AD Main Menu

Supervisor describes workplace problems with Kodiak Coast Guard murder suspect

Jerzy Shedlock
Chief Petty Officer Scott Reckner took the stand Thursday, testifying that accused murderer James Michael Wells was a challenging and problematic employee. Loren Holmes photo

Chief Petty Officer Scott Reckner, whose name popped up frequently during the first week of the murder case against James Michael Wells, testified Thursday that he and other coworkers of two killed men were “devastated” immediately following fatal shootings on Kodiak Island in April 2012.

Reckner said he tried to enter the crime scene, but Coast Guard police officers kept him at bay. Wells arrived shortly thereafter, and Reckner told him “someone shot Jim and Rich.” Wells replied that his tire was flat, Reckner said. Throughout the day, people cried over those lost as Wells allegedly napped and “appeared fine,” he said.

The defense argued during its opening statements Reckner unfairly targeted Wells and poisoned others into thinking the allegedly troublesome employee committed the murders.

Wells was an antenna maintenance worker who stands accused of killing two U.S. Coast Guard personnel on Kodiak, the second largest island in the United States and home to a major military base. 

The murders happened early in the morning of April 12, 2012. Wells is charged with fatally shooting James Hopkins, 41, and Richard Belisle, 51. Authorities never found a murder weapon, and the government is arguing the case based on circumstantial evidence. Federal prosecutors say Wells planned the murders, and he was the only individual with the knowledge to pull it off without leaving any physical evidence behind.

Wells and his alleged victims worked at what is called the rigger shop, part of a Coast Guard installation on Kodiak Island. As Hopkins and Belisle were starting their workdays around 7 a.m., Wells allegedly snuck around security cameras to shoot and kill the men with a .44 revolver. The government argues Wells was distraught over grievances about his job performance.

Persistent problems

Reckner said he began working on the Coast Guard installation in July 2010. He familiarized himself with the rigger shop and the communications station up the road; he would come to oversee the day-to-day goings-on at both buildings.

He started spending a significant amount of time at the shop; the work interested him, and he wanted to see if there was anything he could do to improve its operations, he said. Reckner was satisfied in the beginning. However, it became apparent that Wells was “running the show.” He was disrespectful to his supervisor, Hopkins, Reckner said.

In April 2011, a year prior to the alleged murders, Reckner drafted a memorandum explaining what was expected of the civilian workers. He did not want to single out Wells at that time, though Reckner testified the document was meant to stop Wells’ self-imposed dominance at the shop.

“I was trying to change accountability at the rigger shop,” Reckner said. “I wanted to know where (Wells) was and what he was doing” when he was on the clock. Reportedly, Hopkins was frequently unaware of Wells’ whereabouts.

Problems with Wells persisted, Reckner said, including differences of opinion over the raising of antennae on Shemya, an island near the end of the Aleutian Chain, and the inappropriate collaring of trees -- cutting trees around the trunks so they dry up and die, essentially curing them for use as firewood. According to court testimony, Wells heated his home using a woodstove.

While the rigger shop crew was away on its second trip to Shemya, Wells allegedly stole and used the rigger shop’s fuel card. Reckner said he eventually confronted Wells about the theft.

“I told him we couldn’t fire him because he wasn’t caught on tape, but it looked bad,” the chief petty officer said in court. “I told him it was time to get on board with the program.” The conversation became “heated,” he said.

The issues persisted as Wells’ health continued to decline. Wells was not invited to communications conference due to his unwillingness to improve, Reckner said. Wells was informed that Belisle wasn’t far off from replacing him, he said. In early 2012, Wells signed a “letter of caution” regarding the missing fuel card. A commanding officer informed Wells he’d lost his superiors’ trust, Reckner testified.

Withdrawn and uninterested

Following an operation to remove Wells’ gall bladder, which doctors had pinpointed as the culprit of his health problems, the alleged murderer became more and more withdrawn, Reckner said.

Wells was no longer discussing projects with the rigger shop crew during meetings; he spent a lot of time sitting at his desk, and he would sometimes disappear unexpectedly.

The government continually probed the chief petty officer Thursday afternoon in an attempt to build its case against Wells, a man who had allegedly operated outside the bounds of Coast Guard procedures before a new supervisor removed the wind from his sails. Court testimony in reply to federal prosecutors’ questioning indicates that a once combative employee morphed into an uninterested teammate.

Wells took to simply shaking his head and walking away. He allegedly did so when other rigger shop workers threw away nuts and bolts they didn’t need, and when Belisle’s choices were chosen over his.

Federal public defender F. Richard Curtner briefly cross-examined Reckner before the fourth day of trial ended. He asked the chief petty officer if he was aware of the multiple medals Wells was awarded while enlisted in the Navy.

Curtner questioned Reckner’s previous testimony that he had quickly realized the rigger shop could use improvements. He called up a performance evaluation Reckner filled out after his first year on Kodiak about Wells. According to that assessment, Wells exceeded expectations at work.