The ‘70s and ‘80s were pretty crazy in Anchorage. Some of it spilled over into the ‘90s.
Jon A. Woodard was fascinated by Steven Segal—the 6’ 4”, ponytail-sporting actor, martial artist and stuntman. Jon mimicked Steven’s appearance, including the trademark black clothes and ponytail. Woodard wanted to establish a reputation for himself as a tough guy—as an outlaw. Eminently successful, he wound up convicted of robbery and second-degree murder and was sentenced to 66 years in prison.
The sorry tale of this callow, delusional twenty-seven-year-old’s crime was well-covered in the local press: He murdered a hapless Loomis guard while attempting to rob the Carr’s Aurora Village grocery store located in Spenard between Northern Lights and Benson Boulevards. What was not covered was that before Woodard’s fateful grocery store misadventure he had tried to rob Chilkoot Charlie’s.
In the aftermath of the attempt at Koot’s, I learned that Woodard and accomplices had visited the bar on several occasions during the day shift to case the place. He had casually asked a lot of questions of the bar staff. He knew that the person who counted the bartender banks was named Olga (Cwikla). He knew that she performed her duties in an office across the hall from a set of bathrooms toward the rear of the club, and just inside the back door where the janitorial crew exited in the mornings to take out the trash. He knew that Beth Berke sometimes helped Olga with counting down the banks and filling out the daily reports. He knew there would be a lot of cash in the safe from the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights of the upcoming three-day Memorial Day weekend. He knew Olga’s approximate arrival and departure times.
Woodard chose the morning of Monday, May 25, 1992 to strike. He waited in the alley for the clean-up crew to open the rear door to dump the trash, then forced them back into the club at gunpoint and into the lady’s room across the hall from the office. He then kicked in both office doors—inner and outer. In the outer office he found two locked and secured safes, one for dropping night bartender sales, the other a gun safe compartmentalized to accommodate a dozen bartenders’ banks. In the inner office he found two desks, the master safe locked like the others, and some security equipment—but no Olga.
“Where’s Olga?” Woodard demanded of the terrified clean-up crew who were being held at gunpoint by an accomplice.
“She’s off today,” they replied in unison.
“Where’s Beth Berke?” he barked.
“She’s not here either,” they said.
It was a holiday Monday. The banks were closed. Olga and Beth had taken the day off. Our general manager, Doran Powell, had done the Sunday night banks after closing early Monday morning, then gone home to bed. None of our management was present. The only people on the premises were cleaning up from the night before and of course none of them had combinations to the safes, all of which were secured in their respective locations. Woodard had miscalculated. Unmentioned in the press because no money had been taken and no one had been shot, and undeterred by his lack of success at Koot’s, Woodard chose his next target.
Two weeks later, on the morning of Monday, June 8, 1992, Woodard, wearing a mask, strode into Carr’s Aurora Village. Again, he had help. Twenty-six-year-old Sean Pierce, a convicted forger, was the lookout. Twenty-five-year-old David Van Housen, a Carr’s employee who stocked produce on the midnight to eight a.m. shift had familiarized Woodard with the store layout and told him when the guard would be making his cash pickup. Twenty-three-year-old Karl Bohlin allegedly helped hide some of the cash after the robbery.
At the time there was an open-air box-shaped cubicle that acted as an office in the middle of the front area of the store. It had shoulder-height Plexiglas windows on all four sides and was only about five feet tall. Terrence Becker, the Loomis guard that fateful day, was inside collecting cash for transport to the bank. At his height Woodard could easily reach over the top of the cubicle to point his gun at Becker. When he did, and demanded cash, Becker started to reach for his own gun.
Woodard warned, “Don’t do that.”
Becker, for some sibylline reason, did it anyway. Woodard shot him in the side of the head and escaped with about $50,000 in cash.
