Roy Tussing: The Old Man’s Turn

With the demise of Jim Robinson as a credible witness, Mary Anne Henry teetered toward the end of her case. Richard Olmstead, whose alleged ID of John Peel once looked so promising, was now discredited too. She decided not to call him. She acknowledged to reporters that she expected a number of problems to arise should the man be called to testify. At this point, she only had two more witnesses in her quiver. Ruth Moon and Roy Tussing.

Ruth Moon & daughter Jill (courtesy Bellingham Herald)

Henry called Ruth Moon first. Dean Moon’s mother was savaged by Phil Weidner to the point that she left the witness stand in tears. That left it to Roy Tussing to help knit the prosecution case back together.

Roy Tussing was the “old man” on the Investor. It was Roy Tussing who knew Mark Coulthurst best. He’d worked for him since the first days of the Kit. He’d been there when they were still struggling to make the boat run. He’d been there while they were still scrambling to have a good season. Had been there when Mark decided to take his nets north for the first time. Had been there when the net ripped or the engine broke or the price of salmon plummeted.

Roy Tussing (copyright Doug McNair)

As he awaited his turn on the witness stand, Tussing ran through his emotions. The Investor dead had been fellow crewmembers. He owed them his voice, for that reason alone. But he had also crewed with John Peel, on the Kit. What if Peel didn’t do this and had been falsely accused? Didn’t he owe John, too? Tussing didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know whether John was innocent or guilty. That tore at him.

Something else did, too.

He couldn’t help but remember what his girlfriend told him at the time of the Coulthurst memorial service in Bellingham. “John Peel did it,” she told him afterwards. Roy asked why she thought that. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” she explained. “Except for John Peel.”

St. Paul’s Episcopal, Bellingham
(site of Investor Memorial Service)

But when he walked into the courtroom shortly past one-thirty, Roy Tussing had only one thing in mind. Do the right thing. For everybody.

Both Sides Now

On the witness stand, Tussing was even-handed and diplomatic, trying with every answer to tell both sides of the story. In his telling, Mark Coulthurst was fair but uncompromising and sometimes difficult. John Peel was likeable but irresponsible and lazy.

All of this served as a lead up for Tussing to relate two telling incidents involving Mark Coulthurst. The first of these was the incident in which Coulthurst and Peel got into a wrestling match serious enough that LeRoy Flammang had to break it up. The second incident was Tussing’s fight with Mark Coulthurst, the one that led to him quitting his job. In Tussing’s mind, Mark had changed for the worse once he got the Investor. “His head just kept getting bigger and bigger with his new boat,” Tussing testified. “His general attitude was, ‘Here I am, I’ve got the big new boat and, you know, King of the Hill.”‘

Nobody’s Perfect

Roy Tussing ended up helping the defense as much as he helped the prosecution. In the opening minute of cross-examination, for instance, he said that he never noticed any hostility between Mark Coulthurst and John Peel. “On the Kit you were kind of like one big, happy family,” Weidner observed. “But it changed when you got on the Investor. And it’s not a nice word, but at one point in time, didn’t you try and tell Mark that he was becoming an asshole?”

“Yes, I did.” Tussing replied.

“And did he say, ‘So what?'”

“Basically, that’s what he said,” Tussing answered.

“Would it surprise you to know that Mr. Coulthurst had a lot of enemies in the fishing industry?” Weidner wanted to know.

“Would it surprise me?” Tussing puzzled.

The attorney repeated his question. Tussing testified that he didn’t know.

The Last Word

On redirect, Mary Anne Henry asked Roy Tussing about allegations that Mark Coulthurst was selling cocaine to make his boat payments. “I’d say it wasn’t true,” Tussing said firmly. “It’s a lie. I mean, he would do it by fishing harder.”

Phillip Weidner couldn’t leave that as the last word. He wanted one more chance at Roy Tussing. Wanted it even though the judge had long forbidden re-cross examination. But Weidner was the eternal college try. “Your Honor, just one other area,” he interjected. “I’d like to inquire as to whether he knows how big the payments were and the $540,000 a year that they had to take in.”

“No,” Judge Schulz shot back, his voice rising with anger. “You may step down, Mr. Tussing.”

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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