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Judge rejects 5 witnesses in Kodiak murder trial

Apr. 22, 2014 - 07:49AM   |  
Jason Barnum
In this Sept. 14, 2012, file photo, Jason Barnum, known as 'Eyeball', is arraigned on charges of attempted murder and felony assault at the Anchorage Jail in Anchorage, Alaska. Judge Ralph Beistline ruled Friday that defense attorneys in the Kodiak Coast Guard murder trial can't for now call Barnum as a witness in custody in the trial of 62-year-old James Wells, because he didn't have a sufficient connection to the case. (Dan Joling / AP)
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ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — A federal judge on Monday rejected five witnesses in the Coast Guard double homicide case on Kodiak Island, ruling that defense attorneys had not established that their testimony was relevant.

One witness appeared in handcuffs after authorities say he tried to carry a handgun past the security checkpoint at the Anchorage federal building.

All five spoke outside the presence of the jury about Jason Barnum, a heavily tattooed man who defense attorneys say should have been considered a suspect but who U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline said didn’t have a proven connection to the case.

The testimony came in the trial of James Wells, 62, a civilian expert in communication antennas that the Coast Guard uses for sea and air traffic. He’s charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of his co-workers, Petty Officer First Class James Hopkins, 41, his immediate supervisor, and Richard Belisle, 51, another civilian electronics technician.

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.

All three were due to work at about 7 a.m. April 12, 2012. Hopkins and Belisle were found shot to death at 7:30 a.m. in the communications station Rigger Shop, where antennas are built and repaired. Wells told investigators he stopped to check on a flat tire and drove home to repair it.

Defense attorneys say the FBI, Coast Guard investigators and Alaska State Troopers immediately focused on Wells and ignored other possible suspects. They called to the witness stand Hopkins’ wife; Belisle’s teenage daughter; and young Kodiak men who know the teen, once lived on the road running past the communications station and had access to guns.

Beistline said he had been willing to give defense attorneys latitude in attempting to show alternative suspects, but he drew the line with testimony on Barnum, who last week acknowledged being in Kodiak at the time of the shootings. Barnum denied knowledge of both victims out of the presence of the jury.

Barnum is known for his striking tattoos, which cover much of his shaved head and include his right eye, which is completely dark. Five months after the Kodiak killings, Barnum was arrested in Anchorage and charged with the attempted murder of a police officer. Police say he shot at the officer who was interviewing people about burglaries.

Linda Henson, a clerk at a Kodiak convenience store, testified outside the presence of the jury that she had refused to sell cigarettes to Barnum because he had no identification. He threatened her, she said.

After the killings, Barnum loudly proclaimed his innocence at the store without prompting, said another employee, Christine Burton.

Federal public defender Rich Curtner said firing at a police officer investigating burglaries indicated that Barnum feared being taken into custody for a more serious crime. The threat to Henson showed that Barnum’s behavior was more than just bizarre, Curtner said.

“This is another person who could have committed this as a random act of violence,” the public defender said.

Beistline disagreed, saying, “There has to be some connection.”

The proceedings were delayed when Arek Parsley, one of the witnesses called to testify about Barnum, was detained at the security station with what Curtner said was a handgun in his backpack. Parsley was brought to the courtroom in handcuffs and then led out after testifying.

The Federal Protective Service cited Parsley for possession of a firearm in a federal facility and released him, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis. The gun was confiscated, authorities said.

In earlier testimony Monday, Wells’ sons said they never saw their father with a silver handgun, a weapon investigators said likely was used to kill Hopkins and Belisle. Cable and Matthew Wells said they frequently hunted and fired guns at shooting ranges with their father but never saw him with a .44-caliber Smith and Wesson, a popular handgun and one of three that ballistics tests indicated could have been used.

Matthew Wells is a Portland, Ore., police officer. He said his father’s preferred sidearm in bear country was a .44-caliber Ruger handgun.

Three Kodiak residents testified that James Wells was not a violent person.

There has been no indication that Wells will testify. Curtner said he expected to finish questioning witnesses Tuesday or Wednesday. Beistline called for prosecution rebuttal Wednesday and closing arguments Thursday morning.

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