Part of a pursuit weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage’s history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Duke Knuth was Anchorage’s most flamboyant man of the 1960s. His ever-immaculate appearance, dazzled with diamonds and cowboy flourishes, was designed to overwhelm onlookers. There were pleasure boats and countless mistresses. His bronze Cadillacs were still shining, the real sign of the effort here. And there was a lot of money. From his bail base, he ruled the darkest corners of the city. He was on top of the world until he died, literally with his boots on.
The American surety bond system stems from English practices developed during the first millennium CE, but surety bonds date back to the earliest written history, over 4,500 years ago. Due to their financial incentive, most bail bondsmen also operate or hire bounty hunters. It is no coincidence that links have developed historically from hostage-taking and ransoms.
By definition, the practice of bail involves dealing with many criminals. Additionally, many bail bondsmen develop working relationships with the police, courts, and attorneys. And so, it’s not too surprising that some bail bonders throughout American history have weaponized their position within the criminal justice system to become criminals themselves. For example, the McDonough Brothers slaves – Peter and Tom – ruled the San Francisco underworld for three decades in the early 20th century. Older Anchorage was no different.
Charles “Duke” Knuth (1918-1968) grew up in an Italian neighborhood in the Chicago suburb of Cicero. He developed ties to the local mob early on, possibly even the infamous Sam Giancana, who ran the Chicago Outfit from 1957 to 1966. Young Knuth survived several scrapes with the law until caught in a mob scheme for which he spent 11 years in prison. He later claimed that the Mafia paid him $350 a month during this stay in exchange for his silence.
Perhaps in need of a fresh start, he moved to Anchorage in the early 1950s. He first tried his hand at a hotel, running the downtown Safari Hotel. Johnny Rich, from Kim Rich’s “Johnny’s Girl”, was one of his managers. However, Knuth correctly saw better opportunities in the much less competitive bond market.
Until his death, he was Alaska’s leading surety bond. His company AAA Bail Bonding had offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai and Juneau, with agents as far away as Seattle and Tokyo. He once followed a bail jumper to Puerto Rico. At least he liked telling this story to people as self-promotion or a warning. As his advertisements and business cards said, “Better to know Duke and not need Duke than to need Duke and not know Duke.”
Besides Safari and AAA, he also leased dump trucks to bonded contractors and construction companies. His brief tenure as an insurance agent ended when a rival informed the status of Knuth’s criminal record. To top it off, he also had a car wash, the Splash and Dash. Bail customers who defaulted on payment sometimes washed cars to pay off their debts. Somebody had to keep those Cadillacs so clean.
Knuth, lean and bony-faced, was a striking figure in the city. His typical attire included a white cowboy hat, black boots, a diamond pin, a diamond-studded gold watch, a black shirt, and old-fashioned double-breasted suits, which he vowed to bring back into fashion. His license plate read DUKE. A 90-foot pleasure boat, the Gypsy Queen, was moored in Seward and sported plush red carpeting. Seeking convenience and comfort in all things, he had an apartment built next to the Anchorage AAA Bonding office for his favorite mistress.
Behind this thin legal façade, Knuth was in fact the real center of organized and unorganized crime in Alaska. The allegations against Knuth span the spectrum of possibilities, including drug trafficking, prostitution, political bribes, police bribes and blackmail. With few competitors in the realm of the link, Knuth controlled whether a criminal remained in prison. Knuth could revoke bail, sending the individual back to jail. And according to local stories, that’s precisely what he did, threatening and controlling other criminals to do his bidding.
On April 2, 1966, former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston had an exhibition match in Anchorage. Today, Liston is best known for being the champion Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, defeated to win his first title. Liston was also known for his connections to organized crime. His own publicist claimed that the boxer was working on the side as a bill collector (i.e., legbreaker) for a loan shark operation in Las Vegas. The Anchorage exhibit was intended to be part of Liston’s comeback. Tellingly, the crowd-connected Knuth played a part in setting up the crowd-connected Liston game here. Knuth notarized the contract for the fight.
There have never been more than three bond competitors. In 1966, he had only one rival left, Ron Waters. Coincidentally, Waters was murdered on June 2, 1966, in his triple-locked Anchorage apartment across from the police station. The killers tortured Waters naked before strangling him with a wire coat hanger. Nothing was stolen and the murder was never solved. Anchorage Police Department officer and later Chief Ron Otte said, “Duke and Waters were really into the fringe, the criminal element. Drinking outside of working hours, prostitution, gambling, anything that could make money, they had their hands on it. From then until his death, Knuth was the only surety bond in town.
Knuth’s end, predictably, came violently. On the night of December 26-27, 1968, unknown assailants shot him three times in the head at the serf’s Fairview Ranch. Unlike Waters, he was still fully dressed, including his cowboy boots but without the trademark hat. A waitress, presumably one of his many mistresses, discovered the body after a night shift. As with Waters, the murder was never solved, but many locals claimed that disgruntled former customers killed the two slaves.
A Daily Times reporter noted, “The life expectancy of any surety on bail in Anchorage seems to be a little short of the human norm.” In “Johnny’s Girl”, Kim Rich provided the fitting epitaph for this period of local history. She recounted a local saying about bailed slaves: “The pay is good, but the retirement plan stinks.”
Chamberlin, John A. “Bounty Hunters: Can the Criminal Justice System Live Without Them?” University of Illinois Law Review 1998, no. 4 (1998): 1175-1205.
“No new clues to the murder.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 28, 1968, 2.
“Police are silent as the death is investigated.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 12, 1966, 1.
Rich, Kim. Johnny’s Girl: A Girl’s Memoir of Growing Up in the Alaskan Underworld. Portland: Graphic Arts Books, 1999.
“Strangulation, cause of death.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 8, 1966, 2.
Webster, Dave. “Bail ‘Duke’ found killed.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 27, 1968, 1, 2.
Webster, Dave. “Bondsman ‘Duke’ wielded great power – until 3 bullets hit.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 8, 1969, 1, 13.