BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Does the time ever come when a community stops remembering a murdered group of its own? In the case of Blaine, possibly not.
Almost 34 years ago, a Blaine fishing family, including two children, and four young crewmen were killed aboard the Investor, a purse seiner found ablaze Sept. 7, 1982, near Craig, a fishing village in Southeast Alaska.
A Bellingham resident, John Peel, was later tried twice for the slayings. His first trial ended in a hung jury; his second trial acquitted him. The Investor remains the biggest unresolved murder case in Alaska history.
The names of the Investor victims are read aloud every year at Blaine’s Blessing of the Fleet ceremony, along with the names of every other Blaine person lost at sea going back to the early 1900s. As the names are spoken, a bell is rung and people step forward to add a flower to a wreath that is cast onto the bay.
At each blessing, Laurie Hart of Blaine steps forward to place five flowers, one each for her brother Mark Coulthurst, 28, the Investor’s skipper; his pregnant wife, Irene Coulthurst, also 28; their two children, Kimberly, 5, and John, 4; and Michael Stewart, 19, of Bellingham, a cousin of Mark Coulthurst.
Also killed on the Investor were Blaine High School buddies Jerome Keown and Dean Moon, both 19; and Chris Heyman, 19, of San Rafael, California, a friend of the Coulthurst family.
“That was a terrible event,” said Gary Dunster of Blaine, a longtime commercial fisherman who knew many of the victims. “It turned not only the local community, but Alaska, upside down.”
May 1, people will have another opportunity to share stories about the eight victims. That day, the Blessing of the Fleet will start at 1:30 p.m. at Blaine Boating Center, 235 Marine Drive. After the ceremony, at 3:30 p.m., a photo exhibit about the Investor victims will be on display in the cafeteria of Blaine High School, 1055 H St.
The exhibit has already been shown in Alaska and Oregon, usually with photos about Peel and the trials. No photos of Peel will appear in Blaine. Instead, the sole focus will be on the victims, which is fine with Hart.
“It’s more healing,” she said, “making them more into real people, not just names, not just victims.”
The exhibit, called “Lost at Sea: Remembering the Victims of the F/V Investor Murders,” is the work of Brittany Retherford, an independent journalist in Alaska who plans to write a book about the Investor case. At Blaine High, Retherford will talk about her work, and Jon Broderick and Jay Speakman, musicians from Astoria, Oregon, will perform their song about the Investor.
People who attend can talk to Retherford, and write down their stories and memories about the Investor victims, and about other people in their lives who have died. The exhibit is accompanied by a community potluck, with people encouraged to bring food to share. Admission is free; donations are welcome.
Family, friends of victims
When first contacted by Retherford, Hart said her first thought was, “Here we go again.” Someone else who wanted to delve into the horrendous crime that ended eight young lives and left a painful legacy of loss in Blaine and the larger commercial fishing community.
But Retherford has paid her dues researching the story, and has visited Blaine to interview friends and family of the victims.
“It was the first time I have sat in the room at the same time with the Keowns and the Moons and the Coulthursts and talked about it as a group,” Hart said. “It was incredible what it felt like to share those same feelings.”
Blaine businessman Dave Freeman, a close friend of Keown’s and Moon’s at Blaine High, said commercial fishing had deeper roots in Blaine three decades ago. It was a time when hard-working young men like Keown and Moon made plans to earn money fishing in Alaska before they pursued other paths in life, or stayed with the industry.
Mark Coulthurst was a prominent figure in Blaine’s fishing world, with his new, state-of-the-art seiner much admired by fellow fishermen and women.
“Everybody who remembers those days remembers the Investor,” Freeman said. “If you went through that, you don’t ever forget it.”
Murder for master’s degree
Retherford first heard about the case when she moved to Juneau to work as a newspaper reporter 10 years ago.
“I quickly realized how complicated the case was,” she said, so she made the Investor the subject of her research for a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
She later worked for the state of Alaska but now spends most of her time researching and writing her book, and taking her photo exhibit on the road.
“People remember this story,” she said. “They want to know more.”
Two years after the murders, Peel was arrested while working in Fairhaven and sent to Alaska to face murder and arson charges. Peel had once crewed for Coulthurst and had attended the christening of the Investor.
Prosecutors argued that he shot Mark Coulthurst during a feud, then killed the others and set the boat afire to cover his tracks. Peel’s defense attorneys painted a portrait of bungling investigators, badgered witnesses and missed opportunities.
After his acquittal, Peel filed a lawsuit against police officials and prosecutors charging malicious prosecution. The case was settled out of court.
Rutherford said she has interviewed Peel but won’t share her thoughts yet on whether she thinks he is guilty or was a victim of a legal process gone awry.
“That’s probably the number one question that people ask me,” she said. “It’s also the question that I don’t answer.”
Information from: The Bellingham Herald, http://www.bellinghamherald.com