Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series examining the double-homicide of two men on one of America's most remote and famous Coast Guard bases. Read Part 1: Coast Guard murders haunt Alaska's rock
KODIAK, Alaska -- On the morning of April 12, 45-year-old Nicola Belisle was busy at work in her office at the state job center in the rugged island's one main town. It was still cloudy, but the forecast called for a beautiful day. The temperature was supposed to hit 50, which would have made it the warmest day since October. It had been a brutal winter. By that point, about 12 feet of snow had been dumped on the island, breaking records. Only traces remained in some places.
At about 8:30 a.m., Nicola received a text from one of her daughters, 19-year-old Amy, who still lives in the town of 6,000, where information moves quickly by word of mouth, as in most small communities.
Amy had heard something about a shooting on the island's U.S. Coast Guard base, the largest in the nation, located about six miles from the center of town.
Another text message from Amy followed shortly: “Where’s dad?" Rich Belisle -- Amy's father and Nicola's husband -- worked as a civilian at the base after serving 23 years in the Coast Guard.
Nicola got the military police on the phone. They could neither confirm nor deny that anything had happened. She waited. She worried. Her worry turned to panic, her panic to horror.
Soon the news was all over the island that there had been a shooting. There were rumors it had happened in the riggers shop, about three miles from the main base. That’s where Rich had worked since 2004. If he could have, she knew, Rich would have would have called to say he was fine. It was his style. He always kept her updated on his day, always told her he was okay when any disturbing news rippled across the island.
Nicola was in the office kitchen pacing with Amy and a co-worker by her side when “the Army wives delegation,” as Nicola later put it, showed up at the door. There were two command officers from the Coast Guard, a state trooper, and a chaplain. They were in dress blues. She knew immediately what it meant.
Rich was not the only victim. Another man, James Hopkins, had been shot and killed. A double-homicide, the killer still on the loose.
Hopkins was a Petty Officer 1st Class. He had spent more than 20 years on active-duty service in the Navy and Coast Guard. He moved to Kodiak in 2008. He was reportedly soft-spoken, but when he talked, people listened.
His son is in his last year of high school. His daughter is grown and out of the house. Hopkins and his wife lived on base and were more cut off from the community. I relayed messages to her through the Coast Guard, but they were not returned. It’s unclear if she still lives on the island, or if she went back to Vermont, the home of her husband, after the shootings.
A big base, but is it secure?
Two main industries keep the economy afloat on "the Rock,” as the locals call Kodiak Island: The Coast Guard and the rough and rowdy commercial fishing industry. About 6,000 work for the Kodiak fishing industry, but most are nonresidents, and many spend more time on a boat than in town.
The Coast Guard base on Kodiak Island is responsible for covering the largest geographical area of any base in the country -- some 4 million-square-miles of the roughest, most dangerous waters in the world -- from the Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska to the Aleutian Islands to the Arctic Ocean.
Some 900 active guardsman and woman live on the island, and the base employs about 100 civilians. All told, about 3,500 who live on the island are either active or retired Coast Guard.
The main base is about three miles from the center of town and is home to nine helicopters and four HC-130s, and three cutters are tied up to its docks.
The killings happened in the rigger shop next to the Guard’s communication center, referred to by Coasties as ComSta, located about three miles from the main base and one mile off the highway in town.
The rigger shop is where repairs are done on roughly 40 antennas for Coast Guard communications stations across Alaska. The stations 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. On the morning of April 12, one of the civilians was Rich. The other was James Wells.
According to official accounts, the double murder happened between 7 and 8 a.m. Rich’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.
Unlike the ComSta station -- which is behind a security fence -- the rigger shop where the men's bodies were found appears unguarded.
The Coast Guard declined to answer specific questions about security, as the subject is intertwined with the investigation, but said that all of the communications and radio stations are secure. However, the commander of the station, Lt. Peter R. Van Ness, said work stations like the rigger shop tend to have less security than the ComSta station.
Indeed, the whole base is much less secure than any Army or Navy base across the country.
But out on the Rock, there wouldn't seem much need for any security at all. The base doesn't appear to be a likely target for terrorists, and even if it was targeted, it would be hard to approach. New arrivals in Kodiak are quickly noted by the people who live here.
If the FBI knows something, they aren't saying
The road past ComSta leads to the only golf course on the island, adjacent to popular Buskin Lake, where salmon run thick in the summer. In late April and May, the Dolly Varden char that feast on the young salmon are biting at the lake. From June through late August, as many as 10,000 red salmon swim back from the Gulf of Alaska, fighting their way into the Buskin River and spreading their seed in the lake.
After a long, snowy winter, spring was in the air April 12 on Kodiak.
Because the forecast called for a 50-degree-day, Nicola Belisle warned her husband Rich against wearing his long underwear. He said he was going to be climbing a communications tower and that it wouldn’t be 50 degrees at 300 feet. He put on his long johns.
These are the kinds of memories you cling to when it becomes clear there won't be any new ones.
