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Part 1: Coast Guard murders haunt Alaska's rock

  • Author: Amanda Coyne
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published May 14, 2012

Editor's note: This is the first 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 2: How could a double murder happen on Kodiak's Coast Guard base?

KODIAK, Alaska -- Someone, likely a mischievous teenager, has affixed miniature plastic toy soldiers throughout the island. Glued atop city trashcans, on lampposts, railings, cement planters, they've been spotted as far as four miles away from the center of the main city on the Hawaii-size chunk of rock in the Gulf of Alaska.

The toy soldiers seem to be guarding this island, the second-largest in the country. The first is Hawaii's Big Island, which is home to about 185,079 people. It's different on Kodiak. Depending on the season, only about 6,000 people live within the boundaries of the main city. Throw in the wider borough and archipelago -- all 5,000 square miles, about the size of Connecticut -- and the soldiers keep watch over about 13,500 people, roughly 3,500 brown bears, one of the most productive commercial fishing fleets in the country, 1,270 miles of coastline, 200 species of birds, and the largest U.S. Coast Guard base in the country, home to about 900 active guardsman.

Kodiak is known as the "Emerald Isle," to summer visitors and the local tourism bureau. It's called "the rock" to those who wait out the long, wet winters. As in, "I need to get off the rock," or, sometimes more desperately, "Jesus Christ, get me off the rock."

It's a vital place, crackling with energy and general goodwill. It is, what I've been told, old-time Alaska, where you'll be invited to sit down with a group of strangers regardless of your politics, your clothes, your stature in life. It's a place where old people still have twinkles in their eyes and toddlers will raise up their arms to strangers.

But still, the island is about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. It is about 1,500 miles northwest of Seattle, the main entry point from Alaska to the rest of America. The only way off is on boat, a state ferry or an airplane. The airplanes all fly to Anchorage. There are no flights to the rest of the world. Some love the isolation. Others don't.

This time of year -- early spring in Alaska, approaching summer everywhere else -- it's more ecru than green on the rock, but the jewel dust is spreading daily beneath the 16-hour rays of the sun, and people don't seem so desperate to leave. A few more weeks, and on a sunny day, the emeralds will sparkle so brightly that they will make your eyes water. The emerald isle is one of those places in that when you visit, you have to remind yourself that you're still in Alaska.

When I was there, a woman from Jamaica told me that Kodiak is the one place she's been in the U.S. that reminds her of home. In the summer, that is.

The two who won’t see summer

There are two men -- 41-year-old James Hopkins and 51-year-old Richard Belisle -- recent victims of what the FBI is calling a double homicide -- who won't be alive to see the island sparkle this summer.

They won't be able to roam on the many sand beaches, staring as the light changes the waters from a gunmetal grey to aquamarine to gunmetal again. They won't taste the salt on their lips or forage for salmonberries, or sit on a deck staring out at paradise sipping Liquid Sunshine from the local brewery. They won't overhear fisherman arguing about the takeover of corporate fishing interests or the Japanese, who largely control the market for the fish.

This summer, they won't be able to pretend, at least until a cold gust comes sweeping off a snowcapped mountain, that they're on a tropical island.

Sometimes the toy soldier is crouching. Sometime he has his head turned, as if someone just called out his name. Sometimes he stands, arms outstretched, head slightly raised, perhaps greeting the springtime sun. Sometimes he just stands straight, at attention, staring out past the docks, into the Gulf of Alaska.

No matter his stance, his rifle is on the ready. Semper Paratus.

Even though his various incarnations on the island are likely the result of teenage mischief, a part of me can't help but want to believe that his presence was a result of some greater hand. Right now, the island needs all the help it can get.

On the morning of April 12, Belisle and Hopkins were gunned down while at work on the Coast Guard's Kodiak base. They were in what is called the "rigger shop" near the communication station, or ComSta for short. One of them was an active Coastie. The other was a former Coastie, who continued working on the base as a civilian.

Kodiak, like much the rest of the state, is a dangerous place in some respects and a pretty safe one in others. The sea kills a lot of people, particularly when fishing season's in full gear. The deadliest year for fisherman at sea in Kodiak, according memory, was 1988, when 44 people perished.

Laws were later changed to mandate better safety measures on the boats, and a much maligned quota system was enacted that replaced wild, derby-style fishery openings with long seasons that allowed fishermen to pick their weather. The changes saved some lives at sea.

Ashore, there were still problems related to life on the rock. In 1989, one member of the Coast Guard and a civilian working on the base committed suicide. One shot himself, the other at home. That was a hard year for all of Alaska, however and particularly those living its coastlines. It was the year that the Exxon Valdez run aground. The oil was not supposed to travel the hundreds of miles south into the waters around Kodiak, but it did.

According to memory and for as long as official records have been kept, there has been only one other double-murder in Kodiak. That was in 1988, when two brothers, Robbin and Daniel Nickerson, didn't return from fish camp. The man who shot them, Robert Shepar, pleaded no contest to homicide. He did about four and half years after arguing that the killings were a result of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his service in the Vietnam War.

There have been other murders in Kodiak, three of which are still unsolved. But murders are rare on the rock. And the murders of two on a Coast Guard base, an enclave of security on the island, was unprecedented. It had never happened here. It had never happened anywhere.

The only other murder of a guardsman on a base in America was in 2001 on another island in Alaska. That was at the LORAN Station on St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, about 600 miles away from Kodiak. Carl Merculief Jr. shot and killed Cmdr. Timothy Harris, who was having an affair with Merculief's wife on the tiny 300-square-mile island.

