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Widow called to testify in Coast Guard murder case

Posted: April 17, 2014 - 8:29pm

ANCHORAGE — The widow of a Coast Guardsman shot to death two years ago at a Kodiak communications station was called by defense attorneys Thursday to answer questions about their marital problems, their finances and her familiarity with the murder scene.

In emotional testimony, Deborah Hopkins answered questions in the trial of James Wells, 62, who’s charged with first-degree murder in the death on April 12, 2012, of Petty Officer First Class James Hopkins, 41, and civilian employee Richard Belisle, 51, at the Rigger Shop, a building where all three men worked constructing and repairing communications antennas.

Defense attorneys contend investigators immediately focused in on Wells and ignored other possible suspects.

When prosecutors got the chance to cross-examine Deborah Hopkins, special assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Duigan aimed to quickly put to rest whether Deborah Hopkins was a suspect.

“Did you kill your husband?” Duigan asked.

“No,” Hopkins said.

Deborah Hopkins under questioning by defense attorney Peter Offenbecher acknowledged that her husband had an emotional affair with a woman several months before they moved to Kodiak in about 2009. Her husband had even brought home divorce papers, she said, but they reconciled.

After three years in Kodiak, Hopkins was offered a job by a high school friend constructing antennas in Italy. He planned to retire in summer 2012, visit a new grandson in North Carolina and then move to Italy for the job, Deborah Hopkins said.

She said she had told investigators in an interview that she had been stressed out about the couple’s finances on occasion but that the only loans they had were on a pickup truck and all-terrain vehicles. She was not aware, she said, of her husband’s $400,000 life insurance policy, the reimbursement she would receive from the Coast Guard for his death while on duty, or the details of bonds he owned with other family members. She trusted him to take care of the finances, she said, in their marriage of nearly 20 years.

“My husband didn’t talk to me about stuff like that,” she said.

She told an investigator the family had about eight guns, including a handgun kept in a desk that James Hopkins carried on four-wheeler trips. Friends removed the guns after James Hopkins’ death, she said. She said she had often visited the shop to eat lunch with her husband or leave him a love note until she was instructed by his supervisor not to do so.

Investigators have said Wells’ motive in the shooting was unhappiness over the Coast Guard reining in the independence he had enjoyed for years and making him increasingly irrelevant through the advancement of Hopkins and Belisle.

But Deborah Hopkins acknowledged telling investigators that her husband didn’t have a problem with Wells, a man she called “Santa Claus” because of his long, white beard.

The Hopkins’ daughter, Angela Birchfield, also was called to testify. She acknowledged telling investigators that she thought her parents’ marriage might end but that her father took more of an interest in family matters after her pregnancy.

Wells’ attorneys began their defense with testimony on a vehicle spotted on a security camera moving toward and away from the murder scene minutes. Prosecutors contend Wells drove his wife’s blue Honda CRV to the Rigger Shop and committed the murders.

Crash investigator Michael DiTallo of Chicago-based Dynamic Safety LLC testified that the vehicle in the grainy image could have been a compact SUV manufactured by eight or more companies, including Chevrolet, Ford Hyundai, Honda, Jeep, Isuzu, Nissan or Toyota.

Federal public defender investigator Deatrich Sheffield said 263 blue vehicles registered on Kodiak Island fit the same dimensions and that did not include Coast Guardsmen cars registered in other states.

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