A Bloody, Baffling Mass Murder Shakes the Peaceful Spirit of a Small Town in Washington

Like a creature from some bloody B-movie, he was a menacing presence in the predawn darkness of last year’s Labor Day. Scores of fishing vessels were tied to the weather-beaten docks of the little Alaskan harbor, the hum and clank of their auxiliary engines creating a blanket of sound to muffle his movements. The Indian village of Craig, Alaska, a rustic outpost in the wilderness of Prince of Wales Island, slumbered just beyond the din of the harbor, its bars and liquor stores shuttered, its muddy streets deserted and its 600 residents unaware of the lone hunter stalking his prey.

Silently the man crossed two boats and boarded the Investor, a 58-foot purse seiner that had docked in Craig only that afternoon. Armed with an automatic weapon—either a pistol or a small-bore rifle—and the element of cruel surprise, he killed all eight people aboard within a matter of moments. His victims included the Investor’s owner, Mark Coulthurst, his pregnant wife, their 4-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter and four teenage deckhands. When three groggy, hung-over fishermen noticed the Investor slipping out of the harbor at 6 a.m., they had no inkling of the gruesome cargo it carried and no idea that the man in the wheelhouse was anyone other than Coulthurst, the genial skipper from Blaine, Wash., whose 28th birthday they had toasted the previous evening.

It was the biggest mass murder in Alaskan history, but it would not even be detected for another two days and remains disquietingly unsolved one year later. The killer dropped anchor in a quiet cove little more than a mile from the docks and returned to Craig in the Investor’s skiff sometime before 8 a.m. He remained in the vicinity all that day and the following night. The next afternoon, with chilling boldness, he returned to the Investor in the skiff and set fire to her. Leaving the scene, he calmly assured two fishermen who had seen the fire that the people on board the Investor were not in any danger. Then he continued back to Craig. Putting in at the dock, he casually offered to lend the skiff to anyone who wanted to get a closer view of the blazing boat. As he walked quickly away, never to be seen again, bystanders assumed he was a crew member rushing to summon help.

The fire eventually burned for 42 hours but was briefly brought under control that evening—long enough for bullet wounds to be discovered in the first four charred bodies recovered from the boat’s smoldering galley. “We knew it was homicide right away,” says Alaska state trooper Bob Anderson. “We sealed off the island and asked for assistance.” But the troopers also made a serious error. Intent on keeping people away from the scene of the crime, they ignored the danger that the fire would rekindle. “We told them that it had started again, but they told us to leave it alone,” says Greg Johns, a skipper who had joined the effort to save the Investor. “What really gets me angry is that we could have put the fire out then.”

While the Investor was rapidly becoming a crematorium, incinerating the four other victims and all physical clues, police and dozens of volunteers vainly searched for the man in the skiff—a white male stranger in his early 20s, about 5’10”, of medium build, with straight brown hair and a sallow, pockmarked complexion. He had been wearing glasses with rectangular lenses. No one matching that description left by the seaplane to Ketchikan or the thrice-weekly ferry, so investigators concluded he must have escaped on one of approximately 150 seiners and trollers in Craig’s harbor at the time of the killings.

With the Investor now burned to the waterline, police grimly sifted two tons of soggy ashes through fine-meshed screens to extract the human remains—a single tooth and 10 pounds of bone fragments. Pathologists identified the first four bodies recovered as those of Coulthurst, who had purchased the $850,000 seiner the previous winter; his wife, Irene, 28; their daughter, Kimberly, who was to have started kindergarten that week; and Coulthurst’s cousin, Michael Stewart, 19, a sophomore at Washington State University. Later identified were the remains of Jerome Keown, 19, a Seattle University honor student, also from Blaine, who had been recruited to the Investor crew only the week before. The other victims, all burned beyond recognition, were presumed to be Dean Moon, 19, a former Blaine High School football star; Chris Heyman, of San Rafael, Calif., who would have been 18 the day the Investor burned; and little John Coulthurst.

