambler and he looked the part. He walked with a jaunty swagger that told the world he was good at what he did and today was his lucky day. He was a New Jersey hood who brought some welcome excitement to life in Bethel when statehood was new. And has there ever been a more perfect hood name than Rocky deMontMullin Garcia?
Jack Brink met Rocky at the Buckaroo Club in Anchorage. He was one of the curious visitors from “Outside” who decided to check out Alaska in the wake of statehood. Jack was a former prospector and gold miner who lived with his wife Coby on their homestead at Napaimute, a small settlement a few miles above Aniak. Jack was a notorious teller of tall tales, but Rocky and his partner Darlene did not know that. He convinced them that gold and glory were theirs for the taking on the river. Coby’s shock was matched by Jack’s chagrin when the colorful couple showed up on the mail plane one summer morning. They saw immediately that Napaimute bore no resemblance to Jack’s stories. But, when the old DC3 from Anchorage had made its stop in Aniak en route, they heard about “Sin City” downriver and that sounded more their style. A boat came by a little later headed for Bethel and to Jack and Coby’s great relief they got on board. When their boat landed at our muddy dock, they saw a ramshackle frontier town that surely must have looked unpromising to them. We were “cheechakos” ourselves and when we arrived three years earlier we thought we were at the end of the world. What did they see, with their love of city lights and fast action?
The town lay mainly along two roads, Front Street along the river and a back road where most homes were located. Old town ran along Brown’s Slough to the east where housing was even more dilapidated. Homes consisted mainly of cramped, overcrowded Quonset huts, rusting trailers, tarpaper shacks sinking slowly into the tundra, or converted military barracks from WWII.
No tourists came to Bethel, only federal bureaucrats, fur traders, fish buyers, business reps, or scientists. They left with stories that were colorful, but rarely positive. What did Rocky and Darlene hope to find? Perhaps he figured that money could be made there; he soon heard that Bethelites loved to gamble and that bootlegging was the most promising local career move. But still, it did not look like a town where much money was being spent or exchanged.
Rocky could probably tell right away though that Bethel was a “no-rules” kind of place where he would be able to operate undisturbed. At the time Bethel was a 20th century version of the Wild West, without the hostilities. Before statehood we did have a U. S. Commissioner and a U. S. marshal to maintain minimal law and order, but the marshal spent most of his time translating old Russian history documents from the Cyrillic and Bergie was running her roadhouse.
That was about it, so when the new state government established a small trooper detachment for the region, many of us took this intrusion as a clear indication of burgeoning government overreach and oppression.
Such was the local scene when Rocky and Darlene made their startling entrance into town. The news of their arrival spread rapidly from the minute they climbed ashore and headed for the roadhouse. The local men had never seen anyone like them. They marveled at Darlene, and they followed them down the boardwalk to stare at her in wonder. The couple was scrutinized intensely by everyone, which they did not seem to mind, and discussions about their appearance and activities occupied the attention of all of us for weeks.
With its usual tolerance of the quirky and the weird, though, and its live-and-let-live philosophy, Bethel gradually accepted them. Rocky had a charming, easy manner and a smile and a greeting for everyone. His intense brown eyes told the person he was with that their words were the most important he had heard all day.
Rocky wore long gold chains over the curly black hair on his chest, with unbuttoned purple shirts. He wore his thick shiny hair, heavy with pomade, long and slicked back. Somehow it stayed in place even in our tundra winds. He wore tight black pants and polished boots, impractical for our muddy roads but he never changed them. At the card table, his wide-brimmed black hat prudently shaded his eyes. His main wardrobe claim to fame though was a gorgeous soft tan coat made, he told us, from unborn baby buffalo hides. He won the coat from a high-rolling Las Vegas gambler.
The real excitement though, was Darlene. Local matron Bea Kristovich quickly nicknamed her The Black Dahlia and the name stuck. Her Brooklyn accent was almost undecipherable, but her smile was brilliant. She had dark come-hither eyes and jet-black hair that she piled on top of her head in a magnificently elaborate crown. She wore stiletto heels and tight-fitting sequined dresses of various shiny materials. Above The Knee! Nobody remembered ever seeing knees in Bethel before. The native men were stunned. We women did most of our clothes shopping at the Army-Navy store; our normal attire was jeans, flannel shirts over t-shirts, gumboots, kusbuks, and summer or winter parkas.
