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True crime. Casually done.

The Alaskan Fishing Boat Massacre

Through the dense Alaskan fog on September 7th, 1982, the fisherman docked at the Alaskan fishing town Craig spotted a plume of black smoke, billowing into the air out towards the Pacific Ocean. Despite the blaze, no SOS messages were broadcast across the radio (and a raging inferno is typically something you’d want a bit of assistance with). 

This was the strange beginning of a far stranger tale, which would spiral out into the state’s most expensive, mysterious criminal case. After spotting the burning ship, the skipper of a trawler named Casino radioed the authorities at 4pm, before setting off to lend a hand. 

Little did they know, that they were about to discover the scene of the worst unsolved murder in Alaskan history…

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The Fire

The town of Craig itself is a small, remote settlement on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. Its permanent population is only around 1300, but during the summer and autumn, it draws in a transient population of trawlermen for the salmon fishing season.

These visitors gathered alongside the locals on the waterfront to watch, as the Casino made its way out to a remote cove at Fish Egg Island, about a mile off shore. On the way, they came across a small boat heading back to the port: it was the skiff from the burning boat. 

Only one person was on board — a young man, but they were a bit too distracted to get a good look at him… or to question why he left his crewmates aboard the sinking ship while he motored off to safety… The meeting only lasted a few seconds, with the man shouting he was off to fetch help, before they continued on in opposite directions. 

At the remote wooded cove, the crew of the Casino found the hulking 58-foot salmon fishing boat Investor ablaze. Aside from the sounds of the roaring flames, it was eerily quiet — it didn’t look like anyone was left on board the boat at all. Had they jumped ship and swam to safety? As Ray Shapley, the Craig sheriff at the time, put it: 

“When I got there, black smoke was coming out of the wheelhouse, but there was nobody on deck. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.” 

There was no chance of hopping on board to check for survivors — by now the fire had spread out from the crew quarters in the bow, engulfing the entire ship. A group of locals, state troopers, and visiting fishermen did their best to fight the fire over the course of four hours, after which the coast guard arrived with a pair of water pumps, and finally extinguished the blaze.

When the police boarded the blackened wreck, they made a terrible discovery: the boat wasn’t deserted at all…

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The Remains

The charred remains of the occupants were burned beyond recognition. It was so bad that it wasn’t even clear to the state troopers how many people they were actually looking at. In the least-damaged areas, the bodies were at least visually identifiable as human, but it would still be a few days before they were identified, using dental records. 

As expected, the owner of the boat, 28-year-old Mark Coulthurst, was among them. His pregnant wife Irene was identified next, then their five-year-old daughter Kimberly, and finally Michael Stewart: Mark’s 19-year-old cousin, who was working as a deckhand over the salmon season.

Irene And Mark Coulthurst
Irene And Mark Coulthurst

This only accounted for around half of the remains found on board. Unfortunately the rest called for dustpans rather than body bags, scattered with fragments of tooth and bone. These were currently being pored over in a lab in Anchorage.

Given the fact these pieces were found in the crew quarters, the lab techs surmised that they must’ve belonged to several teenaged crew members: Jerome Keown, Chris Heyman, and Dean Moon. But out of those three, only Jerome was positively identified.

Tragically, there was no sign of Mark and Irene’s other child: 4-year-old John Coulthurst. The authorities speculated that he must have been asleep in the part of the ship worst-affected by the fire, meaning there was nothing left to find.

That basically accounted for the entire manifest of the Investor, but did little to explain how and why those on board were caught in the fire — why had nobody jumped ship, or sent out a mayday signal?

The least damaged bodies offered up an explanation: no traces of carbon monoxide were found in Mark or Irene’s lungs, meaning they had already taken their last breath before the blaze began. Forensic analysis also revealed gunshot wounds, from what the coroner believed to be a 22 caliber gun…

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The Lead-up to the Murder

The Investor pulled up into the Craig docks just two days before the blaze, on Sunday, September 5th. With the salmon season coming to a close, hundreds of fishermen were stopping by the town, selling off their haul or resupplying before the journey home. 

Based out of Washington State, Captain Mark was one of the most talented, successful young fishermen in the industry, still only in his late 20s. He upgraded to this state-of-the-art vessel the year prior, for a cool $850,000. 

“He was just an incredibly hard worker who always said he was going to retire by the time he was 50, and I never doubted it,” his younger sister Laurie Hart told the press. From the sounds of it, it seems like he was well on track: Mark’s biggest accomplishment to date was catching $105,000 worth of fish in a single weekend. 

Who knew fishermen were making bank like that? I’m ready to sell my MacBook for a rowboat. The only problem was that Mark wasn’t shy in bragging about his fat stacks salmon dosh. His cocky attitude won him a few bitter rivals in the industry, some of whom were also in Craig on that fateful day. 

A few of them were no doubt watching as the Investor pulled up in port, just a week or so before the end of the fishing season. The ship was there to offload a whopping 77,000 pounds of salmon, rounding off another successful year’s work. They planned on hanging around for a few days, until their $30,000 payment was settled.

