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Wells receives maximum sentence for double murder at Kodiak Coast Guard site

Jerzy Shedlock
U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler addresses media following the sentencing of James Wells in the 2012 murders of Richard Belisle and James Hopkins on Tuesday, July 8, 2014, at the James M. Fitzgerald United States Courthouse and Federal Building downtown. Flanking Loeffler are acting special agent in charge Kevin Donovan of the FBI, left, assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder, center left, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Kathleen Duignan, center right, and special agent Daryl Allison of the FBI, right. Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News

James Michael Wells was sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court to four consecutive life sentences for killing two co-workers at a Coast Guard base on Kodiak Island in April 2012. At the sentencing, Wells maintained his innocence.

The government was granted its desired sentence. Judge Ralph Beistline imposed two life sentences for the killing of 41-year-old James Hopkins and 51-year-old Richard Belisle, and two additional life sentences for two counts stemming from using a firearm in a violent crime. It was the maximum sentence Wells could have received.

Beistline also ordered Wells to pay an undetermined amount of restitution.

Karen Loeffler, head U.S. attorney in Alaska, said after the hearing that the sentence was important to deter others from committing cold-blooded murders. She said Wells' actions constituted one of the most planned and premeditated murders her office has dealt with. And Wells had the opportunity to not go through with his plans but he did, she said.

Wells spoke briefly before the court. He hunched over a microphone in a yellow Goose Creek Correctional Center uniform as he remarked that a tragedy had occurred, “and we have all suffered for it.”

“I know I’m innocent of this crime,” Wells said.

Wells killed Hopkins and Belisle on Kodiak, the second-largest island in the United States and home to a major military base. The three men worked at a U.S. Coast Guard communications station, commonly called “Commsta.”

The murders happened on the morning of April 12, 2012, around 7, when the victims were just starting their workdays at “the rigger shop,” an antenna maintenance building. Wells was distraught over grievances about his job performance, which included at least one mention of being replaced, the government argued during the trial.

Wells avoided security cameras to shoot and kill the men with a .44 revolver. Authorities never found the murder weapon, and prosecutors argued the case based on circumstantial evidence, without a single eyewitness.

Prosecutors say Wells drove his white truck to the Kodiak Airport and swapped that vehicle for his wife’s blue SUV in an attempt to cover his tracks. He then drove to the rigger shop; the SUV was caught on a camera beyond the shop but Wells avoided other surveillance, including passers-by who were just arriving for work. Wells called in late for work shortly after the victims’ bodies were discovered, claiming a nail had punctured a tire on the white truck. Prosecutors called tire experts to discredit the cover-up.

Wells’ defense team said their client stopped at the airport to use the bathroom, a side effect from a recent operation. They also called their own experts who said the rusty nail may have been picked up on the road.

Federal public defender Rich Curtner said the real killer has yet to be found. He said it was inconceivable that Wells, a 63-year-old family man with no criminal history, would kill his co-workers, and said he’d continue to fight for his client’s innocence.

Judge Beistline quickly rebutted that argument, stating Wells was clearly the cold-blooded killer the government argued he was.

“You can fight for your innocence but that doesn’t make you innocent,” Beistline said. “And that’s because you’re guilty.”

The victims had a lot to live for but Wells acted as their executioner, the judge said.

“He has no remorse,” Beistline said of Wells. 

Beistline also contended that Wells still lets his family think he’s innocent when he knows otherwise. Wells' wife, Nancy Wells, shook her head in reaction to the judge’s comments.

The victims’ wives also spoke before the court, expressing their anger at Wells.

Nicola Belisle said she lived in fear for more than 10 months while her husband’s killer remained free on Kodiak. More than once, she said, she huddled up in her home with a loaded firearm because her dogs had reacted to something outside.

Wells stole the love of her life -- a sweet, caring, gentle man -- as well as her security, Nicola Belisle said, adding that no sentence is long enough for the murderer.

Debbie Hopkins repeatedly said Wells destroyed her family. She said his actions will continue to cause harm. James’ grandchildren, whom he never had the chance to meet, will ask what happened to their grandfather, she said.

“What am I supposed to tell them?” she asked Wells.

Loeffler said the arrest and indictment were a slow process because investigators were pursuing every possible lead.

Jurors found Wells guilty in late April, nearly two years after the killings. They decided Wells’ fate, which prosecutors said at that time would likely be life in prison, after less than a day of deliberation.

The quick decision came as a surprise for many who sat through the month-long trial, which included testimony from about 100 witnesses, more than 75 of them called by the government.

Wells has been incarcerated since February 2013. He opted not to testify and sat stoically beside two defense attorneys throughout the trial, including when the court handed down the guilty verdicts.