Larry Demmert, Jr., was an important witness for the state. Maybe the most important witness. He was certainly important enough that the prosecution saw fit to prepare him for the expected onslaught by Phillip Weidner. In the months before the trial, he met with Sergeant Stogsdill at Demmert’s attorney’s office in Seattle. He met a second time with Stogsdill in Bellingham. And he met several times with Stogsdill and assistant district attorney Bob Blasco at pre-trial meetings in Ketchikan. They had talked to him, in Stogsdill’s words, “about being in court, what it was like.” There his memory would face the ultimate test.
Indeed, if one thing stood out, it was that Demmert’s journey into this Ketchikan courtroom had not been straightforward or particularly intentional. It was, in retrospect, more of a meander. His initial bouts of memory seemed to come in fragments. Later, he would admit he didn’t want to become involved in a case that focused on John Peel, a longtime friend.
Fragments of Memory
- October 22, 1982. Demmert told Bellingham Det. McNeill that he was asleep onboard the Libby 8 the night of the murders, but “was awakened from his sleep by something and as he awoke he felt somewhat strange. He has no idea what awoke him nor did he hear any noise out of the ordinary after he woke up.” He also told McNeill that an acquaintance named “Doug” told him about a drifter who was around Craig at the time and who disappeared soon after the murders. Demmert said “Doug” believed this was probably the killer.
- August 29, 1983. AST Sgt. Jim Stogsdill interviewed Demmert in Craig during the anniversary trip. Demmert related similar memories, but added that when he returned to his boat at around 10 or 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 5, he saw a half dozen people “partying” on board the Investor. He did not see who they were.
- March 26, 1984. During Demmert’s interview with police at the Bellingham Police Station he told investigators he recalled returning to the Libby 8 sometime before midnight on the night of September 5, and witnessed someone clambering onto the Investor. “I saw the person jump across — or going from the middle boat to — across the Investor’s door when I was going on my boat.” He said it was dark outside, the weather was misty and he did not recognize the man. “The guy looked like a dirty old fisherman to me,” he said. “I thought he was probably off the Defiant crew or one of those guys.”
A Hypothetical Memory
At that same March 1984 interview, troopers asked Demmert about a “hypothetical” scenario in which John Peel was the person who murdered the Investor crew. “If he did this,” the troopers began, “how would you picture it happening, in your own mind, mainly because you do know John and how he behaves… How would you think it to come down?”
“Well, I’d never thought of, you know, John doing it,” Demmert replied, diving into his John Peel memory bank. “But the way that Mr. Stogsdill described the other day – remember how?”
Demmert then described Stogsdill’s speculation that Peel had been on the Investor partying with the crew when Mark Coulthurst and his family returned from dinner. In that hypothetical scenario, Coulthurst, upon seeing his former crewman — a man he had fired — got angry and told Peel to get off his boat. Peel, with his growing grudge against Coulthurst heightened by the skipper’s refusal to give him a ride to Craig earlier in the season, felt he had been dissed. John Peel “snapped” and gunned down everyone on board.
That scenario sounded questionable to Demmert. “He wouldn’t have been carrying the gun on,” Demmert reasoned, visualizing out loud how this situation could have gone down. “So it probably would have had to have been, just from deduction, like kicked off the boat, come back, and did it.”
Trooper Flothe asked: “Do you think he [Peel] has the ability under the right circumstances, maybe under the influence of drugs and booze, to do something like this?”
Demmert paused before answering with a question. “You mean the — craziness to kill somebody?”
“Yeah, under those types of circumstances.”
“Well…” Demmert paused a long time before answering. “… something like that is really hard to say… Anybody under the right circumstances will kill.”
Demmert had a difficult time imagining his friend as a killer. “But it’s hard to say. There’s a chance, knowing him, now, that he … he would,” he stammered. “He’s — you know, like they’d use ‘kill the fucker’ a lot, like — like he’s pissed at somebody.” He said he remembered hearing Peel making statements like, “Yeah, I’d like to kill the fucker,” but saw it as just a turn of speech, not a specific threat.
“But,” Demmert said, continuing to think about the possibility, “I think he probably could have — be that — a person that could do something like that, myself, that’s why it bothers me so much.”
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.