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Wells found guilty of murder in Kodiak Coast Guard killings

Casey Grove
This July 2, 2011 file photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows Richard Belisle, second from left, and Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins, second from right, with James Wells, left, and Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Beauford as they help erect a communications antenna on Shemya Island, Alaska. The Coast Guard on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 said James Michael Wells, a Kodiak man arrested in last year's shooting deaths of Hopkins and Belisle, was a co-worker of the victims. Uncredited

It took a federal jury just hours to convict James Wells of murdering two of his coworkers at a Coast Guard communications station on Kodiak Island in 2012.

The guilty verdicts Friday against Wells, 62, were the result of more than 10 months of investigation leading up to his February 2013 arrest and a nearly 20-day trial this month at the federal courthouse in downtown Anchorage.

The jury found Wells guilty on all charges: two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of murdering a federal employee and two counts of possession of a firearm in a crime of violence.

Prosecutors said Wells was armed with a stolen, stainless steel .44-caliber revolver when he sneaked into his workplace -- an antenna rigging shop separate from Kodiak's larger Coast Guard base -- and shot to death Richard Belisle, 51, a civilian employee, and Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins, 41, an electronics technician and supervisor of Wells and Belisle. Belisle was a retired Coast Guard enlisted officer.

Wells had become jealous of Belisle and feuded with Hopkins, who was trying to bring Wells in line after past disciplinary problems and arguments. Wells had worked the shop for about 20 years.

Investigators never found the murder weapon, nor did they find any direct physical evidence linking Wells to the crime. But according to testimony at trial, they believed from the beginning that someone familiar with the shop was the killer. The investigation turned up an abundance of circumstantial evidence that made it clear that only Wells could have killed Belisle and Hopkins, said U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler, who led the prosecution team.

"I think this case was tremendously well investigated," Loeffler said Friday. "He lied about where he was when the murders happened. He never had an explanation."

"We were lucky to catch him on the video," she said.

Surveillance video from a camera at the main Coast Guard base captured Wells driving his white pickup toward work the morning of the murders. It showed him pass again going the other way 34 minutes later, and Wells would later claim he had turned back after discovering a tire going flat. In an interview with the FBI, Wells could not explain why it had taken him so long to drive such a short distance.

"No, I don't have a reasonable explanation for it," Wells had said in the interview, a recording of which was played in court. "I don't have a theory at the moment."

Prosecutors said Wells hopped into his wife's blue SUV at the Kodiak airport, drove it to the rigger shop where he shot Belisle and Hopkins, and switched back to his white pickup before driving home. Another camera had also captured video of a blurry, blue vehicle that matched the SUV approaching the rigger shop just prior to the murders.

Only someone with knowledge of the shop's layout and the victims' schedules would have known when and where to find them, prosecutors said.

At trial, Wells' lawyers said Wells urgently needed to use a restroom during the 34-minute gap, but employees at the airline where Wells claimed he'd gone testified they never saw him. Plus, he never mentioned using the bathroom to the FBI agents. Tire experts also testified that a nail found in Wells' tire had been inserted manually, probably with a nail gun, not stuck into the tire while driving.

Wells' attorneys said investigators had "tunnel vision" and failed to look into other possible suspects. Among the defense theories were veiled claims that the victims' family members or their friends had been involved in the deaths.

Jurors brought to Anchorage from around the region began deliberating Thursday afternoon after closing arguments and gave notice early Friday afternoon that they had reached a verdict.

As U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline read the guilty verdicts, Wells showed no outward signs of reaction. The victims' widows, Nicola Belisle and Debbie Hopkins, began sobbing and held onto each other, sitting in the courtroom gallery's front row.

The two years of waiting for a resolution and sitting through the trial had been "like hell," Debbie Hopkins said later.

"Trust me, I'm satisfied," she said. "My husband can rest, and we can rest and not have to look over our shoulders."

Hopkins said she was planning on soon visiting grandchildren in North Carolina that her husband, their grandfather, had never met. Nicola Belisle said she was ready to get home to Kodiak.

Belisle said she was grateful to the jury for convicting Wells.

"It doesn't bring my husband back. There'll never be justice enough for what he's done. I'm relieved now everybody knows what he's done. There was never a doubt in my mind that he did this, and now everybody knows."

Wells faces life in prison at his sentencing, set for July 8. Because he was tried in federal court, Wells could have faced the death penalty, but U.S. Department of Justice officials who reviewed the case had declined to pursue that sentence prior to the trial.

"It's a pity we didn't get the death penalty," Belisle said. "But then that would be too good for him, because he deserves to suffer in jail."

"Rot in hell you son of a bitch."

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


By CASEY GROVE
Anchorage Daily News