Facing life in prison for the 2012 killings of two coworkers at the Coast Guard communication station in Kodiak, James Michael Wells filed an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday.
An Anchorage federal jury convicted Wells, now 68, of the murder of Coast Guard Electrician’s Mate 1st Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Boatswain’s Mate Richard Belisle, who was hired as a civilian worker after his retirement. Wells was sentenced to life in prison on Jan. 14 by U.S. District Judge Sharon L. Gleason.
This was Wells’ second trial. He was initially convicted in 2014 and sentenced to four consecutive life terms in prison. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction in December 2017 and ordered a new trial after some of the evidence used at his first trial was deemed prejudicial.
The second trial lasted a month, ending with a conviction in October on all six counts of the indictment, which include two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of murder of an officer or employee of the United States, and two counts of possession and use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.
Wells was arrested on Feb. 15, 2013, for the shooting deaths of the two men, who were Wells’ coworkers at the Coast Guard antenna maintenance facility.
Wells’ defense attorney, Gary Colbath, who represented Wells during his second trial, said on Monday that he will likely not handle the appeal.
According to court documents, restitution will be determined at a hearing scheduled for Feb. 12, in Anchorage. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will issue a briefing schedule after the restitution hearing. When the briefing is complete, the court will determine whether or not oral arguments will be heard. Colbath said it is difficult to predict how long the appeal process will last.
In Wells’ recent trial, Colbath argued that the government fixed on his client from the beginning and failed to investigate the possibility that a random stranger might have committed the killings. Hopkins and Belisle were killed shortly before 7:15 a.m. Wells' didn't show up for work until 8:30 a.m., first blaming his tardiness on a flat tire and later changing his story to say he had soiled himself after a bout of diarrhea and had to clean himself up.
“From the time he was initially charged to the sentencing he’s maintained his innocence and believes he’s wrongfully convicted,” Colbath said about his client’s decision to appeal.
According to a news release from the Department of Justice, evidence at trial established that on April 12, 2012, between 7:09 and 7:14 a.m., Wells had shot and killed Hopkins and Belisle with a .44 revolver while they were at their duty stations in the Rigger Shop at the Kodiak Communications Station. First responders noted no evidence of a break-in or robbery and both men appeared to be victims of a targeted killing. Wells was due to arrive at the Rigger Shop the same time as Hopkins and Belisle, but instead left two phone messages for Hopkins and Belisle, noted to be after the victims’ time of death, stating Wells was running late due to a flat tire. Wells ended up arriving at the Rigger Shop over an hour after his normal start time, immediately claiming to have had a flat tire.
Coast Guard security videos captured Wells passing the Main Gate at Base Kodiak at 6:48 a.m. in his white Dodge truck on his way toward the Kodiak Airport, and returning back toward his residence at 7:22 a.m. However, a small blue SUV, owned by Wells, was captured on Coast Guard security videos passing the Rigger Shop front entrance. The evidence showed Wells drove his white Dodge pickup truck to the airport, where he swapped vehicles and drove Nancy Wells’ blue Honda CR-V to the Communication Station to commit the murders.
There was a 34-minute period of time for which James Wells could not account and that unexplained discrepancy captured the attention of the interviewing agents. Additionally, a tire with a nail in it was seized and through extensive testing, the examiner concluded that the nail had been manually inserted into the tire, undermining the foundation of Wells’ alibi that he had picked up a nail while driving to work on the morning of the murders.
Debbie Hopkins, the wife of one of the victims, said last week that she is confident Wells will not be granted the appeal.
“He’s not going to get another trial because he doesn’t deserve it. He can appeal all he wants.
In my heart, he’s never getting out of prison. He can sit there until the day he dies,” she said. “He took a damn good husband that would do anything for anybody.”
Hopkins left Kodiak in May 2012 after living on the island for three years with her husband and children. At the time of the murder, she was preparing to travel to Anchorage with her husband to celebrate their anniversary. She now lives in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and hasn’t returned to Kodiak since her husband was killed.
Hopkins said the trial was difficult for her family, and brought up emotions in her son and daughter that were difficult for her to witness.
“When we got this sentencing and Wells got convicted again, my kids were happy,” she said.