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Guilty verdict in Kodiak Coast Guard double murder

Jerzy Shedlock
The Communication Station Kodiak chief's mess stands with a plaque they had created to memorialize shipmates Chief Petty Officer Richard Belisle, retired, and Petty Officer 1st Class Jim Hopkins during a memorial held at the unit on April 12, 2013. An Anchorage jury on Friday found former co-worker James Michael Wells guilty of the 2012 murders. USCG / Sara Francis

A jury in Anchorage Friday found James Michael Wells guilty on four counts of murder -- two for killing two co-workers and two more because the victims were employees of the federal government -- and two gun charges. Wells, 62, will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

The month-long trial included testimony from about 100 witnesses, more than 75 called by the government. Wells, who has been jailed since February 2013, sat stoically beside two defense attorneys as both parties poked and prodded Wells’ friends and acquaintances, as well as hired consultants.

Wells opted not to testify. He remained straightfaced as U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline read the six guilty verdicts; the four murder charges each carry a life sentence. Wells’ wife Nancy, who was present for the entire trial, did not show up for the verdict.

The victims’ spouses, Debbie Hopkins and Nicola Belisle, let out exasperated cries as the verdicts were read. Although nervous beforehand, both of the women said outside the courtroom that they had faith in the jury. Debbie Hopkins said she felt her husband sending good news: “We got ’em, baby.” The jury returned its verdict after less than a full day of deliberation.

Hopkins said the decision gives her closure; she can finally live life “without looking over my shoulder.” She said she plans to visit her grandchildren, whom her husband never got to meet, in North Carolina.

Nicola Belisle said the way the Wells’ defense team grilled her 18-year-old daughter was despicable. She said she doesn’t know how defense attorneys who represent murderers can sleep at night. She’s “very satisfied” with the verdict and glad he did not get the death penalty (which is a possibility in federal murder trials although Alaska does not execute prisoners).

“The death penalty would be too good for him. He needs to suffer in jail,” she said.

Hardest for both women during the trial was the defense’s continuous attack on their personal lives, they said. Hopkins said she felt like her family had been dragged through the mud.

A hotly debated moment during trial occurred when former Commanding Officer Peter VanNess testified that when he was tasked with informing the victims’ spouses their significant others were dead, Nicola Belisle uttered two words to the officials who approached her at work: “Jim Wells.” Defense attorney Peter Offenbecher addressed the terse utterance during closing arguments and said Nicola’s full statement was “Jim Wells wouldn’t hurt Rich. He was always on the toilet.”

Nicola said the comment was taken out of context. She’d been asked if she knew anyone who wanted to hurt her husband. She said it couldn’t have been Jim Wells in a moment of disbelief. Still, she never doubted Wells’ guilt.

The two women have been at each other’s side during the trial. They did not know each other that well before the trial or even during the investigation. The FBI instructed the women not to speak in order to keep their thoughts separate.

Wells was arrested nearly a year after the bodies of 41-year-old James Hopkins and 51-year-old Richard Belisle were found in “the rigger shop,” an antenna maintenance building and the men’s shared workspace, on April 12, 2012. The shop is one of two buildings that make up a U.S. Coast Guard communications station on Kodiak Island. The communications installation is geographically separate from the Coast Guard’s main base.

The rigger shop was Wells' workplace for about 20 years. He held his skills as a civilian antenna maintenance specialist and his position within the shop in high regard, as he’d solidified a comfortable spot among military bosses.

Then along came some new supervisors, including Chief Petty Officer Scott Reckner, who took it upon himself to rein in Wells’ independence. The murderer was reprimanded a number of times in the year leading up to the deaths of Hopkins and Belisle -- for a stolen fuel card, improper collaring of trees and disregard for official orders.

Wells' health was faltering as well, and co-workers filled his shoes during prolonged absences. Hopkins and Belisle, both younger than Wells, were on a track to replace him. The government argues the now-convicted killer saw his cherished role in jeopardy and plotted to kill his co-workers.

Wells was the only individual with the knowledge and motive to murder the men, the government argued. He swapped cars at the Kodiak State Airport and drove to the shop without being spotted, sneaked around a camera and shot the two men in cold blood, including a “coup de grace” shot to both victims as they lay dying on the floor. He raced home and made calls to his superiors, including one of the dead men, and claimed a flat tire was keeping him from work.

Ultimately, the jury didn’t buy the flat-tire scenario or the defense’s argument someone coming from north of the rigger shop could have committed the murders. Anton Larson Bay Road, where the rigger shop was located, is a largely secluded area except for a few landmarks.

“I was there every moment of (April 12, 2012),” Reckner said. Investigators were keyed in immediately, he said, because of Wells’ statements and not because he’d poisoned others into accusing the defendant, as the defense argued.

Reckner said Hopkins and Belisle were great men, and he misses them every day. He’s received a new post and will move on from Kodiak, but he thinks the conclusion to this saga of heartbreak and disbelief will give everyone on base closure.

Head U.S. Attorney in Alaska Karen Loeffler said the FBI’s investigation was thorough and ultimately what won the case. Wells was the focus of the investigation beginning shortly after the murders because no other leads proved viable.

“He never had an explanation ... it was a lie,” Loeffler said. “He was the only person missing from (the rigger shop) on the morning of the murders.”

She added that every case she’s handled has had an appeal. The families said they are not worried about that possibility; Wells would have to come up with more evidence, which is impossible, they said.