After a brief foray into other matters, we return once more to the story of the F/V Investor. In this entry we focus on the crime scene investigation spawned by an act that rocked Alaska to its core.
Trooper Sgt. Chuck Miller got stuck with a dubious duty. He had to relate the messy first year of the Investor crime scene investigation. Since his involvement started at Ben’s Cove, his initial testimony promised to devolve into a detailed catalog of evidence they found on the vessel. This threatened to be routine stuff that put people to sleep. In Judge Schulz’s courtroom, though, hardly anything was routine.
Crime Scene Investigation
For the bulk of the first day, and most of the next, Miller offered evidence and explanations. The evidence came first and there was plenty. On the initial day alone, Miller went through nearly one hundred evidence photos taken at the Investor crime scene.
He talked about fingerprints — or the lack thereof. Among other things, he said, it was a matter of choosing his priorities. His explanations weren’t always convincing. And they would never satisfy Phil Weidner.
Undaunted, Miller was at pains to address one prominent defense theory, which held the killings were the work of a professional hitman. The sergeant scoffed. The purpose of a contract killing was to let the deaths be known. A professional wouldn’t stick around for two days trying to destroy his message.
Undeterred, and unfazed, the defense worked at unraveling Miller’s crime scene testimony. Phillip Weidner started by questioning the trooper’s objectivity. “Officer,” he asked, “do you consider yourself a neutral witness in this case?”
“Yes, I do,” Miller responded.
“So all your testimony thus far has been candid and has not been any attempt at excuses or any attempt to justify any mistakes you may have made?”
“None of my testimony has been an attempt at a cover-up in this investigation,” Miller said flatly.
For the remainder of the day, the defense attorney dug at the cop’s decision not to fingerprint the Investor. As the day progressed, Weidner wondered if the troopers hadn’t managed to lose crucial evidence. Would the bullet from a .22 long rifle “fit through a quarter inch screen?” he wondered.
“Yes,” Miller answered. “What we did do, however, was hand sift, hand sift the debris as it came through.”
“This is another one of your ‘howevers’ that you wanted to put in?” Weidner sneered.
“If it helps explain what we were doing,” the trooper replied. “I’m trying to assist you, Mr. Weidner.”
Weidner returned the favor by criticizing Miller because he was “not aware of the ATF strike force in 1982,” thereby missing an opportunity to have the best assistance the federal government could offer.
In a wide-ranging, free-form romp through his notes, Weidner suggested a connection between Don Draper, the Kamloops murders and the Investor murders. He wondered whether the murders occurred when the Investor was anchored in Ben’s Cove. After all, Weidner suggested, hadn’t a Craig resident heard gunshots, “every hour on the hour” while the Investor was out at Fish Egg Island?
“Do you have any physical evidence that would prove in any manner that they weren’t being simply held prisoner and they were taken out to the cove for some reason?” Weidner slyly asked. “Perhaps to force Mr. Coulthurst to do something?”
“Well, true,” Miller said drolly, “we can speculate about that.”
“All right,” Weidner countered. “But it’s equally consistent with them being held prisoner in the cove as opposed to them being killed Sunday night, correct?”
“It’s consistent with everybody dying of gas poisoning,” Miller said sarcastically. “It’s consistent with a meteor hitting the Investor and setting it on fire. It’s consistent with a lot of things. But what I’m trying to explain here is the logic that was used to come to that conclusion.”
Miller wasn’t just trying to be smart. He had his doubts. The tie lines left behind by the Investor told him something had gone wrong before they hit Ben’s Cove. The fact that the family didn’t leave town on Monday, as they had planned, told him the same thing. The woman who heard the gunshots, meanwhile, lived more than a mile from the scene. The sound of a .22 rifle wouldn’t have carried that far, even across the water.
Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale. That manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archive, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2020). All rights reserved.