Relief. Nicola Belisle felt a wave of relief upon learning an arrest had been made in the April killings of two men not far from her home on Kodiak Island. One of the victims was her husband, 51-year-old Richard Belisle, a retired U.S. Coast Guardsman.
On April 12, Richard Belisle had been on Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak -- one of the largest Coast Guard installations in the country -- working as a civilian employee in what’s known as the “rigger shop,” when he and an active-duty guardsman, Electrician’s Mate 1st Class James Hopkins, 41, were gunned down.
No arrests had been made in the killings as summer turned briefly to fall, before the long Alaskan winter settled in. Kodiak is a small community on a big island -- about 6,000 people on the second-largest island in the U.S. -- and in the months following the deaths of Richard and James, Nicola felt suffocated, knowing her husband’s alleged killer was walking free among the handful of people who live year-round on “The Rock.”
So Nicola moved away from Kodiak. On Sunday, she told Alaska Dispatch she will finally be able to return to the island community after months of living elsewhere, knowing that the man authorities believe killed her husband has been arrested and is 250 miles away, sitting in jail at the Anchorage Correctional Center.
With the arrest of James Michael Wells of Kodiak on Friday by federal authorities for the murders of Hopkins and Richard Belisle, “I feel like I can breathe for the first time in 10 months,” she said.
Wells' arrest was a long time coming, the culmination of an investigation that involved the Alaska State Troopers, the FBI, the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service and agents of the Department of Homeland Security, all of which have kept details on the investigation under tight wraps.
'Now I can go home'
Few details were released late Friday other than a brief statement provided to media from U.S. Attorney for Alaska Karen L. Loeffler.
“Wells was arrested under a federal arrest warrant based on a criminal complaint,” the statement said. “It is anticipated that Wells will appear in court in Anchorage” this week.
Wells worked with Hopkins and Belisle in the rigger shop, near the Coast Guard station’s communications complex. Wells repaired antennas there, just as Hopkins and Belisle did. Wells had been an early suspect in the shootings: a house belonging to him and his wife, Nancy Wells, was searched following the killings. The Wells’ cars were towed, presumably searched, and then returned. The couple’s home was also under surveillance by federal agents.
About a month after Belisle and Hopkins were killed, the FBI sent out a release asking for information on handguns that may be connected to the shootings. The entire community got involved in the search for a weapon. But after that public call for information, few other details were provided by federal investigators as months came and went. It appeared from the outside that the trail had gone cold.
Despite the timeline, Nicola said she’s grateful for the resolve of the investigators. Kodiak is where she and Richard had planned to live out their lives, Belisle said, and now that the suspect is no longer on the island, she will return to the community.
“Now I can go home,” she said.
Nicola expressed gratitude at the “outpouring of love and support” from the people of Kodiak and across Alaska who have reached out to help her family and friends through the “horrible nightmare.”
Although the arrest brings some solace, “it’s not going to bring my husband home,” she said. Even if a conviction is reached, “no punishment is ever going to be enough for me.”
Wells’ wife, Nancy, told The Associated Press on Saturday she has “full faith” in the innocence of her husband. She added that she has “no faith in the quality of the investigation” and expects her husband to be “fully exonerated.”
Asked to respond to Nancy Wells’ statements, Nicola Belisle said she had “complete faith” in the work done by investigators up the chain, from troopers to the FBI to the Coast Guard and U.S. Attorney General's office.
“I really appreciate everything that they’ve done,” Belisle said. “The evidence is the evidence. The truth will come out.”
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com.