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Wells' acquaintance says gun kept in safe was stolen, never found

Jerzy Shedlock
A memorial remembering Richard Belisle at the Rendezvous Bar in the Bells Flats neighborhood of Kodiak on May 9, 2012. Belisle was a regular at the bar before he was killed in April 2012. Loren Holmes photo

FBI special agent Joe Sturgis took the stand Monday at the start of the third week of the murder trial of James Michael Wells, who stands accused of murdering two U.S. Coast Guard members in April 2012, and offered key details about one of the government’s “six strands of evidence” in the case. He outlined the known whereabouts of Wells and how long prosecutors estimate it would have taken him to commit the brutal shootings.

According to federal prosecutors, Sturgis’ calculations for total travel time from Wells’ home in the Bells Flats neighborhood to the scene of the crime and back offered the defendant enough opportunity to kill 41-year-old James Hopkins and 51-year-old Richard Belisle. Cameras captured Wells driving to and from the direction of the alleged crime scene, with a gap of 34 minutes, they say.

The defense questioned Sturgis about the time of day that Wells allegedly drove that route and shot the two men, contending the government’s estimated timeframe was inaccurate given the sole road headed into the island’s main city, Rezanof Drive, could have heavy traffic when people from Bells Flats leave for work, among other factors.

Later Monday, the government presented a witness who allegedly had a gun stolen by Wells, a gun the government argues Wells could have used to commit the crimes.

Wells was a civilian Coast Guard employee on Kodiak, the second largest island in the United States and home to a major military base. The communications station at which Wells worked with Hopkins and Belisle is geographically separate from the island’s main base.

The murders occurred in the morning of April 12, 2012, when Wells allegedly shot the men at “the rigger shop,” an antenna maintenance building. The two men were just starting their workdays around 7 a.m. The government argues the defendant was distraught over grievances about his job performance, which included at least one mention of being replaced. Authorities never found a murder weapon, and prosecutors are arguing the case based on circumstantial evidence.

‘Never going to be seen’

Wells was first spotted by a security camera at 6:48 a.m. on the day of the murders, driving past the Coast Guard base's main gate. It was 34 minutes later when he passed the gate again, according to court testimony. One minute after Hopkins arrived for work at 7:08 a.m., another camera positioned on the backside of the rigger shop showed a vehicle disappearing behind the building. The government contends that vehicle was a blue Honda CR-V belonging to Wells' wife. The blue vehicle reappeared at 7:14 a.m., headed in the opposite direction, toward the airport or city.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Peter Offenbecher argued someone else could have approached the shop from the opposite direction, altogether avoiding cameras, as the building has two driveways. That someone could have come from the direction of the golf course up the road, the defense says.

“Any person who drives a car like that is never going to be seen on either of the cameras?” Offenbecher asked. Sturgis agreed.

A safe, a trip to Honduras, and a missing Smith & Wesson

Later Monday afternoon, the prosecution continued with its hefty list of expert witnesses. One such expert was Robert Shem, a firearms and tool mark examiner at the state crime lab.

Following the Kodiak Island murders, Shem received bullets, bullet fragments and firearms to cross-examine. A few of the bullets, one with slight markings and others nearly destroyed, were shown to the jury. They came from the floor of the rigger shop, the top of a break room microwave -- even from Belisle’s neck.

Shem said he drew several conclusions from his tests:

• The bullets came from a .44 caliber firearm;

• None of the bullets submitted to the crime lab matched the guns taken from Wells' home; and

• The submitted ammo was likely manufactured by Winchester.

Using a nationwide database, Shem determined that 90 percent of the guns that use such ammo are made by Smith & Wesson.

Next to take the stand was retired Coast Guard officer and longtime friend of Wells, John Stein. The witness began his career in Kodiak. He left to pursue his career and eventually returned, but Stein testified he’d traveled extensively.

In the mid-1990s, Stein traveled to Honduras to visit friends. He moved his gun safe to Wells’ home during the trip, and gave Wells the combination to the safe. When he returned, he discovered the safe ajar and at least two items missing, including a firearm scope and a stainless-steel Smith & Wesson revolver. The revolver fired .44 caliber rounds, he said.

Wells allegedly claimed ignorance about the missing gun, and Stein said he did not press him much. Upon submitting a report of theft to police in August 1997, Stein provided a description of the Smith & Wesson including a serial number. The report also requested police contact Wells for further information.

Stein never got the gun back.

Robert Mitchell Pletnikoff, a Kodiak Island resident and acquaintance of Wells for 20 years, testified he’d seen Wells use “some type of pistol … I believe it was a stainless revolver,” during a hunting trip in 1998. Asked if he knew the caliber, he said “maybe .44.”

However, Curtner argued that Pletnikoff told a grand jury he wasn’t sure what type of gun Wells carried on the hunting trip, because it was holstered. Pletnikoff allegedly only remembered after a federal prosecutor requested he “think it over.”

An additional witnesses testified having seen a similar weapon in Wells’ possession.