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Coast Guard shooting suspect pleads not guilty

Feb. 20, 2013 - 06:23AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 20, 2013 - 06:23AM  |  
This July 2, 2011, photo provided by the Coast Guard shows Richard Belisle, second from left, and Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins, second from right, with Jim Wells, left, and Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Beauford as they help erect a communications antenna on Shemya Island, Alaska. The Coast Guard on Feb. 15 said James Michael Wells, a Kodiak man arrested in last year's shooting deaths of Hopkins and Belisle, was a co-worker of the victims.
This July 2, 2011, photo provided by the Coast Guard shows Richard Belisle, second from left, and Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins, second from right, with Jim Wells, left, and Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Cody Beauford as they help erect a communications antenna on Shemya Island, Alaska. The Coast Guard on Feb. 15 said James Michael Wells, a Kodiak man arrested in last year's shooting deaths of Hopkins and Belisle, was a co-worker of the victims. (Coast Guard / AP file)
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A Kodiak man was formally charged Tuesday with murdering two employees at a Coast Guard communications station more than 10 months ago, and court documents indicate his disciplinary actions at work may have been the motive.

James Michael Wells, 61, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of killing an officer or employee of the United States, and two counts of related weapons charges in the April 12 deaths of Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Boatswain's Mate Richard Belisle.

During a short arraignment hearing, Wells — wearing a yellow prison uniform and reading glasses provided by his attorney — pleaded not guilty to all charges. A bail hearing was continued until Monday.

Wells will have a court-appointed federal defender but must pay up to $30,000 of the defense total.

According to a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday and filed by FBI agent Elizabeth Oberlander, Wells left his home to go to work the morning of April 12 in his pickup. He was spotted on surveillance video as he drove past the main gates of the Kodiak Coast Guard Base at 6:48 a.m.

The complaint says there is probable cause to believe he drove to the Kodiak Island airport, where he picked up his wife's car and drove to the communications station where he, Hopkins and Belisle worked.

Officials say he arrived at 7:09 a.m., avoiding surveillance cameras, went into the building and shot the two men multiple times.

The complaint says he left the station at 7:14 a.m. and drove back to the airport to get his pickup, which was seen on surveillance driving past the Coast Guard station at 7:22 a.m.

Another Coast Guard member found the victims shortly after the two would have arrived for work at the station, which monitors radio traffic from ships and planes. Their bodies were found in the rigger building, where antennas are repaired. Bullets recovered from the bodies were .44-caliber jacketed soft points. The complaint says similar ammunition was found at Wells' home but a .44 Ruger revolver also found there was not the murder weapon.

Officials say Wells devised an alibi in which he called and left messages for his two dead co-workers, saying he had a flat tire and would be late to work. The complaint claims forensic testing of the flat tire shows a nail gun was used to put the nail into his tire, and he had not driven on the tire after he picked up a nail, as he had claimed.

Wells was interviewed by FBI agents shortly after the killings, and his home was searched. U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler wouldn't address the timeline between the killings and Wells' arrest Friday during a short news conference after his arraignment.

She did say, however, the murder charges could carry the death penalty, but the process — which includes officials at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. — has just started and no decision had been made.

The complaint hints at a motive and indicates Wells was facing disciplinary action at work after a new supervisor, identified as "Witness B" in the document, began work in July 2010.

There were several instances noted of loud shouting matches between the witness and Wells. It also described Wells as someone with a short temper who was accustomed to working with little supervision.

In September 2011, Wells was accused of using a work fuel card to fill his personal vehicle at a Coast Guard base station. After an investigation, Wells met with Witness B, and the commanding officer and Wells begrudgingly signed a letter of caution in the incident, according to court documents.

"The commanding officer informed Wells that he no longer trusted Wells. Wells repeatedly denied the accusation and repeated the phrase, ‘It just doesn't sit right,' " the complaint says.

In November 2011, Wells had to sign a memo saying he understood that trees at the communications station were not to be cut and removed for his personal use as firewood for his home.

About the same time, the complaint says, Belisle approached the supervisor and asked to be disassociated from Wells.

The next month, other employees in the shop were complaining that tasks weren't being completed because Wells either wasn't ready to do them or didn't want to.

It's at this point the supervisor, or Witness B, told Wells he needed to "be a part of the process or retire. Witness B reported saying, ‘I don't care which, but we're not doing this anymore,' " according to the complaint. That prompted a heated argument.

On Jan. 17, Wells was informed that because of disciplinary problems and extended absences, he would not be sent to a national conference that he had regularly attended.

A day before the killings, both Wells and Belisle discussed different ways to run antenna cable. The supervisor went with Belisle's approach, and they had further discussions about how to complete the task.

One witness, according to the document, said Wells' star was fading while Belisle's was rising, while another said Wells wanted to be the "top dog."

Another witness told investigators he believed Hopkins was bitter because he had to correct Wells' work and that caused tension in their relationship.

Hopkins, 41, was an electronics technician from Vergennes, Vt. Belisle, 51, was a former chief petty officer who continued service to the Coast Guard as a civilian employee.

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