Darlene was nice. She was kind to the children who were fascinated by her long painted fingernails. She let them feel the slinky fabric of her dresses and study her jewelry and touch her hair. She was friendly and tried her best to endure the alien world she had stumbled into. She even tried to learn a few words of Yup’ik from the children. We were all fascinated by her heels; she somehow managed to navigate our dirt roads and crooked boardwalks in them. Her legs were amazing. None of us could keep from looking at them.
Darlene could not have been more exotic in our little town if she had stepped down from a space ship. She soon realized though that what she was accustomed to providing as a paid service constituted Bethel’s main wintertime entertainment. Its concept as a financial transaction was not generally known. She hated the cold too, and when winter arrived in earnest she left for more promising venues. Rocky stayed on.
Rocky was a familiar sight in Bethel that summer. It was school vacation for me, and Rocky did not have much to do in the morning. I liked him a lot. He was intelligent, had a wry sense of humor, and some comments about Bethel that were quite insightful. I spent many hours visiting with him over coffee at the roadhouse, listening to his tales of growing up in the slums of Atlantic City. He said he had never had anyone interested in hearing about his life before. He had a rough childhood, and he spent most of his time learning street smarts on the boardwalk. He was smart, ambitious, and observant, and he made himself indispensable to the professional gamblers there. They shared their tips and experience with him, and he learned well. He said gambling was not really risky if you followed a few basic rules. Rule one was he never drank. He learned to read other players and assess their weaknesses. Local men lost a lot of money to him, but he gained a reputation for playing fair. fair.
One day he carefully pulled a prized possession out of his wallet and showed me a worn newspaper article and a photo of a woman with a square jaw, thin lips, small deep-set eyes, and tightly curled hair. It was his mother, and she was wanted for bank robbery in three states. He could not have been prouder if she had been named Mother of the Year.
Bootlegging was second only to fishing as Bethel’s primary economic activity and Rocky quickly grasped its potential. He found plenty of people willing to make risky bets at the craps or poker tables, especially when well-lubricated, and he soon had enough of a stake to start his bootlegging enterprise. He found a new girlfriend, a young Yup’ik woman named Alice from a nearby village, and they moved into a trailer with a lean-to on the bank of Brown’s Slough. Rocky brought urban savvy to his operation and in a short time he became the town’s leading seller.
Bootleg whiskey and vodka weren’t distilled locally. Bootleggers imported hundreds of cases a week into Bethel, either openly or clandestinely in small planes. Sellers set up shop and either sold directly to eager buyers or used runners. Bootleggers were seldom prosecuted, and sentences, in the rare event of a conviction, were light. Once they made their stake our local bootleggers often reformed after a few lucrative years, invested their savings and became respectable citizens.
That did not happen in Rocky’s case. Bethel’s approach to law enforcement was, as a rule, to make an example of a particular criminal in hopes that others would grasp the message. In the event of continued troublesome behavior, an individual who failed to reform earned a “Blue Ticket” out of town, with dire warnings of what would happen if they returned.
Rocky’s troubles probably had more to do with his providing outside competition to local operators than to any concern over law and order; his business was booming, and he was doing particularly well combining his bootlegging and gambling operations. Apparently the town did not tolerate such interlopers as readily as local miscreants and complaints eventually rose through official channels. After a time our new state police detachment was pressured into initiating a surveillance operation. Eventually, the court filed charges against him, to which Rocky pleaded not guilty. He wanted a jury trial. It would be Bethel’s first.
The state did not have a strong case. For a month they photographed a steady stream of eager customers making their way to Rocky’s trailer and leaving with their Windsor Canadian or Popov vodka cushioned inside their jackets. But, despite various inducements, none of his customers were willing to testify against him. The state decided to go ahead with the proceedings anyway, using the photos and trooper reports from their month-long investigation as circumstantial evidence.
The trial was the biggest event of the winter. Few residents had ever seen a jury trial, and excitement was intense. I was teaching at the local high school and was advisor for the school paper. My students were thrilled when our staff received permission to attend and report on the trial. The whole town planned to be there so the court had to move the proceedings from the magistrate’s cramped quarters to the theater above the Northern Commercial Company store. Seats filled early and guards turned away many latecomers.
Our environment was harsh and we could not count on many certainties in our daily lives; bad weather though was one predictable element. The heavy fog that spring day forced Bergie, our new District Court magistrate, into a unique situation.