Rich made the coffee, grabbed a piece of string cheese and an apple -- his normal breakfast -- and headed out the door at about 6:45 a.m. to be on time for his shift. The rest of crew was due in at 7:30.
The road leading to ComSta is a relatively busy one, particularly on a spring day, with people headed to the lake or the golf course. But on April 12, someone was able to enter the station, shoot dead two people working in the rigger shop, and then, apparently, leave unnoticed.
The day after the killings, Janet Napolitano, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security -- the agency which took over the Coast Guard in 2003 -- said her department was placing a high priority on solving the crime and bringing the perpetrator to justice.
"I have directed the full resources of the department to support the investigation into this terrible tragedy, and we are working closely to support our federal, state and law- enforcement partners," she said.
On April 23, the FBI issued a news release asking for information about two cars seen on April 12 or before noon on April 13. The cars match the description of those belonging to Wells, the former Coast Guard member who worked at ComSta. His wife, Nancy, is a former Kodiak Borough assemblywoman.
The vehicles, the FBI said, “may have been used in connection with the recent double homicide on Kodiak Island.”
The FBI had earlier searched the couple’s house.
That’s all FBI officials would say, except to again reiterate that the community was safe.
On May 1, nearly three weeks after the killings, the Coast Guard put a call out on Facebook asking for community volunteers, particularly those with metal detectors, to help search the grounds surrounding the rigger shop. The search was related to the killings, the FBI said, but the agency wouldn’t be more specific than that.
The next day, more than 100 residents showed up at the site and traipsed through the woods, combing the crime scene, looking for nobody knew what. Nothing, at least nothing that resembled a weapon, was found that day. If anything else of significance was found, the FBI isn't saying.
Agents have scoured the books of gun shop owners on the island. As recently as May 7, they went back to at least one shop, and likely more, to look again. The books record who bought guns on a brown bear-infested island where gun ownership is common.
Homeland Security -- a massive post 9/11 agency -- has sent at least one agent to the island to help in the investigation. But many residents, who watched as citizen volunteers with their personal metal detectors searched the grounds, now wonder what Napolitano meant when she said her department's “full resources” would be deployed to solve the crime.
The questions go like this: Why hasn't the killer been apprehended? Is he or she still on the Rock? Who says Kodiak is safe?
Nicola Belisle, however, is staying patient. She trusts the government agencies at work. She must, or she’ll go nuts.
A life of adventure
Sit at any place people in town gather, and you’ll likely hear a fair amount of gossip about the fishermen and the wild lives they lead. Fishermen are not quiet, shrinking-violet types. Get a few beers in them, which isn’t hard to do in Kodiak, and they’re a rowdy crew.
On a recent night at Henry’s in downtown Kodiak, Ken Carlson was sitting with a few when he erupted into a diatribe about what he considers the imminent death of the Gulf of Alaska at the hands of those “faggot draggers.”
He went on and on about trawlers, fishing boats that drag huge nets through the ocean indiscriminately catching whatever they can catch. The worst of them, at least in the opinion of Carlson and environmentalists, scour the ocean floor, ruining much of what’s down there. Some call trawling strip mining of the sea. Carlson has such strong opinions about trawling and the harm it does to the fish that it looked like he might be on the edge of punching another fisherman, who seemed more receptive to the practice.
This is just a way of noting that fisherman don’t tend to hide their feelings. Nor do they cotton to authority. But even Carlson had good words to say about the Coast Guard.
Fishermen and Coasties share a special bond. When your crewman is injured or your boat is sinking in the Bering Sea, it's the Coasties who come to your rescue. They perform the dual role of the policeman of the sea and savior of fishermen in trouble.
“It’s not a bad thing to see (the Coast Guard) when you’re in the ocean,” Carlson said. “Sometimes it’s a really good thing.”
The Coast Guard's motto is Semper Paratus, translated roughly as "always ready." Various incarnations of the Coast Guard have been always ready, helping seafarers in distress in Alaska waters even before the United States bought the ice box from Russia in 1867. The Coast Guard even helped introduce reindeer to Alaska at a remote Bering Strait outpost -- part of an effort to turn Alaska Native hunters into herders.
Throughout the years, the agency's role evolved from servicing lighthouses along the country's rocky shores to running a 40,000-plus-strong organization nationwide, where its members routinely risk their lives to save those in need on the oceans. Much has been made, and for good reason, of the heroics of those in the armed services. But because the Coast Guard doesn't invade foreign countries, doesn't raise the American flag on a hill after battle, aren’t necessarily the poster-children for the sexy story of a free America, they tend not to get the attention their brothers and sisters in the armed services garner from the public.
And yet Americans are starting to pay more attention to the Coast Guard. Reality shows such as the Discovery Channel’s "Deadliest Catch" and the Weather Channel’s "Coast Guard Alaska" have caught on, filming death-defying rescues, like a helicopter hovering just over the Bering Sea and barely escaping the swallow of a monster wave. Or horrifying dives into the Gulf of Alaska, as well as the guardsmen’s frequent encounters with those rowdy fisherman.
