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Suspect in Kodiak Coast Guard shootings was problem employee, charges say

Casey Grove,Kyle Hopkins
Uncredited

A disgruntled civilian Coast Guard employee, 61-year-old James Wells, shot and killed two coworkers at a Kodiak communications station in 2012, according to the charges filed against Wells.

The charges, filed on Friday and unsealed Tuesday after a grand jury indictment, paint Wells as an angry, problem employee who carefully plotted the killings and tried to create an alibi by faking a flat tire. The complaint describes a series of workplace arguments that preceded the early morning shooting April 12 of last year that left 51-year-old Richard Belisle and 41-year-old James Hopkins dead.

Wells pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on Tuesday and was assigned a public defender. Later, U.S. Attorney for Alaska Karen Loeffler said it's possible prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Wells.

For about 23 years, Wells was an antenna maintenance specialist in the rigger shop, the charges say. Prior to that, Wells had been enlisted in the Coast Guard and was a disabled veteran, he told a judge Tuesday during an assessment of his finances. As a civilian, he worked alongside Belisle, a retired boatswain's mate and also a civilian employee, and Hopkins, an enlisted electrician's mate. According to the Coast Guard, the communications station relays and monitors radio messages from planes and ocean-going vessels.

In interviews with a supervisor of the rigger shop, which maintains antennae used by the station, investigators learned Wells had been accused of failing to perform certain duties, as well as using a station gas card for personal use and cutting down trees on government property that he used for firewood, according to the charges. The charges say Wells was also angry that the supervisor chose to send Belisle and Hopkins to a tower erectors' conference instead of Wells in January 2012.

FBI special agent Elizabeth Oberlander described the tense workplace dynamic and the accusations against Wells in the unsealed charges:

Wells was accustomed to working at the rigger shop with little supervision until a new supervisor took control in 2010. The supervisor made it clear that Hopkins was in charge, the witness said. That caused tension between the two men.

For example: The supervisor, who is identified in the complaint only as "Witness B," said Wells had decided not to install devices required by the Environmental Protection Agency on towers that Wells, Hopkins and Belisle were erecting on a remote Coast Guard facility. The supervisor insisted the devices be installed.

"Wells argued with Witness B over the decision and yelled at anyone who would listen that Witness B wasn't letting him do his job," the charges say.

Wells was rarely at work between August 2011, and January 2012, for medical reasons. During that time, he was accused of -- and denied -- using a fuel card for his personal vehicle.

In January 2012, a supervisor told Wells that Wells would not be attending the National Association of Tower Erectors conference, which he had regularly attended in the past, because of discipline problems and absences from work.

The supervisor was going to the conference with Hopkins and Belisle instead, Wells was told. A heated argument followed, one that people outside the office could hear. The supervisor told investigators that he warned Wells "it was time to get in line" and that the only reason he could not fire Wells over the gas card incident was that there was no surveillance video of Wells using the card.

"Wells thanked Witness B for his honesty," the charges say.

Wells' status at the communication station had deteriorated as Belisle gained more responsibility. One witness said that Wells' "star was fading" while Belisle's was "starting to shine," the charges say. On the day before the killings, the workers were discussing the best way to run an antennae cable and the supervisor sided with Belisle, over Wells.

In February 2012, the commanding officer at the communications station presented Wells with a "letter of caution" regarding improper use of the fuel card and "informed Wells that he no longer trusted Wells," according to the charges.

"Wells repeatedly denied the accusation and repeated the phrase, 'It just doesn't sit right,' " the charges say.

On the morning of the killings, Wells drove his white Dodge pickup to Kodiak State Airport. His wife had left her blue Honda CR-V when she flew out of town two days earlier, she later told investigators. At the airport, Wells switched to the CR-V and drove to Communications Station Kodiak. A surveillance camera recorded a small blue SUV matching the Honda's description drive to the station.

In interviews with federal agents, Wells said he left home about 6:50 the morning of the shootings but noticed his the air pressure in one of his tires seemed to be low. He said he turned around and drove home. That would have taken between six and ten minutes, the agents said. The agents told Wells the video camera footage showed it had been more than 30 minutes.

"I can't think of why there would be the time discrepancy," Wells told them. "I don't have a reasonable explanation for it."

Wells had returned to the airport and switched back to his pickup after the shootings, according to the charges. He drove the Dodge home, arriving by 7:22 a.m. and began setting the foundation for his alibi, calling his supervisors and co-workers to say he would be late to work.

Analysis of the tire, seized by the investigators, showed someone shot a nail into it using a nail gun. The nail's head was unmarked, which showed it had not punctured the tire while the pickup was driving.

One witness who received a call from Wells told investigators it was unusual for Wells to tell his supervisors of his whereabouts. The day before the killings, for example, he disappeared for three hours, the charges say.

Wells drove back to his home by 7:22 a.m., according to the charges. At 7:47 a.m., Alaska State Troopers were called to the communications station where they found Hopkins suffering from a gunshot would to his right torso and other wounds.

They found Belisle in a separate office. He'd been shot at least once in the torso. The Alaska medical examiner and Alaska Crime Laboratory later found that both men had been shot multiple times with .44-caliber, jacketed soft-point rounds.

A search of Wells' home uncovered jacketed soft points that "are consistent" with the rounds found at the crime scene, the complaint says. Two days after the killings, federal agents escorted Wells' wife, Nancy Wells, into the couple's home in Bells Flats so she could get some personal items.

"Nancy Wells told the Agents she would 'happily' show them where the guns were located in the home," the charges say. "Nancy Wells went to a bedroom, opened a closet door, and said, 'This is where we keep the guns,' and pointed to a silver colored plastic case on the upper shelf. She appeared somewhat confused as she looked at the upper shelf, then closed the closet door and added, 'Well, they are usually stored up there.' "

Investigators never found the murder weapon, according to the complaint.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE and KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News
Contact Kyle Hopkins at or on