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Prosecutors in Kodiak double murder case call final witnesses

The Coast Guard base in Kodiak, Alaska. May 7, 2012. Loren Holmes photo

The government called the last of its witnesses Wednesday in the murder trial against James Michael Wells, which has been unfolding in Anchorage for nearly a month. Prosecutors aimed to poke holes in the defense’s argument that Wells suffered from diarrhea and was using an airport bathroom for an extended period when his two coworkers were killed.

Karen Loeffler, head U.S. Attorney in Alaska, also questioned a former resident of Red Cloud Ranch, a secluded property littered with buildings used and abandoned, located several miles northwest of the scene of the murder. The defense says another potential killer may have come from that direction, and that investigators targeted Wells and failed to pursue other potential suspects.

Wells stands accused of killing 41-year-old James Hopkins and 51-year-old Richard 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 on 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. Wells allegedly avoided a security camera and fatally shot the men with a .44 revolver. Authorities never found the murder weapon, and prosecutors are arguing the case based on circumstantial evidence. The government argues Wells was distraught over grievances about his job performance, which included at least one mention of being replaced.

According to court testimony, investigators reviewed footage from the Kodiak State Airport’s multiple businesses to track Wells’ movements for the days surrounding the murders. Servant Air, an eight-aircraft passenger and freight service, does not have a camera. To cover its bases and further debunk the defense’s diarrhea theory, prosecutors called upon flight coordinator Kelvin Skonberg.

The witness said he arrived for work at Servant Air shortly before 7 a.m. on the morning of the murders; he sat at his work computer behind the counter, which offers a full view of the small business’s lobby filled with mounted antlers, stuffed animals and a pool table. Skonberg said no one came into the business to use the bathroom that morning. If someone did, he would have surely seen them as whoever relieves themselves in Servant must walk the 20 feet across the lobby.

Due to ongoing stomach problems, Wells underwent surgery to remove his gall bladder in February 2012. The defense argues Wells stopped at Kodiak airport on the day of the murders to check a flat tire, then he used an airport bathroom, as diarrhea was a side effect of the operation.

Prosecutors say Wells switched from his Dodge truck to a blue Honda CR-V, his wife’s vehicle parked at the airport when she left for a work trip, in an attempt to cover his tracks and drive unnoticed to the crime scene. Ultimately, Wells went off the grid for 34 minutes, a gap of time he could not explain during initial interviews with law enforcement.

Still, federal public defender Rich Curtner grilled Skonberg about his work routine, implying Wells could have walked in unnoticed. However, the witness testified no one came into the business.

After spending a fair amount of time on the bathroom debate, former Kodiak resident John Pearson took the stand. He said he was living on a ranch northwest of the rigger shop between January and April 2012. Person told the court no one visited the house, where he lived with his wife and six kids, the night before Hopkins and Belisle were killed.

Defense attorney Peter Offenbecher repeatedly asked Pearson if anyone came and questioned him about the murders or asked to search the property. The former ranch renter confirmed no investigators stopped by. Offenbecher also asked about many of the small buildings littering the property -- an abandoned farmhouse, bus and camper, as well as numerous sheds. Besides the property owner using the bus for storage, the ranch was deserted, Pearson said.

The government finished with its rebuttal witnesses Wednesday afternoon. Closing statements are set for Thursday.