Charged with murdering two U.S. Coast Guard employees on Kodiak Island, James Michael Wells pled not guilty to all six criminal counts against him at his arraignment Tuesday afternoon in Anchorage.
Wells, 61, a civilian antenna maintenance specialist employed by the Coast Guard, entered the courtroom shackled, in a yellow shirt and yellow pants. His long gray beard and gray hair looked unkempt, and he bore a solemn expression. He was unshackled and allowed to put on reading glasses for the remainder of the arraignment.
Those in attendance included the widow of Richard Belisle, one of the two men killed in April. Nicola Belisle was flanked by several people in the front row. As the proceedings continued, Belisle began to shake visibly, and she began to weep when the first charge was read. Wells' wife was absent from the court proceedings.
Wells has been charged with four counts of premeditated murder in the killing of U.S. Coast Guard Electronics Technician First Class James A. Hopkins and U.S. Coast Guard Civilian Employee Richard W. Belisle -- and six counts total. The first two counts charge him with murder in the first degree on federal property. Two others charge him with murder of an officer or employee of the United States. The final two charge him with possession and use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.
Presiding Judge John D. Roberts read the charges aloud to "show you these are serious charges," he said, addressing Wells.
In a press conference afterwards, U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said that for now, the maximum sentence is life in prison, and prosecutors will decide whether to seek the death penalty "somewhere down the road, once it is fully vetted through a national process."
On April 12, Belisle and Hopkins were found dead shortly after their shift began at 7 a.m. at the "rigger shop" where they worked alongside Wells repairing antenna at Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak.
Ten months passed after the killings with little word from investigators on the status of the case and no arrests. Loeffler said Alaska State Troopers, the FBI, and the U.S. Coast Guard investigative service considered the investigation "a top priority" during that time, and Wells' indictment is the culmination of their efforts.
The indictment alleges that Wells killed the two men "willfully, deliberately, maliciously and with premeditation." It states that Wells drove in his white Dodge pickup past the Coast Guard base's main gate camera, and pulled into the parking lot at Kodiak State Airport, where his wife's blue Honda CR-V was located. He then switched to her car, drove to the rigger shop, and committed the murders.
Afterwards he drove back to the airport and switched back to his white pick-up, driving by the main gate camera at 7:22 a.m. Once he returned home, Wells then placed several calls to his co-workers, saying that he had a flat tire and would be late for work. The alibi was shown to be false during forensic examination, the indictment maintains. Instead, the nail in Wells' tire was inserted by a nail gun, and the tire not driven on after it was inserted, according to the indictment.
"Tension" between Hopkins and Wells and problems with Wells' job performance, including several reprimands over the course of a number of years, were motives behind the crime, the indictment said. Witness testimony in the indictment maintains that Wells "had a bad temper and difficulty controlling himself."
The murder weapon has not been located. Wells owns several guns, but none of the guns investigators located matched the bullet-bearing markings, according to the indictment.
Witness testimony contained in the indictment said that Wells had once gone hunting with a silver-colored revolver of unknown caliber, a gun that was not located during the investigator's search -- and a weapon that may match the bullet markings.
A hearing to decide whether Wells is eligible for bail will be held Monday. Wells elected to be appointed a government attorney, and Judge Roberts agreed to provide him an attorney pro bono after he spends $30,000 on attorney fees.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com