Experts Take the Witness Stand

There were two things about the Investor crime that desperately needed explication. Then, as now, these were the forensic dimensions of the murders: the origins of the fire and the identity of the firearms used. This is normally where the experts ride in on a tide of fact and analysis, so as to clear away the fog of uncertainty. But those critical data points seemed elusive then and are still elusive today.

Donald Reidman, FBI, Ret., 2016 photo (courtesy denuncia)

One of the experts was a gun guy, Donald Reidman of the FBI. If there was any good news for the State, it was Reidman’s elimination of Dean Moon’s Ruger mini-14 semi-automatic as the murder weapon. Defense attorney Phil Weidner had suggested an adapter could have allowed Moon’s .223 rifle to fire .22 cartridges. Reidman set the record straight.

While an adapter was available for the .223 in 1982, it was a crude affair. And it turned the rifle into a single-shot weapon. As for the type of adapter that Weidner had spoken of, Reidman said it didn’t become available until “January or February of 1985.” By then, the Investor victims were more than two years dead.

But Reidman’s less than conclusive findings about the identity of the murder weapon opened the door for the defense. Reidman could only “absolutely eliminate” one weapon as the possible murder weapon, and that was a Marlin .22 long rifle found on the Libby 8. Dean Moon’s rifle was eliminated only because of the troublesome adapter. “The other weapons here, the .22s, the rifling impressions are what I would call in the same general ballpark,” Reidman confided. “At least they are close enough that I would not eliminate them.”

Libby No. 8 in Ketchikan (copyright Leland E. Hale)

On cross-examination, Weidner had the forensics expert read a list of more than ten gunmakers whose firearms also “could not be eliminated.” All were the same as Demmert’s gun: rifled with six grooves and a right hand twist. The FBI man also admitted that a bullet recovered from Mark Coulthurst’s skull could have come from any one of thousands — or millions of guns, including the handgun and rifle found on the Libby 8.

The defense attorney reserved his choicest comments, however, for Reidman’s answer to how long it took to reload the Browning T-bolt thought by some to be the murder weapon.

“I could do it in less than 60 seconds,” the agent said matter-of-factly.

“Oh,” Weidner sneered, “so you fire six shots and then say, ‘Excuse me while I reload?'”

The cops, of course, had never ruled out multiple weapons. Neither did the evidence — what there was of it. The uncertainty over weapons, while favoring the defense, also left the possibility that the killer had boarded the Investor loaded for bear.

Or suggested that more than one person was involved. Oh, the conspiracy theories one could spin. No experts required.

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.


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