A task force of Alaska state troopers, led by veteran homicide detective Sgt. Charles Miller, descended on Craig and Blaine in hope of finding a motive for the crime. Drug trafficking was ruled out following interviews with the victims’ colleagues and families. Robbery was discounted because seiners carry little or no cash, and the killer’s skill in handling the Investor indicated he was familiar enough with the fishing business to know that.

In little Blaine (pop. 2,250), on the Canadian border, police looked for an explanation in the victims’ pasts. “The killer may not be here, but the answer is,” declared Miller, yet he found nothing that might have led to the slaughter in Craig, 650 miles up the coast. “There was never any indication that anybody on that boat made enemies or that anybody was resentful,” said LeRoy Flammang, a 20-year Border Patrol veteran who had left his job as the Investor’s cook only a week before the murders. “It was the kind of boat that inspired a little envy, but what could be gained by killing all the people and burning it up?”

When pathologists couldn’t identify all the bodies, Sgt. Miller considered the possibility that one of the crewmen had gone berserk, then tried to hide his guilt by burning the bodies. But the theory seemed unlikely, and descriptions of the killer matched no one on board. “Every time I pursue something, I keep coming up short,” said Miller. “There’s always something that doesn’t fit. One thing that has stuck in my craw is why the murderer didn’t burn the boat right away, or at night when there was darkness to cover his escape? There must have been some compelling reason that caused him to do it in broad daylight.”

Could the killer somehow have struck the wrong target, meaning to kill the crew of some other boat? Miller dismissed that possibility when he learned that the gleaming, all-fiberglass Investor had stood out like a man in a white suit among the aging vessels around her. Police also discounted a suspicion in Blaine that the Investor murders were meant to warn Washington fishermen away from Alaskan waters. “Realistically, there’s always been some hard feelings among the Alaskan fishermen toward out-of-state people,” said Miller, “but this would have been pretty bloody extreme. I sincerely believe it was an isolated incident and won’t happen again.”

Such assurances were little consolation to Blaine, a close-knit fishing community unaccustomed to the daily violence of America’s cities. Confronted with a crime of apocalyptic cruelty, the town underwent a swift and inexorable change. The outpouring of grief was immediate and heartfelt. Crowds overflowed into the streets as hundreds wept during memorial services. The Coulthurst family alone had lost a son, a daughter-in-law, two grandchildren and a nephew on the Investor, and the burden of sorrow was shared by the friends and families of all the victims until it seemed that a pall of mourning lay over nearly all of Blaine’s 600 households. “I lie awake in bed every goddamn night,” said John Coulthurst, Mark’s father. “I think and I think and I think: ‘Why?’ ”

Until the answer is known, a chill of anxiety and suspicion will rest uneasily on a town in which trust was once plentiful. Before the killings, doors in Blaine were often unlocked, keys were casually left in ignitions and boats were open to any curious visitor. Now bolts are drawn against intruders, and the movements of strangers are carefully noted. “People are a lot more cautious,” says LeRoy Flammang. “When they see somebody they don’t recognize right away, they keep their eyes on him.”

The killer, wherever he is, remains a malignant presence in Blaine. There was apprehension last spring when the fishing fleet set out once more for Alaska, and relief when the boats began returning last month. “Obviously the town is still upset,” says Tom Burton, Blaine’s mayor and a fisherman himself. “Everybody thinks about what happened all the time. The reward posters are still up everywhere. The boats are coming back from Alaska, and I’ve never seen more hugs and kisses on the dock than this year. People are just so glad to see their men coming back alive. Hell, everybody has more locks on their boats now than fish.”

Such edginess seems especially out of place in Blaine, where ordinarily there is a certain fatalistic acceptance of death. Inevitably, during each fishing season, the fierce storms and treacherous straits of southeastern Alaska claim lives. Each year brings its share of occupational tragedies—crippling accidents, drownings and fires—but Blaine fishermen have learned to live with the hazards. Above and beyond the hard-bitten philosophy that life is fatal to us all, there lies the urge to defy nature’s risks. The harsh legacy of the Investor is that murder must now be counted among them.

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