The trial of James Michael Wells, charged in the tragic double homicide of two fellow Coast Guard colleagues in 2012, begins next week, with a number of government witnesses, Wells’ wife’s blue SUV, a missing murder weapon, the integrity of the government’s witnesses, and a fateful flat tire is expected to take a prominent role in the case.
The prosecution has said that it will not seek the death penalty against Wells, if convicted. It appears that much of the arguments between prosecutor and defense will center on Wells’ alibi — a flat tire — as well as the murder timeline, and possible motives for Wells for the killings.
Wells, 63, is charged in the shootings of Coast Guardsmen Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Petty Officer Richard Belisle. The 41-year-old Hopkins was a Coast Guard electrician's mate while Belisle, 51, was a retired boatswain's mate and civilian Coast Guard employee.
Both victims and the suspect were coworkers at the Coast Guard Communication Station (COMMSTA) rigger shop. Kodiak COMMSTA is due north of the main Coast Guard Base Support Unit (BSU). COMMSTA has two main buildings, the main administrative building and the rigger shop. Both victims were shot multiple times on the morning of April 12, 2012, most likely as they were going about their morning routines, court documents say.
Wells faces six felony charges: two counts each of first-degree murder, murder of a U.S. officer and use of a firearm in a violent crime. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. Wells is being tried in the U.S. District Court in Anchorage. The lead prosecutor is Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder. Wells’ attorney is Anchorage federal public defender F. Rich Curtner. Neither attorney was able to talk to the Daily Mirror about the case while it was in the courts. Thus, various court documents were used to build this story.
The prosecution hopes to prove its case along several fronts: that Wells had knowledge of the building where the crime was committed and a detailed knowledge of the victims’ routines, had a faulty alibi, used a car that showed up on close circuit videos of the roads leading to the murder site, and had apparent motive for the crime.
According to the trial brief filed by the prosecution, there are several “intersecting strands of evidence” that implicate Wells. Prosecution maintains that the murders were committed by “someone who intentionally planned and targeted these two innocent men, who was familiar with the layout and daily schedule of the COMMSTA and especially the rigger shop; by someone who had access to a small blue SUV that was consistent with the one left at the airport by Nancy Wells.” Wells’ wife Nancy was in Anchorage at the time of the murders and had left her blue SUV at the airport.
Wells’ defense is pinning its hopes for an acquittal on a lack of eyewitnesses, a lack of a confession to the crime by Wells, and his alibi — that Wells had gone home to fix a flat on his pickup truck when the murders were committed.
“There is no eyewitness to the homicides. There is no confession. There is no murder weapon. As law enforcement continued investigating this case they did not uncover any physical evidence linking Mr. Wells, his vehicles, or any property from his home to the homicides. The government has built its case against Mr. Wells from a series of inferences,” Curtner said in his trial brief.
The defense brief added: “While driving to work on April 12, 2012, Mr. Wells discovered he had a tire with low air pressure. He returned home to change his tire. The government has seized Mr. Wells’ tire, which had a nail embedded in its tread. The government hypothesizes that Mr. Wells did not have a tire with low air pressure, and that he instead, drove his white truck to the airport on Kodiak. The government alleges that he then parked his car and drove his wife’s car to T2 where he killed his coworkers. The government theorizes that Mr. Wells then drove his wife’s car back to the airport, parked, and drove his car home. Mr. Wells arrived at work later that morning.”
The flat tire defense fizzles, however, according to the prosecution’s timeline. First, prosecutors allege, video cameras show Wells approaching the vicinity of the airport and leaving 34 minutes later. “His alibi of briefly stopping to check the tire, only logically accounts for 6-10 minutes of that time,” the trial brief said.
Also, the prosecutors maintain, “many witnesses will testify that it would have made no sense for Wells to go home to deal with a faulty tire, as tools and opportunity make the COMMSTA a more logical choice to change the tire. Third, a government expert with over 30 years in the tire industry will testify that the nail found in Wells’s tire was manually inserted.”
Then there is motive. Prosecutors allege that Wells committed the crime because of workplace issues. If so, this could go down as one of the most egregious acts of workplace violence in history. “Wells and Wells alone was the only individual having work issues at the Rigger Shop… he was a very competent and knowledgeable antenna mechanic, but that he also had a grandiose and overblown view of his importance to the job.” Wells was seen as a loose cannon and argumentative with his colleagues. Hopkins was charged with supervising. Their overall boss at the shop, reining him in.
“Jim Wells’s role at COMMSTA was as an antenna mechanic,” said the prosecution brief. “He was extremely knowledgeable about antenna maintenance and very competent at his job. He was also very proud of that knowledge. However, he attempted to hoard that knowledge and it was difficult for others to extract the knowledge from him. Wells liked to be the `go-to’ person for all questions involving antenna maintenance. Wells had a history of operating independently of Coast Guard management and was resistant to any suggestions or orders that countered what he wanted to do. In addition, if he did not agree with a command decision, he would just not participate in the work to implement it.”
While Wells’ professional competitiveness could explain a lot about his personality, nothing could even come close to explaining the kind of vindictive rage that might have motivated Wells as the alleged trigger man to kill two men in cold blood.
Jury seating is expected on Monday, with opening statements by the prosecution expected on Tuesday. The government has proposed using forensic psychologist Dr. Reid Meloy to give a discuss characteristics of those who commit targeted, violent acts in workplace settings while the defense has said it intends to bring in violence expert Dr. Mario Scalora, to counter Meloy’s testimony.
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