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Trial over Coast Guard double murder in Kodiak goes to jury

Casey Grove

After nearly 20 days of trial in Anchorage, it is now up to a jury to decide whether James Wells shot and killed two coworkers at a Coast Guard antenna rigging shop on Kodiak Island in 2012 or if federal authorities have the wrong man.

Wells, 62, has been jailed since February 2013, when he was indicted for allegedly murdering Richard Belisle and James Hopkins inside the shop, part of a communications station separated from the larger main Coast Guard base on Kodiak.

Belisle, 51, was a retired Coast Guard chief petty officer who worked alongside Wells. Hopkins, 41, was an electronics technician with the rank of petty officer 1st class and supervisor of Wells and Belisle.

Wells was by all accounts an experienced and capable antenna rigger with more than two decades on the job, but he had become a problem employee who chafed at his supervisors attempts to bring him in line, prosecutors say.

Although there was no direct physical evidence that pointed to Wells, nor were there any eyewitnesses to the shootings, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder told the jury that only Wells could have killed the two men. Nobody except Wells had a motive -- he had feuded with Hopkins and was jealous of Belisle's "rising star" -- and he had intimate knowledge of the rigger shop and the men's schedules that allowed him to sneak up on them, Schroder said.

"A person who didn't have this kind of knowledge could not have done this crime," Schroder said. "But the killer in this case murdered swiftly and efficiently."

'BANG!'

Schroder described the prosecutors' theory that Wells drove his white pickup to the Kodiak airport the morning of April 12, 2012, when a camera at the main Coast Guard base captured him passing by. Wells' wife was out of town, her blue Honda CR-V was parked at the airport, and he used her vehicle to drive to work, the federal prosecutor said.

Wells avoided a surveillance camera on the rigger shop, Schroder said, but a camera farther away at the communications station captured images of a blue blur that experts said could have been the CR-V. Wells slipped past the rigger shop camera undetected, entered the only door that would have been unlocked by the men inside, and shot Belisle with a .44-caliber revolver while Belisle sat at a desk, then shot Hopkins in a break room, Schroder said.

Speaking to the jurors, the prosecutor made the shape of a gun with his fingers to demonstrate the shots, saying, "Bang!" each time.

Investigators never found the gun, but one that matched the bullets in the dead men had been in Wells' possession years earlier when it went missing, Schroder said.

Despite Wells' claim that he was driving home to fix a flat tire he had just discovered, 34 minutes passed from when Wells first passed the base camera until he returned, Schroder said. Wells, later confronted by FBI agents, could not explain the gap, Schroder said, playing audio of the interview.

"We have a huge gap of time," the agent asked. "We're wondering if you can shed some light on that

Like a college basketball referee visually counting time by extending his arm, Schroder ticked off the 14 seconds it took for Wells to answer. It was a long pause, because Wells did not have a explanation for what he had been doing during that time, Schroder said.

"Not at the moment. I can't think of why there'd be the time discrepancy," Wells said finally.

"Can you help us out with that?" the agent asked again.

"No, I don't have a reasonable explanation for it."

"Do you have a theory?"

"A theory? What are you suggesting?"

"We're baffled."

"So am I," Wells said. "I don't have a theory at the moment."

It was a simple question, Schroder said, and one that anybody, when asked what they had been doing that morning, should have been able to answer. Wells was still working on an answer, he said.

"At that point, he needed a theory. He needed something for his alibi, but he just couldn't come up with one on the fly," Schroder said.

At the beginning of the trial, Wells' attorney, Rich Curtner, said that Wells had discovered the tire leaking air and was suddenly struck by the need to use a toilet. That was related to having recently had his gallbladder removed, Curtner said. So Wells had gone to nearby airline Servant Air to use their bathroom, he said.

But nobody at Servant Air said that they had seen Wells, Schroder said.

Going over other evidence in the case, Schroder asked the jurors to use their common sense and repeatedly talked about what "made sense" and what did not. It did not make sense that Wells drove home, about seven miles, to deal with his tire instead of driving the two miles to work, where there was a garage and all of the necessary tools, Schroder said. Tire experts determined a nail in Wells' tire had been inserted with a nail gun, he said.

For the nail to have jammed into the tire while Wells drove, "it would have to be perfectly positioned," Schroder said. "It just doesn't make sense."

TUNNEL VISION

Another of Wells' lawyers, Peter Offenbecher, countered that it was the prosecutors' theory of the murders that did not make sense, saying over and over in his closing argument that investigators had "tunnel vision" from the beginning that Wells was the culprit. Their intense focus on Wells caused them to ignore other possible suspects, Offenbecher said.

"In the end, they failed. The government has failed to carry its case beyond a reasonable doubt," Offenbecher said. "You're not going to be satisfied at the end of your deliberations, because you're not going to know who killed these two men."

Wells did not have the demeanor to kill another person, Offenbecher said. But more importantly, he said, the government's entire case hinged on the video showing the blue blur. That might not be Wells' wife's vehicle, he said. Despite expert testifying that the blur could have fit the dimensions of the vehicle, they could not say without a doubt that it was the right vehicle, Offenbecher said.

"Without that, the government's theory goes up in smoke. There's no case," Offenbecher said.

When another expert with the FBI told prosecutors early on that the comparison simply could not be done, they ignored him, Offenbecher said. Investigators also ignored the possibility that the murderer approached the rigger shop on a different road, thereby avoiding all of the cameras, and that the person's motive was to rob the shop, Offenbecher said. The suspect might have encountered Belisle and Hopkins, shot them to cover up a break-in, and fled out of fear without stealing anything, he said.

"If the evidence doesn't help their case, they ignore it. If it doesn't point to Jim Wells, they don't want to hear about it," Offenbecher said.

Even after extensive searches between the rigger shop and Wells' home, at his house -- even searching inside Wells' septic tank -- authorities had not found any trace evidence, including even tiny specks of the victims' blood on his clothes or in the pickup or SUV, that Wells killed them, Offenbecher said. It was an "astonishing" lack of evidence in a murder case, he said. The reason for that was that Wells was not the killer, Offenbecher said.

"They say he's some mastermind of a crime, but that's also how it would look if he was innocent," Offenbecher said.

SHOW OF SUPPORT

Onlookers, including about two dozen Coast Guard personnel in blue uniforms, packed the courtroom Thursday to listen to the lawyers on give their final arguments. While the widows of Belisle and Hopkins started the trial sitting apart from each other, they sat side by side Thursday hugging each other at times during the trial's end.

Outside the courtroom during a break, the Coast Guard seamen talked in small groups. Some seemed to think the proceedings were dragging on as the lawyers talked for more than an hour at a time.

Master Chief David Ozuna said many of them were there seeking closure.

"A lot of us came up from Kodiak to show our support," Ozuna said. "I'm interested to see how it turns out."

Asked if they were showing support for the victims, Ozuna said, "Just to show support for the process, for the whole thing going forward."

Kodiak's Coast Guard base had personnel helping those affected by the shootings, and the men and women were still healing, Ozuna said.

"We're trying to put this behind us and keep doing our job," he said.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4343. Twitter updates: twitter.com/kcgrove.

 


By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com