US Coast Guard pall bearers salute the bodies of retired Chief Boatswain's Mate Richard Belisle Electronic Technician 1st Class James Hopkins as their caskets rest in an Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules airplane on April 20, 2012. Their convicted killer, James Michael Wells, 71, has telegraphed he will appeal the jury decision for a third time. US Coast Guard photo.
The Alaska man convicted of murdering a pair of US Coast Guard co-workers on Kodiak Island a decade ago appears poised to appeal his case. Again.
James Michael Wells, 71, is serving a life sentence at the high-security US Penitentiary Florence in Colorado after a federal jury of six men and six women in 2019 found him guilty on all six counts of killing in cold blood Electrician’s Technician 1st Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Boatswain’s Mate Richard Belisle inside their rigging shop.
It was his second trial. He was convicted in 2014 of gunning down the two men inside the US Coast Guard Communications Station — better known as COMMSTA, the Kodiak Island-based “911 of the Bering Sea” because it handles radio traffic from mariners and aviators in distress — but the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and ordered a retrial.
The jury again quickly convicted him on two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of murdering a federal officer or employee, and two counts of possession and use of a firearm during a violent crime. But he appealed again, and on Dec. 14, a three-judge 9th Circuit panel unanimously refused to toss statements Wells made to investigators that he claimed were coerced because the agents threatened his employment.
The next day, however, San Diego defense attorney Benjamin L. Coleman asked the panel to give him until Jan. 30 to request a rehearing of the case before an en banc panel of 11 justices. If his request is granted, that will push a final circuit ruling into late 2023, more than 11 years after he shot the two men in the antenna shop.
Coleman didn’t return Coffee or Die Magazine’s requests seeking comment.
Retired US Coast Guard Chief Boatswain’s Mate Richard Belisle, left, and Electrician’s Technician 1st Class James Hopkins were shot to death inside the US Coast Guard Communications Station Kodiak Island's T2 Building on April 12, 2012. US Coast Guard photos.
On April 12, 2012, Rich Belisle and his boss, ET1 Jim Hopkins, reported for work inside the T2 building at COMMSTA, where they jokingly nicknamed the rigger shop “The Happy Republic of T2.”
Belisle was supposed to climb and service a 300-foot tower later that day.
At 7:09 a.m., a camera in the COMMSTA parking lot behind T2 captured a 2001 blue Honda CR-V compact sport utility vehicle, which usually wasn’t driven by Wells but rather by his wife, Nancy.
Five minutes later, the shooting from a .44-caliber revolver had ended, and the bodies of Hopkins and Belisle were slumped on the deck. Belisle had died first. Hopkins stopped prepping his uniform of the day, ran into the cement office where the gunshots had erupted, and was shot in the face by Wells, the last person he’d ever see alive.
The round went through the petty officer’s skull, but Wells tapped a second shot into the dying man's body.
From left: Jim Wells; retired US Coast Guard Chief Boatswain's Mate Rich Belisle; Electrician's Technician 1st Class James Hopkins; and Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Beauford increase tension on stabilization guy wires while erecting a 120-foot communications antenna on Alaska's Shemya Island, July 2, 2011. The antenna, one of two, was built on the island to assist distressed mariners and aviators after Long Range Aids to Navigation Station Attu was decommissioned. US Coast Guard photo.
Footage showed the CR-V driving off, and investigators later traced it to a nearby airport.
At 7:30 a.m., Wells left multiple phone messages for employees in the rigger shop, claiming his white Dodge pickup truck had a flat tire, and he was going to be late to work.
He arrived an hour later, was told about the shootings, and replied, “Shit. I had a flat tire,” which became his alibi during six interviews with FBI and US Coast Guard Investigative Service agents.
Wells told them he’d need to be restrained if they ever found the murder suspect, because the gunman “like somebody, you know, hurt one of your family members.”
Wells told the agents he believed the killer’s motive was theft, because the antenna shop stowed “lots of stuff in there worth stealing.”
The 2001 blue Honda CR-V compact sport utility vehicle authorities believe James Michael Wells drove on April 12, 2012, to murder two co-workers at the US Coast Guard Communications Station on Kodiak Island. US Department of Justice photo.
The next day, however, agents found footage showing Wells driving to a nearby airport in his truck and then, 34 minutes later, driving out again toward his house.
He couldn’t explain the gap or detail what he was doing during that time. And an FBI tire expert determined that a nail placed in the groove of the Dodge's tire had been shot by a nail gun.
Then he changed his excuse for being late to work. He later took the stand to tell jurors that he’d pooped his pants and went to a creek to clean himself off. He testified he invented the tire story because his bout with diarrhea was “very personal and embarrassing.”
Prosecutors suspected that Wells had driven his vehicle to the airport, hopped into his wife’s car, returned it to a different parking spot, and then jumped back into his truck to go home and then arrived at T2 an hour after the murders, and jurors agreed.
During his trial, they heard that Wells was a terrible employee, increasingly disgruntled that Belisle and Hopkins appeared to be replacing hm. He’d spent two decades as an antenna rigger there, following a long career in the Navy, but now he’d received a pair of warning letters for frequently playing hooky from work and also using his COMMSTA fuel card to gas up his personal truck.
The murder scene inside US Communications Station Kodiak Island Building T2 on April 12, 2012. US Department of Justice photo.
Belisle was increasingly seen as the more dependable and competent rigger, not Wells. The retired chief didn’t lie. He didn’t steal. And he let everyone know where he was, unlike Wells.
To investigators and jurors, the motive was jealousy and the sense Wells harbored that he was being replaced, ending his reign over the antenna shop.
In his appeal, Wells argued that tapes of his evolving alibi should be discarded and he deserved another trial.
Wells claimed that the US Coast Guard’s employment policy threatened termination for civilian workers who aren’t honest, and he’d already changed his story about why he was late.
US Coast Guard petty officers assigned to the Aids to Navigation Team Kodiak lay wreaths in Chiniak Bay near Kodiak Island to honor slain Electrician's Technician 1st Class Jim Hopkins and retired Chief Boatswain's Mate Rich Belisle on April 19, 2012. US Coast Guard photo.
While law enforcement agents never directly threatened him with firing, he alleged an abstract sense of anxiety because of the policy, and he believed the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution should’ve protected him from having to utter those statements to the federal agents.
But to the three justices, there was no proof Wells ever reviewed the US Coast Guard employment manual or even knew any applicable regulation about that. And they couldn’t find any moment when the sea service threatened to fire him over the conflicting alibis, so they declined to order another new trial.
Prosecutors praised their decision.
“Justice has been served,” said US Attorney S. Lane Tucker, in a prepared statement. “James Wells took the stand and attempted to explain away what he did that day, an explanation that was quickly rejected by the trial jury and by the court of appeals. Wells will spend the rest of his life in prison for the murder of these two men.”
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Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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