Prosecutors lay out case in Coast Guard homicides

  • By Dan Joling
  • Sunday, March 30, 2014 8:41pm
  • News

ANCHORAGE — Federal prosecutors will try to prove that a respected Coast Guard civilian technician on Kodiak Island meticulously planned an alibi, sneaked onto a Communications Station and gunned down two co-workers with whom he had feuded.

Just 20 minutes after the April 12, 2012, shootings, according to the government theory of the case, James Michael Wells made it home and called the work phone of a man he had just shot, leaving a message saying he would be late for work because of a flat tire.

Jury selection begins Monday in trial of Wells, 63, who is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of murder of an officer or employee of the United States, and possession of a firearm in a crime of violence.

He is charged with killing Richard Belisle, 51, a former Coast Guard chief petty officer, and his immediate supervisor, Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins, 41, an electronics technician from Vergennes, Vt.

Wells is represented by federal defender Rich Curtner of Anchorage and defense attorney Peter Offenbecher of Seattle. Prosecutors have no eyewitnesses, no confession, no murder weapon and no physical evidence linking Wells to the homicides, they said in a trial brief.

“The government has built its case against Mr. Wells from a series of inferences,” they wrote.

The case could hinge on Wells’ explanation for 34 minutes when security cameras placed him within 1.5 miles of the Communications Station.

Kodiak is a community of 6,300 on Kodiak Island, some 250 miles south of Anchorage. It’s home to the largest Coast Guard Air Station in the Pacific.

The double homicide took place three miles away at the base Communications Station, where personnel monitor radio traffic from ships and planes. The station consists of two structures. Building T1, the main facility, houses command staff and operations personnel. Belisle and Hopkins were gunned down 100 yards away in Building T2, the Rigger Shop, where antennas are repaired.

Wells served eight years in the Navy and 13 with the Coast Guard. Upon discharge in 1990, he was hired as a civilian employee. A supervisor called Wells the most knowledgeable antenna mechanic on Kodiak Island and possibly the entire Coast Guard.

Wells, however, saw his status ebb as the go-to guy on all things connected to antennas and towers, according to prosecutors, and he resented an agency decision to provide more direct supervision.

Wells also had faced disciplinary action. He was suspected of using a shop gasoline car for personal vehicles. He was suspected of “collaring” trees at the station and, after they died, cutting them down for firewood to heat his home.

Three months before the murders, a supervisor informed Wells he would stay home from a national conference he had attended for years because of disciplinary problems and excessive absences.

The FBI made its case against Wells with security video recorded at the main Coast Guard Air Station, which Wells must pass to reach the Communications Station. The morning of the shootings, the video showed Wells’ white pickup driving by at 6:48 a.m.

Wells told investigators he thought a tire was soft. He stopped at the Kodiak airport parking lot, checked the tire and drove home, he said. Investigators say that would have taken six to 10 minutes, but Wells’ truck was not seen driving in the other direction until 7:22 a.m. — a 34-minute period.

Wells’ wife was out of town the day of the shooting, and her blue sport utility vehicle was parked at the Kodiak airport. Investigators concluded Wells switched cars, waited for Hopkins to drive by and followed him to the Communication Station.

Belisle’s access card to the Rigger Shop was swiped at 7 a.m. Hopkins’ pickup arrived at 7:08 a.m.

Video from a tower near the Rigger Shop showed a blue sport utility vehicle on the road leading to the station at 7:09 a.m. It was back on the road in the other direction at 7:14 a.m.

Prosecutors contend Wells pulled into the Rigger Shop parking lot by a side entrance not seen by a security camera, entered the Rigger Shop, shot the men and departed within five minutes.

Prosecutors contend Wells drove back to the airport, dropped off his wife’s car and drove home in his pickup. Wells at 7:29 a.m. left a message on the work phone of Hopkins saying he would be late because of the flat tire. He called supervisor Scott Reckner at 7:31 a.m. with the same message.

A Coast Guardsman found the bodies at 7:40 a.m.

Defense attorneys Curtner and Offenbecher said the video on which the government relies is of poor quality and that the make and model of the car recorded cannot be identified. In the absence of evidence, the government has proposed testimony from experts that will attempt to fill in gaps of the investigation, they said.

“A majority of this testimony is neither demonstrably relevant nor reliable,” they wrote.

A government witness will testify that a nail in Wells’ tire showed no damage from the road, indicating no one had driven on it. The nail head was in a tread groove, indicating it had not been picked up while driving.

The murderer had to be someone with intimate knowledge of the grounds and workers’ routines, prosecutors said. Hundreds of interviews and intense effort detected no other person who had motive, opportunity or means, prosecutors said.

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