A violent season — Part 2

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Although the focus of this interconnected series of stories rests squarely upon actions that occurred in or near the Circus and Hilltop bars in Soldotna between May 1961 and December 1967, this chapter necessarily includes several actions far from the central Kenai Peninsula.

Triumph, Tragedy and Mystery

On May 27, 1961, in a trailer parked behind the Circus Bar, east of Soldotna, a woman whom police identified initially as “Mrs. Ann Pederson” wrote a brief note to her husband and then placed the barrel of a .357-magnum handgun against her head and pulled the trigger.

No contents of the note were shared with the public, nor was any motivation for her suicide provided by law-enforcement authorities. To this day, the reason Mrs. Pederson had for choosing to take her own life remains officially unexplained.

A 2023 records request to the Alaska Department of Public Safety produced a brief statement that “the record (of the investigation) is not known to exist.” A request to the Evergreen Memorial Chapel, in Anchorage, where the body was sent, produced an equally brief response: “We do not keep records back that far.”

Consequently, much of Ann Pederson’s life was left shrouded in mystery. The official line, according to the Alaska State Police and reported in newspapers of the time, was that Pederson was originally from California, had been born Nov. 25, 1928, had lived in Fairbanks for “several years,” had once appeared in a movie produced in Fairbanks, and was married to Oscar W. Pederson, who had been working on a construction project at Clear, in the Interior, when Ann took her own life.

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Only a recently obtained copy of Mrs. Pederson’s death certificate, plus some follow-up research, has further clarified her identity.

Although some details differ slightly from earlier media pronouncements, the following information appears to be accurate:

Mrs. Pederson was born Anna Eilertsen, the second child of Thorvald and Elizabeth (Burton) Eilertsen, in Yakima City, Washington, on Nov. 25, 1927, exactly one year earlier than reported by Oscar Pederson, who supplied the (mostly correct) information for the death certificate.

In October 1944, when Anna was still only 16, she married for the first time. Her new husband was 19-year-old Keith Duane Bennett, a seaman in the U.S. Navy. They wed in tiny Yelm, Washington, and had one child together before Anna—then calling herself Ann—filed for a divorce, which was granted on Dec. 6, 1949, on the grounds of “indignities.”

Gaps in the story exist beyond this point. What happened to the child after the divorce? Did, as State Police reported, Ann spend time in California and then Fairbanks? Why did she come to Alaska in the first place, and when? How did she support herself financially? Did she have other romantic relationships before she met Oscar Pederson?

More crucially, why she was living in a house trailer behind a Soldotna bar while her husband was at work hundreds of miles away? And who, really, was Oscar W. Pederson?

In all of Alaska at this time, there was only one man who fit the description of her husband supplied by authorities. That man was Oscar Wallace Pederson, who was four years older than Ann and who, by the time of his own death decades later, had worked in road construction for more than 30 years, mainly in Alaska. Oscar, like Ann, had spent many years in Fairbanks, starting in about 1951, before moving later to Anchorage.

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In 1961, when Ann pulled the trigger, he may also have been married to another woman—or had been until recently—and would, quite soon, be married again.

Oscar

Near Las Vegas in June 1948—about two years after serving a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II—Oscar Wallace Pederson married a Pennsylvania native named Ruth Ann Laform. In 1954, Oscar and Ruth made the front page of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner several times as they battled with the Territorial Welfare Department for the right to retain custody of a young foster child they hoped to adopt.

By December, they had succeeded, and young Vikki Pederson legally became their daughter. Vikki, born Mildred George in the Yukon River village of Beaver in 1952, had been placed in the Pederson home when she was only a month old.

According to articles at the time of the custody battle, both adult Pedersons were said to be in their early thirties. That was, however, true only for Oscar. Ruth was actually 14 years older than Oscar. In fact, she had been born in 1910, had been previously married and had produced a son who was still living with his father back in Pennsylvania.

Although the Pedersons had formed a united front during the custody battle, they parted ways at some point in the years after the adoption. It has been difficult to ascertain when exactly their marriage ended. In 1956, Ruth moved to Anchorage. Oscar may also have moved at that time, too.

Seventeen years later, when Ruth died in an Anchorage nursing home, Vikki, who was 21 and also living in Anchorage, was listed as her only survivor. Ruth herself, who had worked as a waitress in Anchorage for several years, was listed under her maiden name of Laform. She was only 63 years old.

When Oscar died in 1988 in Palouse, Washington, Vikki, then 36, was also living there and was listed as a survivor, along with five of Oscar’s siblings and two grandchildren. In his obituary, however, Ruth was called “his wife of 25 years,” implying that they had still been married at the time of her death.

It must be said that obituary “facts” can be manipulated, particularly when they are supplied by the same informant—almost certainly Vikki, in the case of both of her adoptive parents.

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But there’s more to the story: In Anchorage in November 1962—a year and a half after Ann Pederson pulled the trigger in Soldotna—Oscar married an Oregon native and divorcee named Velma Irene (Lloyd) Starkey. That marriage, according to a Washington dissolution document, did not end officially until 1983.

Also, in late 1968, Oscar W. Pederson had a brief relationship with an Anchorage woman named Donnie Fay (Straley) Chenvert, a divorced mother of six. Chenvert, in August 1969, gave birth to her seventh child. That child, a daughter, was given the surname of Hedden, after her mother’s next husband, but the daughter learned decades later, through DNA testing, that her true biological father had been Oscar W. Pederson.

It is difficult, therefore, to be absolutely certain of the actual relationship status of suicide victim Ann Pederson. Perhaps she was truly the bride of Oscar Wallace Pederson, and was sandwiched between his marriage to Ruth and his marriage to Velma. (He did check the “Married” box on the death certificate and call himself Ann’s husband.) Or perhaps she had married Pederson while he was still married to Ruth; maybe it was their relationship that prompted the end of Oscar’s first marriage.

The possibilities are myriad. Speculation can run wild. Given the current absence of definitive proof, it may be that no one will ever know the truth.

Only the Aftermath Remains

According to the Anchorage Daily Times, the body of Ann Pederson was discovered in a bedroom in the trailer behind the Circus Bar by a “visiting guest,” a local homesteader named Boyd Miller, reportedly the owner of the handgun Pederson had used to end her life.

Ann Pederson was buried June 1 in the Kenai Cemetery, according to the Cheechako News, but her name appears nowhere in the compendium Cemetery Inscriptions and Area Memorials in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Borough. According to a City of Kenai website, no grave bearing the name “Ann Pederson” exists in the city cemetery, although many graves are unmarked.

Officiating at her funeral was the Rev. Carl Glick of the Assembly of God Church in Kenai; records of the event have not been found, and the pastor, a pilot, disappeared along with his airplane the year after the funeral.

In April 1978, Oscar W. Pederson, who had also operated a bar in Fairbanks, moved from Alaska to Palouse, Wash., where he invested in another bar, the Wooden Nickel Tavern. Still the owner and operator of the bar 10 years later, he died in his home at age 64, of cardiac failure, complicated by lung cancer.

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TO BE CONTINUED

Ruth Ann and Oscar Pederson share smiles with young Vicky, a foster daughter they were trying to adopt in 1954. This front-page photograph appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on June 17, 1954.

Ruth Ann and Oscar Pederson share smiles with young Vicky, a foster daughter they were trying to adopt in 1954. This front-page photograph appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on June 17, 1954.

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