Alaska Life

In 1976, a car bomb exploded in downtown Anchorage, killing Muriel Pfeil. No one was ever charged for her murder.

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Around noon on Sept. 30, 1976, Muriel Pfeil Jr. parked her Volvo station wagon in a downtown Anchorage lot at the intersection of L Street and Fourth Avenue. Her travel agency was across the street, the first travel agency in town. That building today houses Snow City Café. Around two hours later, she returned to the car for a new coat, wanting to show it to her employees. As she entered the car, a bomb underneath the hood exploded. Pieces of the car flew a 100 feet in the air. The sound reverberated through downtown. Faces appeared in windows as parts of the hood fluttered to the ground as far as 250 feet away. Though some nearby windows blew out, the force of the explosion was primarily directed back through the car interior, twisting the frame and killing the 41-year-old Pfeil instantly.

Some histories are crucial to understanding Anchorage’s evolution from a muddy, odorous tent city in 1915 to the state’s economic and demographic center. These histories include the eviction of the Dena’ina, the Alaska Railroad, the establishment of Fort Richardson and the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Other histories are crucial to understanding what life has been like in Anchorage over all these decades. These histories include bootlegging, bars, baseball and shopping. Muriel Pfeil’s story is a bit of both, particularly in how it illustrates Anchorage’s longstanding status as one of the most dangerous cities in the country for women.

Pfeil’s death is neither the opening nor the conclusion to this story. The Pfeil (rhymes with “file”) family was Anchorage nobility. Muriel’s father, the German-born Emil Pfeil, moved to Anchorage in 1920. Here, he worked as a miner and railroad blacksmith before moving into real estate. He soon became one of the city’s most influential and wealthy developers before dying in a 1954 floatplane crash. Muriel’s mother, Muriel Sr., was born in Spokane, Wash., and moved to Anchorage in 1925 to teach. She became a principal before devoting herself to her children. She died in 2001 at 101 years of age.

The police had exactly one suspect in Muriel’s murder, her ex-husband, Neil Mackay. He moved to Anchorage, first wife in tow, in 1951. The World War II pilot and law school graduate was quickly installed as a vice president for the First National Bank of Anchorage, working mostly with mortgages. Using the insider knowledge gleaned from his bank work, Mackay invested in underpriced properties. After passing the Alaska Bar in 1954, he quit the bank to manage his real estate holdings and open a Fourth Avenue mortuary with a law office in the back.

Mackay was a ruthless businessman addicted to alcohol. Successful treatment transformed him into a ruthless businessman addicted to pills. In 1961, the Alaska Supreme Court suspended his law license for a year for stealing from a client, an elderly neighbor, no less. The suspension became part of a larger war between the Alaska Supreme Court and the Alaska Bar Association, a subject for a future article.

After Mackay was suspended, a criminal claimed an Anchorage lawyer offered him $7,500, about $62,000 in 2020 dollars, to kill Buell Nesbett, then Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. The criminal thought the money was insufficient for the job and instead informed his parole officer, hoping for a deal that would allow him to leave the state. Nesbett received police protection for a few weeks without incident. In a 1982 interview, Nesbett said, “If it was a lawyer, it could have been nobody else but Mackay.”

In 1965, Mackay and his first wife, Barbara, separated. He refused to divorce her; it took three years and a series of court hearings to officially end the union. On New Year’s Eve 1968, he married Muriel. If there was a happy honeymoon period in their relationship, it was so brief as to defy any attempt to prove its existence. Both Neil and Muriel were quick-tempered. Muriel claimed Neil abused her, physically and repeatedly, and they only cohabitated for roughly half of the five years they were married. Their 1974-1975 divorce trial was legendary, including a physical altercation in the court. The presiding judge ordered both to undergo psychiatric evaluations.

The only thing Neil and Muriel agreed upon was loving their child, Neil “Scotty” Mackay Jr. The presiding judge for their divorce trial said, “almost daily there were demonstrations of temper tantrums manifested in bitter reproaches toward each other during recesses and at other breaks, anger at the judge . . . anger at opposing attorney. It seemed as a result of their temperaments that this marriage was doomed from the beginning and the only good thing that came from it was a marvelously likeable and happy child.”

Custody of Scotty, awarded to Muriel, might have been Mackay’s breaking point, or merely the latest breaking point of many. On Aug. 31, 1976, Neil won visitation rights limited to part of a weekend, once a month. While Neil fought for expanded access to Scotty, Muriel filed an appeal on Sept. 16, just two weeks before the bombing.

Despite the combined efforts of the Anchorage Police Department, Alaska State Troopers, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI, months passed without any breakthroughs in the investigation of Muriel’s death. The bomb was placed in the car within a narrow timeframe of roughly 12:30 to 2 p.m. However, there were no witnesses. Nothing also came of an oblique APD threat to polygraph Neil. Muriel’s brother, Robert “Bob” Pfeil, ran print and television advertisements offering a $20,000 reward, roughly $90,000 in 2020, for leads. Nobody came forward. Without any evidence or witnesses, the case went cold. No one was ever charged with the murder of Muriel Pfeil Jr.

