Second trial over Kodiak Coast Guard double murder goes to jury

A jury is again deliberating the fate of a man charged in the 2012 murders of two coworkers at a U.S. Coast Guard communications station in Kodiak.

It’s the second trial of 68-year-old James Michael Wells on charges that he shot to death his fellow civilian antenna rigger, Richard Belisle, 51, and their supervisor, Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins, 41.

Closing arguments Monday in Anchorage marked the culmination of seven years of investigation, court proceedings, trial and retrial.

The retrial comes after a guilty verdict in Wells’ first trial, in 2014, was thrown out on appeal. A panel of judges wrote prosecutors should not have used a particular expert witness and that the trial judge had made inappropriate remarks at Wells’ sentencing, at which he ordered Wells to serve four consecutive life sentences.

The prosecutors’ story about how they say Wells killed his colleagues has not changed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki told the jurors Monday that Wells had become arrogant in his two decades at the antenna rigging shop, that he chafed under a new supervisor and that he’d become jealous of Belisle, another civilian employee.

Wells’ simmering rage led him to plot to shoot Hopkins and Belisle with a .44-caliber revolver, Skrocki said. While the prosecutor described what happened, Belisle’s widow, Nicola Belisle, sobbed with her head down, rocking.

“He left his home with murder on his mind,” Skrocki said.

The prosecutors’ theory, as in the first trial, is that Wells switched vehicles with his wife to commit the murders. She was out of town at the time and had left her SUV at the airport. Then, they say, he shot the two victims and fabricated a story about getting a flat tire to explain why he had not been at work during the shooting.

A painstaking recreation of those events in the first trial — including vehicle experts analyzing grainy, far-away surveillance video — was enough to convict Wells the first time.

But, like in the first trial, Wells’ attorney pointed out the lack of physical evidence.

In 10 months of looking, investigators were never able to find the revolver that matched the one used in the killings, nor any blood or other physical evidence on Wells or his vehicles.

Wells’ attorney, Gary Colbath, told the jurors that the largely circumstantial case against his client was not enough to convict someone of murder.

Colbath described it as a “suspect-based” investigation that failed to look at any other suspects.

Colbath said the case was a terrible tragedy, and he told the jurors that Hopkins and Belisle were innocent men who did not deserve to die.

But, Colbath said, “don’t let that take away the innocence of a third man.”

The case went to the jury Monday afternoon. It took a jury just a couple hours to convict Wells in 2014.