After a Two-Year Manhunt Police Arrest a Suspect in Alaska's Brutal Fishing Boat Murders

The murderer was as brazen as he was bloody-minded. Sometime during the night of Sept. 6, 1982, he slipped onto the Investor, a 58-foot purse seiner docked in the remote fishing village of Craig, Alaska, and shot and killed everyone on board—skipper Mark Coulthurst, 28, of Blaine, Wash., Coulthurst’s pregnant wife, Irene, 28, their two small children and four teenage crew members. A few hours later, at first light, the killer moved the boat and its grisly cargo about a mile offshore. Then he took the Investor’s skiff back to Craig, where he spent the day and the following night, returning to the fishing boat the next afternoon. Dousing the Investor with gasoline, he set it afire and calmly returned to town with the skiff. Spectators watched from shore as the boat burned, unaware they were witnesses to a funeral pyre. “I saw the guy in the skiff,” Lee Axmaker, Craig’s mayor, said later. “He was a cool character. He came up, talked to a few people, made a phone call and left.”

For two years police in Alaska and Washington searched for the man in the skiff, but there were problems. There was no apparent motive for the killings, and most of the physical evidence in the case had been destroyed in the fire. Moreover, the murders took place at the very end of the fishing season, and by the time detectives arrived on the scene many of the commercial fishermen had left by boat or by plane. “It would be easy to say that everyone who had been in Craig at the time was a suspect,” says Bellingham, Wash, police detective David McNeill, who worked on the case. “We also considered everyone a witness. We felt that one of those witnesses was the guilty one.”

Detectives tried to contact every fishing boat skipper who had been in Craig and to get from them the names of their crews. “There were approximately 150 people at the beginning who had to be interviewed,” says McNeill. “After about two months we were sure we had talked to the responsible party, but we didn’t know which one it was. After about a year we had narrowed it down to three people.” Finally, earlier this month, the list of suspects was narrowed to one when police arrested John Kenneth Peel, a 24-year-old Bellingham boatyard worker and sometime fisherman who had once worked on Mark Coulthurst’s boat. Authorities say Peel was implicated by both physical and circumstantial evidence, and was identified in photographs by four witnesses as the man in the skiff.

Because the eyewitness testimony is crucial, Peel appeared at his arraignment in Bellingham with his face forbiddingly obscured by a ski mask. “Identity is the only issue in this case,” explained his lawyer, Michael Tario. “i don’t want my client’s right to a fair trial tainted.” Peel also wore a bulletproof vest, a reminder that emotions about the murders are still running high. A bank in Bellingham refused to open an account for Peel’s defense fund, and some Blaine fishermen criticized police for not arresting him sooner. Though Peel’s friends defend him as a good-natured seaman who would walk away from a fight, a relative of one of the victims has referred to him as a drinker and drug user who had been fired from Coulthurst’s boat the year before the killings took place. Ih 1982, fishermen say, he landed a job on a boat called the Lilly 8 and later tried to get rehired on the Investor when two of Coulthurst’s crew members quit near the end of the season. “The Lilly 8 is an older, rougher boat,” says one fisherman, “and Coulthurst had this Cadillac.” It was Coulthurst’s refusal to let Peel come back, others speculated, that set off a murderous binge. “We never could understand why Peel wasn’t the prime suspect from the beginning,” says fisherman and boat broker Holy Hanson, a friend of the Coulthursts. “But all that the detectives could think was crew, crew, crew.”

In fact, the bodies on the Investor had been so badly burned that two of them could not be identified, and police had clung for a time to a theory that one of the teenagers on board might have committed the crime and then fled. For many in Blaine and Bellingham that theory had struck too close to home and clouded the memory of two innocent victims. But Peel’s arrest in the tight-knit fishing community brought fresh unhappiness as well as relief. “I started crying and shaking,” said Mark Coulthurst’s sister Laurie, 27. “John Peel used to go out with my sister. His mom baked my sister’s wedding cake. What do I do?” she asked plaintively. “How do I act?”

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