A man accused of fatally shooting two men at a Coast Guard communications station near Kodiak last year, following a series of personnel disputes, was arraigned in federal court Tuesday.
James Michael Wells, 61, pleaded not guilty to all six charges against him including two counts each of first-degree murder, murder of a federal employee or officer, and possession and use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. He was arrested Friday in the murders of Coast Guard Electrician’s Mate First Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Boatswain’s Mate Richard Belisle.
A criminal complaint filed by FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Oberlander says Wells drove his own white Dodge pickup truck to the Kodiak State Airport on April 12, 2012, transferring to his wife’s blue Honda CR-V -- both vehicles of interest in the 10-month investigation -- before he drove past a surveillance camera at Coast Guard Communications Station Kodiak.
Alaska State Troopers responding to an emergency call from the station at 7:47 a.m. that day found Hopkins and Belisle dead in the station’s rigger shop, about 100 yards away from the main facility, each with gunshot wounds.
“After returning to his home, Wells put his alibi in effect, placing calls to his supervisors and co-workers, including both dead men, claiming that he would be late because of a flat tire,” Oberlander wrote.
That alibi didn’t pan out after a forensic examination of the tire in question, according to the FBI.
“The forensic examination revealed that nail was inserted by a nail gun, and the tire had never been driven on after the nail was inserted,” Oberlander wrote.
A man who took over supervision of the rigger shop in July 2010, then spoke with investigators after the shootings, is identified in the complaint as “Witness B.” While Oberlander wrote that the supervisor described Wells as "the most knowledgeable antenna mechanic on Kodiak Island and possibly the entire Coast Guard," he also said Wells needed to be the "top dog." He said that Wells, the only other civilian besides Belisle working in the shop, came into conflict with Hopkins in 2011.
“It became apparent to Witness B shortly after he took over that the ‘civilians’ were running the shop,” Oberlander wrote. “(He) made it clear to Hopkins that Hopkins was in charge. Hopkins' assumption of a leadership role in the Rigger Shop caused tension between Hopkins and Wells. Wells was used to acting with little supervision.”
Tensions escalated in July 2011, when the supervisor overrode a decision by Wells not to install devices required by the Environmental Protection Agency on remote communications towers.
“Wells argued with Witness B over the decision and yelled at anyone who would listen that Witness B wasn’t letting him do his job,” Oberlander wrote.
Wells became ill in August 2011, and was out of the office until January 2012 due to the removal of his gall bladder and hernia surgery -- time during which Belisle, Hopkins and the supervisor learned more about the shop’s operations.
“In addition, other staff members learned to rely on existing maintenance manuals, and realized that they could operate the Rigger Shop without Wells,” Oberlander wrote.
During the same time period, Wells got in trouble after a Coast Guard fuel card was found in his desk in September. An investigation at the time determined that Wells had fueled his personal vehicle using the card, an allegation which he denied. In February 2012, Wells was asked to sign a letter of caution over the incident at a meeting with his supervisor, as well as the station’s commander and executive officer.
“The Commanding Officer informed Wells that he no longer trusted Wells,” Oberlander wrote. “Wells repeatedly denied the accusation and repeated the phrase ‘It just doesn't sit right.’ Wells was asked to sign the Letter of Caution, which he refused to do. All the participants of the meeting except for Wells left the table. Wells remained at the table alone and eventually signed the letter.”
In November 2011, Wells’ supervisor discovered that trees near the station were being “collared,” causing them to slowly die, despite not posing a threat to the building or its equipment. Wells, who friends said heated his home with a wood-burning stove, had been harvesting the trees as firewood; he was asked to sign a letter of understanding that such trees were not to be harvested.
“Witness B informed Wells that things were not looking good for him because of the tree collaring issue and the fuel card incident and that it was ‘time to get in line,’” Oberlander wrote. “Witness B and Wells had a heated discussion which was loud enough to be overheard by individuals outside Witness B's office. During the argument, Witness B informed Wells that the only reason he wasn't getting fired was because there were no cameras at the (base) gas station. Wells thanked Witness B for his honesty.”
