ANCHORAGE — An Anchorage federal jury heard closing arguments Monday in the trial of a Kodiak man accused of killing two coworkers at a Coast Guard communications station seven years ago.
James Michael Wells, 68, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of murder of an officer or employee of the United States, and two weapons charges. Prosecutors believe Wells fatally shot Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Petty Officer Richard Belisle shortly after 7 a.m. April 12, 2012 because he was having problems with them at work.
Belisle was shot in the neck and twice more after he fell to the floor. Hopkins was shot in the face and once more after he fell. Both men were shot at close range with a .44-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. Their bodies were discovered in the communication stations “rigger shop” by fellow Coast Guard members arriving for a 7:30 a.m. shift change.
Wells was tried in Anchorage in 2014 and convicted of all charges. He was later sentenced to four consecutive life terms in prison. His conviction was overturned in December 2017 after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that a forensic psychologist’s testimony about the characteristics of those who commit workplace violence should not have been allowed. A new trial was granted so Wells’ case could be heard without that evidence.
Wells’ second trial began in U.S. District Court on Sept. 10. Closing arguments began Monday at 8:45 a.m. and ended shortly before 2 p.m.
U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki argued first and told the jury that Wells drove his wife’s SUV to the communication station’s rigger shop with “murder on his mind and in a murderous race against time.” Wells, according to Scrocki, chose to act in “surprise, stealth and violence” to execute Hopkins and Belisle. After the shooting, Wells returned his wife’s SUV to the airport where she had left it while out of town, retrieved his white pickup truck, drove home and called work to leave a voicemail message saying he had a flat tire.
Wells arrived at work at 8:30 a.m. A coworker who saw him later that morning testified that Wells was “straight-up sleeping” on the job and his hair was wet as if he had cleaned up before coming to work. Other coworkers testified that Wells was having problems with his hearing that day, a fact which Skrocki attributed to Wells having fired five .44-caliber bullets inside a cement building.
Skrocki asked the jury to look at the evidence again and focus on inconsistencies in Wells’ statements to investigators.
“It’s like trying to pin down a bubble of mercury,” Skrocki said, noting Wells’ answers to their questions were vague and seemed to change as new information came to light.
When asked to give a specific timeline of his actions that morning, Wells could not explain where he was for 34 minutes. Wells initially told law enforcement and coworkers that he found a nail in his tire and had to change it. In a subsequent interview with investigators, Wells said he had diarrhea and had to clean up after soiling his pants and had been too embarrassed to mention it before. Wells said he then put the pants in a bag and put them in his closet at home, but FBI agents did not find the bag after searching his home, Skrocki said.
While on the witness stand last week, Wells told the jury he pulled the nail out and placed a larger nail in the hole, got diarrhea and soiled his pants while driving, went to the Servant Air hangar at the airport to wash up, then wore those pants for the next three days, a statement Skrocki characterized as “ludicrous” and “preposterous.”
“Truth is easy. Lies are tough,” Skrocki said, noting investigators did not find any feces or detect any odor on the seat of Wells’ truck.
Skrocki refuted the defense’s assertion that an unknown person killed Hopkins and Belisle.
“It was clearly an inside job,” Skrocki said. “It wasn’t some random backwoods ninja that jumped into the (shop) and fired five shots.”
In his closing argument, Wells’ defense attorney, Gary Colbath, said investigators focused on his client right from the start and were guilty of confirmation bias, hindsight bias, tunnel vision and group think. He blamed his client’s inconsistent or incomplete statements to investigators on the fact that he trusted them and “didn’t know he was being set up and lied to.”
Colbath said investigators kept changing tactics when Wells’ wouldn’t “take the bait,” and Wells suddenly understood he was being lied to and became confused when asked for details he didn’t know.
Colbath said the prosecution couldn’t prove the blue car seen at the rigger shop in surveillance footage belonged to Wells’ wife and that the killer could have been someone else because several other unidentified vehicles were seen near the rigger shop in footage taken before and after the killings. Colbath pointed out the lack of physical evidence linking Wells to the scene and reminded the jury the weapon has never been found, even though investigators drained Wells’ septic tank to search it for evidence. Colbath also said his client had no motive to kill Hopkins and Belisle because they weren’t the supervisors he was angry with.
In his rebuttal, Skrocki told the jury to filter out the “white noise” of Wells’ testimony and Colbaths’ arguments and focus instead on “time and truth.” Wells failed to “beat the clock” when carrying out the murders, according to Skrocki, and his testimony was “absolute rubbish.”