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'What Happened in Craig’: True crime novel delves into unsolved fishing-boat murders

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: January 12, 2019
  • Published January 12, 2019

What Happened in Craig: Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder

’What Happened in Craig: Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder, ’ by Leland Hale

By Leland E. Hale. Epicenter Press, 2019. 222 pages. $19.95

It’s been 37 years, and the unsolved murder of eight family and crew members on a fishing boat in Craig, Alaska, is still the subject of conjecture among fishermen, legal analysts, crime followers and conspiracy theorists. Seattle author Leland Hale has now published a true crime account, based on his extensive research, of what happened on that day in early September 1982 and in the months and years of investigation and trials that followed.

Hale, author of “Butcher, Baker: The True Account of an Alaska Serial Killer,” about the infamous Robert Hansen case, dug deep into police records, transcripts, newspaper accounts and his own interviews to present a well-organized and disturbing narrative of the sequence of events and the many personalities involved.

As true crime nonfiction, the book is not a work of journalism or scholarship, and readers need to rely on Hale as the storyteller and interpreter. Journalism or scholarship would provide fact-checked sources; in contrast, Hale has written a fast-paced narrative that reads like a novel, full of scenes and dialogue. As he says in a note at the beginning, much of the dialogue comes from court and police transcripts, but he has also reconstructed some of it and recreated scenes for dramatic effect. Readers need to approach the story knowing that Hale spent years in its research and is thus supremely knowledgeable about the subject — but that the book is ultimately his creation and not the definitive word about “what happened in Craig.”

What is well-known about the tragedy is that someone killed skipper Mark Coulthurst, his pregnant wife, two small children, and four teenage crew members aboard the F/V Investor, a salmon seiner at the end of a successful season, at the dock in Craig. A gun was used for at least some of the murders. Then that someone moved the boat to a nearby island and tried to sink it by opening valves. When the boat didn’t sink, the killer returned with accelerant and torched the boat. The boat and occupants were burned so thoroughly that it took considerable time to identify the human remains; a couple of years passed before one missing crew member — a possible suspect — was positively identified through teeth and bones.

Hale thoroughly describes the difficulties encountered in the initial investigations. These included the gruesome job sifting through the boat debris and ash for body parts and evidence, the inexperience of local investigators, and the lack of cooperation from possible witnesses. Significantly, there seemed to have been considerable drug and alcohol use within the fleet and town at the end of the season, which not only clouded what people experienced or remembered but caused them to be reluctant to expose themselves to legal difficulties or to “rat” on others. Some who may have seen or heard things of interest to authorities also apparently feared retaliation from the killer.

The prime suspect was, from the start, a fisherman named John Peel, who had previously worked for Coulthurst. Peel was identified as looking “similar” to the man seen coming and going in the Investor skiff and did not seem to have a credible alibi for his whereabouts during the killing and arson. Although he was questioned right away, he was cleared as a suspect when witnesses who had seen the skiffman failed to identify him in a bar.

Time passed. The troopers fielded calls, investigated leads and taped interviews. They gathered as many as a dozen suspects. They narrowed the suspects. “Small revelations kept pointing in one direction.” John Peel became the only suspect. A year and a half after the murders, Peel was formally interviewed by the troopers. Lacking hard evidence, they were hoping for a confession — which they did not get. Several months later, still lacking a “smoking gun,” Peel was finally arrested.

Parts 2 and 3 of the book cover the subsequent trials. Even with knowing how it all ends, Hale’s detailed blow-by-blow of the trials is riveting and keeps the pages turning. The first trial, in 1986, taking eight months and costing over two million dollars, resulted in a hung jury. The second, in 1988, resulted in acquittal. From Hale’s account, it becomes clear that with the passage of time, memories became unreliable. Moreover, some of the witnesses called by the prosecution were somewhat shady or had drug or mental health issues that made them less than trustworthy.

Hale gives particular attention to the role of defense attorney Phillip Weidner, famous in Alaska for his theatrics and success with juries, with what Hale calls a “no-holds-barred style.” In both Peel trials, Weidner was instrumental in causing confusion and doubt among members of the jury by tearing into witnesses, accusing the prosecution of mismanagement and lying to witnesses, and proposing alternative scenarios, such as the involvement of organized crime and a hired killer.

Hale does not offer to solve “Alaska’s worst unsolved mass murder” in so many words, but a reader will easily enough connect his dots to draw a conclusion.