The fate of the iconic neon palm tree sign that once stood in front of the derelict Paradise Inn on Spenard Road will now be decided by a federal judge.
Judge Ralph Beistline is being asked to settle a fight between the government and Bernadette Wilson, a longtime political operative and former talk show host whose garbage disposal company took the sign down.
The dispute, still playing out in court, grew out of a mistake by a federal worker, who told Wilson to get rid of the tree. Her company, Denali Disposal, was hired to clean up the inn before its sale by the federal government, which claimed the property last year when its owner was sentenced to prison for selling a bag of meth.
[Related: Spenard's Paradise Inn and its famous sign headed for auction]
Instead of dumping the sign, Wilson kept it. She has it stored in an "undisclosed location," according to court documents filed by the U.S. Attorney for Alaska.
The tree, when Wilson took it, was infested with pigeons, both live and dead, her attorney said at an Anchorage hearing last week. She said in a brief phone interview Wednesday that she'd like to clean it up.
"It's kind of cool. We'll do something with it. Refurbish it," she said. "But then it turned into a big, threatening federal overreach."
To understand the palm tree's significance, you have to go back to 1962, when the inn was built.
The tiki-style building with a clamshell-shaped awning was first called the South Seas Hotel and Lounge. It was once a popular spot at a time when there were few places in Anchorage for tourists to stay.
The hotel changed hands and ultimately became a hot spot, police say, for drugs and sex trafficking. The sign stayed and became a landmark — though more out of familiarity than intrinsic artistic quality, said Victoria Petersen, who edits a new neighborhood magazine, the Spenardian. The magazine launched last week at a party that featured a 3-and-a-half-foot tall, palm-tree-shaped piñata.
"I don't think it's super aesthetically appealing, personally. But I think it symbolizes the community," Petersen said. "A lot of people connect with it."
Petersen said she's been asked repeatedly what happened to the sign after it was removed in November.
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Its story has been quietly unfolding in legal filings and in Beistline's courtroom downtown. The federal government, like Wilson, sees the sign's value and wants it back, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Cavanaugh told Beistline.
Beistline is being asked to issue a seizure warrant for the sign, while Wilson has hired an attorney to help her keep it.
Beistline, who was born in Fairbanks, didn't see what the fuss was about.
"So, inside this non-functioning neon sign, is there gold?" he asked at last week's hearing. "There's got to be something that someone's not telling me."
Wilson, a fixture in Anchorage's conservative political circles for years, has also been a competitive figure skater and once hosted a bipartisan talk radio program with Ethan Berkowitz, before he was elected Anchorage mayor.
Before her company took the neon sign from the inn in November, a marshals service employee walked Wilson around the property, pointing out objects to be thrown away — including the palm tree, Wilson's attorney, Brian Heady, wrote in a legal filing.
"They told us that it was trash and that it was not important," Wilson said in the phone interview.
Two weeks after the sign came down, the U.S. Attorney's Office called Wilson to "inquire about the palm tree," Heady wrote. After she refused to "relinquish the sign," Cavanaugh, the assistant U.S. attorney, filed the motion for a seizure warrant.
Wilson questioned why the sign was so important to the government.
"You're spending taxpayer money to go to court for what?" she said.
The government doesn't dispute that Denali Disposal was following instructions. But it's arguing that the marshals service employee who directed Wilson didn't actually have authority to get rid of the sign.
"We don't want government employees giving away valuable parts of buildings or things that have been forfeited without going through proper channels," Cavanaugh, the assistant U.S. attorney, said at the hearing.
"The U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Marshals Service are working closely to ensure that there are no appearances of impropriety when disposing of this property," a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, Chloe Martin, added in a prepared statement.
How much is the sign actually worth?
Since it doesn't light up, it could probably sell for $350 to $500, said Kelly Turney, a certified appraiser who runs an antiques and collectibles business in Palmer.
"Old neon in Alaska is tough to find and it's a custom-made piece," he said. "It's worth more than painted sheet metal and broken neon."
The question was the subject of debate in Beistline's courtroom. Cavanaugh argued that the palm tree has "fairly significant value" that will ultimately be determined by market forces; Wilson's attorney downplayed the amount, noting the pigeons that were found inside the tree.
"Maybe the value is the iconic value — I don't know. But you can't attach a dollar value to that," he said.
At the end of the hearing, Beistline ordered the two sides to give him additional legal filings that answer two questions. First, was the palm tree a "fixture" that was part of the inn itself, rather than a separate item? And second, if it was a fixture, did the marshals service employee have the authority to dispose of it?
Those legal briefs are due Monday. In the meantime, Beistline told Wilson not to destroy the sign, or move it.
"Take care of it," he said.
"It's watered," Wilson's attorney said. "Cared for."
Correction: This story initially misspelled Victoria Petersen's name.