St. Paul man charged in shooting of Coast Guard officer on island

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A 25-year-old man accused of fatally shooting the new Coast Guard commander on St. Paul Island believed his estranged wife was romantically involved with the officer, according to charging documents released Wednesday.

Carl W. Merculief Jr., a former St. Paul resident who had been living in Anchorage, was charged just before midnight Tuesday with first-degree murder in the death of Chief Warrant Officer Timothy A. Harris Tuesday morning. Harris, 33, was found dead next to the road in front of the Coast Guard's Long Range Navigation Station. Alaska State Troopers said he was shot several times.

Harris was assigned July 3 as commanding officer of the station on the remote island in the Pribilofs, in the Bering Sea about 775 miles southwest of Anchorage. He was transferred from New Orleans, where he leaves a wife and two young children.

Merculief ''believed his wife was having an affair with Harris, and he was angry about that,'' according to charging documents.

Authorities said Merculief returned to the island Monday and was served with a domestic violence restraining order by St. Paul police, restricting him from any contact with his wife.

About 4 a.m. Tuesday, Merculief allegedly woke up a friend and asked him to go for a drive. They drove to the Coast Guard station in a truck after Merculief showed his friend a gun and said he was going to kill someone there, charging papers said. At the station, Merculief allegedly warned the man not to tell anyone or he would kill him, too.

The man told authorities he heard what sounded like a shot, followed by several more shots a few minutes later. Merculief returned to the truck and told the man he had killed Harris then pointed the gun at the man's face, again warning him not to talk, according to charging documents.

Alaska State Troopers said it's not clear if Harris was shot in his room or somewhere else, perhaps as he fled his attacker.

The station is an isolated complex of buildings on the tundra island 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 the man who'd accompanied him if either reported the murder to authorities. Charging papers say Merculief punched his wife in the face and accused her of cheating on him.

The friend got away 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 outside the compound a short time later.

St. Paul police found Merculief at the wife's house and took him into custody at about 7:30 a.m. He was being held Wednesday on $100,000 bail.

The slaying shocked residents of St. Paul, a mostly Aleut Native community of nearly 700. City Clerk Phyllis Swetzof, a resident since 1964, said given St. Paul's isolation and small population, few locals are strangers.

''We all know each other and we're all related if we track it far enough,'' Swetzof said. ''Because everyone is your friend or relative, it takes you totally by surprise when someone crosses the line. Here, it's a very big line.''

Wednesday afternoon, Coast Guard investigators, the FBI and an assistant U.S. attorney reached the island after being delayed by weather. While the state filed the murder charges, federal authorities may assert jurisdiction because the shooting occurred on federal property.

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, said Petty Officer Roger Wetherell, a Coast Guard public affairs spokesman in Juneau.

The killing is the first known homicide on Coast Guard property, according to Wetherell. He said the Coast Guard had no indications Harris was involved in any alleged affair.

''We're just going to let the investigators do their job and let the facts speak for themselves,'' Wetherell said.

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