The infamous Fairbanks murder lies at the heart of the new book

“The Alaskan Blonde: Sex, Secrets, and the Hollywood Story That Shocked America”

by James Bartlett Territory Books, 2022; 252 pages $19.99

The basic elements of the story are not in dispute. Early in the morning of October 17, 1953, Diane Wells came out of her apartment in downtown Fairbanks after being badly beaten, woke her neighbor, and explained that two masked men had entered the unit she shared with her husband and attacked both. . Officers arrived at the scene, and soon found Cecil Wells dead in his bed, apparently also beaten.

From there it gets confusing. It soon became apparent that Cecil Wells had died of a single gunshot wound to the head. His body indicated that he was asleep when he was killed. Nobody heard the gun. Some things were missing from the apartment, but quite a bit of a burglary veering off course seemed unlikely. Rumors that Cecil was at times violent towards Diane and that Diane was unfaithful to Cecil were supported by sufficient circumstantial evidence to be credible. And one of the men she was likely involved with, a black musician named Johnny Warren, had left Fairbanks for Los Angeles that very night.

The murder, which involved wealth, gender, race and a rookie federal prosecutor named Ted Stevens, remains unsolved seven decades later. Perhaps most surprisingly, it took so long to write a book on the topic.

Veteran journalist James Bartlett accepted the challenge. Originally from Britain, he lives in Los Angeles, which is where some of the crucial scenes in this drama took place, including Diane’s suicide in a Hollywood hotel room. Bartlett has become obsessed with this mystery, and his new book “The Alaskan Blonde” is the result of more than five years of research. It’s a snapshot of Fairbanks in the mid-20th century and a detailed examination of a complex issue. Bartlett provided his theory of what happened in the final chapter, but like all other possible explanations, it requires some blanks to be filled and lacks a smoke pistol – the one used in the murder was never found. Like many true crime books, this book shows how the trauma of a violent event leaves lasting scars on survivors.

Cecil Wells was a wealthy businessman with several businesses in Fairbanks. But while he has been doing well in his career, his personal life has been rocky. Diane was his fifth wife, was in her second marriage and had two deserted daughters, personal details she kept under wraps, perhaps even from Cecil. They lived in two apartment suites on the top floor of the Northward Building, which in the 1950s Fairbanks was probably the most luxurious place in town to live – hard to believe now, but it’s true. The social scene in downtown Fairbanks has been bustling and, by Alaskan standards at least, sparkling in those dizzying days when the state was imminent. And Diane was a beautiful woman, coveted by many in the disproportionately male-inhabited city. This combination of circumstances drove the story to the front pages of newspapers across America and abroad, often with poor coverage.

Bartlett did a fine job of reconstructing the shattered lives of Diane, Cecil and Fairbanks that inhabited them. It also explores the backgrounds of many of the people likely to be associated with the case. It is Byzantine to summarize it here, but suffice it to say that the list of essential characters included at the beginning of the book comes in handy, because it is not easy to keep up. This is not Bartlett’s fault. There are so many players in this story that detectives have struggled to fully solve it.

Diane and Johnny appeared as suspects early on. However, within months, Diane committed suicide – her autopsy revealed that she had recently been pregnant; Whether she miscarried or had an abortion is unknown, but these details add to the mysteries surrounding the case. Meanwhile, no charges were brought against Johnny, although he was not formally acquitted for seven years.

Another player was William Columbani. Originally from El Salvador, he was of mixed Latin American and Italian ancestry, and was close to Diane, particularly in the months between Cecil’s murder and her suicide. He was the only person ever tried and convicted in connection with the case, even though it was for perjury, not murder.

Stevens remained convinced until his death that Diane and Johnny conspired to murder, but the evidence provided by Bartlett makes Johnny an unlikely participant. It is difficult to rule out possible Colombani’s involvement, as is the case with Diane. However, the city had already experienced a fatal invasion of the house by unknown assailants, and a non-fatal invasion followed, supporting Diane’s claims. Readers, like Bartlett, will have to draw their own conclusions.

There are two interesting takeaways from this book that lie mostly unstated between the lines. First, the reason neither Stevens nor his successors ever brought the charges was because they were unable to prove them in court. In the 1950s in America, there were many places where a black man, a white woman, and a wealthy murdered husband could have led to the black man’s conviction and possible execution no matter what the facts indicated. Stevens’ lack of urgency for the case to go to trial suggests that while the prospective jurors in Fairbanks likely had racist sentiments common at the time, they would still demand compelling evidence. This is noteworthy.

Another thing, which Bartlett touches near the end, is how it can resonate between generations as a result of decades of violence and fractured relationships. He writes: “Among the Wells, Warren, and Columbine families, there are stories of orphanages, broken homes, divorce, alienation, violence, abuse, mental illness, secrets, and suicide. With few exceptions, everyone affected by this condition seems to have suffered in some way.”

For all the horrific details the media have been contacting at the time, there is a human tragedy here that goes beyond that at its center. Murder always does more harm than just the victim. And while Bartlett’s writing style is more journalistic than literary – he is a reporter after all – he tells that story well. These were restless, deeply flawed humans. It didn’t end well for most of them.

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