A Look Back At Alaska's Worst Unsolved Mass Murder
By DAVE KIFFER
September 06, 2006
The nearly 75 boats in the District 4 seine fleet had left port for a next-day opening in the waters west of Craig near Noyes Island. A few boats were still at the dock awaiting the inevitable repairs that are needed during the hectic, brief summer openings.
But one boat was anchored in a deep cove just off adjacent Fish Egg Island across the harbor from Craig. As the fog lifted several people noticed the unusual sight.
Mark Coulthurst's brand new, $850,000 seine boat, the Investor, was not the type of boat to blend in anyway. The state-of-the-art vessel had cut a spectacular profile along the docks in several southeast towns that summer. It was the type of boat that the other captains just looked at and whistled.
At 28, the Blaine, Washington based fisherman was at the top of the fleet. In 12 years, Coulthurst had risen from fishing out of a skiff in his hometown to captaining a top-line seiner with a crew of eight, including his wife and two young children.
Besides Coulthurst, the other members of the crew were his wife Irene, 28; his cousin Mike Stewart, 19; Dean Moon, 19; Jerome Keown, 19; Chris Heyman, 18; and Coulthurst's children, Kimberley, 5, and John, 4.
It struck several people on the Craig waterfront as odd that the ship would be laid up while the rest of the fleet was taking part in the last opening of the season in the lucrative District 4 seine area.
But at least one person in Craig was not surprised that the Investor was not with the rest of the fleet. As the fog lifted, however, he was shocked to see it still afloat.
Some 30 hours before, Coulthurst, his family and his crew had been murdered. The bodies were stacked in bunks on the boat. The boat had been anchored away from the town and its seacocks had been opened so it would sink in the relatively deep water off Fish Egg Island. But the boat was still afloat.
With the seine boat bobbing away with its grisly cargo, a young man was seen purchasing 2 1/2 gallons of gasoline in Craig. He retrieved the Investor's seine skiff from near the Craig Cold Storage dock and returned to the vessel.
Investigators say he doused the inside of the cabin and the forward sleeping area, paying particular attention to the forward crew area where several of the bodies were. The fire in that part of the boat was so intense that it was impossible to determine how many bodies were eventually found there.
Around 4 pm, the crew of the troller Casino, docked in Craig, noticed the smoke rising from the anchored seiner. After alerting the authorities the Casino pulled away from the dock and headed for Fish Egg Island to help fight the fire. On the way it passed the Investor skiff, headed back toward Craig. It hailed the skiff and spoke briefly to the man on board and then went to the burning ship.
The man in the skiff pulled up back up to the Craig Dock, spoke briefly to at least three people at the dock, walked up the dock into Craig and disappeared. In the words of state trooper investigators, he "slipped into a time warp at the end of the dock."
The Investor had pulled into Craig on Sunday, Sept. 5th after unloading more than 77,000 pound of pink salmon to a Holbeck Seafoods tender. The catch was valued at $33,000 but Coulthurst never took cash payments, instead waiting for a lump sum at the end of the season.
In fact, Coulthurst had very little money on board the boat and invstigators say he had to ask a friend to cash a $100 check so he could pay for a birthday party that he was planning to have that night at Ruth Ann's Restaurant.
The Investor tied up next to the seiner Decade at the North Cove Dock in Craig. The Decade was in turn tied to the seiner Defiant. Witnesses say that Moon and Keown went ashore shortly thereafter. Troopers say that the two men later bought a small quantity of drugs from a friend who was a former crewman on a different Coulthurst boat, John Kenneth Peel.
Moon apparently tried unsuccessfully to call his family in Blaine. Keown reached his brother but didn't indicate anything out of the ordinary.
Stewart and Heyman apparently also left the boat together, although no one in Craig remembers seeing them in town that night. Stewart also called home to Bellingham, but said nothing unusual.
Meanwhile, the four Coulthurst family members celebrated Mark's 28th birthday at Ruth Ann's. Skippers from both the Decade and Defiance were also at the restaurant and noticed nothing unusual.
Later, a witness would come forward and say that John Kenneth Peel stopped briefly to talk to the family at the restaurant, but that point was vigorously debated in court. Peel contended he wasn't at the restaurant and was asleep at the time the murders were committed.
The Coulthursts left the restaurant around 9:30 pm. A crewman on the Decade says that sometime around 10:30 pm, four-year-old John Coulthurst stuck his head inside the pilot house of the Decade to say "hi" to a crewman he'd played with earlier in the day.
A heavy storm pounded Craig that night and no one on either the Decade or the Defiance noticed other crewmembers or anyone else coming to the Investor. The Decade's crew was engaged in a fairly loud party and didn't hear anything unusual on the boat next door.
But sometime between the Sunday night birthday party and Monday morning when the ship was seen leaving the dock, something on the Investor went horribly wrong.
Investigators surmise that the crew members were killed one or two at a time as they returned to the ship Sunday, but with so much of the physical evidence destroyed by the fire it is not possible to be sure. The only clear cut evidence was that Mark and Irene Coulthurst, Kimberley Coulthurst and Mark Stewart had been shot to death, apparently with a .22 caliber weapon.