When Doran Powell learned later in the day of the May 25th attempted robbery of Koot’s he was afraid whoever had tried to rob us might come back before we could make our deposits at the bank on Tuesday morning, so he took evasive action. Imagine Shelli’s surprise that Monday evening when after returning from a trip to Canada to visit her great-aunt Ferne, she opened the dryer in our condo to find bank bags bulging with nearly $100,000 in cash. It was a clever place for Doran to hide the money. The condo was secured with an alarm system, Shelli was in Canada, and I was not yet home from my second attempt at summiting Mt. Everest.
Returning from Nepal the following week, I immediately went about tightening security procedures. We installed solid oak doors in metal frames in both the inner and outer offices. Both doors were equipped with security bars and the intercom system was upgraded. Whoever was working in the inner office was never to let anyone into that office until they had first been let into the outer office and reinstalled the bar on the outer office door. If a person was leaving the office instructions were to close and lock the inner office door behind them before removing the bar and opening the outer door. Any person left in the inner office was to put the bar back up before the outer office bar was removed. There was never to be clear–and-open access to the inner office.
Though I warned Olga—and others—many times, human nature being what it is, I was generally the only one who always followed the procedures.
Woodard was to learn the problem with accomplices: they talk. None of them had anticipated 48-year-old Terrence Becker being shot in the head. The Daily Sitka Sentinel reported on September 4, 1992: “A convicted forger who admitted serving as lookout during a June supermarket heist that left an armored truck guard dead has pleaded no contest to armed robbery.
Sean Thomas Pierce, 26, entered the plea in Anchorage Superior Court on Thursday.
In return, Pierce will be given immunity from prosecution for murder, and he will receive no more than four years in prison if he testifies against his friends, who allegedly carried out the deadly robbery.”
The same paper reported on August 12, 1993: “A man who helped his friend with a 1992 supermarket robbery that turned fatal has been given two and a half years in prison.
David Van Housen, 26, an employee of the Carrs supermarket, gave inside information to Jon Woodard, who robbed the store of about $50,000 and killed an armored-car guard.
Judge Karen Hunt sentenced Van Housen to the short term, saying he was genuinely sorry for his act and had excellent prospects for rehabilitation.”
On September 27, 1993 the Sitka Sentinel wrote: “A man convicted of killing an armored car guard during a supermarket robbery has been sentenced to 66 years in prison."
Jon Woodard, 28, was sentenced Friday for second-degree murder. He was convicted earlier this year in the June, 1992 shooting death of Terry Becker.
Judge Karen Hunt rejected the prosecution’s request that Woodard be given the maximum 99 years, saying, “While he is dangerous, he doesn’t qualify as a worst offender.”
Woodard is to stand trial later this year on two other robbery charges, and he is accused of federal weapons violations.
The 66-year sentence means Woodard can apply for parole in 22 years.”
Woodard, in fact, the last time I checked was residing in a federal halfway house in Anchorage. Terrence Becker, born on May 19, 1944 in San Mateo, California, left behind a widow, Gail Ito; a son T.J.; a mother, Mary Becker; two brothers, John and Stephen; and sisters Mary Ellen Becker and Margaret O’Brien, none of whom will ever see him again. Terrence had worked for Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking for 15 years. Three years before his death he took a job with Alaska Security, which became Loomis. His hobbies included hiking, ocean kayaking, downhill skiing and practical shooting, none of which he will ever do again.
Though I am not one to question the wisdom of Judge Hunt’s sentencing decision, I do wonder what Woodard would have had to do to qualify as a “worst offender.” Since he was convicted of second degree murder I surmise he would have had to commit first degree—premeditated—murder, though the line between the two is sometimes fuzzy.
I have often pondered what the outcome would have been had Woodard not miscalculated in his attempted robbery of Chilkoot Charlie’s. What if the nexus of potential lethality had occurred there instead of a few blocks away?
Dagnabit! is a new column by the infamous former owner of Koot’s, Mike Gordon. This nostalgic romp through pre-statehood Alaska, tells the little known stories of the rough-and-tumble 70s, and the few years of the 80s Gordon refers to as the Glory Days, when anything was possible and money was no object.