As our U.S. Commissioner in territorial days, she had had no experience with jury trials, but she was the judge for this one. A prosecuting attorney was supposed to arrive on the DC3; Bergie was unable to convince him he really should get there a day early. The thought of overnighting in Bethel was too daunting though. Sure enough, the morning of the trial the fog was down to the ground and it was obvious it was not going to lift. We had no phones, so telegrams flew back and forth until the Fairbanks office decided that, as the jury pool was in place and all the arrangements made, they would go ahead with the trial. Bergie would serve as both prosecuting attorney and judge!
Rocky did not have a defense attorney either. He was convinced he was dealing with a bunch of yokels and would have no trouble handling the situation with his usual mastery and aplomb.
Without first-hand evidence the court could only charge that Rocky sold liquor illegally during a particular period, the month of December, based on their photos and observations. With one court representative serving as both prosecutor and judge, and the defendant serving as his own attorney, the stage was set for a trial that was bizarre even by Alaska’s flexible standards.
Bergie’s presentation of the prosecution’s case was weak, but Rocky lost the case himself when he questioned his own witnesses. First, he did not understand the basic honesty and lack of artifice.of the Yup’ik people. Second, our Western ideas of prosecution and defense were generally unfamiliar to local people at that time. Both village and town residents had traditional methods of resolving conflicts and handling unacceptable behavior. I doubt that Rocky’s witnesses even understood what their roles were supposed to be, unlike his Atlantic City buddies who would have known exactly what to say. And third, Rocky overestimated his skills as an amateur lawyer.
Rocky called three witnesses to refute the state’s charges of illegal buys. First was Joe Pete. Joe was his friend, and Rocky was sure he would back him up. “Joe,” he asked, “did you at any time in the month of December purchase a bottle of whiskey from me?” Joe thought for a long time, scratched his head, gave the question serious consideration, and then said, ”Gee, Rocky, I’m not sure. I probably did-- but then I was drunk the whole month and I don’t remember for sure.” Rocky did not ask him any more questions.
Next was Joe’s father Willie Pete, who owned an important Bethel trading post, another friend. Rocky asked the same question. Willie responded with a definite no, but Rocky’s smile was premature. Willie was looking at Rocky as if he were demented. “I buy my own,” he replied, “I’m sure as hell not going to pay you 40 bucks for a jug for cheap booze!”
Last was his girlfriend Alice, who was quite young and innocent. “We live together,” Rocky said, “in a small trailer. Have you ever seen me sell a bottle of liquor to anyone?”
“No, Rocky,” she replied softly, “you know you always make me go into the back room when somebody comes to buy a jug!”
With witnesses like that, the court didn’t even need a prosecutor. The jury quickly found Rocky guilty and sent him off to serve a year’s sentence. Alice returned to her village. She was pregnant when Rocky left, and in poor health after the baby was born.
When Rocky returned a few months later, he was on probation and stayed away from bootlegging but continued his gambling operation. By then Nora Guinn was Bethel’s first native magistrate. Soon Rocky was flush with money again. Nora was upset about reports of Rocky’s bankroll and Alice’s financial needs and his lack of responsibility for the baby (quite typical for the times). Rocky’s trailer was just down the road from Nora’s house. He was surprised one day when he answered a knock and found Judge Nora on his doorstep, hands on her hips, tiny but ferocious. As soon as he opened the door she marched in, flipped up the bedspread, and helped herself to several bundles of cash from under his bed. “This is for Alice and the baby,” she announced. “I’ll be back for more when it runs out.” Bush justice often calls for unique solutions.
Soon afterward Bob and I moved our family to our homestead at Stony River. Rocky left town a few months later, and I never heard any later news of him.
While the trial was in progress, I was recording the event on a tape recorder. I wanted the recording to check the accuracy of my students’ reports. I did not know that making such a recording was illegal and to my dismay the recording was confiscated by a stern bailiff when we left the building. Years later, I tried without success to locate the trial transcript and, if possible, the recording. I contacted editors, court personnel, and morgue managers, without success. I would have given just about anything for a record of that trial. Records from early statehood days were often poorly managed or lost, though. The trial did make big news in Anchorage and Juneau at the time and was often talked about later. I wonder if Rocky was ever aware that his trial was a historic event in Alaska jurisprudence.