Prosecutors to open Coast Guard shooting trial

  • By Dan Joling
  • Tuesday, April 1, 2014 5:42pm
  • News

ANCHORAGE — The attorney for the man charged with killing two co-workers at a Kodiak Island Coast Guard communications facility offered a medical explanation Tuesday for his client’s whereabouts during the shooting.

Federal defender Rich Curtner said complications from gall bladder surgery left James Michael Wells suffering from intestinal issues.

On his way to work on the morning of the deaths, Curtner said, Wells detected a soft tire on his truck but delayed changing it to spend 20 minutes in a bathroom at the Kodiak airport because of chronic diarrhea.

The timing is crucial.

Federal prosecutors say there’s a 34-minute period between security-camera recordings of Wells’ truck driving toward and away from the Communications Station, giving him time to reach the facility, shoot Richard Belisle, 51, and Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins, 41, and return home, where he concocted the flat tire alibi.

Wells 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. If he is convicted, prosecutors will not seek the death penalty.

U.S. Attorney for Alaska Karen Loeffler said in her opening statement that no other person had the means of escaping detection from security cameras at the Coast Guard Communications Station where the men worked. No robbery or other disturbance took place, she said.

“This murder was personal and intentional,” Loeffler said.

The motive, according to prosecutors, was unhappiness by a disgruntled employee. The Coast Guard was attempting to exert more control over Wells, a nationally recognized antenna technician who for years had called the shots at the shop.

The bodies were found in Building T2, known as the Rigger Shop, an L-shape building about 100 yards from the main facility, Building T1, which is staffed at all hours to monitor messages from mariners.

The morning of the shootings, Belisle’s security card opened the Rigger Shop at 7 a.m. Hopkins’ truck pulled in about 7:08 a.m. Within minutes, they would be dead, Loeffler said.

Belisle was shot in a small office he shared with Wells, Hopkins and supervisor Scott Reckner. Hopkins died in the building’s break room.

Wells’ white pickup truck showed up on security footage passing the main gate of the Coast Guard Air Station two miles away at 6:48 a.m. The same camera recorded the pickup 34 minutes later heading in the opposite direction toward Wells’ home, at 7:22 a.m.

When Wells claimed to have been checking his tire and spending time in a bathroom at commuter airline Servant Air, prosecutors contend he stopped at the airport, switched into his wife’s blue Honda CRV, drove to the Communications Station and shot his co-workers. He was back on the road within five minutes and drove back to the airport, switched to his truck and drove home.

A security camera on Building T1 shows a blurry image of a blue SUV driving by the Rigger Shop at 7:09 a.m. and heading in the opposite direction at 7:14 a.m.

Expert testimony will link the image to the SUV belonging to Wells’ wife, Loeffler said, undercutting Wells’ alibi and revealing his murder plot.

“It was well planned, it was well thought out, but it was not perfect,” she said.

Curtner said the image is not conclusive. The blue blur on which the government case hangs could have been an SUV manufactured by any of nine car companies, he said.

“That’s their identification evidence,” Curtner said.

Prosecutors steadfastly refused to consider other suspects, he said, Investigators should have looked into acquaintances of the victims’ families that had issues with illegal drugs. They instead took their cue from Wells’ Coast Guard supervisor, Scott Reckner, who immediately suggested that Wells had committed the murders.

“He poisoned everybody else to think that,” Curtner said.

Wells is a devoted family man with no criminal record, Curtner said. After serving 20 years in the Navy and Coast Guard, Wells vowed to never again wear a tie or shave and played Santa Claus on occasion with his long beard. The government case is built on a stack of assumptions, he said.

“The facts you will hear will not prove otherwise,” Curtner said. The trial is expected to go three to four weeks.

More in News

Nate Rochon cleans fish after dipnetting in the Kasilof River, on June 25, 2019, in Kasilof, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
King closures continue; Kasilof dipnet opens Saturday

The early-run Kenai River king sport fishery remains closed, and fishing for kings of any size is prohibited

An "Al Gross for Congress" sign sits near the driveway to Gross’ home in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, after he announced plans to withdraw from the U.S. House race. Gross has given little explanation in two statements for why he is ending his campaign, and a woman who answered the door at the Gross home asked a reporter to leave the property. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Alaska judge rules Sweeney won’t advance to special election

JUNEAU — A state court judge ruled Friday that Alaska elections officials… Continue reading

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion 
Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen listens to a presentation from Alaska Communications during a meeting of the Soldotna City Council on Wednesday, March 9, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska.
ACS pilots fiber program in certain peninsula neighborhoods

The fiber to the home service will make available the fastest internet home speeds on the peninsula

Nurse Tracy Silta draws a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the walk-in clinic at the intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling Highways in Soldotna, Alaska on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. COVID-19 vaccines for kids younger than 5 years old are now approved by both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Camille Botello / Peninsula Clarion)
COVID shots for kids under 5 available at public health

Roughly 18 million kids nationwide will now be eligible to get their COVID vaccines.

Megan Mitchell, left, and Nick McCoy protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning of Roe v. Wade at the intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways on Friday, June 24, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
‘Heartbroken’, ‘Betrayed’: Alaskans react to Roe decision

Supreme Court decision ends nearly 50 years of legally protected access to abortion

Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, June 24, 2022. The Supreme Court has ended constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years, a decision by its conservative majority to overturn the court’s landmark abortion cases. (AP Photo / Jose Luis Magana)
Alaskans react to Supreme Court overturn of Roe v. Wade

The Supreme Court has ended constitutional protections for abortion.

Tara Sweeney, a Republican seeking the sole U.S. House seat in Alaska, speaks during a forum for candidates, May 12, 2022, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/ Mark Thiessen)
Lawsuit says Sweeney should advance in Alaska US House race

The lawsuit says the fifth-place finisher in the special primary, Republican Tara Sweeney, should be put on the August special election ballot

Gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker stands in the Peninsula Clarion office on Friday, May 6, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Alaska AFL-CIO endorses Walker, Murkowski, Peltola

The AFL-CIO is Alaska’s largest labor organization and has historically been one of its most powerful political groups

A portion of a draft letter from Jeffrey Clark is displayed as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Federal agents search Trump-era official’s home, subpoena GOP leaders

Authorities on Wednesday searched the Virginia home of Jeffrey Clark

Most Read