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Expert testifies in USCG double homicide trial in Alaska

Apr. 15, 2014 - 08:58PM   |  
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ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — Jurors in the trial of a man charged with gunning down two co-workers at a Coast Guard communications station on Kodiak Island repeatedly viewed blurry security-camera footage Tuesday showing a blue car passing the murder scene, then heading in the opposite direction five minutes later.

Prosecutors contend the video shows James Wells, 62, in his a sport utility vehicle usually driven by his wife, Nancy. They say he took a back route to the communication station Rigger Shop, where antennas are built and repaired, and shot electronics technician Richard Belisle, 51, and Petty Officer First Class James Hopkins, 41, shortly after they arrived for work at around 7 a.m. April 12, 2012.

Wells is charged with two counts of murder. Prosecutors say Wells resented the growing influence of Belisle and Hopkins in the shop where he was a nationally recognized antenna expert.

Prosecutors believe Wells drove to the Kodiak airport, switched to his wife’s blue Honda CRV, drove to the shop, committed the murders and exited five minutes later. Wells drove back to the airport, switched back to his pickup, drove home and called in a story about suffering a flat tire on his truck, according to prosecutors.

No one but Wells, who worked at the Rigger Shop for more than 20 years, could have avoided the building’s security camera, according to prosecutors, but the case could hinge on the blurry images shot from Building T1, the main building at the communication Station, about 100 yards from the Rigger Shop.

The camera shows a long view of vehicles traveling on Anton Larsen Bay Road, which leads northeast to the communications station — and not much else. Continuing northeast, a driver would pass the Coast Guard golf course, a few houses that the FBI says were unoccupied, and a dead end about eight miles away at Anton Larsen Bay.

The day of the homicides, Belisle used a swipe card to open the shop at 7 a.m. A security camera showed Hopkins’ truck pulling in at 7:08 a.m. The unknown blue vehicle passed the Rigger Shop at 7:09 and headed back toward Kodiak at 7:14, according to the security footage.

Neil Schmidt, who investigates claims against Honda products, testified Tuesday that he was “70 percent sure” that the car in the video was an early model CRV, from 2000 or 2001. The proportions have since been made sleeker.

“This is a relatively boxy SUV,” he said.

Another indicator was the bright blue color offered only those two model years.

“We call that Electron Blue Pearl,” he said.

Richard Vorder Bruegge, an expert in photo and video analysis for the FBI, compared the images to video shot five days later by the FBI of Nancy Wells’ SUV. He counted individual pixels from the grainy image and could not positively link her SUV to the vehicle seen April 12 but also concluded it could not be eliminated.

FBI agent Alex Doran testified that six blue Honda CRVs were registered on Kodiak and the other five were accounted for the day of the shootings.

Defense attorneys say a Honda CRV fits the image of the blue vehicle captured by the security camera, but so do SUVs made by eight other manufacturers.

In afternoon testimony, Wells’ sister and brother-in-law said Wells, on a visit to Seattle two months after the shootings, became animated and angry when asked how the victims’ families were doing.

“He said they were unqualified and incompetent, and he had taught them everything they knew,” said Theresa Kiele. On previous visits, she said, Wells had referred to Belisle as a friend and she sent Wells a sympathy card after the shootings.

Donald Kiele also said Wells disparaged his dead co-workers.

“He went into a rant, that they were incompetent, that they were unqualified to have that job,” Kiele said. Wells described Belisle as a “drunk” and said he, Wells, was the only one in the shop who knew what he was doing, Kiele said.

Wells looked on without reacting as his family members testified.

Prosecutors expect to wrap up their case Wednesday. Defense attorneys said Monday they expect the defense case to take about a week.

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