A U.S. District Court judge has sentenced James Wells to four consecutive life terms in the double murder of two co-workers at a Coast Guard communications station on Kodiak Island in April 2012.
A jury convicted Wells, 63, this spring in the shooting deaths of retired Chief Boatswain's Mate Richard Belisle, 51, and Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins, 41. The men worked in an antenna-rigging shop at the communications station, a few miles from the Coast Guard’s larger main base on the island.
Wells sneaked into the shop early the morning of April 12, 2012, and gunned down the men with a .44-caliber revolver, prosecutors said.
Each murder conviction carried a penalty of a mandatory life sentence, and Wells faced an additional 10 years-to-life punishment for using a firearm in the commission of a violent crime. Prior to the trial, the U.S. Department of Justice had decided not to pursue the death penalty, an option in federal court.
Wells maintained he was innocent at the Tuesday sentencing.
"A tragedy occurred, and we’ve all suffered for it," he said. "And I know I’m innocent of this crime and will continued to try and prove that."
Judge Ralph Beistline disagreed, saying it was clear Wells was a cold-blooded killer.
"You can fight for your innocence, but you’re not innocent," Beistline said. "Anyone who says otherwise is simply fooling themselves."
The earlier fight in court manifested as a 20-day trial, with prosecutors trying to prove that a mountain of circumstantial evidence, despite a lack of forensic scene evidence, showed only Wells could have killed the two men, the targets of his jealous rage.
Wells had been reprimanded at work several times and argued with his superiors, one of whom was Hopkins, according to testimony at trial. Wells was out for an extended period on sick leave, and Belisle and others started to learn to do Wells’ job without him. Just more than a month before the murders, Hopkins picked Belisle to attend an antenna conference Wells had been going to for years.
Prosecutors, including U.S. Attorney for Alaska Karen Loeffler, explained at trial how Wells drove his white pickup to the Kodiak airport where his wife’s blue SUV was parked while she was out of town. Wells switched vehicles and drove the blue SUV, which was seen by a distant surveillance camera driving toward the rigger shop.
Wells avoided other cameras because he knew the shop well and arrived at a time that he knew he would catch only Hopkins and Belisle, prosecutors said. He shot Belisle, then Hopkins, and returned to shoot Belisle again, prosecutors said.
After the killings, Wells returned the SUV and drove his pickup home, later claiming he had run over a nail and needed to change out the deflating tire. An expert witness testified for the prosecution that the nail in Wells’ tire appeared to have been inserted manually, not during driving.
Wells’ attorneys, Alaska federal public defender Richard Curtner and Seattle lawyer Peter Offenbecher, said another person killed the men and suggested that their family members had associations that made them targets. That was a sentiment Curtner repeated at the Tuesday sentencing.
The real murderer was still at large, Curtner said, as Wells, bearded and in an orange jumpsuit, looked on.
“It was clear at the trial the jury did not honor our presumption of innocence, but expected us to prove his innocence,” Curtner said. “We plan to continue to fight for his innocence.”
In a written statement to the judge, Wells’ wife, Nancy, also said her husband was innocent. She said Wells never lied to her about anything, even if the subject matter was difficult.
“I know Jim is innocent because he said he had nothing to do with these murders,” Nancy Wells wrote. “If I have had the courage to ask the question, no matter how much he has known that the answer would hurt me, could damage our relationship or that I would intensely dislike it, he has always told me the truth.”
While Nancy Wells was not present in court Tuesday, the widows of Wells’ victims spoke to Judge Beistline about the impact of losing their husbands. Nicola Belisle described the last moments she shared with her husband, Rich.
He had gotten up first and made coffee, as usual, and knocked on the bathroom door while she showered to let her know he was headed to work, Nicola said. When she got out, she was angry that he’d used her towel, she said. Nicola later learned that her husband was already dead at that point.
Later, she sat with him for hours at a funeral home, she said.
“(I was) touching him and praying to God he would just wake up. He looked like he was just taking a nap,” Nicola Belisle said. “I loved my husband with all my heart and soul. He would still make my heart leap, when he came in the room unexpectedly or when his truck came in the driveway.”
Nicola referred to Wells as “that man” until the end of her statement.
“There is no true justice in this world for murderers. So I just hope he gets it in the next life,” she said. “James Michael Wells, I hope you rot in hell.”
Wells looked straight ahead as she spoke, showing no outward sign of emotion.
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