Thursday, April 3, 2014

Murder Most Foul

Kodiak Coast Guard officer recounts finding dead bodies of his coworkers

Jerzy Shedlock
The third day of the trial of James Michael Wells, who has been charged with murder for allegedly killing two U.S. Coast Guard members in 2012, began with testimony from the Coast Guard officer who discovered the dead, bloodied bodies of his coworkers.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Jay Beauford testified he entered his workplace and headed for his desk in a room labeled break room. Inside, he said he found the body of Richard Belisle, nearly in the fetal position with his hands resting on his head.
“My first thought was someone was trying to play a practical joke on me,” Beauford said. Jokes and pranks were not outside of what was considered appropriate, he said.
He tried to get a response from Belisle, but there was none. On the table in the middle of the room was the dead man’s work shirt. At the beginning of a shift, Belisle would generally drink a cup of coffee and make the shirt conform to dress code by rolling up the sleeves, Beauford said.
After finding one coworker dead, the young officer went to the supervisors’ office. There he found James Hopkins shot and killed, he said. He once again tried to raise a response but was unsuccessful.

Motive, knowledge and opportunity

According to the charges, Wells worked with 41-year-old Hopkins and 51-year-old Belisle in what is called the “rigger shop,” a repair shop of sorts near a communications building on the Kodiak Island Coast Guard base. Wells was a civilian employed by the Coast Guard, and in the year leading up to his coworkers’ deaths, he’d allegedly been reprimanded on several occasions for problems with his work performance.
Wells allegedly entered the rigger shop shortly after 7 a.m. on April 12 and shot his coworkers with a .44 revolver, a firearm that does not dispense spent shells. He allegedly avoided cameras at the shop to slip in unnoticed.
The government argues Wells was the only person who had the motive, knowledge and opportunity to murder Hopkins and Belisle. Federal prosecutors are relying on circumstantial evidence in their effort to put Wells in prison for multiple murder and firearm charges. There is no physical evidence incriminating Wells, U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said during opening statements Tuesday.

Workplace disagreements

Following Beauford’s description of where he found the bodies, and his subsequent actions, which included calling a boss and asking for emergency responders, federal prosecutors focused on the rigger shop’s work environment.
According to Beauford, Wells, a civilian Coast Guard worker who served as an antenna mechanic, was very knowledgeable but did not share his expertise willingly.
“A lot of times he wouldn’t give up more than he had to,” the officer said. “Working with him … I remember not always getting the whole picture.”
Beauford mentioned disagreements surrounding how projects should be handled. In those instances, there were arguments, but those never escalated beyond heated discussion.  No threats were made, Beauford said.
Recalling an instance when the shop crew was tasked with installing a satellite dish atop one of the base’s buildings, Beauford said Wells and Belisle disagreed about how the dish should have been hooked up via cables, through the roof or around the exterior of the building. When a supervisor -- one that the defense has argued had it out for Wells -- chose Belisle’s approach, the accused murderer accepted the choice and did not appear angry, the officer said.

A suspicious vehicle

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Bullis, the second witness to take the stand Wednesday, served as the base watchman the night prior to the alleged murders. It was his job to check that the building was locked up after the workday, which he did the night of April 11, 2012. He said he only checks to see if the windows are closed and did not recall whether they have locks.
It was also Bullis’ job to monitor the 11 cameras placed around the rigger shop and the main communications station. That night, he spotted a white truck with a white canopy drive up to the latter building then turn around. The truck did so twice in six minutes, video surveillance shows.
Wells owns a white Dodge Ram with a white canopy. The rear end of the canopy on Wells’ truck is higher than the rest. The canopy shown on the video was flat, and Bullis contended after questioning by federal public defender F. Richard Curtner that the truck could not have been Wells’.
Curtner argued during opening statements the unknown vehicle may have been casing the rigger shop, implicating the possibility of another murderer. 
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FBI agent: Coast Guard murder suspect left little evidence at crime scene

Jerzy Shedlock

The rigger shop, part of the Coast Guard's Kodiak Base Communication Station, was the scene of a double murder on April 12, 2012. James Michael Well is currently on trial for the homicides in Anchorage. Photographed May 7, 2012 Loren Holmes photo
A special agent with the FBI took the stand Tuesday afternoon in the murder case against James Michael Wells, accused of killing two Coast Guard members in April 2012. Evidence presented included boxes of ammo consistent with bullet fragments found at the murder scene, but none matched the supposed murder weapon, and the agent testified stockpiling guns and ammo isn’t uncommon among Alaskans.
Wells was a Coast Guard civilian employee who stands accused of killing two Coast Guard members on Kodiak, the second-largest island in the United States and home to a major military base. The communications station at which Wells worked is geographically separate from the island’s main base.
The murders happened early in the morning of April 12, 2012, and Wells is charged with fatally shooting 41-year-old James Hopkins and 51-year-old Richard Belisle. Authorities never found a murder weapon, and the government is arguing the case based on circumstantial evidence. Federal prosecutors contend Wells was the only person with the knowledge to pull off the murders without leaving any physical evidence behind.
Wells and the victims worked at what is called "the rigger shop," a kind of maintenance building. As Hopkins and Belisle were starting their workdays around 7 a.m., Wells allegedly snuck around security cameras to shoot and kill the men with a .44 revolver. The government argues Wells was distraught over grievances about his job performance.

