Friday, April 25, 2014 7:54 pm
Jury convicts Alaska man in Coast Guard killings
James Wells, 62, was charged in the 2012 shooting deaths of Coast Guardsmen Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Petty Officer Richard Belisle. Wells, a man with thinning gray hair and a long white beard, did not testify at his trial.
Jurors began deliberating Thursday afternoon. A day later, they found Wells guilty of two counts each of first-degree murder, murder of an officer or employee of the United States, and possession of a firearm in a crime of violence.
Outside the courtroom, Hopkins' widow, Deborah, said she was satisfied with the verdict and now her husband could rest. She said the guilty verdict will help with closure, but not completely.
"Nothing will ever take my husband's spot," she said.
Federal prosecutors earlier said they would not seek the death penalty if Wells was convicted. He faces life in prison, and his sentencing was set for July 8.
U.S. Attorney for Alaska Karen Loeffler said justice prevailed after an arduous, circumstantial case. Asked if the quickness of the verdict surprised her, Loeffler said she doesn't predict outcomes one way or another.
"This was a tough case that was very well investigated," she said.
After the reading of the verdict, federal public defender Rich Curtner was asked if he wanted to comment. He turned his back and walked away as associates shook their heads.
Kodiak Island, some 250 miles south of Anchorage, is home to the largest Coast Guard Air Station in the Pacific. The double homicide took place 3 miles away at the base's communications station, where personnel monitor radio traffic from ships and planes.
The victims were found in the station's rigger shop, where antennas are built and repaired.
Hopkins, 41, was an electronics technician from Vergennes, Vermont. Belisle, 51, was a former chief petty officer who continued service to the Coast Guard as a civilian employee.
Prosecutors contended Wells, a Coast Guard civilian technician, resented the growing influence of Belisle and Hopkins in the shop where he was a nationally recognized antenna expert. They said he meticulously planned an alibi, sneaked onto the communications station and gunned them down on April 12, 2012.
According to the government's theory, after the shootings, Wells made it home and called Hopkins' work phone, leaving a message saying he would be late for work because of a flat tire.
Prosecutors say the flat tire was a ruse to give him a cover story for committing the murders.
According to authorities, Wells told the FBI he started driving to work, detected a soft tire, stopped at a hotel near the Kodiak airport entrance, checked the tire and returned home to change it.
Unbeknownst to Wells, a security camera at the nearby Coast Guard main gate recorded his truck heading for the communication station shortly before 7 a.m. and driving in the opposite direction toward his home 34 minutes later.
Wells' wife was out of town the day of the shooting, and her blue SUV was parked at the Kodiak airport not far from the communications station. Investigators believe a blue vehicle seen in blurry security footage belonged to Wells' wife and concluded he switched cars, waited for Hopkins to drive by, followed him to the communications station and shot him and Belisle.
Curtner said in his opening statement that Wells suffered from chronic diarrhea following gall bladder surgery and was delayed the morning of the murders because he spent 20 minutes in a bathroom of a commuter airline.
Wells made no mention of using an airport bathroom to the FBI.
Curtner and defense attorney Peter Offenbecher of Seattle contended authorities immediately focused on Wells and ignored other possible suspects. They said prosecutors had no eyewitnesses, no confession, no murder weapon and no physical evidence linking Wells to the homicides.
Wells served eight years in the Navy and 13 with the Coast Guard. Upon discharge in 1990, he was hired as a civilian employee.