By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A former U.S. Coast Guard employee accused of shooting two colleagues to death at a remote Kodiak Island communications station last year pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to murder charges in the 10-month-old case.
James Michael Wells, 61, who was arrested last Friday, entered his plea during a brief hearing in federal court in Anchorage after an indictment was returned charging him with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of killing federal officers and two weapons offenses.
Relatives of the two victims, Coast Guard electricians Mate First Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Boatswain's Mate Richard Belisle, looked on in the courtroom, some of them sobbing quietly.
If convicted, Wells could face life sentences for the murder charges, U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said at a news conference following the arraignment. The charges also carry a potential death penalty, but the U.S. Justice Department has not yet decided whether to seek a death sentence, she said.
Hopkins, who was 42, and Belisle, 51, were found slain on April 12 at the Coast Guard's sprawling installation on Kodiak Island, located about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage and one of the largest in the Coast Guard system.
Wells, a Coast Guard retiree who was working as a civilian employee, appears to have been a suspect early on in the case, according to an FBI affidavit filed in court.
He was interviewed by law enforcement agents on the day of the murders and the next day, and agents searched his truck and his house within days of the crime, according to the affidavit.
Witnesses reported that Wells had poor relations with his co-workers, the affidavit said. Wells and the murder victims were considered highly qualified communications experts, but Hopkins and Belisle were gaining skills and status while Wells' professional position was slipping, witnesses told the FBI.
The slayings were the first on U.S. Coast Guard property since 2001, when the commander of a Coast Guard station on Alaska's remote St. Paul Island was shot and killed by a local man. That case culminated in the first-degree murder conviction of the suspect.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Philip Barbara)