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Crime & Courts

Man again receives life sentences in double murder at Kodiak Coast Guard site

A man was sentenced again to serve four consecutive life sentences in federal prison Tuesday for killing his two co-workers in 2012 at a Coast Guard communications station on Kodiak Island.

James Michael Wells, 68, was convicted during a jury trial in 2014 and was originally sentenced to four consecutive life terms, but his convictions on multiple charges were reversed on appeal in 2017. A jury again found him guilty of all charges when his second trial concluded in October 2019 after three weeks.

James Hopkins, 41, and Richard Belisle, 51, were fatally shot on April 12, 2012, while working at the U.S. Coast Guard antenna maintenance facility, about 1 1/2 miles from the Coast Guard’s larger base on Kodiak Island. Prosecutors said Wells was seen on surveillance cameras entering the main base and switching cars before Hopkins and Belisle were killed in the “rigger shop” where all three worked together. For about 34 minutes, Wells’ whereabouts were not accounted for, and the killings happened during that time, charges said.

Investigators never found the .44-caliber revolver used to shoot Hopkins and Belisle. Wells has repeatedly maintained his innocence.

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. (U.S. Coast Guard / file)

On Tuesday, family and friends of Hopkins and Belisle hugged one another as they entered the courtroom before the emotional sentencing hearing. Six of them submitted or read statements to the court.

Debbie Hopkins, Jim’s wife, wrote that she misses his great sense of humor and his unconditional love for his family. She remembered how they fell in love quickly after meeting at a Chicago bar and became inseparable. She said Wells took away her best friend.

Nicola Belisle, Richard’s wife, told the court her family is “broken beyond belief” because of his death. The family’s grief has been exacerbated by the continued court proceedings, she said.

Belisle lamented the things her husband has missed in the last seven years — he wasn’t there to see his youngest daughter graduate from high school, walk his daughters down the aisle or even to hold his newborn grandson, “who has his eyes.”

She said the second conviction was “an extremely hollow victory because Rich is still dead."

As the victims addressed the court, Wells peered down at the written statements through black-rimmed reading glasses. Seated at the desk with his feet in shackles, he told the courtroom that he plans to appeal the decision because he is innocent.

“I still maintain my innocence because I know I did not commit these murders,” he said.

“Not a day has gone by that I don’t think about Rich and Jim. This is a tragic incident that I did not cause. And we don’t know who did — that’s just part of the tragedy is that there can be no closure.”

The court of appeals said Wells’ first trial was “fundamentally flawed” because prosecutors repeatedly overstepped boundaries, including the testimony of an expert witness about workplace violence.

Steven Skrocki, deputy criminal chief with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska, said after Tuesday’s hearing that prosecutors took special care to address concerns brought up during the first appeal. Skrocki said he feels confident about the facts of the case though he can’t predict what may happen during Wells’ future appeal.

Wells said he plans to appeal the second trial because of prosecutorial misconduct and ethics violations. His attorney declined to comment after Tuesday’s hearing.

Wells was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, two charges of murdering a federal employee and two federal weapons offenses.

“The thing the public should understand, that in a case like this with a reversal, it’s part of the justice system,” Skrocki said after the sentencing. “Our job is to keep moving forward. In this case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard came back together to achieve justice and I’m gratified with that.”

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