ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — An Alaska man was sentenced Tuesday to four consecutive life terms in the 2012 shooting deaths of two co-workers at a Coast Guard communications station that mystified an island community for nearly a year before an arrest was made.
Prosecutors had contended that James Wells resented the growing influence of the two victims at the rigger shop where he was a nationally recognized antenna expert. They said Wells meticulously planned an alibi, sneaked onto the station and gunned the men down.
A federal jury found the 63-year-old Wells guilty in April after a 19-day trial. On Tuesday, he maintained that he had nothing to do with the shootings on Alaska’s Kodiak Island.
“A tragedy occurred, and we all suffered for it,” Wells said in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on Tuesday. “And I know I’m innocent of this crime.”
Wells, sporting a long white beard and thinning gray hair, made his comments after the widows of the victims spoke. Both women said Wells had destroyed their lives and the lives of their families.
“May you rot in prison, James Michael Wells,” said Nicola Belisle. “And I hope you rot in hell.”
Kodiak Island, about 250 miles south of Anchorage, is home to the largest Coast Guard Air Station in the Pacific. The killings of Coast Guardsmen Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Petty Officer Richard Belisle took place 3 miles away at the base’s communications station, where personnel monitor radio traffic from ships and planes.
The victims were found on April 12, 2012 in the station’s rigger shop, where antennas are built and repaired.
Few details were released in the weeks after the deaths, although authorities said shortly after the murders that there was no credible evidence that the community was in danger.
Wells’ arrest 10 months after the killings came after an extensive investigation led by the FBI and the Coast Guard Investigative Service, with support from the Alaska State Troopers.
Hopkins, 41, was an electronics technician from Vergennes, Vermont. Belisle, 51, was a former chief petty officer who continued service to the Coast Guard as a civilian employee.
According to the government’s theory, after the shootings, Wells made it home and called Hopkins’ work phone, leaving a message saying he would be late for work because of a flat tire.
Prosecutors said the flat tire was a ruse to give Wells a cover story for committing the murders.
According to authorities, Wells told the FBI he started driving to work, detected a soft tire, stopped at a hotel near the Kodiak airport entrance, checked the tire and returned home to change it.
Unbeknownst to Wells, a security camera at the nearby Coast Guard main gate recorded his truck heading for the communication station shortly before 7 a.m. and driving in the opposite direction toward his home 34 minutes later.
Wells’ wife was out of town the day of the shooting, and her blue SUV was parked at the Kodiak airport not far from the communications station. Investigators believe a blue vehicle seen in blurry security footage belonged to Wells’ wife and concluded he switched cars, waited for Hopkins to drive by, followed him to the communications station and shot him and Belisle.
Federal public defender Rich Curtner said Wells suffered from chronic diarrhea following gall bladder surgery and was delayed the morning of the murders because he spent 20 minutes in a bathroom of a commuter airline.
Wells made no mention of using an airport bathroom to the FBI.
Curtner and defense attorney Peter Offenbecher of Seattle contended authorities immediately focused on Wells and ignored other possible suspects. They said prosecutors had no eyewitnesses, no confession, no murder weapon and no physical evidence linking Wells to the homicides.
Curtner declined to comment after the sentencing.
Wells served eight years in the Navy and 13 with the Coast Guard. Upon discharge in 1990, he was hired as a civilian employee.
In the circumstantial case, it took a jury only one day to find him guilty of two counts each of first-degree murder, murder of an officer or employee of the United States, and possession of a firearm in a crime of violence.
Two of the consecutive life sentences imposed by U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline on Tuesday were for each man’s murder and the other two were for the firearm violence. The judge also imposed life sentences for the officer murder charges, to run concurrently with the murder sentences.
Federal prosecutors earlier said they would not seek the death penalty if Wells was convicted.
“Hopefully the families can go forward having received justice today,” U.S. Attorney for Alaska Karen Loeffler said at a news conference after the sentencing.
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