In 1980 the only remaining state correctional facility within the city limits – Amandour Prison – closed its heavy iron door for last time. The order to shut down the facility, once home to as many as 494 inmates, actually occurred in 1951. While it is not surprising for the wheels of justice – or the wheels of bureaucracy – to grind slowly, in this case neither the State Department of Corrections nor any combination of city government officials was responsible the long delay. If any person held the key (so to speak) to the 37-year gap between decision and action, it is former Judge Marvin Kristolich. But the ultimate determining factor in the long, slow decline, and eventual demise of Amandour Prison was the remarkable constitution of its final inmate, John Stuart Powell.
Powell was the principal suspect in the sensational murder of Charles Kerry O’Keefe, Commissioner of Police, in August 1949. In the summer of 1950, with the still-unsolved case becoming an ongoing embarrassment for the police department, interim Police Chief Donald Connolly announced the apprehension of a suspect connected to the homicide by a barely credible trail of conjecture and circumstantial evidence. That suspect turned out to be John Stuart Powell, who had not only acquired two prior convictions for armed robbery and assault, but also declined to furnish police with a plausible alibi for the time of the murder. Although when pressed he claimed no knowledge of the O’Keefe homicide, he did not invest much effort in his own defense.
Despite his client’s reticence, public defender Thomas Judson very nearly won the case, despite relentless pressure from District Attorney Peter Moltrie to plead his client guilty. Three times the jury reported themselves hopelessly deadlocked, until a last-minute, and some would say suspicious, change of heart on the part of several jurymen brought back a verdict of guilty for murder in the first degree. Judge Kristolich stated his disagreement with the jury’s decision, believing that the crime warranted a finding of murder in the second degree, but he declined to overturn the verdict. He did, however, unexpectedly sentence Powell to life imprisonment, rather than execution.
What the public didn’t know was that Kristolich knew Powell was innocent. In 1996, the records of the case were requested by the Journal-Clarion under the Freedom of Information Act; they revealed the startling truth. Mrs. Marvin (Margaret) Kristolich had been having an affair with Charles Kerry O’Keefe, and had killed him in a lover’s quarrel. Judge Kristolich had pulled every string he could fit between his dirty fingers to have the case assigned to his court, including threatening to reveal incriminating photos of Connolly and his ‘very good friend,’ District Attorney Moltrie.
Kristolich’s peculiar brand of ‘mercy’ in sparing from execution a man he knew to be innocent was entirely at the behest of his wife. In addition, it was Margaret Kristolich who inserted the clause in the sentencing decree that Powell never be moved from Amandour Prison. Mrs. Kristolich was soon spied making visits to the prison almost daily. In exchange for Judge Kristolich’s legal – and apparently also marital – largesse, his wife had agreed to keep the lid on a few sordid tales of her own.
Not long afterwards, the wheels of justice began to whirl at astonishing speed. Judge Marvin Kristolich was felled by a heart attack in September 1951, only a month after Amandour Prison was slated for closure, though by decree that closure would have to wait until the release or demise of John Stuart Powell. Judge Kristolich’s death also coincided with an end to Margaret Kristolich’s frequent visits to the prison. In fact, by October of that year Margaret Kristolich had moved to Healy, Alaska, now – coincidentally – home to freshly minted Circuit Court Judge Thomas Judson. Then, in October of 1952, while camping in Denali National Park, Margaret Kristolich was killed by a brown bear.
Meanwhile, John Stuart Powell, 59 years old at the time of his conviction, continued to survive in excellent health, even as he continued to be denied parole. He not only outlasted Judge and Mrs. Kristolich, but also Chief Connelly (1964), District Attorney Moltrie (1965), and even Alaska Supreme Court Justice Judson (1979). And by 1977, every other inmate at Amandour Prison had either been released or died, leaving Powell as the sole inmate in the 500-bed facility for the last 11 years of his life. Finally, on November 4, 1980, at the age of 88, Powell succumbed to pneumonia. Within a week of his death, demolition began on Amandour Prison.
In 1998, eighteen years after John Stuart Powell’s death, Val Kilmer portrayed him in Surviving Justice, a direct-to-video film directed by Phillip Noyce. And in 2008, twenty-eight years after the closure of Amandour Prison, dozens – or even hundreds – of patrons every day enjoy the mesquite-grilled flavor of San Antonio-style sirloin at the Amandour Avenue Lone Star Steakhouse, most without the slightest remembrance of the prison that once occupied the site, or any knowledge of its most famous inmate.
– David Andrews