ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — A Coast Guard investigator testified Thursday that the suspect in a double homicide at a Kodiak Island communication station would have had time to commit the crime and drive home within a period when security cameras spotted his pickup on the road.
Special Agent Aaron Woods testified in the trial of James Wells, 62, who is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Petty Officer First Class James Hopkins, 41, his immediate supervisor, and civilian co-worker Richard Belisle, 51.
Both were shot April 12, 2012, shortly after they showed up for work at the communication station Rigger Shop, where Coast Guard antennas are built and repaired.
Prosecutors contend Wells, a nationally recognized antenna expert, bitterly resented seeing his influence diminish within the shop where he had worked for more than two decades. Prosecutors say no one but Wells could have avoided security cameras at the communication station and that only he had a motive for the homicides.
They claim Wells left his home, switched into his wife’s sport utility vehicle parked at the Kodiak airport, waited for Hopkins to pass and followed him to the shop. Prosecutors say Wells shot Hopkins and Belisle and was back on the road in five minutes. They say he drove back to the airport, switched back to his own pickup, drove home and called Hopkins’ phone to say he would be late because of a flat tire.
The timing of the drive is critical to the prosecution case.
Wells’ truck was recorded on security video passing the main Kodiak Coast Guard base at 6:48 a.m. and heading home again at 7:22 a.m., a 34-minute period.
Security video at the communication station shows a blue sport utility vehicle on the road outside the Rigger Shop at 7:08 a.m. and heading in the other direction at 7:14 a.m. Prosecutors claim the SUV belongs to Wells’ wife; defense attorneys say the blurry image cannot be tied to that vehicle.
Wells claimed he detected a soft tire on the way to work, stopped at the Kodiak airport parking lot to check it and returned home. Defense attorneys say that he experienced a bout of severe diarrhea, an after-effect of gall bladder surgery, and spent 20 minutes in the bathroom of a commuter airline at the airport.
Woods testified he made six to 12 trips recreating the drive from the Rigger Shop to Wells’ home. He recorded one that took him 13 minutes, 27 seconds, including a stop at the airport to park and switch vehicles.
Over the objections of defense attorney Peter Offenbecher, U.S. attorney Karen Loeffler played the video reenactment. Offenbecher said it would give undue credibility to the government case.
“This is a dramatization of their theory of the case,” he said. “They’re just trying to plant this in the jury’s mind.”
U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline allowed the demonstration.
Prosecutors earlier Thursday methodically called witnesses to establish the timeline of the deaths.
Allen Rudat, a Coast Guard civilian employee from Spanish Port, Ala., testified he was on a two-week assignment in Kodiak the day of the murders. He took an hour-long walk and passed the Rigger Shop at 7:12 a.m. when he heard a loud metal clang from the building.
“It sounded like a steel metal grate being dropped on concrete,” he said. Prosecutors contend Rudat heard a gunshot.
Under cross-examination, Rudat said he did not see a blue sport utility vehicle near the building.
An FBI expert in tool marks, Brett Mills, testified that he pulled a nail from Wells’ tire. The head had two parts of an arc mark on it, indicating it had been struck by an automatic nail gun that used a plunger system, Mills said.
The nail was in a groove of the tire tread. Mills said he would have expected to see abrasion on the nail head if someone had driven on the damaged tire.
The trial will resume Monday morning.