United States v. Wells

Decision Date14 December 2022
Docket Numbers. 20-30009,21-30121
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. James Michael WELLS, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Benjamin L. Coleman (argued), Singleton Schreiber McKenzie & Scott LLP, San Diego, California, for Defendant-Appellant.

Daniel N. Lerman (argued), Attorney, Appellate Section; Lisa H. Miller, Deputy Assistant Attorney General; Kenneth A. Polite Jr, Assistant Attorney General, United States Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Washington, D.C.; Bryan Wilson, Attorney; Stephen L. Corso and Steven E. Skrocki, Assistant United States Attorneys; John E. Kuhn Jr., United States Attorneys; Office of the United States Attorney, Anchorage, Alaska; for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Before: Andrew D. Hurwitz, Daniel A. Bress, and Holly A. Thomas, Circuit Judges.

BRESS, Circuit Judge:

On the morning of April 12, 2012, two Coast Guard employees were shot and killed at a Coast Guard station on Kodiak Island, Alaska. A jury found that their co-worker, James Wells, had committed the murders. In this opinion, we primarily address Wells's contention that under the Fifth Amendment, statements he made to government investigators should have been suppressed because they were made under the threat of loss of employment. We hold that Wells's Fifth Amendment self-incrimination challenge fails because he was not coerced to speak with investigators on pain of losing his job.

In this opinion and an accompanying memorandum disposition, we affirm Wells's convictions. But we vacate the district court's restitution order and remand for further proceedings limited to that issue because the district court mistakenly relied on the All Writs Act in determining how certain benefits would be garnished.


James Wells, Richard Belisle, and James Hopkins worked together at the United States Coast Guard Communication Station (COMMSTA) on Kodiak Island, Alaska. COMMSTA is "the 911 of the Bering," fielding calls from mariners in distress and military aircraft passing through the airspace. After a lengthy military career, Wells for over twenty years worked as a civilian COMMSTA mechanic, maintaining the radio antennas used to communicate with aircraft and vessels. Belisle was the "master rigger" responsible for ensuring that antenna equipment was properly and safely rigged. Hopkins supervised both men.

At 6:48 a.m. on April 12, 2012, surveillance video captured Wells's white pickup truck driving on the main road towards COMMSTA. Wells took this route every morning to get to work. On this particular day, Wells pulled off at the Kodiak airport, which is located on the same road about two miles from COMMSTA.

Wells's wife, Nancy, had left her car, a blue 2001 Honda CR-V, in the airport parking lot while on a business trip. At 7:09 a.m., security footage showed a blue car approaching the COMMSTA antenna maintenance facility (also known as the "rigger shop"), where Hopkins and Belisle were already working. The government's theory was that Wells had swapped his vehicle for Nancy's at the airport and driven it to COMMSTA, where he then shot Hopkins and Belisle.

Surveillance video showed a blue vehicle leaving the rigger shop at 7:14 a.m. By 7:22 a.m., Wells was seen driving his white truck away from the airport towards his residence. Altogether, this amounted to 34 minutes after Wells first arrived at the airport.

At 7:30 a.m., Wells called Hopkins (now deceased) and left a voicemail explaining that he would be late to work because he had a flat tire. Wells, Belisle, and Hopkins usually arrived around 7:00 a.m., while other COMMSTA employees typically came in later. Wells also left voicemails for Belisle (also deceased) and Scott Reckner, a supervisor whom Wells had only "very rarely" called in the past. After leaving these voicemails, Wells arrived at COMMSTA at about 8:30 a.m., after the murders had been discovered. When Reckner informed Wells of the murders, Wells responded, "Shit. I had a flat tire."

COMMSTA authorities instructed all employees to remain at the station so that they would stay safe and be able to assist in the investigation. Shortly thereafter, the FBI and the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) arrived and launched an investigation. The investigators started by interviewing COMMSTA personnel. We recount the interviews with Wells in some detail because they form the basis for the principal issue that we address in this opinion.

