Eight Murders No Convictions Alaska 1982

Mark and Irene Coulthurst

I have noticed that the cases that have multiple victims and one offender make me sigh. I read and write about all manner of incidents with sadness, but there is something about massacres. Do you find one type of crime worse than others?

Craig, South West Alaska. From Wikipedia

Eight Murders No Convictions

5th September 1982, the 58ft salmon fishing boat ‘The Investor’ was tied to two other vessels at Craig, South West, Alaska. It had landed $33,000 worth of fish and it was the owner/captain’s 28th birthday.

Mark Coulthurst had with him his wife and two children. The crew was made up of four teenagers that Mark knew well, one was a cousin of his. Together with wife Irene, five year old Kimberly and four year old John, Mark had dinner on shore and was last seen with his family returning to the boat at about 10pm.

Jerome Keown and Dean Moon, both nineteen, went ashore for a while. It is thought Mike Stewart and Chris Heyman may have remained aboard as they were not identified by anyone as being out and about. Stewart was also nineteen while Heyman was almost eighteen.

The Investor was tied on the outside of two fishing boats called the Defiant and the Decade. The Decade was owned by Mark’s business partner’s brother and generally the fishermen all knew each other. Hopping across the other boats was normal in the packed end of season port. Even though it was The Investor’s first time there Mark had been fishing among others in the industry for almost twelve years. No great animosity toward him was later noted.

The family were soon to temporarily split up. Irene, who was pregnant, was to fly home to Blaine, Washington with the children so Kimberly could start pre school.

From Alaskan State Archives. The Investor on fire.


A Stranger at the Helm

The crew of the Decade had a party to celebrate the end of the season and a storm rattled through Craig that night. Lots of noise and lots of distracted people.

Early the following morning a crew member of The Decade noticed The Investor drifting away from its mooring. The crewman waved to who he thought was Mark at the helm. The man waved back. The Investor anchored about a mile off shore and sat there all that day. It was foggy and as for some there was still work to be done it was a minor curiosity. What was noted was that The Investor’s ropes, that had been used to secure to The Decade, were left behind.

There were two more sightings of The Investor as it drifted off and anchored. One of these also saw a lone figure busy on the deck. The tender boat used to ferry ashore from The Investor was later seen tied up to a different part of the dock.

I read a comment from a resident of the area. He said that though Craig is tiny it should be born in mind that during fishing season it is very busy. Lots of young people, lots of boats, lots of activity. Not surprising that details of who, what and when could be confused or missed.

Shot as they Returned

So the crew of The Investor were alive and well on the 5th up until about 10pm. A later forensic and general investigation suggests that as they returned they were shot dead by an assailant who was on the boat. I have read elsewhere that it is thought they were shot as they slept. They were then driven out and remained on the boat. The offender tried to sink the boat by opening the sea cocks ( you have valves that are on all bigger boats that can let the sea in. They are used for cooling engines, flushing toilets etc). That failed. The offender then took the smaller boat and went ashore and obtained gasoline. Then they went back to The Investor.

At about 4pm, 7th September a fire was spotted on The Investor. First one boat from Craig went out to see if it could help. The crew saw a man in The Investor’s small boat again. It was heading towards Craig. The man told crew that he was going for help. The rescue boat, The Casino, was not equipped for the intense fire. More help came and in the end Coast Guard fire pumps were flown in. Rescue crews were able to get aboard after a long time. They saw four bodies and were trying to make sense of it when the fire flared up again. They had to abandon The Investor while they fought to get things in order again.

Mark and Irene Coulthurst

Meanwhile a slightly built man with a pockmarked face had long disappeared into Craig and maybe beyond. The small boat that belonged to The Investor was left on the dock. The man had been seen and spoken to but he had made out he had abandoned The Investor to summon help. He then drifted through the people gathering to watch the fire.

Initial Investigation

From reading through, the best way of describing the initial investigation is to start by imagining a totally destroyed interior of a boat. A hulk burned out. The Investor was almost brand new. It had cost about $750,000. The money had been raised from several sources including the skipper’s father.

In the coming days and weeks all except the little boy and two of the crew were accounted for. This involved serious forensic skill as some of the victims were nothing more than bone fragments. What did become apparent was that the less damaged bodies showed clear signs that the deaths were caused by shooting, not fire.

The Investor was state of the art as well and designed not to burn to the extent it had. The starting point of the fire was in the living quarters and not where most fires on boats start. John Coulthurst being only four years old was believed to have been at the centre of the fire and none of his remains were ever recovered. Further it was believed that the two outstanding crew had suffered the same fate. It was later decided they were killed and burned but their remains were totally consumed.

The bits of a Ruger .223 rifle were recovered. The problem was that the damaged remains of the victims meant that no match could be made between the deaths and that gun. Only later would the FBI be able to confirm the wounds were probably made by a .223.

A Summary of the Investigation as It Dragged on

Sadly it did drag on because it was a case without any discernible motive. The Investor was a boat that did not deal in cash. Robbery would have been my first guess but Mark Coulthurst never dealt with cash businesses when selling his catch. When he took his family to dinner on the 5th he wrote a cheque for example. It was said that there was seldom more that a few hundred dollars at most on board..

The two crew who left the boat on the 5th are said to have bought some weed. It was a small amount though not a drug dealing amount.  So what else could drive one or more people to kill eight others? More so, what could make it a matter of necessity to kill two small children too?