The disciplinary issues led the supervisor to decide in January 2012 not to take Wells with him to the National Association of Tower Erectors’ annual conference, although Hopkins and Belisle would be going. In another heated argument, the supervisor said he was “sick” of Wells’ attitude.
Both Hopkins and Belisle became alienated from Wells during the string of incidents. One witness said Hopkins was frustrated by having to constantly fix Wells’ work. Belisle approached the supervisor in November 2011 and asked that people stop referring to Wells and Belisle as “Jim and Rich” in reference to their status as civilians, instead suggesting they say “Jim or Rich.”
Wells was evasive when investigators asked him about the number and caliber of weapons he possessed, initially saying he owned a 7mm Magnum rifle and a .45-caliber ACP pistol. When his home was searched, investigators found a Ruger .44 Magnum revolver and a Ruger .45 ACP pistol, as well as three shotguns and seven rifles -- all of which he turned over to Alaska State Troopers “for safety and security.”
Forensic examination of a .44 round recovered from Belisle’s body indicated that it came from a Smith and Wesson, Taurus or Llama revolver -- none of which were recovered from Wells’ home.
“The findings of the State criminologist establish that the .44 Ruger revolver recovered from Wells' residence is not the murder weapon,” Oberlander wrote. “Thus, law enforcement does not have possession of the murder weapon at this time.”
Federal officials also didn’t find any blood in Wells’ pickup truck when he consented to a brief search of the vehicle.
After Wells said he had stopped near the airport en route to work to check a flat tire, then went home to get a spare tire and jack, federal agents timed the trip from the station to the airport at two to four minutes, with an estimated delay of two more minutes to look at his tire and start driving home. They believed the total time for the drive would come to about six to 10 minutes -- versus surveillance footage at the Kodiak base’s main gate showing Wells heading north at 6:48 a.m., but not heading south until 7:22 a.m.
“When asked to reconcile the 34-minute gap shown by the camera and his estimate of 6-10 minutes, (Wells) stated: ‘I can't think of why there would be the time discrepancy,’” Oberlander wrote. “Agents gave him an additional opportunity to explain the time discrepancy, asking him to help them account for the missing time. Wells stated: ‘I don't have a reasonable explanation for it.’”
According to Oberlander, Hopkins and Belisle’s killer exhibited extensive knowledge of the communications station, which was used to plan the killings. Wells said Hopkins usually arrived at work at 7 a.m., with Belisle showing up a few minutes later at 7:10 a.m. -- the time when the two men were shot, before other employees arrived at 7:30 a.m.
A Coast Guard watchstander said the rigger shop was secure, with all doors locked, as of 7 p.m. on April 11. Electronic keycard and video logs at the station indicated that nobody entered until Belisle arrived at 7 a.m. on the morning of April 12, but Wells -- whose shift was from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. -- told investigators that employees often arrived and entered together.
"Wells stated that the usual 'practice is usually who's usually there first will go in through the electronic lock. Then you know, it's me or Rich. Or depending, you know. We start. You know, our day starts at 7. And then, usually Jim would show up anywhere from 7:10 to 7:30,'" Oberlander wrote.
Investigators also say the killer drove to the rigger shop in a manner that avoided surveillance cameras.
"Wells was asked how a person could evade detection by the (closed-circuit TV camera) located on (the rigger shop)," Oberlander wrote. "Wells told the investigators a person could park behind or beside the building and walk under the camera. (He) drew a diagram for the investigators showing them the location, angles, and coverage of the camera."
Wells was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Anchorage at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. No bail was set for him, with a Monday hearing scheduled at 10:30 a.m. to do so.
In a brief statement after the arraignment, U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler told reporters that officials had made no decision on whether to seek the death penalty for Wells, who faces life in prison if convicted on all counts. She described the death-penalty decision as one made in Washington, D.C., calling it a "long process."
Contact Chris Klint