The third day of the trial of James Michael Wells, who has been charged with murder for allegedly killing two U.S. Coast Guard members in 2012, began with testimony from the Coast Guard officer who discovered the dead, bloodied bodies of his coworkers.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Jay Beauford testified he entered his workplace and headed for his desk in a room labeled break room. Inside, he said he found the body of James Hopkins, nearly in the fetal position with his hands resting on his head.
“My first thought was someone was trying to play a practical joke on me,” Beauford said. Jokes and pranks were not outside of what was considered appropriate, he said.
He tried to get a response from Hopkins, but there was none. On the table in the middle of the room was the dead man’s work shirt. At the beginning of a shift, Hopkins would generally drink a cup of coffee and make the shirt conform to dress code by rolling up the sleeves, Beauford said.
After finding one coworker dead, the young officer went to the supervisors’ office. There he found Richard Belisle shot and killed, he said. He once again tried to raise a response but was unsuccessful.
Motive, knowledge and opportunity
According to the charges, Wells worked with 41-year-old Hopkins and 51-year-old Belisle in what is called the “rigger shop,” a repair shop of sorts near a communications building on the Kodiak Island Coast Guard base. Wells was a civilian employed by the Coast Guard, and in the year leading up to his coworkers’ deaths, he’d allegedly been reprimanded on several occasions for problems with his work performance.
Wells allegedly entered the rigger shop shortly after 7 a.m. on April 12 and shot his coworkers with a .44 revolver, a firearm that does not dispense spent shells. He allegedly avoided cameras at the shop to slip in unnoticed.
The government argues Wells was the only person who had the motive, knowledge and opportunity to murder Hopkins and Belisle. Federal prosecutors are relying on circumstantial evidence in their effort to put Wells in prison for multiple murder and firearm charges. There is no physical evidence incriminating Wells, U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said during opening statements Tuesday.
Following Beauford’s description of where he found the bodies, and his subsequent actions, which included calling a boss and asking for emergency responders, federal prosecutors focused on the rigger shop’s work environment.
According to Beauford, Wells, a civilian Coast Guard worker who served as an antenna mechanic, was very knowledgeable but did not share his expertise willingly.
“A lot of times he wouldn’t give up more than he had to,” the officer said. “Working with him … I remember not always getting the whole picture.”
Beauford mentioned disagreements surrounding how projects should be handled. In those instances, there were arguments, but those never escalated beyond heated discussion. No threats were made, Beauford said.
Recalling an instance when the shop crew was tasked with installing a satellite dish atop one of the base’s buildings, Beauford said Wells and Belisle disagreed about how the dish should have been hooked up via cables, through the roof or around the exterior of the building. When a supervisor -- one that the defense has argued had it out for Wells -- chose Belisle’s approach, the accused murderer accepted the choice and did not appear angry, the officer said.
A suspicious vehicle
Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Bullis, the second witness to take the stand Wednesday, served as the base watchman the night prior to the alleged murders. It was his job to check that the building was locked up after the workday, which he did the night of April 11, 2012. He said he only checks to see if the windows are closed and did not recall whether they have locks.
It was also Bullis’ job to monitor the 11 cameras placed around the rigger shop and the main communications station. That night, he spotted a white truck with a white canopy drive up to the latter building then turn around. The truck did so twice in six minutes, video surveillance shows.
Wells owns a white Dodge Ram with a white canopy. The rear end of the canopy on Wells’ truck is higher than the rest. The canopy shown on the video was flat, and Bullis contended after questioning by federal public defender F. Richard Curtner that the truck could not have been Wells’.
Curtner argued during opening statements the unknown vehicle may have been casing the rigger shop, implicating the possibility of another murderer.