A special agent with the FBI took the stand Tuesday afternoon in the murder case against James Michael Wells, accused of killing two Coast Guard members in April 2012. Evidence presented included boxes of ammo consistent with bullet fragments found at the murder scene, but none matched the supposed murder weapon, and the agent testified stockpiling guns and ammo isn’t uncommon among Alaskans.
Wells was a Coast Guard civilian employee who stands accused of killing two Coast Guard members on Kodiak, the second-largest island in the United States and home to a major military base. The communications station at which Wells worked is geographically separate from the island’s main base.
The murders happened early in the morning of April 12, 2012, and Wells is charged with fatally shooting 41-year-old James Hopkins and 51-year-old Richard Belisle. Authorities never found a murder weapon, and the government is arguing the case based on circumstantial evidence. Federal prosecutors contend Wells was the only person with the knowledge to pull off the murders without leaving any physical evidence behind.
Wells and the victims worked at what is called "the rigger shop," a kind of maintenance building. 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.
FBI special agent Derek Espeland and other members of the agency’s evidence response team in Alaska were informed of the murders shortly after the incident, he said. The team filled a Suburban full of investigative tools, loaded it onto a Coast Guard vessel in Anchorage and departed for Kodiak. It arrived on the island the same day.
The collection and documenting of evidence generally starts from the exterior, Espeland testified. Then agents move inward. But dozens of photos prosecutors presented Tuesday were captured inside the rigger shop. The special agent said he took all the photos, some of which included the bloodied bodies of the alleged murder victims. Nicola Belisle, Richard Belisle's wife, exited the courtroom at the mention of those photos, which showed her husband and his colleague.
One of the images showed Hopkins lying on his back. To Hopkins’ left rests a navy blue dress shirt; only one of its sleeves had been rolled up to conform with the Coast Guard’s dress code, meant to allow members to wear their sleeves up while still being able to push them down in case of an chemical attack. According to testimony, Hopkins' daily routine was to roll his sleeves up on a table in the middle of the break room. He apparently was doing so on the morning of April 12, 2012, when the killer caught him off guard. The government has argued both victims did not have the chance to defend themselves.
The government pulled the blue shirt from a cardboard box and displayed it to the jury. Additional evidence included bullet fragments, a broken kitchen bowl, a trash can punctured by what was believed to be a projectile and a black glove. Underneath spilled blood in the office -- where Belisle’s body was found -- were a slug and another with its copper jacket intact. The list of evidence went on: fingerprints, though prosecutors have said DNA evidence wouldn’t help their case, because Wells worked at the rigger shop; tire castings; debris with what was thought to be a piece of a tooth; and an empty can of lime-flavored diet soda.
Despite the FBI’s meticulous collection of evidence, Espeland testified investigators failed to find anything indicating “a suspect leaving the scene.” He said his impression was that the shooter “did so in such a manner that he or she left little to no evidence behind.”
Cache of guns and ammo amid clutter
After the rigger shop was combed over, FBI agents moved on to Wells’ home, then two vehicles. They went through the same process for the above, snapping hundreds of photos and sifting through clutter.
The government has described Wells as a hoarder, someone unwilling to throw away anything he sees as having use in the future. Several times, prosecutors have described an instance at the rigger shop when Wells is alleged to have visibly displayed frustration at coworkers throwing out nuts and bolts.
A photo of the defendant’s garage showed a space packed to the brim with odds and ends -- power tools, jugs, leftover wood. Somewhere under the garage’s clutter was a vehicle, though it was not visible in the photo. Espeland testified that the junk heap hindered evidence collection. In addition to the garage, there was a plethora of items stored underneath the home.
Inside the Wells’ residence, agents found a cabinet full of various ammunitions, which included rounds for .44 and .45 caliber firearms. They seized two guns, too, a .44 Magnum Ruger Super Blackhawk revolver and a .45 ACP Ruger P345 semiautomatic pistol. Those guns use ammo consistent with shells found at the rigger shop, but the shells and the guns didn’t match up. Wells allegedly had other guns in the home, as well.
During cross-examination, federal public defender F. Richard Curtner asked Espeland about the prevalence of gun ownership on Kodiak.
“It’s not unusual for any Alaskan to have a lot of ammo and guns,” the special agent replied. He also agreed many people on the island make a hobby of hunting, and a large population of bears is another reason locals arm themselves.
A smaller amount of evidence was seized in the vehicle searches of Wells’ Dodge Ram and his wife’s blue Honda CR-V, which were spotted near the base’s main gate and the rigger shop, respectively, on the day of the murder. A photo of the interior of Wells’ Dodge showed similar clutter to that in his garage, like outdoor equipment and trash.
The FBI took castings of the tires from both vehicles. It compared the castings with tire tracks in front of the rigger shop. It wasn’t until later in the investigation that the agents discovered the alleged murderer may have approached the shop using an alternate driveway. By that time, the steady rain that often soaks Kodiak washed away whatever tracks there may have been.