US attorney: Chain of evidence points to Wells as man behind Kodiak Coast Guard killings
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — There is no crime scene evidence that connects James Wells to the April 2012 murders of two co-workers at a Coast Guard communications station on Kodiak Island, U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said in her opening statement at Wells' trial Tuesday.
Still, the murder suspect could be nobody else, she said.
"Common sense and inferences all tell you it was Jim Wells," Loeffler told the jury that will ultimately decide the case. "None of the evidence is going to be an 'Aha! This is it.' "
Wells, 62, was a longtime antenna technician at the communications station's rigger shop, where he worked alongside his alleged victims: retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Richard Belisle, 51 and a civilian employee, and Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins, 41, an electronics technician and supervisor of Wells and Belisle.
Wells had feuded with Hopkins, who was urging Wells "to get with the program," Loeffler said. Prosecutors have said Wells was likely jealous of Belisle, a well-liked employee who had recently been picked to go to a national antenna conference Wells usually attended.
The three men were part of a crew of about a half-dozen at the rigger shop, where antennas are repaired. The shop is known as Building T2 and is about 100 yards downhill from Building T1, the main communications building, where Coast Guard personnel monitor radio traffic from faraway ships and planes, including vessels in distress. Altogether, the communications station is known as COMMSTA and is about 11/2 miles from the Coast Guard's larger base on Kodiak Island.
It was about 10 months after the fatal shootings, during which Wells continued to live as a free man on the island, that a federal grand jury indicted him in February 2013 on two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of murdering an officer or employee of the United States, and possession of a firearm in a crime of violence.
Prosecutors could have sought the death penalty for Wells, but Department of Justice officials announced in August they would not pursue it.
In photos projected in court Tuesday taken by Alaska State Trooper Dennis Dupras, the first law enforcement officer to see the bodies, Hopkins was seen in a pool of blood in the rigger shop's break room, Belisle covered in blood in an office. Hopkins' wife bolted for the courtroom door as the photos were shown.
Only someone familiar with the layout of the rigger shop and the routines of Belisle and Hopkins would have known where to find them the morning of April 12, 2012, Loeffler said. Only Wells, a problem employee who had recently been called out for misbehavior, including stealing gas, had a motive to kill the two men, she said.
"The one individual who was not there, at work that morning ... at the rigger shop when he should have been is Mr. Wells," Loeffler said. "The evidence will show this was a personal, planned, premeditated murder."
The prosecution's theory is that Wells drove his white pickup to the Kodiak airport where his wife's blue Honda SUV was parked, then drove the SUV to the rigger shop in a way that bypassed the shop's surveillance cameras and shot the men inside without leaving bloody foot- or hand-prints — nor any evidence of a robbery.
But other surveillance cameras captured Wells in the two vehicles, Loeffler said.
- At 6:48 a.m., a camera at the gate of the larger Coast Guard base recorded Wells' white pickup on what would have been his route to work.
- At 7:09 a.m., a camera on the rigger shop recorded a blurry, blue image of what Loeffler said was Wells driving his wife's SUV toward the shop.
- At 7:14 a.m., two minutes after a man reported hearing a loud noise, probably a gunshot, the camera again captured a similar blurry image of the SUV leaving, Loeffler said.
- At 7:22 a.m., the base camera again captured Wells' white pickup, driving in the direction opposite the one he had been traveling in 34 minutes earlier.
After the shootings, Loeffler said, Wells drove back to his pickup and headed home, as seen in the final recording from the base camera. Despite having a cellphone with him and access to all of the necessary tools at work, Wells called from home to tell his supervisor, who was dead, that his tire was going flat and that he was changing it at home, Loeffler said.
Wells said there was a nail in the tire and that he was having trouble removing the lug nuts, Loeffler said.
An expert will testify that the nail was inserted manually, not in the course of driving, Loeffler said. And there was not enough time from when witnesses saw Wells pull into his driveway to the time he made the call for him to have even tried taking off the lug nuts, she said.
When federal agents asked Wells why it took him so long — the 34-minute gap from the first time his pickup passed the base camera to the second pass — before noticing the flat tire and starting his return trip home, his answer was suspicious, Loeffler said.