By September 1984 courts had officially accepted the evidence that murder had been done on or near 5th September by a person other than the crew of The Investor.

Meanwhile the authorities had been looking at three individual suspects. They locked up a man called John Kenneth Peel in 1984. This 24 year old was from Bellingham, Washington where The Investor would have been docked in the off season. He was a fisherman who had been in Craig at the crucial time. Further he had worked for Mark Coulthurst on a previous boat.

Trials and Squabbles in the Case of John Peel

By the time he was arrested he was working as a boat builder in Bellingham. What happens from then appears to be a legal mess. A maze of accusation and counter accusation. The prosecution evidence was that Peel was the man in The Investor’s little boat. He was a man who had a grudge against Mark Coulthurst and was a man who had access to a gun.

The defence said he wasn’t that man in the boat. He did not have a grudge and whoever had a gun it was not John Peel. They also said that the identification evidence was tainted and so had been a transcript of an interview.

I will put a link to a detailed account of the ‘push me – pull you’ trials of Peel. My impression of the evidence is that in no way could the prosecution evidence be considered as beyond reasonable doubt. For a start there was at least one witness who saw the man in the small boat when he landed on the dock who knew John Peel. They said for sure it wasn’t him. Peel was said to have bought gasoline. The problem was that the spirit used was kerosene or similar not regular gas. It was said that Peel had been fired by Mark Coulthurst during the 1981 fishing season. Then there was evidence from many that they were on good terms and in any case Peel had not been fired.

The prosecution and the defence were not friendly in the least with each other. There were allegations of undue influence being placed on witnesses and deals being made to drop unrelated charges in order to encourage witnesses.

The evidence was a scrap of this and a scrap of that. None had much significance on its own and collectively it was a mess we in the UK would call ‘a dogs dinner.’

In fairness the crime scene was a burned out shell which had sunk since. The witnesses had scattered after the event in the normal course of end of season activity and years had gone by.

From the outside it does look like a messy prosecution. The best way I can illustrate this is in the closing statement made by the Alaskan prosecutor in the second trial.

“The state can’t tell you why the first shot was fired. The state doesn’t have to prove why. The state also doesn’t have to prove how he did it.”

I agree, but that does mean the rest of your evidence has to be top shelf, undeniable and damning. From what I can see it wasn’t.

Initially Peel had been indicted by a Grand Jury. The evidence presented had been pulled apart early on and the decision to go to trial had been reversed. That was in 1985. A second Grand Jury said he should go to trial. That trial lasted seven months. That was through most of 1986 and ended with a hung jury. The second trial was shorter but ran into 1988.

By the time the jury decided to acquit John Peel he had been under arrest for a total of four years.

We Didn’t Get It Wrong

What I have done here is condense several accounts of this awful crime. Normally I patch facts together because there is not much substance to the articles I gather. Here I have used a big portion from a website called Unresolved. I recommend you read that article by clicking the link if you want plenty of detail.

The situation for John Peel was that he was painted as guilty but we couldn’t quit prove it. Usually I can tell when prosecution feels that way. I get that feeling about the Billie Jo Jenkins case for example. After an acquittal the cops just stop doing much. I’m not saying that is right or the cops are right just that they passively make a statement by not pursuing new lines of enquiry.

Here though the prosecution positively said that Peel did it. The prosecutor is alleged to have said,

“Our system is built on the theory that it is better to let nine guilty persons go free than convict one innocent man. In this case, John Peel is going free for nine crimes… I can say that it’s the state’s view that we know who the killer is. It’s just apparent that the state was not able to convince the jury that there was sufficient evidence of that.”

Apparently she couldn’t convince the jury of that! Two juries. No clear motive, no real forensics and it is the jury that could not be convinced. I have news for her…that is no surprise.

The problem I have with this ‘case closed we know it was him’ attitude is they did pay Peel out compensation of $900,000 many years later. This was for the financial hit he and his family took during the four years he was held in some form of house arrest. So I suggest that not only did they not get the evidence past the juries, they couldn’t get it to uphold their case when it came to the money.

Other Suspects

Maybe the Alaskan cops have it right. I don’t know. What has emerged is that they did miss a few things. At the end of the Unresolved article there is some interesting information about a guy who did do arson and violence. A fugitive who was only found out after he had been a prize witness for the prosecution.

Then there is the problem as to who was on the boat. Five people were definitely identified. It is thought that little John was consumed wholly in the fire. Of the other two crew members, Chris Heyman and Dean Moon, there is no evidence for sure they were there. The investigation said that they were there based on a forensic opinion.

There was talk of Mark Coulthurst being involved with big time cocaine smuggling. I only mention it to be balanced. There does not seem to be a lot of substance to these allegations.

Finally, I will throw my thoughts in. John Peel was only 22 years old at the time of the murders. He was slightly built. I accept it is a tough job so he would probably have out lifted many similar men of his age and been hard but all the same. This lone killer managed to kill five adult males and an adult woman, while using a rifle in the confines of a boat. It is not impossible but even at two at a time through a doorway or something it is quite a feat.

What are your thoughts? The tragedy happened in 1982. A horrific waste of life, an outrage. I cannot imagine how the family felt or how they feel now.

Best Wishes