Thirty-five years have passed since the massacre of eight people on the fishing boat Investor first shocked the nation. For those whose lives were upended by the killings, the case remains a painful cloud that refuses to lift.
For John Peel, the former deckhand who police and prosecutors suspected of committing the grisly slayings, the mystery is something else: a question mark that still hangs over his head.
Peel was charged with the killings in 1984, but after two expensive, headline-grabbing trials, he was found not guilty. Decades later, the case is Alaska’s worst unsolved mass homicide.
“Somebody out there knows what happened,” Peel tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, in an exclusive interview after years of silence. The case will also be featured on Monday night’s People Magazine Investigates on Investigation Discovery.
“Somebody was responsible for this,” Peel says. “Somebody out there knows what happened, but I’m not going to waste any more of my life on it.”
• For more on this case, subscribe to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday, and watch People Magazine Investigates: Murder at Sea on Monday, Dec. 11, at 10 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery.
The details behind the deaths of skipper Mark Coulthurst and his pregnant wife, Irene, both 28, along with their children Kimberly, 5, and John, 4, and four deckhands — Chris Heyman, 18; and Jerome Keown, Dean Moon and Mike Stewart, all 19 — have become no less alarming with time.
Police said Mark, who was based in Blaine, Washington, and his crew arrived in the rowdy town of Craig, Alaska, on Sept. 5, 1982, shortly before for the final days of the commercial fishing season.
The ambitious, hard-working and well-liked skipper had recently become the proud owner of one of the most expensive, high-tech commercial fishing boats of its kind in the region.
“Every one of his crew wanted to be like Mark,” recalls Keown’s older brother Brian. “He was one of the best skippers around.”
Hours before the family was killed, Mark and his wife and kids attended a birthday party thrown for him at a restaurant near the docks, returning around 9:30 p.m. as a storm began to rage.
The killer then crept onto the Investor in the darkness, police said, and executed his victims — several of whom investigators believe were shot in their bunks in quick succession with either a .22-caliber pistol or rifle.
Around 6 a.m. the following morning, the gunman moved the boat to nearby Fish Egg Island, a mile outside of Craig, with the intention of sinking it by allowing seawater to flood the engine-cooling system.
When it was still afloat the next day, the killer, who authorities said was observed by numerous witnesses motoring back and forth between the Investor and the docks in a skiff, returned and set the boat ablaze, reducing the crime scene and most of the bodies to charred ash.
Two years passed before police arrested Peel — who once worked for Mark and who had been working on another fishing boat and claimed to be asleep at the time of the killings — based on his similarity to sketches of the suspect, described by police as a white male in his early 20s with a pockmarked complexion.
Peel’s first trial in 1986 hinged on circumstantial evidence and lasted over six months. Prosecutors suggested that he committed the murders because of a falling out he’d had with Mark. It ended in a hung jury.
After being found not-guilty in a retrial two years later, Peel filed a wrongful prosecution suit against the state to recoup his legal fees and was awarded a reported financial settlement of $900,000.
Police are no longer looking for the killer. “The case is closed,” says Tim DeSpain, spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers.
But the Investor slayings are hardly resolved.
“It was a pretty damn good investigation,” says former Bellingham, Washington, police detective David McNeill, who helped Alaskan authorities investigate.
“They got the right guy,” McNeill says. “Just because someone is acquitted doesn’t mean they’re innocent, just means there’s not enough evidence to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Coulthurst’s younger sister Laurie Hart isn’t so sure about that now — although for decades she was convinced of Peel’s guilt.
But her opinion changed last year after Peel agreed to meet with her and her sister Lisa at a local diner and answer their questions.
“I don’t know if he’s actually the one who pulled the trigger,” Hart tells PEOPLE. “But I think he knows more than he’s saying.”
People Magazine Investigates: Murder at Sea airs Monday (10 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.