Stogsdill Goes Double-Punch Blitz Mode

Even as Joe Weiss arrived in Bellingham on Wednesday, March 21, 1984, Stogsdill was orchestrating a media blitz in the local newspaper. They were also getting TV time: local station KVOS broadcast excerpts from a trooper-produced movie that showed the burning Investor and asked anyone with knowledge of the crime to step forward. By week’s end, the station agreed to show the 28-minute film in its entirety.

Screen grab of Investor video (courtesy Alaska State Archive)

They were not going to arrest John Peel. They were just going to talk to him. And when they talked to him, they were going to confront him. Several witnesses had identified him as someone who looked like the skiffman. There was evidence he’d lied about his whereabouts on the night of the murders. Lied about visiting the Investor while she burned at Ben’s Cove. Lied about being with Dawn Holmstrom on the day of the fire. Innocent people don’t lie on murder investigations. Innocent people don’t lie. Period.

Stogsdill was ready to gamble that Peel would break down once confronted with the reality of the evidence against him. He would break down and he would confess. Even an air-tight case benefited from a confession. And this was anything but an air-tight case.

From “Sailor Take Warning,” unpublished draft of “What Happened in Craig” (copyright Leland E. Hale)

The blitz started, in fact, the day before Weiss arrived. The tone of the media campaign was set by a March 20th piece in the Bellingham Herald. In a front-page story, staff writer Donald Tapperson wrote that four Alaska State Troopers had come to town, “to pursue their continuing investigation of the mass murder and arson aboard the purse seiner Investor.”

Sgt. James A. Stogsdill, as he appeared in the Bellingham Herald story

In a related piece, which featured a brooding photo of an obviously weary Stogsdill, the sergeant provided a detailed description of their suspect. This was the description intended to break loose a few phone calls as the blitz hit Bellingham full-force. ”I’m here to get people to point the finger at people,” Stogsdill announced. The profile that emerged was, not surprisingly, consistent with the profile troopers developed during the so-called “anniversary meeting” in Ketchikan. White male, in his late teens or early twenties. A fisherman.

Stogsdill noted that the unknown suspect was believed to have been a crewman on another boat at the time of the murders. This gave the suspect, “a place to go after the killings,” according to the trooper. “No one could vanish into thin air. We will find he associated with a crewman on the Investor that night leading up to the murders,” Stogsdill continued. “An earlier acquaintance. Probably there was drinking, and minor use of drugs,” Stogsdill noted, citing marijuana.

“An altercation broke out between the guy and the crewman. He had a gun, or went and got it. He probably got the acquaintance in the crew first. As the shootings began,” Stogsdill speculated, “it went downhill from there.”

“The murder is a simple thing,” Stogsdill insisted. ”No underworld, no drug rings, no old Roman coins embedded in the hull,” as one person had claimed to the troopers. “In the end,” Stogsdill said, “we’ll find a blowup.”

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 (2019). All rights reserved.


Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE. True crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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