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.
Last week, this column featured the story of two World War II draft dodgers chased by federal agents in the wilds around Talkeetna. Referenced in that article was an earlier case featuring the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Alaska. After a few requests from readers, the following is that story. Next week the series returns to Anchorage with the origin of the city’s name.
This tale began in Ketchikan on Oct. 20, 1930. Like many Ketchikan afternoons, it was cold and rainy. An unknown man approached the Coast Guard cutter Cygan through the gloom and handed off a painstakingly scrawled note. It read: “SAGGON---THe PHeaNIX IV is in need of Help—Badly—Laying BiTe AT higgins point. Go ToniTe. She is Fish ByeR.” The Phoenix IV was a boat belonging to 60-year-old fish buyer George P. Marshall, and Point Higgins is roughly 10 miles northwest of Ketchikan.
Due to weather conditions, Capt. S. Halvorson waited until the next morning to investigate. He indeed found the Phoenix IV quietly moored near Point Higgins. The boarding party from the Cygan discovered a macabre scene. Blood covered the deck amidst other signs of a deadly struggle. The perpetrator had also ransacked the pilothouse. Inside, a broken hacksaw blade and severed bolt marked the location of a missing safe. The ship’s skiff was gone.
Marshall’s bound, beaten and dead body lay atop the galley deck. His right eye was bruised, and his skull was fractured. A single .38 slug had passed through one of his toes and remained embedded in the deck. His hands were tied behind his back, one fist still tightly grasping a few dark hairs.
As part of his job, Marshall was known to carry on the Phoenix as much as $1,000, roughly $16,000 in 2021 money. He had survived several previous robberies in the lightly policed reality of Alaska at that time. Local law enforcement seized several of the area’s usual suspects for questioning and requested aid from the FBI office in Seattle.
The FBI, founded in 1908, had an inconsistent presence in Alaska through most of the early 20th century. Due to budget constraints, they opened and closed a Juneau field office twice between 1920 and 1938. They did not establish a permanent base in Alaska until 1939, prompted by the onset of World War II.
The small-time criminals interrogated by marshals in Ketchikan produced alibis and were released. When the FBI arrived, they assumed control of a rapidly chilling case. The federal agents visited the crime scene and discovered a cabin on the shore of the nearby Clover Passage. The occupant recalled a small gas-powered boat named the Comrade active in the area at the time of the murder. The witness also identified a pilot of the ship: Kenneth Govro.
Thus began the first manhunt of this investigation. FBI agents tracked Govro’s journey after the murder down to the Lower 48, finally locating him in Rawlins, Wyoming. After an initial show of ignorance regarding all things murderous, Govro began rapidly divulging the tale of a treacherous colleague.
The Comrade’s owner had hired both Govro and a Bert McDonald to work the boat in the Ketchikan-area waters. On the day of the murder, Govro said he and McDonald had breakfasted together at around 8 a.m. Then Govro rowed McDonald to shore per some unknown desire of the latter, and they separated. Per Govro, they did not see each other again until that evening at the Comrade. McDonald arrived aboard a new skiff rowed by Lloyd Close. Back on board, McDonald emptied a small burlap sack of canned food, some Van Camp pork and beans, Norwegian sardines and a single can of Libby’s sliced peaches.
Later that evening, McDonald approached Govro at his bunk and said, “Remember, no matter what happens, I was on this boat all day today,” he said. When newspaper coverage included the description of dark hairs in Marshall’s hand, Govro said the dark-haired McDonald grew increasingly nervous.
Then McDonald prepped Govro as an alibi, saying, “If any questions are asked us about where we were on the 20th, you tell them you rowed me ashore at 8:30 in the morning, when I said I was going to the city float to see about some sheet music I had loaned to a party, but that I returned about 11:30 and we had lunch together; that you left the boat for town afterwards — make it as late as you can — leaving me aboard the Comrade, and that I was still there when you came aboard at seven o’clock.”
The FBI agents already knew that on the morning of his murder, Marshall received a grocery delivery. That order included the same brands identified by Govro as within McDonald’s stash. The agents now returned to Alaska and revisited the Ketchikan-area grocery stores. While the other groceries in the order were widely available, only one store in the area carried Libby’s sliced peaches. Further, they carried them on the direct request of one George P. Marshall. And just like that, thanks to a tell-tale can of incriminating peaches, the agents knew McDonald was the killer.
By then, the calendar had rolled around into 1931. McDonald fled Alaska soon after the murder, taking the Comrade down to Seattle and returning it to the owner. From there, he headed to Portland, where he quickly earned a reputation as a big spender. However, his partner in crime, Lloyd Close, was still in Alaska and easily captured. Shortly before the murder, McDonald and Close robbed a Ketchikan cannery. The stolen goods included a hacksaw and replacement blades. Goods from the robbery were discovered in Close’s boat. Presented with this evidence, Close folded.
Close admitted to the robbery. He admitted the .38 was his. He admitted that McDonald killed Marshall. He even admitted that McDonald planned the murder and asked him to participate. But he denied that he was present for or played any part of the bloody scene aboard the Phoenix IV.
McDonald was arrested in Portland, the conclusion to the second manhunt of this affair, and transported back to Ketchikan. When his boat arrived on March 19, 1931, 500 locals crowded the dock for a glimpse of the murderer. The subsequent jury, eight men and four women, found McDonald guilty of murder and Close guilty of grand larceny. Though the district attorney sought the death penalty, the judge sentenced McDonald to life at the McNeil Island federal penitentiary near Tacoma, Wash. Close received nine months at Ketchikan’s federal jail.
McDonald’s life sentence of hard labor did not mark the end of his scheming. After his conviction, but before his transfer from Ketchikan to McNeil Island, he wrote a letter to his girlfriend. He was planning for an eventual escape, and the letter included instructions to forward letters to another criminal acquaintance. The third party would then heat the letter with an iron to reveal instructions written in invisible ink. Having set his plans in motion, McDonald ended the letter to his “cute little dimple darling” with “love and kisses.”
It should come as no surprise that the letter was immediately intercepted, reviewed and ridiculed. The marshal in Ketchikan forwarded the information to officials at McNeil Island.
At some point, it appears McDonald was relocated to the Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas. However, his behavior was sufficiently inappropriate that he was reassigned to Alcatraz, perhaps becoming Alaska’s first representative in the infamous San Francisco prison.
“Ketchikan Man, On Way to Pen, Plans Get Away.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 26, 1931, 8.
“M’Donald Arrives in Ketchikan.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 19, 1931, 1.
Roberts, Robert. “The Long Arm Over Alaska: FBI. Operations in the Territory.” Alaska Life, March 1940, 3, 18, 26.
“Territorial Court News.” [Fairbanks] Alaska Miner, June 28, 1938, 16.
“Two Suspects are Charged with Crimes.” Petersburg Press, November 7, 1930, 1.