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Attorneys give arguments in Coast Guard killings

Apr. 25, 2014 - 08:08AM   |  
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ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — A man accused in a double homicide at a Coast Guard communications station in Alaska is the only possible killer in a circumstantial case, federal prosecutors said Thursday, countering defense arguments that the government failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a case built on speculation.

After closing arguments in federal court in Anchorage, jurors were handed the case to begin deliberations in the murder trial of James Wells, a nationally recognized civilian expert in antennas the Coast Guard uses for sea and air traffic. Wells, 62, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the April 12, 2012, shooting deaths of his immediate supervisor, Petty Officer James Hopkins, 41, and Richard Belisle, 51, another civilian electronics technician.

Prosecutors believe Wells used a Smith & Wesson .44-caliber silver revolver that went missing with no explanation, according to a retired Coast Guard technician who left a safe containing that gun and others with Wells in the 1990s. The weapon used in the killings has not been found.

In their closings, both sides returned to themes well-established during weeks of testimony.

Prosecutors said Wells was unhappy because the Coast Guard were reining in the independence he enjoyed for years and making him increasingly irrelevant through the advancement of the victims.

“The only way to return to his position of prominence was to eliminate the competition,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder said.

The killings at the Kodiak Island communications station had the markings of an inside job, prosecutors said. Wells was the only other worker who was due to work at the same time at the station’s Rigger Shop, where antennas are built and repaired. But instead of showing up on time, Wells said he had stopped to check on a soft tire and drove home to repair it.

Defense attorney Peter Offenbecher said authorities immediately zeroed in on Wells and ignored other possible suspects, including Hopkins’ widow, Deborah, who was called as a defense witness to answer questions about their marital problems, their finances and her familiarity with the crime scene. In his closing, Offenbecher also noted a white vehicle turning around twice by a nearby security camera as if staking out the site hours before the killings.

Offenbecher said the government’s case was a “house of cards” focused on tunnel vision that saw only Wells.

“Because of that tunnel vision, we may never know who killed these men,” Offenbecher said.

On the day of the killings, Wells, Hopkins and Belisle were due at the communications station at about 7 a.m. Hopkins and Belisle were found shot to death about a half hour later.

Unbeknownst to Wells, a security camera recorded his truck heading for the communication station at 6:48 a.m. and heading in the opposite direction toward his home at 7:22 a.m., a gap of 34 minutes.

Prosecutors say Wells used the time to switch to his wife’s blue Honda CRV that was parked at a nearby airport, follow Hopkins to the communication station and shoot Hopkins and Belisle. They contend he was in and out of the Rigger Shop in five minutes, giving him time to drive back to the airport, switch back to his pickup and drive home, where at 7:30 a.m. he called Hopkins’ office phone to report he would be late because of the flat tire.

Defense attorneys said Wells suffered from chronic diarrhea following of gallbladder surgery and was delayed returning home because he spent 20 minutes in an airport bathroom. Wells had made no mention of using the bathroom to the FBI after the killings.

During the trial, jurors also repeatedly viewed blurry security camera footage from a camera closer to the station showing a blue car passing the crime scene, then heading in the opposite direction five minutes later. Wells himself was not caught on that camera, and prosecutors say that’s because he knew the layout in a place where he had worked for more than 20 years.

Offenbecher said nothing in the trial was able to prove that the blue car belonged to Wells’ wife. There wasn’t even any evidence that it was the same vehicle going in each direction. Without the car, the government’s theory “goes up in smoke,” Offenbecher said.

In a rebuttal to the defense Thursday, U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said that based on evidence, the killing occurred between when the blue car was caught on camera arriving and leaving the area. Loeffler also noted the one camera that Wells failed to consider was the one he didn’t know about.

As for contentions by the defense that the killings could have been committed by intruders, Loeffler said nothing was taken and nothing was disturbed. Instead, the victims were shot at close range as intentional, targeted victims.

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