Troopers believe that the killings took place not long after the Coulthursts returned to the boat, primarily because Irene Coulthurst was found in the same clothes she had worn to the restaurant. And it is almost certain that the killer remained on board the Investor that night.
At 6 a.m. Monday morning, a Decade crewman went out on deck to throw up and saw the Investor drifting slowly away. The Investor's expensive lines had been untied and left on the Decade's deck. The Decade crewman waved to a man in the Investor's pilot house who waved back. A few minutes later the Decade skipper, Clyde Curry, also came on deck and saw a man on the deck of the Investor.
At 7:30 am, a crewman on another seine boat noticed the Investor anchored near Fish Egg Island. Around that time, another witness noticed the Investor skiff tied up to the cold storage dock.
By 10:30 am, fog had rolled in and the Investor was out of sight and out of mind for people at the Craig docks. But several witnesses noted that its distinctively painted seine skiff was still tied to the dock. It had to be moved several times because it was in the way.
That afternoon, the rest of the seine fleet headed out for the final opening of the season. The fog in the harbor was so thick that most had to use their radar.
Curry, on the Decade, thought that perhaps the Investor had left the dock because of the loud party on his ship. He radioed the Investor to apologize. There was no response.
When the sky cleared on Tuesday morning, the Investor was still anchored off Fish Egg Island and the killer or killers felt they had to act.
The blaze took several hours to put out and the vessel had been towed ashore to prevent it from sinking. At one point, the fire cooled down enough for searchers to pull four bodies from the pilot house, those of the three Coulthursts and Mark Stewart. All had multiple gunshot wounds. But then the fire flared back up and destroyed the rest of the inside of the cabin. The boat's hold and engine room area didn't burn because they had sprinklers.
By the time the fire was out in the lower crew area, there were only body parts and bone fragments left. Eventually, the remains of Jerome Keown were indentified, but it was never positively determined that the remaining fragments belonged to either Chris Heyman or Dean Moon. No sign was ever found of four-year-old John Coulthurst. Investigators believe his tiny body was totally consumed by the fire.
Although troopers could not positively determine whether or not all the crewmembers of the Investor were accounted for, they believed the killer was not one of the missing crewmembers because the eyewitnesses were fairly certain that the man seen operating the skiff was not one of the missing crewmembers.
For more than a year, they chased various leads with little success. Finally, they got a break when several fishermen on other boats reported a similarity between a fisherman and the artists drawings the police were circulating.
After more investigation, police arrested 24-year-old John Kenneth Peel, a Bellingham man who had once crewed for Coulthurst on a different seiner, the Kit. The arrest came almost two years to the day after the killings.
Four years after the killings, John Kenneth Peel went on trial in Ketchikan. The proceedings began in January of 1986 with more than a month of jury selection. With the prosecution and defense fighting over the seating of a jury it was not a surprise when the trial itself lasted six months.
From the beginning the defense and prosecution sparred over the evidence and the case dragged on into August, becoming the longest running trial in Alaska history. At several points during the trial, lawyers from both sides were admonished by Superior Court trial Judge Thomas Schulz over their tactics.
Many longtime court observers found the battle between District Attorney Mary-Anne Henry and lead defense attorney Philip Weidner one of the most contentious in memory.
The state conceded that the evidence against Peel was mostly circumstantial but based much of its case on the eyewitnesses who said they saw Peel in the Investor seine skiff and purchasing gasoline before the fire. The state said the motive was revenge because Peel had been "fired" by Coulthurst the year before.
Peel's defense hit on inconsistencies in the witnesses testimony and the fact that some of the witnesses had changed their stories or had trouble remembering the events of four years before. Peel's defense contended that s a drug deal gone bad had led to the killings and hinted that Coulthurst had used drug money to purchase his new boat, although no evidence of drug dealing was ever entered into the trial record. Peel's defense also pointed a figure at either Heyman or Moon because their remains had not been identified.
After more than six months of testimony, jurors deliberated for six days before declaring themselves hopelessly deadlocked. Judge Schulz instructed the jurors not to talk publicly about their deliberations, but The Bellingham Herald reported the split was 7-5 in favor of acquittal.
Two years later, the state brought Peel to trial again. This time the trial was held in Juneau because it was determined that media coverage of the first trial had saturated the First City.
The second trial was barely half as long as the first one, primarily because the defense declined to call any witnesses after the prosecution spent three months presenting its case. Once again, both sides sparred over the eyewitness accounts and whether or not the testimony was given to curry favor with police and get other charges reduced.
The jury deliberated for four days before acquitting Peel of the murder and arson charges.
The investigation and two trials had cost the state of Alaska nearly $3 million over six years.
Even after the acquittal, state officials publicly said they still believed Peel was involved in the murders and in 1990, Peel filed suit against the State of Alaska seeking $175 million for wrongful prosecution. At the heart of the suit was a lengthy 1984 memo from one of the lead investigators indicating that - without a confession - there was no direct evidence tying Peel to the crime.
In 1997, Peel agreed to a $900,000
payment from the state. Neither he nor his attorneys commented
on why they had settled for that amount after seeking such a
Contact Dave at email@example.com