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Pathologist testifies at Coast Guard shootings trial

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Two Coast Guard employees killed while on the job were shot multiple times, a pathologist said during testimony Thursday in the trial of a man charged with murder for their deaths.

James Wells, 62, is accused of killing Petty Officer First Class James Hopkins and civilian Richard Belisle at the Kodiak Island Communication Station in 2012.

Hopkins died from a shot to the face, Dr. Meredith Lann concluded. Belisle was shot three times and two bullets could have killed him, Lann said, including one that lodged in his neck and one that passed through his abdomen.

Lann was called by prosecutors at the trial for Wells, an antenna technician who is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Hopkins, 41, his immediate supervisor, and co-worker Belisle, 51.

Prosecutors contend that Wells, a nationally recognized expert in building and maintaining the antennas on which the Coast Guard relies, bitterly resented seeing his influence diminish within the shop where he had worked for more than two decades.

On April 12, 2012, Belisle, Hopkins and Wells were scheduled to begin work at 7 a.m., at the station's Rigger Shop, where antennas are built and repaired.

Belisle's security card opened the shop at 7 a.m. A security camera recorded Hopkins' pickup entering the parking lot at 7:08 a.m.

Prosecutors contend that Wells drove onto the grounds out of sight of security cameras, entered the building, shot his co-workers and fled after about five minutes.

At about 7:29 a.m., Wells called to say he had been delayed by a flat tire, an alibi prosecutors contend is false.

The bodies of Hopkins and Belisle were found shortly after 7:30 a.m. by a Coast Guardsman reporting for work. First responders reported smelling gunpowder in the air. Prosecutors say the men were killed with a .44-caliber revolver, which was not found.

Defense attorney Peter Offenbecher objected to prosecutors showing graphic autopsy photos to the jury.

"There is no question about the cause of death," Offenbecher said.

U.S. District Court Ralph Beistline, however, said photos could be shown if they aided Lann in explaining how the men died.

"They're not going to linger and we're not going to get into the full autopsy," Beistline said. In some cases, photos appeared to the jury for less than a second.

Lann, who worked as a state medical examiner in 2012, said she found no gunshot powder residue on the victims, and other than a small part of Belisle's hand, no stippling, or tiny abrasions caused by debris from a gunshot. Residue and stippling can indicate gunshots fired from close range.

The shot that killed Hopkins entered just below his nose and exited from the back of his head. It would have been immediately fatal, Lann said.

A second bullet entered his chest and exited through his abdomen, passing just under the skin. The shot would not have been fatal, Lann said. He also received a graze wound that caused superficial damage to the back of his left arm.

Belisle was shot in the back of the right shoulder. The bullet passed through the shoulder and lodged in his neck. The second potentially fatal shot was fired into his abdomen and exited after striking internal organs.

A third shot entered his left side, just below his rib cage, and exited his right abdomen. The shot would not have been fatal, Lann said.

He also had a superficial wound on his right index finger. Lann could not say what caused it, but it was suffered the day Belisle died because there was no indication of healing, she said.
 

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