People who know me well know that for the past couple of years, I’ve been digging into an old Alaska murder case. The murders themselves were terrible, particularly because they included the deaths of two small children (though honestly, is there ever a situation where murder isn’t just awful?).
The murders occurred in 1982 at the end of a busy salmon fishing season on board a gleaming new fishing boat, the F/V Investor in Craig on Prince of Wales Island. Eight people were murdered, including a family from Blaine, Wash. and their four teenage deckhands. Among those killed were the Coulthurst family, Mark, 28, his pregnant wife, Irene, and their two children Kimberly, 5, and John, 4, and crewmen Mike Stewart, 19, Chris Heyman, 18, Dean Moon, 19, and Jerome Keown, 19.
The timeline of events surrounding the murders is a little difficult to wade through because a lot of potential witnesses didn’t even really remember what they were up to during the days surrounding the murders — let alone what was going on around them. A lot of people were drunk, high, or other wise preoccupied with finishing up the end of the salmon seining season. Though weird stuff has been known to happen in some of our small Alaskan towns, mass murder wasn’t the kind of thing anyone would have ever imagined.
The Alaska State Troopers who investigated the case focused their investigation on Bellingham, Wash. resident and fisherman, John Kenneth Peel, framing the incident to the media as a tragic case of workplace rage that resulted from “an explosion of emotion.” Troopers believed that twenty-two-year old Peel had been angry with the skipper of the boat — a man who had also been a former boss — and had gone on a rampage, killing everyone on board before motoring the vessel into the harbor, setting it on fire to destroy evidence, and escaping by skiff.
Peel was arrested two years after the killings, but was acquitted by a jury in 1988 following two grand juries and two lengthy trials that cost the state an estimated $3 million. The lack of resolution in the case has haunted the memories of the victims’ friends and families, as they have been left wondering what frightening events befell their loved ones.
These events have been on my mind a lot lately, in part because I have been hard at work work putting together a synopsis of the investigation and trials. The sheer complexity of the case is overwhelming and it is easy to feel sympathy for the detectives who were tasked with finding the killer more than 30 years ago.
It’s interesting to me because I’ve never thought of myself as a person drawn to the blood and gore of true crime thrillers. There was a time as a kid when I loved either Steven King horror movies (think Cujo and The Shining) or anything about the 16th century English King Henry VIII and knew exactly which one of his six wives he beheaded or divorced. But as I got older, none of that kind of stuff seemed so captivating anymore. I can’t stomach horror movies and I gloss over parts of books that describe the grisly detail of how some awful event went down. I’ve only ever seen the footage of the Twin Towers collapse by accident. I don’t even own a TV.
I became even more sensitive after I worked for a newspaper in northern California and covered a few murders, tragic accidental deaths, and even travelled overseas to witness human suffering of a different kind in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. I once wrote a story about a brilliant Oscar-winning artist with mental illness who had committed suicide. Though not nearly as well known, it was a story not unlike what happened recently with Robin Williams’s own suicide. I was struck and saddened by the people who e-mailed or called and wanted to know how the man had taken his own life.
I hadn’t even asked, I told them.
I haven’t wanted to write too much publicly about the Investor case in large part because I didn’t want to succumb to the unnecessarily sensational. It has all the makings of a wild thriller movie and yet, there is nothing glorious or fantastic about what happened to those five men, one woman, and two young children. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to tell this important story. I’ve never been so vain to think that I could solve the case — or to find the missing puzzle pieces that eluded so many cops and attorneys. Obviously, there’s always the hope that by keeping a story alive, there is a chance that some new leaf will be turned over. I still have that hope and will continue to dig and see what gets uncovered.
As a writer, I’ve always known it was important to document events in our lives, especially as they are happening and when our memories are freshest. But when my own dad died at age 61 in 2009, I pretty much stopped writing altogether for a couple of years. During the week after his death, I tried without success to write about all that was going on around me. I tried to catalogue for memory’s sake the visitors, the conversations, the weird details that families go through during the days after a death. I knew I needed to remember these things. I knew I should write them down. Still, I couldn’t do it. I stubbornly refused to document what these weeks revealed, worried that somehow these final memories would overshadow all the other much warmer ones I held. I regret this now, but I understand.
I wish too that I had written more the past few years. Instead, I’ve done a whole lot of listening. And boy, do people have a lot to say. I worked for four years for Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Subsistence, traveling to villages, sitting at dozens of kitchen tables, and listening and learning from the Y-K Delta to the Beaufort Sea coast.
I have been trying to interview as many people as I can who remember the victims of the Investor, who remember the trials, the case, or that time in Alaska’s history.
All through this, I haven’t stopped thinking that the story of the eight who perished on the Investor 32 years ago continues to be important. The case is not resolved. There has been no closure for the communities, the families and friends of the victims, the fishermen and women of the Pacific Northwest. There has been no closure even for the numerous detectives, lawyers, and others who worked the case for years. I have heard frustration, sadness, anger, and bitterness in the voices of dozens of individuals.
My investigation thus far has revealed way more questions than answers. My efforts have been frustrated by distance, an overwhelming number of documents, confusing and contradictory story lines, and people who don’t want to trust me. But I am also slowly peeling back layers. I am finding some answers.
And I am continuing to believe that by keeping the story from being forgotten, one by one, my questions will be answered.