Unfinished business

FBI special agent Derek Espeland and other members of the agency’s evidence response team in Alaska were informed of the murders shortly after the incident, he said. The team filled a Suburban full of investigative tools, loaded it onto a Coast Guard vessel in Anchorage and departed for Kodiak. It arrived on the island the same day.
The collection and documenting of evidence generally starts from the exterior, Espeland testified. Then agents move inward. But dozens of photos prosecutors presented Tuesday were captured inside the rigger shop. The special agent said he took all the photos, some of which included the bloodied bodies of the alleged murder victims. Nicola Belisle, Richard Belisle's wife, exited the courtroom at the mention of those photos, which showed her husband and his colleague.
One of the images showed Hopkins lying on his back. To Hopkins’ left rests a navy blue dress shirt; only one of its sleeves had been rolled up to conform with the Coast Guard’s dress code, meant to allow members to wear their sleeves up while still being able to push them down in case of an chemical attack. According to testimony, Hopkins' daily routine was to roll his sleeves up on a table in the middle of the break room. He apparently was doing so on the morning of April 7, 2012, when the killer caught him off guard. The government has argued both victims did not have the chance to defend themselves.
The government pulled the blue shirt from a cardboard box and displayed it to the jury. Additional evidence included bullet fragments, a broken kitchen bowl, a trash can punctured by what was believed to be a projectile and a black glove. Underneath spilled blood in the office -- where Belisle’s body was found -- were a slug and another with its copper jacket intact. The list of evidence went on: fingerprints, though prosecutors have said DNA evidence wouldn’t help their case, because Wells worked at the rigger shop; tire castings; debris with what was thought to be a piece of a tooth; and an empty can of lime-flavored diet soda.
Despite the FBI’s meticulous collection of evidence, Espeland testified investigators failed to find anything indicating “a suspect leaving the scene.” He said his impression was that the shooter “did so in such a manner that he or she left little to no evidence behind.”

Cache of guns and ammo amid clutter

After the rigger shop was combed over, FBI agents moved on to Wells’ home, then two vehicles. They went through the same process for the above, snapping hundreds of photos and sifting through clutter.
The government has described Wells as a hoarder, someone unwilling to throw away anything he sees as having use in the future. Several times, prosecutors have described an instance at the rigger shop when Wells is alleged to have visibly displayed frustration at coworkers throwing out nuts and bolts.
A photo of the defendant’s garage showed a space packed to the brim with odds and ends -- power tools, jugs, leftover wood. Somewhere under the garage’s clutter was a vehicle, though it was not visible in the photo. Espeland testified that the junk heap hindered evidence collection. In addition to the garage, there was a plethora of items stored underneath the home.
Inside the Wells’ residence, agents found a cabinet full of various ammunitions, which included rounds for .44 and .45 caliber firearms. They seized two guns, too, a .44 Magnum Ruger Super Blackhawk revolver and a .45 ACP Ruger P345 semiautomatic pistol. Those guns use ammo consistent with shells found at the rigger shop, but the shells and the guns didn’t match up. Wells allegedly had other guns in the home, as well.
During cross-examination, federal public defender F. Richard Curtner asked Espeland about the prevalence of gun ownership on Kodiak.
“It’s not unusual for any Alaskan to have a lot of ammo and guns,” the special agent replied. He also agreed many people on the island make a hobby of hunting, and a large population of bears is another reason locals arm themselves.
A smaller amount of evidence was seized in the vehicle searches of Wells’ Dodge Ram and his wife’s blue Honda CR-V, which were spotted near the base’s main gate and the rigger shop, respectively, on the day of the murder. A photo of the interior of Wells’ Dodge showed similar clutter to that in his garage, like outdoor equipment and trash.
The FBI took castings of the tires from both vehicles. It compared the castings with tire tracks in front of the rigger shop. It wasn’t until later in the investigation that the agents discovered the alleged murderer may have approached the shop using an alternate driveway. By that time, the steady rain that often soaks Kodiak washed away whatever tracks there may have been.

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