The Man In the Middle

When it was time for the cross-examination of Joe Weiss, Phillip Weidner gleefully stepped up to the bar. And Joe Weiss was suddenly the man in the middle. By far the more aggressive of the defense attorneys, Weidner questioned Joe Weiss long and hard. To undercut his credibility, the defense attorney pointed out that in November 1983, he had picked photos of crewman Chris Heyman as more similar to the skiffman than a photo of John Peel.

John Peel (l) and Chris Heyman (r). Note the similar jawlines.
(copyright Bellingham Herald; courtesy Alaska State Archives)

Weidner placed particular emphasis, however, on the fisherman’s March 1984 visit to Friday Harbor.

“Now going to Friday Harbor, all right,” Weidner said, “it’s true, isn’t it, that of the two people in the skiff, that one person looked much more like the suspect than the other person? And you pointed to someone other than Mr. Peel, didn’t you?” Weidner asserted.

“I do not believe that’s true,” the young man replied, unwittingly working himself deeper into the middle.

Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands, Washington

Weidner immediately asked to approach the bench — and just as quickly Judge Schulz excused the jury and the witness. The courtroom hadn’t seen any fireworks for awhile, but the stage was set for another display. With the courtroom cleared of both jury and witness, Weidner finally made his request known.

“I would like to get a stipulation from Mr. Gullufsen that this man pointed out in the skiff in Friday Harbor a person other than Mr. Peel. I’ve got a police report to that effect, and there’s been prior grand jury testimony to that effect. And the reality, the truth is, your Honor, that this man pointed out the person in the front of the skiff — and Mr. Peel was running the skiff.”

“I’m not going to stipulate that,” Gullufsen replied, “because it isn’t clear. I think…” Gullufsen paused purposefully. He had been interrupted and wanted to call attention to the fact. “As soon as Mr. McGee is through chuckling,” he said, “I’ll finish my response.”

“Go ahead,” Schulz told him.

“Thank you, your Honor. I think what we’re going to find out when the officers testify is there’s going to be a great deal of confusion about whether or not he was pointing out Mr. Peel or the other gentleman in Friday Harbor.

“But I think once the Court has an opportunity to hear all that testimony, and in addition sees the photograph of the other person, the Court will see, and the jury will ultimately see probably, just how very, very closely these two gentlemen resemble each other. It’s absolutely striking. But in any case,” Gullufsen continued, “I will not stipulate to that report being correct because I think the officers may want to make some corrections on that report when they get here.”

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

Steelers Wheel, Stuck in the Middle With You, 1973

“Your Honor, this is an outrage,” Weidner stormed. “They’ve created the implication that this man identified my client in the skiff. They’ve got a police report that says he didn’t, and they’ve got prior grand jury testimony that says he didn’t, and they’re trying to create the implication in front of this jury that something that is not so is true. And I’d ask permission to call a witness out of order.”

“I don’t think on direct examination it was ever established who was identified in the skiff, at least where they were sitting,” Judge Schulz noted.

“He doesn’t know,” Gullufsen said of the witness. “He’s never been told.”

It was true. Troopers had never told Joe Weiss one way or the other which person he’d identified. But that didn’t get him off the hook. He was stuck in the middle. And the middle was nowhere to be.

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.


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