In May 1986, prosecutor Mary Anne Henry brought a steady torrent of witnesses through the Ketchikan courtroom. She’d already called 41 of them, out of a total of 86. She was less than halfway there. The Peel trial was turning into a marathon.
One of those May 1986 witnesses suggested Peel may have hatched the idea to torch the Investor because he’d been in a boat fire on the Libby 8 earlier that season. A pod of Coast Guardsmen testified about the time of the mayday call. They were followed by a series of witnesses who denied making drug allegations against Mark Coulthurst.
After that came a clutch of John Peel’s former crewmates, who linked him to drugs, nervousness and an itch to get out of Craig. Then there was a waitress who, after a chance encounter with Peel in the courthouse, said John Peel was the man she’d seen with the Coulthurst’s on the night of the murders.
In a turnabout in the constant questions of drug use, the prosecution brought on witnesses who spoke of seeing John Peel in Craig on the day he flew out of town. “He was acting anxious and preoccupied,” said one, who said Peel didn’t listen to him when he tried to buy marijuana from him.
“He would nod his head and say, ‘yeah, in a minute,’ but I could see he wasn’t thinking about it,” the fisherman said of his unsuccessful attempt to make a deal. “It was unusual that his concentration wasn’t there and that he wouldn’t talk to me.” The witness also said Peel had been missing for two days prior to the Investor fire — and insisted he had seen Peel using a shortcut that ran from the cold storage dock to downtown Craig.
A second witness told Judge Schulz — but not the jury — that Peel tried to sell him marijuana, “because he was leaving right away.” In a special hearing held to determine if the witness could testify before the jury, the fisherman added, “Peel said he had some pot for sale. He had to get rid of it because he had to get out of town.” The witness didn’t buy the pot, because he didn’t smoke. But he added that Peel “was nervous. Hyper. Edgy. He seemed scared. He had a scared attitude.”
In countering the claims of the witness, Phillip Weidner suggested that Peel was nervous because he was selling marijuana in downtown Craig. He also suggested that Peel wasn’t fleeing. “He was going to Reno, Nevada,” on vacation, the lawyer contended. Indeed, when Peel left Craig he headed for the Circus Circus casino with his parents.
But through all the testimony, this was a May 1986 that seemed worth remembering. The image of a desperate John Peel trying to sell pot to all comers lingered in the courthouse. What it meant was harder to mine. And they were just getting started.
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.