Muriel’s will designated Scotty as the heir to her million-dollar-estate and expressed her desire for Bob to adopt Scotty. Without any doubts in his heart, Bob believed Mackay orchestrated Muriel’s death. And as expected, Mackay renewed his custody battle. In late 1977, after receiving court permission for a visit, Mackay instead flew Scotty and himself to Hawaii. From there, they continued to the tiny, less than 4 square miles, island of Likiep, part of the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. Bob had to hire detectives to find Scotty. Despite what would reasonably be considered a kidnapping, Neil won full custody of Scotty in 1978.

From then on, Mackay lived in Hawaii, a recluse who only returned to Alaska when forced by business or legal obligations. Bob continued his custody efforts until 1985 — when this story takes another tragic turn. On Oct. 12, 1985, Bob was on the way home when a Lincoln Continental pulled alongside. A gunman reached out and fired a .45 automatic five times. Three shots hit Bob, who was rushed to Providence Hospital. He told detectives, “The son of a bitch finally got me,” referring to Mackay. Bob’s family and friends offered a $50,000, roughly $120,000 in 2020, reward for information. Bob fought for nearly a month, but a blood clot moved into his lungs during surgery Nov. 11, killing him.

Gilbert “Junior” Pauole was a three-time felon connected to organized crime who managed several Anchorage strip clubs. One, the Wild Cherry, was in a building owned and frequently visited by Neil. Pauole claimed Mackay offered $10,000, roughly $24,000 in 2020, to arrange Bob’s death. His testimony helped convict four other men in connection to Bob’s murder, including shooter Bob Betts. Pauole himself plead guilty to the lesser charge of conspiracy to commit murder.

The evidence against Mackay consisted entirely of Pauole’s testimony and three recorded phone calls between them. In one, Mackay asked Pauole, “You mentioned something about a metal thing. Is it ground up?” Pauole replied, “The car? You mean the car?” Mackay then said, “Yeah. What about the G-U-N?” Pauole replied, “I don’t know anything about that. Those two guys got that, that, uh, the G-U-N.” Honolulu police arrested Mackay two days before Bob’s death.

Given the publicity in Anchorage, Mackay’s trial for Bob Pfeil’s murder was held in Fairbanks. The judge did not allow any evidence related to Muriel’s death or the ongoing custody battle. The first trial, in 1987, was declared a mistrial after unadmitted material about the case was discovered in the jury room. In the second trial, the jury acquitted Mackay on Feb. 7, 1988.

If there is a perk to hiring criminals for nefarious deeds, it is that criminals make for poor witnesses. The jury saw Pauole as entirely unreliable. Afterward, the jury foreman said, “If the truth were a bulldog and bit him on the nose, he wouldn’t recognize it . . . Even those [on the jury] who were for guilty didn’t believe Pauole.”

Having escaped the courts once again, Mackay returned to Hawaii. In 1994, he was still in his Waikiki penthouse apartment when he died of natural causes. He spent a lifetime raging at everyone in range. So, it makes sense that he died alone. It took four days before his body was discovered.

Mackay’s freedom from consequences illustrated the reality for many Anchorage women. In 2014, local domestic violence advocate Liz Meredith wrote, “Time and time again, battered women I met with indicated that Muriel’s death was used by their partners as a means to maintain control. ‘Leave me and you’ll go down like Muriel did.’”

Key sources:

Brennan, Tom. Cold Crime: How Police Detectives Solved Alaska’s Most Shocking Cases. Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Press, 2005.

Meredith, Lizbeth. “The Life and Death of Muriel Pfeil/What Have We Learned About Domestic Violence Since 1976.” Lizbeth Meredith, September 2014. lameredith.com/2014/09/the-life-and-death-of-muriel-pfeilwhat-have-we-learned-about-domestic-violence-since-1976/.

Nesbett, Buell. Interview by Claus-M Naske, July 26, 1982, Solana Beach, CA. Project Jukebox, University of Alaska Fairbanks. jukebox.uaf.edu/site7/interviews/454.

Parham, Bruce. “Pfeil, Emil H.” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940. alaskahistory.org/biographies/pfeil-emil-h/.

Rogers, Barbara. “Police Probe Bomb Death.” Anchorage Times, November 1, 1976, 1, 2.

Stewart, Tom. Interview by Margaret Russell, October 25, 2002, Anchorage, AK. Project Jukebox, University of Alaska Fairbanks. jukebox.uaf.edu/site7/interviews/525.

Toomey, Sheila. “Fairbanks Jury Finds Mackay Not Guilty.” Anchorage Daily News, February 8, 1988, A1.

Toomey, Sheila. “Mackay Dies in Hawaii.” Anchorage Daily News, September 24, 1994, A1.

Weaver, Howard. “Car Bomb Kills Woman.” Anchorage Daily News, October 1, 1976, 1, 2.


Sponsored