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Kodiak defendant's sons say dad never possessed alleged murder weapon

The rigger shop, part of the Coast Guard's Kodiak Base Communication Station, was the scene of a double murder on April 12, 2012. Loren Holmes photo

The beginning of the fourth week of the murder trial against James Michael Wells, charged with murdering two coworkers on Kodiak Island in April 2012, featured the appearance of Wells’ two sons, one of whom is a Portland police officer. The sons and other defense witnesses cast doubt on the government’s theory that Wells committed the brutal killings.

Prosecutors argue Wells used a specific kind of firearm to shoot and kill 41-year-old James Hopkins and 51-year-old Richard Belisle, specifically a stainless steel .44 Smith & Wesson Magnum revolver. Wells’ two sons -- both adults with families of their own -- testified they moved out of the household shortly after high school. Both said they’d never seen their father in possession of a stainless steel revolver.

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

The murders occurred in the morning of April 12, 2012, around 7 a.m., when the two men were just starting their work days at “the rigger shop,” an antenna maintenance building. The government argues Wells was distraught over grievances about his job performance, which included at least one mention of being replaced.

Authorities never found the murder weapon, and prosecutors are arguing the case based on circumstantial evidence. The defense says investigators targeted Wells and failed to pursue other potential suspects.

Never had stainless-steel Smith & Wesson

Cable Wells was the first son to take the stand Monday. He said he was 14 when his family moved to Kodiak Island, and he graduated from the local high school before attending college elsewhere in state.

The eldest son testified that he’d had a typical Alaskan upbringing; free time filled with activities like shooting guns, hunting and fishing. He spent time shooting firearms at two shooting ranges on the island with his father Jim and his father’s friend, John Stein.

Stein testified a week ago that upon leaving Kodiak for a vacation in the mid-1990s, he moved a safe packed with firearms into the Wells’ home. He said he gave Wells, a longtime friend, the combination. When he returned, he found the safe ajar and a stainless steel .44 Smith & Wesson revolver missing. The government argues Wells used this weapon to murder Hopkins and Belisle.

Government witnesses have testified they’d seen Wells with such a gun, but only on single occasions and the witnesses weren’t sure exactly what type of gun they spotted. Cable and his brother said the opposite, stating they never saw their father with a stainless steel revolver.

“It wasn’t a gun that we’d normally use,” Cable said.

Upon the government’s cross-examination, Cable said he’d seen a revolver but “couldn’t swear by the caliber.” Cable also said he told investigators he heard Stein had some sort of dementia. When the prosecution asked if he’d be surprised to find out the older man was not suffering from the degenerative disease, he said he would be.

Matt Wells took the stand next. He is a patrol officer in Portland, Ore.

Matt also said he went hunting with his father and shot various guns at the ranges with Stein. Despite the large number of guns the group fired off, he said he never saw his father in possession of the alleged murder weapon.

The safe Stein had stored at their house, in the attic according to court testimony, contained numerous firearms of various calibers. The pockets lining the safe’s door all filled with guns, he said.

Public federal defender Rich Curtner asked his client’s sons if their father was ever violent or lost his temper, and both said no. Loeffler asked if Matt had previously told investigators his father had a quick temper.

“Yes, I did. But I draw a distinction between violent and a quick temper,” he said.

‘The tattoo guy’

Later Monday, the defense questioned five witnesses in an attempt to draw connections between the April 12, 2012 murders and suspected cop shooter Jason Barnum. The heavily-tattooed criminal testified Friday that he was on Kodiak when the murders took place. U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline did not allow Barnum to testify before the jury; he disallowed the five additional witnesses, too, because the defense had yet to establish a meaningful connection.

Curtner argued the witnesses were important for a number of reasons: the testimony places Barnum on the island on April 12, 2012; he was acting oddly around residents, stating “he didn’t do it” without being asked; and made a pistol with his hands, gesturing that he was shooting at someone.

Defense witness Linda Hinson said she works at Alaska Commercial Company in Kodiak, a small store Barnum frequented while on the island. The defense asked if the convenience store clerk knew Barnum.

“The tattoo guy?” she replied. She said Barnum came into the store several times, sometimes with kids buying candy, as well as alone and “high on drugs.”

His appearance? “Slurred speech. Red eyes. Sweating bullets,” Hinson said.

Barnum, who at the time was recently released from prison, didn’t have an ID, but that didn’t stop him from trying to buy cigarettes. Hinson said she refused, and Barnum called her a bitch and “said he’d get me.” About three days later, she recalled, Barnum allegedly threatened her in front of the store by making the shooting-hand gesture while passing in a vehicle.

Former store employee Christine Burton said people began accusing Barnum of something. She the testified that Barnum “threw down his hands and said ‘I didn’t effing do it.’”

Another defense witnesses, Arek Pasley, was arrested on Monday when he tried to come through security at the federal courthouse in Anchorage with a handgun in his backpack. The witness still testified, entering the courtroom in handcuffs. He said he'd seen Barnum frequently in town, and Barnum quickly disappeared shortly after the murders.

But judge Beistline ruled in favor of the government, arguing he hadn’t seen a significant connection between Barnum and the murder case.

The parties are expected to give their closing arguments on Thursday.