Agents interviewed Wells four times in the evening of April 12 (the day of the murders), and twice more on the morning of April 13. In the first interview, which began around 7:21 p.m., Wells volunteered that "the only reason I wasn't here this morning at 7:00 was I had [a] flat tire in my truck." However, Wells admitted that he did not know exactly where or when his tire went flat, and that he did not "really look at it to see what was wrong." He also answered questions about his background and duties at COMMSTA, the work environment, and his relationships with Belisle and Hopkins.

In the second interview, which began at 8:04 p.m., the agents asked Wells if they could search his truck to "verify" his story about the flat tire, and Wells replied, "Knock yourself out." The agents told Wells "[t]his is totally voluntary" and "you can refuse this." Wells reaffirmed his consent. The agents also asked Wells if they could search his cell phone, and Wells again agreed. Before both searches, Wells signed acknowledgments of his rights. The agents then searched Wells's truck and found in the back a tire that had been punctured by a nail.

Wells was interviewed twice more that evening, but the interviews were brief. The agents initially told Wells that they had follow-up questions after speaking to other employees, but after only three minutes (and no questions), they stopped the interview because Wells said that he needed to take medication. In the final session that evening, the investigators conducted a several-minute interview in which they suggested "having [Wells's] hands wiped for gunshot residue" to "see what his reaction would be." Wells agreed to the test. Wells would later testify that he had interpreted these interviews as "just ... general information gathering" and nothing "out of the ordinary."

By the next morning, the agents had reviewed the surveillance footage of the road leading to COMMSTA. The footage showed Wells's truck driving to and from the airport. The agents decided to interview Wells again. Before initiating the interview, the agents informed Wells of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona , 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), emphasizing that "you don't have to talk to us" and "don't have to answer" questions. Although Wells said he was "a little concerned now," he consented to the interview and signed a Miranda waiver. At one point in the interview, Wells declined to answer questions about his disciplinary issues ("Nope, I'd rather not"). But he otherwise responded to the questioning.

After substantial questioning about the layout, operations, and employees of the rigging shop, the agents turned to the previous day's events. Wells reiterated that as he was driving to work, he noticed he had a flat tire. He then turned into a parking lot by the airport to check the tire, after which he decided to go back home to change it.

The agents informed Wells that the security footage showed a 34-minute gap between Wells's truck driving to and from the airport. When asked to account for that time, Wells said he "d[idn't] have a reasonable explanation for it." One agent told Wells that they were "baffled," to which Wells replied, "Well, so am I." An investigator told Wells that "[t]hings aren't adding up with that story," and Wells simply responded, "I don't have [a] theory at the moment."

Later that day, investigators asked to interview Wells again, explaining that "your stories aren't lining up with the factual time lines that we have." Wells asked, "Are you accusing me?" The agents said "[a]t this point, yes Jim." Wells terminated the interview.

Meanwhile, attempting to locate the blue vehicle they had seen in the security footage, the agents went to the airport, where they found Nancy's blue CR-V. They later learned that the car was parked in a different spot than where Nancy had left it, and there was mail addressed to Wells in the front seat that had not previously been there. After a lengthy process to rule out other suspects—which involved obtaining a list of all vehicles registered in Kodiak, identifying those that potentially matched the one in the video, and interviewing the owners—the investigators came to believe that the vehicle in the video was, in fact, Nancy's blue CR-V.

The agents searched Wells's home. While they did not recover the murder weapon, they did discover the same type of ammunition found at the crime scene. Many months later, on February 15, 2013, Wells was arrested for the murders of Hopkins and Belisle.


On February 19, 2013, Wells was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder within the maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, 18 U.S.C. § 1111 ; two counts of murder of a federal employee, 18 U.S.C. § 1114 ; and two counts of using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). A jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts. Wells was sentenced to life in prison and ordered to pay restitution. See United States v. Wells , 879 F.3d 900, 907–08 (9th Cir. 2018) ( Wells I ).

Wells appealed. He raised various legal challenges to his conviction and sentence, including that the district court had erred in denying his motion to suppress his interview statements under Miranda. We affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress, holding that "Wells was not in custody, and therefore no Miranda warnings were required." United States v. Wells , 719 F. App'x 587, 590 (9th Cir. 2017). But concluding that the government...

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