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Alaska’s most bizarre bank job

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published July 25, 2017

The 1964 fight between the Alaska Supreme Court and the bar association led to a show of force.

The director of the court system, accompanied by a state policeman, walked into the First National Bank of Anchorage on a July morning 53 years ago with a simple task in mind — collect a check for $6,000 and open a trust account.

Tom Stewart, a distinguished leader who had helped organize the Alaska Constitutional Convention and had done time as a territorial and state legislator, would later serve as a Superior Court judge in Juneau. He had no clue on July 24, 1964, that within hours he would be framed in the newspaper as a central character in a scripted bank "heist" that made national news.

Shortly before the bank opened at 10 a.m., Stewart and Police Sgt. Samuel P. Rick approached bank operations officer Ted Solberg to do the deed.

Stewart, following orders from Chief Justice Buell Nesbett, planned to deposit the money in a new trust account. The Alaska Supreme Court had taken over the Alaska Bar Association the day before and Nesbett wanted the court to take custody of the bar's assets.

Author Pamela Cravez recounts the fight between the chief justice and the Alaska Bar Association in her new book, "The Biggest Damned Hat: Tales from Alaska's Territorial Lawyers and Judges," published by the University of Alaska Press.

Nesbett had commanded a destroyer during World War II, and as fellow Supreme Court Justice John Dimond once said, he "had some of that concept of authority as chief justice."

The fight between Nesbett and the bar association grew out of a bitter disagreement over whether the court or the association should handle discipline cases for lawyers.

The idea of seizing the bar association assets was not a good one, but the former Navy commander whose name is now on the Fourth Avenue courthouse in Anchorage refused to change course.

Enter bank attorney Roger Cremo, who objected to Nesbett's approach and decided the check could not be handed over without additional formalities. Cremo ruled that the bank employee would do nothing unless someone pulled a gun to force him to act.

It is not clear if Solberg, acting under Cremo's orders, said to the officer, "Point your gun at me," "Please point your gun at me," or "Would you mind pointing your gun at me?"

Whatever the exact request, Sgt. Rick complied with it, but he did not put his finger near the trigger and he didn't ask Solberg to put his hands up, keep his mouth shut or any of the other things a stickup artist might say on TV.

After the gun had been waved in the cashier's general direction, Stewart received the check, sealing the contents of the contrived newspaper story that followed.

In an hour or so, the Anchorage Times appeared on the streets with a banner headline, "BAR FUNDS TAKEN AT GUN POINT."

The story began: "A First National Bank of Anchorage employee was forced at gunpoint today to turn over to the Alaska Supreme Court the funds of Alaska Bar Association."

"It was totally a set-up," Stewart said, "to embarrass the court."

Had Stewart lived to the age of Twitter and Trump, he would have been within his rights to complain about fake news.

The stunt worked. Cremo, in an interview 30 years later, admitted that someone had called the Anchorage Times to explain the caper, but it wasn't him.

"There are only two ways to get money from a bank — by force or a writ — and that writ was completely invalid," he said in a 1995 interview with Cravez.

If you ignore the real level of force involved, you can be 100 percent accurate by saying that the bank officer did not hand over the money until a policeman pulled his firearm.

As Solberg told a reporter later, "He pointed the gun right at me."

The Associated Press picked up the story and newspapers across the country informed their readers that "The Alaska Supreme Court sent a gun-toting Sgt. Samuel P. Rick of the Alaska State Police to the First National Bank Friday to withdraw about $6,000" from the bar association account.

Ketchikan lawyer Bob Zeigler, a future state legislator, said the choice that Nesbett had given the bar association members was whether they preferred to be "hung or poisoned." They decided to fight.

A convoluted court and administrative battle followed. In the end, the bar association, which had been authorized by the Territorial Legislature in 1955, retained its independence and got its $6,000 back.

Cravez's book is a good one for lawyers who need to know more about many of the key players in Alaska's early legal history and the choices that led to the foundation of the state system.

She interviewed more than 50 Alaska lawyers who began practicing before statehood, nearly all of them now deceased, for a wide-ranging collection of anecdotes about the law.

Cravez said that Nesbett's time on the court demonstrated the difficulty faced by someone who knew well the territorial traditions and wanted a more modern approach. But he chose high-handed tactics that didn't always go over well, such as the confrontation that led to the state's most bizarre bank job.

(Correction: An earlier version of this column had the wrong spelling of Sgt. Samuel P. Rick's name.)

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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