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Widow of Alaska Coast Guard station murder victim: 'I can go home'

Laurel Andrews
Coast Guardsmen aboard the buoy tender Spar, in dock at the Coast Guard base in Kodiak, on May 7, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The Coast Guard base in Kodiak, Alaska, May 7, 2012.
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Kodiak Police Chief T.C. Kamai says that he and his officers are standing by, ready to assist in the investigation. So far they have not had an opportunity to do so. May 9, 2012.
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Kodiak's harbor was full of fishing boats getting ready to leave on May 9, 2012.
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Ken "Dawg" Carlson, a longliner, was preparing to leave Kodiak to fish for halibut on May 8, 2012. He has been fishing for the past 29 years.
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Residents of the Bells Flats neighborhood are concerned that there is an unsolved double murder on the island. Their children still play in the neighborhood but things aren't as they were. May 7, 2012.
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Coast Guardsmen repair a helicopter at the Coast Guard Base Kodiak on May 7, 2012.
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Customers at Henry's Restaurant in Kodiak play pull tabs. May 7, 2012.
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Notices, mainly posted by people looking for work in the fishing industry, adorn a wall at Harborside Coffee on May 9, 2012.
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A memorial remembering Richard Belisle at the Rendezvous Bar in the Bells Flats neighborhood of Kodiak, May 9, 2012. Belisle was a regular at the bar.
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Patrons play pool at the Rendezvous bar in the Bells Flats neighborhood of Kodiak. One of the victims of the April 12, 2012 shootings, Richard Belisle, was a regular at the bar.
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A Russian Orthodox graveyard overlooks the city of Kodiak on May 9, 2012.
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The city of Kodiak, population 6,100, is the largest community on Kodiak Island, the second largest island in the U.S. May 7, 2012.
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The home of Richard and Nicola Belisle, foreground, looks across to Jim and Nancy Wells' home on May 9, 2012. Belisle and James Hopkins were killed on April 12, 2012. The FBI has not named a suspect. Wells' home and property have been searched. The FBI shortly after the shooting asked the public for information on two vehicles that match the description of those belonging to the Wells.
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Toy soldiers, anonymously placed around downtown Kodiak in the wake of the coast guard killings of April 12, 2012. Photographed on May 9, 2012.
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Ryan Harris, a bartender at the military-friendly "Bernie's" in Kodiak on May 6, 2012. Because of the supporting nature of the Coast Guard's mission, the community is well-integrated and there is little conflict.
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The rigging shop, part of the Coast Guard's Kodiak Base Communication Station, was the scene of a double murder on April 12, 2012. The main building is secure. The rigging shop is less so. Photographed May 7, 2012.
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Relief. Nicola Belisle felt a wave of relief upon learning an arrest had been made in the April killings of two men not far from her home on Kodiak Island. One of the victims was her husband, 51-year-old Richard Belisle, a retired U.S. Coast Guardsman.

On April 12, Richard Belisle had been on Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak -- one of the largest Coast Guard installations in the country -- working as a civilian employee in what’s known as the “rigger shop,” when he and an active-duty guardsman, Electrician’s Mate 1st Class James Hopkins, 41, were gunned down.

No arrests had been made in the killings as summer turned briefly to fall, before the long Alaskan winter settled in. Kodiak is a small community on a big island -- about 6,000 people on the second-largest island in the U.S. -- and in the months following the deaths of Richard and James, Nicola felt suffocated, knowing her husband’s alleged killer was walking free among the handful of people who live year-round on “The Rock.”

So Nicola moved away from Kodiak. On Sunday, she told Alaska Dispatch she will finally be able to return to the island community after months of living elsewhere, knowing that the man authorities believe killed her husband has been arrested and is 250 miles away, sitting in jail at the Anchorage Correctional Center.  

With the arrest of James Michael Wells of Kodiak on Friday by federal authorities for the murders of Hopkins and Richard Belisle, “I feel like I can breathe for the first time in 10 months,” she said.

Wells' arrest was a long time coming, the culmination of an investigation that involved the Alaska State Troopers, the FBI, the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service and agents of the Department of Homeland Security, all of which have kept details on the investigation under tight wraps.

'Now I can go home'

Few details were released late Friday other than a brief statement provided to media from U.S. Attorney for Alaska Karen L. Loeffler.

“Wells was arrested under a federal arrest warrant based on a criminal complaint,” the statement said. “It is anticipated that Wells will appear in court in Anchorage” this week.

Wells worked with Hopkins and Belisle in the rigger shop, near the Coast Guard station’s communications complex. Wells repaired antennas there, just as Hopkins and Belisle did. Wells had been an early suspect in the shootings: a house belonging to him and his wife, Nancy Wells, was searched following the killings. The Wells’ cars were towed, presumably searched, and then returned. The couple’s home was also under surveillance by federal agents.

About a month after Belisle and Hopkins were killed, the FBI sent out a release asking for information on handguns that may be connected to the shootings. The entire community got involved in the search for a weapon. But after that public call for information, few other details were provided by federal investigators as months came and went. It appeared from the outside that the trail had gone cold. 

Despite the timeline, Nicola said she’s grateful for the resolve of the investigators. Kodiak is where she and Richard had planned to live out their lives, Belisle said, and now that the suspect is no longer on the island, she will return to the community.

“Now I can go home,” she said.  

Nicola expressed gratitude at the “outpouring of love and support” from the people of Kodiak and across Alaska who have reached out to help her family and friends through the “horrible nightmare.” 

Although the arrest brings some solace, “it’s not going to bring my husband home,” she said. Even if a conviction is reached, “no punishment is ever going to be enough for me.”

Wells’ wife, Nancy, told The Associated Press on Saturday she has “full faith” in the innocence of her husband. She added that she has “no faith in the quality of the investigation” and expects her husband to be “fully exonerated.”

Asked to respond to Nancy Wells’ statements, Nicola Belisle said she had “complete faith” in the work done by investigators up the chain, from troopers to the FBI to the Coast Guard and U.S. Attorney General's office.

“I really appreciate everything that they’ve done,” Belisle said. “The evidence is the evidence. The truth will come out.”

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com.