John Peel’s defense predictably countered that testimony pointing to a stocky, dark-complexioned Native man raised questions about a core prosecution theory. For the State, it was gospel that the killer acted alone. Co-counsel Michael Tario — who had seldom uttered a word during the previous 18 months of the trial — ridiculed the suggestion that the man seen in the Investor skiff was merely “borrowing” the boat.
“Do they have that guy who can come in and say that?” Tario countered. “It’s pure speculation. Cases are decided on facts, not on maybes or could-bes.”
Weidner went Tario one better and suggested that the fisherman’s testimony was crucial evidence of his client’s innocence. “It’s significant evidence when a person positively stated it could not be John Peel who was in the Investor skiff 45 minutes to two hours before the fire.”
But to apply Weidner’s own standards, the witness’s memory had presumably been better in 1982. At the time, he told troopers he’d seen the man in the skiff sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 that Tuesday afternoon. That the skiff was already at the dock was hardly in question. After all, the Investor was first seen leaving Craig at 6:00 am the previous day. And troopers had long known that the skiff was moved by cold storage employees in the hours and days before the fire.
Little imagination was required to surmise that a cold storage employee moved the skiff sometime around 3:00 on the day of the fire — if only to get it out of the way of other boats trying to use the same dock. In such a scenario, the skiff wouldn’t have gone far. Acting alone, the killer could easily retrieve it a short time later and make his way to the Investor. The first mayday call didn’t come in until 4:20 pm that Tuesday.
Timing Is Crucial
To help that impression along, Mary Anne Henry stressed that the alleged sighting referred “to a time not relevant” to whether Peel was in the Investor skiff on the day of the fire. A rural resident of Craig, she noted, had testified to seeing the Investor skiff at 3:50 p.m., speeding toward Ben’s Cove. That person had not seen the stocky Native man described by the defense witness.
Even Phillip Weidner agreed that “we just don’t know” whether the mysterious second skiffman was responsible for the Investor arson. But for the defense, it seemed enough just to toss one more doubt on the pile.
Add the “not alone” defense to the “impossibility” defense.
Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale. That manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archive, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2020). All rights reserved.