What Dawn Told Lester Johns

After declaring Dawn Holmstrom a hostile witness, Judge Carpeneti hoped to get the trial back on track. Once the jury returned, Holmstrom would spend little more than a half hour on the stand. She was interrupted. Constantly. Henry complained about Weidner’s “speeches.” Weidner complained about “speculation,” “hearsay,” and Henry’s alleged misrepresentation of the facts in the case. He was most offended when Henry asked Holmstrom about Lester Johns, one of her close friends during the summer of 1982.

Lester Johns

The offending question was: “Ms. Holmstrom, when you told Lester Johns that the skipper of the Investor got into a fight Sunday night with a crewman off the Libby 8 who had been fired, you were referring to Mark Coulthurst getting into a fight with the defendant on the night of the murders, weren’t you?”

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Investor on Fire, Fish Egg Island (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

“Objection, now, Your Honor,” Weidner said. “It assumes facts not in evidence.” Carpeneti overuled the objection, subject to the testimony of Johns to substantiate or refute Henry’s assertion. Phil Weidner wasn’t going to take that lightly.

The next day, the judge found himself facing a defense motion for a mistrial. In a written motion, Weidner said Lester Johns had only attributed such statements to Dawn Holmstrom “in the most hesitant and ambiguous way,” then added that “Lester Johns is Larry Demmert’s first cousin.” In Weidner’s mind this was part of a “pattern of ongoing misconduct in deliberate attempts to prejudice the jury.”

A Time To Forget

When a weary Dawn Holmstrom returned to the witness stand for her second day of testimony, she found herself facing her past. It was a past that included her return to Bellingham after the murders, a time when, in Henry’s words at the first trial, she “started drinking.” It was then, Henry had claimed, that Dawn “realized she had testified against a friend, realized she had revealed a secret, so she had to come up with a story somehow to blame somebody else besides herself for what she revealed.”

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John Peel in Bellingham after his arrest (courtesy Bellingham Herald)

It was in that context that Mary Anne Henry now spent the better part of the day trying to get the young woman’s previous incriminating statements before the jury. Weidner didn’t make her job any easier.

He objected to Henry’s use of charts with Holmstrom’s past statements, claiming they were misrepresentative because they came not from Holmstrom but from Bellingham Detective Dave McNeill’s notes. He also renewed his motion for a mistrial. Judge Carpeneti sent the jury scampering back to the jury room.

A Warning

When Carpeneti called the jury back in, he issued a warning, telling them Henry’s references to McNeill’s notes were improper. They were to ignore the questions and the answers. And then, for the next hour or so, Mary Anne Henry took Dawn Holmstrom through the remainder of her statements, one by one.

Holmstrom’s incriminating statements got lost in the shuffle. There were requests for page numbers, as both the judge and Phillip Weidner struggled to keep up with Henry’s guided tour through the maze of Holmstrom’s past declarations.

It was a dismal performance, eerily reminiscent of the one she gave at the first trial. Dawn Holmstrom spent considerable time giving non-answer answers. “I don’t remember,” she mumbled. “I don’t think so,” she insisted.

Under cross-examination, Holmstrom said she made statements that incriminated Peel because she was afraid of the authorities. She did what they told her to do. “It scares me every time I think about it,” she said.

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Ruth Ann’s Restaurant, Craig (copyright Leland E. Hale)

Perhaps predictably, Holmstrom added that John Peel probably didn’t say, “I can’t believe I did it” while they were at Ruth Ann’s. That statement was, she hinted, suggested to her by Assistant D.A. Bob Blasco. She was forced to repeat it at the grand jury.


Four days later, Lester Johns came in to testify. He confirmed the truth of Mary Anne Henry’s question. Yes, Dawn had told him of a fight between Mark Colthurst and John Peel. That fight, she’d told him, was on the night of the murders.

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 (2021). All rights reserved.


Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE. True crime from Epicenter Press.

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