It's a pretty cool job, to be sure. As a member of the Pacific Area Tactical Law Enforcement Team, Rich Belisle traveled the world as a Coastie -- to Panama, the Middle East and Bosnia. But most of his time was spent monitoring America's waters.
The water was his life. His mission was to be ready for his country and his state. For 23 years, he was in love with his job.
'They had so much fun together'
Nicola Belisle, Rich's wife, is 45 years old. She’s a blonde beauty, even in her grief, with an aquiline nose, matching cheekbones, and piercing hazel eyes that, these days, constantly swim in tears. There’s some of that quintessential Alaska-girls-kick-ass quality to her. But it’s spiced with a measure of British sophistication and a celebration of femininity that many women born out of this country seem not to fear.
She was born in Chesham, England, and grew up on the nation's south coast. She and Rich met at an English pub in Bahrain in 1991. Nicola was working there; Rich was on tour with the Coast Guard, where he was deployed on Navy ships to catch drug smugglers.
He first caught her attention when he threw out a local bar patron who tried to spit on her. Two weeks later, she knew she'd found the man she wanted to be with for the rest of her life.
After their twins were born, they were married on a hill overlooking the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego by a cross-eyed preacher chosen from the Yellow Pages. His sight was so bad that they had to pick up and deliver him to the service. After the ceremony and a steak dinner, they picked up a bottle of Cold Duck and went home to their little apartment to plan the rest of their lives.
They moved to Kodiak in 1997, where lots of people eventually got to know Rich and the family. He was an easy guy to get to know. He was gregarious, happy and always on the ready for people. He was a good man, at a day in age when good men are hard to find. He had two dogs -- a 2-year old, lab-husky mix named Tally, and an 11-month-old chocolate Labrador named Boats, which was Rich's nickname when he was a chief boatswain's mate on the Coast Guard cutter Polar Star.
He and Nicola had three daughters, Hannah, Emily and Amy. Hannah is 16. Emily and Amy are 19. Rich was the only male in a household that at various points consisted of the daughters, the wife, the cats, the dog, the horses, and the chickens.
He had a beautiful family, a beautiful house in Bells Flats, a bedroom community that embraced him. He watched Fox News and had strong opinions, which he always presented with a smile and a shake of the head to people who didn’t agree with him. He loved politics. “Slightly left of fascist,” Nicola used to kid.
He loved his family, his house, and his 84’ Sportster Harley Davidson. He loved fishing and hunting. He loved Kodiak, and he loved the Coast Guard and the sea. When in 2004, he faced the choice between staying in the Coast Guard or leaving Kodiak, he chose the latter.
He loved the Rendezvous Bar and Grill, a few minute’s drive from his house, his dogs, and his best friend Steve Salus. The women in the house teased Rich about his best friend, calling him his “BFF.” Rich himself called him “Big Dog.” When Steve called, Rich’s cell phone barked. “That’s the big dog calling,” Rich would say.
Like Rich, Steve is a former Coast Guard member. He moved into the Bells Flats neighborhood a few houses down from the Belisles in 2003. The Belisles and the Saluses raised children together and went through those children’s teenaged hell-years. Rich and Steve hunted together in a place where the dangers posed by ever-present grizzly bears make it a good idea to have backup from a partner you trust. They dreamed together about the next hunt and where they would wet the next line.
They had a standing date for Friday nights at 4 p.m. “Martini night,” they called it.
When the phone barked, Rich would sometimes announce to the women in the house: “I’m going to take out the trash.”
“Taking out the trash” was a euphemism in the Belisle household. It meant Rich and Steve would meet at the Rendezvous Bar and Grill, his second living room, for a quick one. There they would sit at the bar, tell jokes and laugh.
“They had so much fun together,” said owner Toni Munsey. “They just loved each other’s company so much. It’s rare to see two men who are such best friends. But they were. They were soul mates."
An empty table
On the night before Rich was killed, he and Steve met at the Rendezvous and helped clear the back deck in preparation for the long summer days on the horizon. They moved some stuff around, and helped wire a lantern with a base made from a propeller that sits in the middle of a round table on the deck.
In the military. there’s a tradition during mealtime, to leave one table empty for those lost at sea. Munsey, with tears in her eyes, said that for now on, the propeller table is Rich’s table.
On a recent sunny day, sitting on her back porch, Nicola Belisle told me she’s waiting for the snow to clear from the largest mountain in view: Center Mountain.
It’s there that she and her girls plan on sprinkling Rich’s ashes. That’s what he wanted, she said. When he died, he wanted his ashes sprinkled onto the mountains. He wanted to always be ready to stare out onto his family and his town.
And then, when he knew things were better-- never healed, but better -- he wanted to mix with the snow and the wind and get taken out to the sea, where he'd spent his life.
Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com