Peel Not in Skiff, Says Defense Witness

Allegations of witness manipulation aside, there was one witness the State presumably hadn’t manipulated. He was the first witness for the defense. This was the eyewitness who told of spotting a stocky, dark-complexioned Native man boarding the Investor skiff on the day that the Investor burned. The time, he told the jury, was 45 minutes before the fire. The witness said the man “fiddled around for a few minutes,” then untied the lines of the skiff and left. He did not notice where he went.

Cold Storage dock close-up, Craig (copyright Leland E. Hale)

With that background established, Weidner turned to John Peel and had him stand. Then he turned to the witness. He asked if Peel was the man he had seen clambering into the Investor skiff. “No, it’s not,” the fisherman replied.

Mary Anne Henry attacked the man’s credibility inside — and outside — the courtroom. She pointed to holes in his testimony — the same holes that had prevented his appearance during the grand jury proceedings. Crucial was the witness’ distance from the skiff at the time of the sighting — by his own admission, 75 to 100 yards. In other words, a football field away.

Cold Storage from Craig waterfront (copyright Leland E. Hale)

Henry also noted a substantial change in the man’s testimony. Two days after the fire, the man had told troopers he believed the sighting came two hours before the Investor blaze. The defense, Henry noted, “has now got him down to 45 minutes. They are inferring that the man he sighted is the guy who burned the Investor, when in fact he isn’t.”

Instead, Henry suggested, the man had spotted someone who was moving or borrowing the Investor skiff. There was no evidence that that person was involved in the crime. And she defended the police, whom she said had made every effort to find the man in question.

“What are we supposed to do, talk to every person in Craig and say, ‘Where were you?'” Henry asked.

The answer was probably, “Yes.”

Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale.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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