A news blackout

Not much is known about the details of the April 12 killings. Those investigating -- the Coast Guard, the Alaska State Troopers, agents from Homeland Security, and the FBI -- have kept information tight.

Here is what is known: A house belonging to Kodiak residents James and Nancy Wells was searched after the shootings. Their cars were towed and presumably searched, then given back.

James, a former member of the Coast Guard, worked at the rigger building as a civilian. He, like Hopkins and Belisle, repaired antennas.

Authorities have said nothing about James Wells.

The shootings of Hopkins and Belisle made headlines nationwide for a few days, but the story has since fallen off the front pages. Nobody has been arrested, nor has a suspect been named. Rumors fill the vacuum.

The FBI, the lead agency, has repeatedly told the press that the residents of Kodiak, all across Alaska, and the rest of the country, aren't in danger from the unknown killer. Specifically, FBI spokesman Eric Gonzales has said that "nothing in the investigation has led the FBI to believe that anyone is in danger."

The toy soldiers peppered throughout the island seem to be standing guard, joining the many other live sentries -- the FBI has said "dozens" on the island at one point. At least two of them, the real-life sentries, official ones, stand watch in a vehicle parked on a hill overlooking a big, blue house built into another hill, in a neighborhood on the island called Bells Flats.

The house being watched belongs to the Wellses.

Nancy Wells, who served as a Kodiak Borough assemblywoman from 2002 to '05, answered when I knocked. When asked if the couple wanted to tell me their side of the story, she said, "We have no story to tell," before politely closing the door. Another knock on another day went unanswered.

Not much is known about her 60-year-old husband James Wells, and those who know him best aren't saying much. It's just too sensitive right now. Off the record, and depending on to whom I spoke, he is a loner, the nicest man around, the grumpiest man around, a normal family man, an odd duck.

And let's repeat this: the FBI has not named a suspect Any suspect. A letter to the local paper, the Kodiak Daily Mirror, said the FBI's silence on the subject is "laughable, because many, if not most people including the FBI, know who it is..."

Either the FBI is being extraordinarily careful -- it no doubt does not want to have another Richard Jewell or Bruce Ivins on its hands -- or it simply doesn't have the evidence it needs to make an arrest. Namely, it doesn't have a weapon it can link a suspect to.

The actions of agents in recent weeks suggest the former.

Bells Flats

Communities all across the country support some version of Bells Flats, a neighborhood about 10 miles outside of the city of Kodiak, and about seven miles from the Coast Guard base.

Bells Flats' sister community in Anchorage would be Girdwood, sans the ski lodge and the second homes of wealthy oil executives and their wives. Bells Flats is a place where you can own more than a spot of land, build your house to your liking, get a view to die for, and let your dogs and your children run up and down the dirt roads untethered.

The neighborhood was home to some 5,000 troops during World War II. After the war, many of the Quonset huts that housed them beneath the slopes of Kashevaroff Mountain -- the peak that blocks the low-flying sun all winter--were razed. Some remained, however, providing free shelter to hippies and artists, many of whom worked for the burgeoning fishing industry. Eventually the neighborhood spread, searching for the light. Now, there's nearly an official dark and light side of Bells Flats, each with their own entrances. Ask for directions to a house in the neighborhood, and a local will tell you to take the road into the dark or the light side.

In Bells Flats, you can be as private as you want, or, if you're wired that way, you can be surrounded by a tight-knit group of neighbors who will take care of you. You can sip organic, free-trade coffee with them and munch on homemade cookies the size of a face at the Java Flats. At the coffee shop you can type notes or stories on an old Corona typewriter to leave behind for those who will come later.

Down the street from Java Flats is the Rendezvous Bar and Grill, the living room of many in Bells Flats. The Rendezvous has cachet all across the island. You tell people that you're headed out to the Rendezvous, and you get smiles and nods of approval. It may not look like much, but the company is often good and the food is always fresh and lovingly prepared. The place is proof that even on an island in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska, quality wins the day.

The real-life sentries sit on one of the rolling hills on the light side of the neighborhood.

They take shifts on duty. They sit in their cars and eat sandwiches and they watch the Wells' home. "Just enjoying the view," they told me when I knocked on the window.

Everyone I talked to in the neighborhood knew the FBI agents were there. All seemed to welcome their presence. The fact that the killer or killers of Hopkins and Belisle are still on the loose unnerved many, despite the statements from officialdom that no one need worry.

"How do you feel safe when they haven't identified a suspect?" said Erick Hanson said on an afternoon in Bells Flats where he and his wife Laura were splitting wood.

"We're locking our doors now for the first time," Laura said. "But if the people (the FBI) are watching are innocent, how devastating is that?"

Both stressed that their predominant emotion was sadness for the families. They both knew Rich Belisle. He lived just a few houses down. They describe him as a "great family man. A happy, good man."

And they both know Nicola Belisle, who used to spend her days at the state of Alaska's job center in the community, helping people find work. Now, she's at home on family leave, trying to sort through the mounds of paper that go with losing someone you love, particularly someone who was in the service.

She's trying to figure out how to live without her husband. On sunny days, she sits on her back deck, staring off into the mountains. On one of those mountains, the largest of all them, she plans on spreading Rich's ashes when the snow melts.

The peak she watches is called Center Mountain. And to look at it also means looking at that blue house, that blue house where the Wellses live; that blue house that the sentries watch.

Contact Amanda Coyne

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