"He said, 'I don't have a reasonable explanation for it. I don't have a theory at the moment.' For where he was when his colleagues were murdered," Loeffler said.
It is true that investigators never found the .44-caliber revolver they determined to be the murder weapon, Loeffler said. Wells had other handguns of that caliber, but none matched the three possible models used in the shootings, she said.
However, years earlier, he had an opportunity to steal a stainless steel Smith & Wesson revolver of that caliber, one that could have fired the fatal shots, from a safe he was supposed to be holding for a friend, Loeffler said. When the friend returned to Wells' house to get the gun, the safe had been opened, somehow, and the revolver was missing, Loeffler said.
"He asked Mr. Wells and got a sort of non-committal, 'I don't know, it's missing' answer," Loeffler said.
Wells was a hoarder, she said. "He never gets rid of anything."
Wells' attorney, Richard Curtner, showed the jury pictures of Wells in his younger days. Like Belisle, he was a retired member of the Coast Guard. Wells also had served 20 years in the Navy prior to the Coast Guard, Curtner said.
One photo showed Wells in a studio portrait with his wife and three children. Another showed him dressed as Santa Claus, in his natural white beard, holding a granddaughter.
"When he got out of the Coast Guard, he made two vows: never to wear a tie again and never to shave his beard," Curtner said. "Sometimes when you get older and your beard gets white, it comes in handy, as Santa Claus."
After his stint in the Coast Guard, Wells became a civilian employee for the Coast Guard and worked at the rigger shop, Curtner said. He loved climbing towers and was skilled with electronics, his attorney said.
"And he was good at it. He was known nationwide as an expert in antenna mechanics," Curtner said.
Wells' attorney attacked the government's case, which he said was built entirely on sketchy, circumstantial evidence that could not prove Wells killed Belisle and Hopkins.
"It's built on so many assumptions, you'll see in the course of this trial, how all of those assumptions, stacked up, are just wrong," Curtner said.
Because there had been some "friction" between Wells and one of his supervisors, the investigators focused on him from the beginning and failed to look into other possible suspects, Curtner said. The supervisor had "poisoned" everybody else into thinking Wells had done it, he said.
The rigger shop workers had plans to climb an antenna tower the morning of the murders, Curtner said, and so Wells did not want to leave his pickup at the shop all day while they worked, which would have allowed the tire to go completely flat. His health issues also forced him to find a bathroom right about the time he realized there was a problem with the tire, Curtner said, explaining the 34-minute gap.
Wells was never known as a violent person and did not have any criminal record, Curtner said. He was genuinely shocked when he heard that Belisle and Hopkins were dead, the lawyer said.
After dozens of search warrants — which at one point took investigators into Wells' septic tank — the gun used in the murders was never recovered, Curtner said. Even in a small community like Kodiak, where most people would have recognized Wells driving his pickup or his wife's SUV, no eyewitnesses reported seeing him near the communications station around the time of the murders, the lawyer said.
Prosecutors only have the blurry image of a blue SUV, Curtner said. Even if a prosecution expert, as expected, testified the length and height of the vehicle in the image matched Wells' wife's vehicle, there was enough range for error in the estimated measurement for it to have been eight other types of vehicle, Curtner said.
"That phantom blur, you can't tell what it is," Curtner told the jury. "You'll also hear evidence of how many blue vehicles of those models are on Kodiak Island."
Finally, Curtner pointed to other possible suspects in the killings. Hopkins and his wife had been going through a "rocky" time in their marriage, Curtner said. The wife had flirted with younger men at the communications station, he said.
Belisle's daughter, 16 at the time, had been hanging out with "the bad boys of Kodiak," drug users that were older than she was, Curtner said. He accused Jason Barnum of being their supplier. Barnum was on the island at the time, Curtner said, and would later go on to shoot an Anchorage police officer at the Merrill Field Inn.
Curtner projected a Daily News photo from Barnum's first court appearance in Anchorage on the attempted murder charge, showing Barnum's many face and head tattoos, including one tattoo that blacked out the white of his right eye.
The day after the shootings, Barnum was at a store on Kodiak Island, according to Curtner, "saying, out of the blue, 'I didn't do it! I didn't do it!' and he makes, with his finger, like he's shooting a gun."
"But this investigation was all about Jim Wells," Curtner said.