‘The pay is good, but the retirement plan stinks’: The story of Anchorage’s most flamboyant criminal bail bondsman

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Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Duke Knuth was the most flamboyant man in 1960s Anchorage. His always immaculate appearance, bedazzled in diamonds and cowboy flourishes, was designed to overwhelm observers. There were pleasure boats and uncounted mistresses. His bronze Cadillacs always gleamed, the real sign of effort here. And there was a lot of money. From his bail bonding base, he ruled over the city’s darker corners. He was at the top of the world until he died, literally with his boots on.

The American bail system derives from English practices developed in the first thousand years A.D., but bail bonds date back to the earliest written history, more than 4,500 years ago. Due to their financial incentive, most bail bondsmen also operate as, or hire, bounty hunters. It is not a coincidence that bonds developed historically from hostage-taking and ransoms.

By definition, bail bonding practice involves dealing with many criminals. In addition, many bail bondsmen develop working relationships with police, courts and attorneys. And so, it is not too surprising that some bail bondsmen across American history have weaponized their position within the criminal justice system to became criminals themselves. For example, the bondsmen McDonough Brothers — Peter and Tom — ruled the criminal underworld in San Francisco 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 connections to the local Mafia early on, possibly even with the infamous Sam Giancana, who ran the Chicago Outfit from 1957 to 1966. The young Knuth survived several scrapes with the law until he was caught in a mob-related scheme for which he spent 11 years in prison. He later claimed that the Mafia paid him $350 a month during that stint in exchange for keeping quiet.

Perhaps in need of a fresh start, he moved to Anchorage in the early 1950s. He first tried his hand as a hotelier, running the downtown Safari Hotel. Johnny Rich, of “Johnny’s Girl” by Kim Rich fame, was one of his managers. However, Knuth correctly saw better opportunities in the far less competitive bail bonds market.

Until his death, he was Alaska’s foremost bail bondsman. His AAA Bail Bonding company had offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai and Juneau, with agents as far afield as Seattle and Tokyo. He once tracked a bail jumper all the way to Puerto Rico. At least, he enjoyed telling people that story as either self-promotion or a warning. As his ads and business cards said, “Better to know Duke and not need Duke than to need Duke and not know Duke.”

Besides the Safari and AAA, he also leased dump trucks to contractors and bonded construction companies. His brief tenure as an insurance agent ended when a rival informed the state of Knuth’s criminal record. To top it off, he also owned a car wash, the Splash and Dash. Bail customers who missed payments sometimes washed cars to pay off their debts. Someone had to keep those Cadillacs so clean.

The lean, bony-faced Knuth was a striking figure about town. His typical outfit included a white cowboy hat, black boots, diamond stickpin, diamond-studded gold watch, black shirt and outdated double-breasted suits, which he swore would come back into style. His license plate said DUKE. A 90-foot pleasure boat, the Gypsy Queen, was moored in Seward and featured 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 that thin legal façade, Knuth was actually the effective center of crime, organized and not, in Alaska. The allegations against Knuth cover the breadth of possibilities, including drug dealing, prostitution, political bribes, police bribes and blackmail. With few competitors in the bonding field, Knuth controlled whether a criminal stayed in jail. Knuth could revoke a bond, returning the individual to jail. And according to local stories, he did precisely that, threatening and controlling other criminals to do his bidding.

On April 2, 1966, former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston fought an exhibition match in Anchorage. Today, Liston is most famous for being the champion who Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, defeated to win his first title. Liston was also notorious for his organized crime connections. His own publicist claimed the boxer worked a side job as a bill collector (i.e., leg breaker) for a Las Vegas loan shark operation. The Anchorage exhibition was intended as part of Liston’s comeback. Tellingly, the mob-connected Knuth played a role in setting up the mob-connected Liston’s match here. Knuth notarized the contract for the bout.

There were never more than three bail bonding competitors. By 1966, he was down to only one rival, Ron Waters. Coincidentally, Waters was murdered on June 2, 1966, in his triple-locked Anchorage apartment, across the street from the police station. The killers tortured the nude Waters before strangling him with a wire clothes 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 involved in the fringe, the criminal element. After-hours alcohol, prostitution, gambling, anything you could make money at, they had their hands in.” From then until his death, Knuth was the only bail bondsman in town.

Knuth’s end, as could be expected, came violently. On the night of Dec. 26-27, 1968, unknown assailants shot him three times in the head at the bondsman’s Fairview ranch home. Unlike Waters, he was still clothed, including his cowboy boots but without the trademark hat. A waitress, presumably one of his many mistresses, discovered the body after a late-night shift. As with Waters, the murder was never solved, but many locals claimed unhappy former clients killed both bondsmen.

A Daily Times reporter noted, “The life expectancy of any bail bondsman in Anchorage appears to be a bit 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 bail bondsmen: “The pay is good, but the retirement plan stinks.”

Key sources:

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 in Murder.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 28, 1968, 2.

“Police Quiet in Progress of Death Probe.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 12, 1966, 1.

Rich, Kim. Johnny’s Girl: A Daughter’s Memoir of Growing Up in Alaska’s Underworld. Portland: Graphics Arts Books, 1999.

“Strangling, Death Cause.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 8, 1966, 2.

Webster, Dave. “Bail Bondsman ‘Duke’ Found Slain.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 27, 1968, 1, 2.

Webster, Dave. “Bondsman ‘Duke’ Wielded Vast Power—Until 3 Bullets Hit.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 8, 1969, 1, 13.