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Nearly 6 months and no arrests in Kodiak Coast Guard base murders

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
The city of Kodiak, population 6,100, is the largest community on Kodiak Island, the second largest island in the U.S. May 7, 2012.
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Toy soldiers, anonymously placed around downtown Kodiak in the wake of the coast guard killings of April 12, 2012. Photographed on May 9, 2012.
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Ryan Harris, a bartender at the military-friendly "Bernie's" in Kodiak on May 6, 2012. Because of the supporting nature of the Coast Guard's mission, the community is well-integrated and there is little conflict.
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The rigging shop, part of the Coast Guard's Kodiak Base Communication Station, was the scene of a double murder on April 12, 2012. The main building is secure. The rigging shop is less so. Photographed May 7, 2012.
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Coast Guardsmen aboard the buoy tender Spar, in dock at the Coast Guard base in Kodiak, on May 7, 2012.
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The Coast Guard base in Kodiak, Alaska, May 7, 2012.
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Kodiak Police Chief T.C. Kamai says that he and his officers are standing by, ready to assist in the investigation. So far they have not had an opportunity to do so. May 9, 2012.
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Kodiak's harbor was full of fishing boats getting ready to leave on May 9, 2012.
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Ken "Dawg" Carlson, a longliner, was preparing to leave Kodiak to fish for halibut on May 8, 2012. He has been fishing for the past 29 years.
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Residents of the Bells Flats neighborhood are concerned that there is an unsolved double murder on the island. Their children still play in the neighborhood but things aren't as they were. May 7, 2012.
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Coast Guardsmen repair a helicopter at the Coast Guard Base Kodiak on May 7, 2012.
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Customers at Henry's Restaurant in Kodiak play pull tabs. May 7, 2012.
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Notices, mainly posted by people looking for work in the fishing industry, adorn a wall at Harborside Coffee on May 9, 2012.
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A memorial remembering Richard Belisle at the Rendezvous Bar in the Bells Flats neighborhood of Kodiak, May 9, 2012. Belisle was a regular at the bar.
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Patrons play pool at the Rendezvous bar in the Bells Flats neighborhood of Kodiak. One of the victims of the April 12, 2012 shootings, Richard Belisle, was a regular at the bar.
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A Russian Orthodox graveyard overlooks the city of Kodiak on May 9, 2012.
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The home of Richard and Nicola Belisle, foreground, looks across to Jim and Nancy Wells' home on May 9, 2012. Belisle and James Hopkins were killed on April 12, 2012. The FBI has not named a suspect. Wells' home and property have been searched. The FBI shortly after the shooting asked the public for information on two vehicles that match the description of those belonging to the Wells.
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April weather on Kodiak Island in the northern Gulf of Alaska isn't exactly Parisian. Typically, it's a cloudy, damp and chilly time of year. And yet temperatures were in the 50s on April 12, 2012, the day two men were shot down in an as-yet unsolved homicide on the largest Coast Guard base in the country. It was the warmest day in five months and after a particularly brutal winter -- even by Alaska standards -- that had dropped a record-breaking 12 feet of snow on the island.

Only traces of those record snows remained in some places the morning of April 12, when 51-year-old Richard Belisle and 41-year-old Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins were gunned down while at work in what's known as the "rigger shop" near "ComSta," the Kodiak Coast Guard base communication station.

Hopkins was an active Coastie. Belisle was retired and continued working on the base as a civilian.

The rigger shop is where repairs are done on roughly 40 antennas for Coast Guard communications stations across Alaska that do everything from tracking aircraft to relaying messages from ships in distress to transmitting weather updates. Sixty people work at ComSta. At least six are on duty at any time, including two civilians. The two civilians who worked at the shop were Belisle and James Wells. Unlike the ComSta station -- which is behind a security fence -- the rigger shop, where the men's bodies were found, appears unguarded.

The unseasonably warm weather greeted agents from the FBI, Homeland Security, and from the Coast Guard Investigative Services who arrived in to investigate the murder. Except for the month of June, the few agents that remained experienced a chilly, dry summer. And now, as fall is quickly turning to winter, all the agents have gone, according to the FBI.

There have been no arrests.

There is no named suspect.

And the community is still waiting for news.

Feds won’t say much except not to worry

Eric Gonzales, the FBI spokesman, is as tight-lipped as ever. On Friday, he reiterated that the investigation is still open and active, that there is no reason to believe that the community is in any danger, and that there are no agents left on Kodiak Island.

Here’s what’s known: the double murder happened between 7 and 8 a.m. Belisle's shift began at 7 a.m. Others in the crew were supposed to start at 7:30 a.m. A worker at ComSta found the two men shot dead. Although he hasn't been named as an official suspect, the FBI searched the house belonging to James Wells and his wife, Nancy; the home also was under surveillance after the murders by federal agents from a nearby residence. Vehicles belonging to the Wellses cars were towed and presumably searched, then given back.

According to the Coast Guard, James Wells has been on leave from his job at the rigger shop since the shootings.

Initially, many in the community talked endless about the murders. Kodiak is a big island, the second-largest in the United States. But Kodiak, the community, is small, with only about 6,000 people living within the city’s boundaries, give or take depending on the season. Throw in the wider borough and archipelago -- all 5,000 square miles, about the size of Connecticut -- and you’ve got a total of 13,500 people. 

Theories about who did it and why floated through restaurants and bars and coffee shops. An editorial in the paper excoriated federal offices for not being more forthright with the community.

In May, the FBI and U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service sent out a release asking for information on handguns sold, traded or transferred in the state of Alaska that might be connected to the shootings. According to the release, the FBI was hoping the public could help them locate a .44-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun, models 29 or 629, or a .44 magnum Taurus.

There hasn’t been much news since and the talk, as it’s apt to do, has died down some.

Toby Sullivan, a Kodiak fisherman and writer said that the murders haven’t been forgotten. “People are still talking about it and wonder if it’s ever going to be solved,” he said.

Mark Safarak was a FBI agent for 23 years helping to solving murder and other violent crimes. He’s currently a partner of the Virginia-based consultant group, Forensics Behavioral Services International. He says that the community and the families of the slain shouldn’t give up hope. Six months is not a long time to investigate a crime, he said. Some investigations take a long time, he said, adding that he regularly testifies as an expert witness on murder cases that have gone on for years.

“If the FBI says they’re still investigating, it means that they’re still investigating,” Safarak said.  “They’ll catch the killer,” he said.

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda@alaskadispatch.com