Authorities investigate shooting death of Coast Guard commanding officer

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A 25-year-old former St. Paul Island man was charged Tuesday night in the shooting death of the commander of the Coast Guard station on the remote island.

Carl W. Merculief Jr., who had been living in Anchorage, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Chief Warrant Officer Timothy A. Harris.

Harris, 33, was found dead outside the administrative office at the Coast Guard's Long Range Navigation Station on the island in the Pribilofs about 775 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Merculief was arraigned by telephone just before midnight.

According to charging documents, Merculief had returned to St. Paul Island on Monday and was served with a domestic violence restraining order by St. Paul Police, restricting him from having any contact with his wife.

Alaska State Troopers said that at around 4 a.m. Tuesday, Merculief and another man drove to the Coast Guard base and Merculief went to Harris' room and shot him.

The station is an isolated complex of buildings on the tundra about three miles out of the town of St. Paul. The facility has no fence or obvious security.

After the shooting, troopers said, Merculief returned to his wife's home and threatened to kill her and his male companion if either reported the murder to authorities.

The two got away from Merculief at around 7 a.m. and notified St. Paul Police, who in turn called the Coast Guard.

Coast Guardsmen went to Harris' room and did not find him. They found his body a short time later next to the road in front of the Coast Guard station.

Troopers said Harris had been shot several times.

They would not comment on a possible motive. ''A clear motive for the shooting has not been established,'' said trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson.

St. Paul police took Merculief into custody at about 7:30 a.m. He is being held on $100,000 bail.

As of 8 a.m. Wednesday, Coast Guard investigators, the FBI and an assistant U.S. attorney were not able to reach the island because of poor weather. Federal authorities may assert jurisdiction because the shooting occurred on federal property.

Petty Officer Roger Wetherell, a Coast Guard public affairs spokesman in Juneau, said the slaying is the first known homicide on Coast Guard property.

''This is a sad day for the Coast Guard,'' he said.

Harris was assigned as commanding officer of the station on July 3, Wetherell said. Harris transferred from New Orleans, where he was assigned to the electronics support unit of the Coast Guard, Wetherell said.

Harris is survived by a wife and two young children, who remain in Louisiana.

''As a small, humanitarian service in the lifesaving business, we're grieving the tragic, violent loss of one of our team members and offering heartfelt condolences to Mr. Harris' family,'' said Capt. Richard Houck, chief of staff of the 17th Coast Guard District.

The navigation station on St. Paul Island is staffed by 15 guardsmen. They serve one-year tours without their families because the station does not have housing for relatives, Wetherell said.

''The Coast Guard on St. Paul Island has always had a very close relationship with the small community out there,'' Wetherell told the Anchorage Daily News. ''They've always aimed to maintain a certain degree of rapport with the community.''

Coast Guard Capt. Vince O'Shea in Juneau said the guardsmen's main job is to keep the radio signal operating 24 hours a day, including maintaining generators, transmitters and a tower.

St. Paul has a population of 673.

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