After settling their business with the fishmonger, Mark and his crew tethered the Investor to a pair of ships at the dock: the Decade and Defiant. Space in the docks was running low, but Mark was well-acquainted with the captains of the other two ships, so they didn’t mind the inconvenience of him and his gang walking over their decks to make it onto the dock.

In the evening, the Coulthurst family went out to celebrate the superstar fisherman’s 28th birthday at a waterside restaurant called Ruth Ann’s, and returned to the boat at 9:30pm. As they crossed over the deck of the Decade in the drizzling rain, they would have heard a loud party raging below deck; the crew spent the entire night celebrating. It’s thought that the adults continued drinking for a while aboard their own boat before turning in for the night. The last time any of them were seen alive was when little John popped his head out to shout goodnight to a crewman on the Decade.

Then, some time in the dead of night, his killer snuck over the decks of the other boats, and boarded the Investor. The rain outside had turned into a full-blown storm, which helped conceal the sounds of what came next. The murderer went from room to room, and systematically executed everyone on board — Mark, his wife, his staff, even the children…

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The Witness Reports

In the early hours of the following morning, the Investor started slowly drifting away from the docks, with a new captain at its helm. Just after 6am, a deckhand from the Decade spotted the person — who he assumed to be Mark — guiding the boat slowly out of harbor. This mysterious figure was even brazen enough to wave back at him.

At this point there was no cause for concern. The season was resuming that day after a weekend hiatus, so Mark was probably just taking his boat out for one last expedition. But if they’d thought about it a little longer, they’d have noticed some things were a little off. For one, the engine on the Investor was silent — as if the man behind the controls didn’t want to draw any attention. And the boat’s expensive tether ropes had been carelessly discarded on the Decade.

Another member of the Decade’s crew caught a glimpse of the mystery killer as the boat drifted out into open water. He described the suspect as a man in his early twenties, about 150 pounds, wearing a baseball cap, with light-colored hair, and a ‘pockmarked complexion’. Nothing particularly distinctive or alarming.

After dropping anchor in the secluded bay offshore, shielded from town by a thick layer of fog, this mysterious individual attempted to sink the boat by opening something called a ‘seacock’. Apparently it was supposed to flood the hull, and send the ship to the bottom of the bay before the weather cleared.

However, the floating casket failed to sink — it remained bobbing the surface as the killer hopped onto the Investor’s skiff, and motored back to the mainland. It was only a matter of time before someone discovered the remains, and potentially a host of incriminating evidence. 

Later that day, someone matching the description was seen at a car repair garage in Craig, purchasing a 2.5 gallon canister of gasoline. The fog held up for the rest of that day and night, buying them a little more time to cover their tracks. 

The next afternoon, the killer returned to the scene of the crime. If he couldn’t sink the ship, he would just have to purge it of any and all evidence. He doused the sleeping areas in petrol, and set the ship ablaze. Within minutes, the black plume of smoke reached hundreds of feet into the sky.

We pretty much know what happened to the boat after that, but how about this maritime arsonist? The skiff he rode to freedom was discovered abandoned at the Craig docks not long after the fire was extinguished, but the mystery man was nowhere to be found. 

The last anyone saw of him was just after he pulled up to shore. After passing by the Casino, he hopped onto the docks in Craig, he stopped to chat with several people gathered on the docks. 

A few minutes later, he disappeared to make a phone call. He was never seen again…

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Initial Investigation 

That rough timeline of events we’ve just described was about as far as the investigation got in the year following.  Enough people had seen the suspect to put together a sketch, which was distributed among the fishermen of Craig and beyond. The theory was that the killer left the area on board one of the many boats berthed there that weekend.

The investigators toyed with all kinds of angles, including the possibility of a robbery gone wrong. But Mark never actually kept any money on board, precisely to deter any would-be pirates. While berthed in Craig, he even wrote one of his buddies a check for $100, in exchange for the same amount in cash, just so he could pay the restaurant bill.

Robbery seemed unlikely, but if not that then what? Months went by without any concrete leads. Detectives interviewed over a dozen suspects; most had solid alibis, and little reason to want to kill Mark — never mind his entire family and crew. 

Then, around a year into the investigation, their best lead yet came in…

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The Main Suspect

Several anonymous tips pointed out that the photo fits were a likeness for a deckhand named John Peel, who was in Craig at the time of the murder. Not only was 23-year-old Peel a physical fit for the sketch, he also had a clear motive: he was an ex-employee of Mark Coulthurst on his old boat, from 1980 to mid 1981. He even dated the boss’ sister for a time.

John Peel
John Peel

Some say their professional relationship ended with Peel being fired, for getting high on the job. In researching this episode, I’ve discovered that’s a pretty common occurrence among trawler crews. A little bit of coke and crystal meth works wonders when you need to smash through a 20-hour shift. How do you think Simon maintains that 50 videos per-day release schedule? 

So there was clearly some bad blood between Coulthurst and Peel, as well as the possibility that the latter might’ve been jacked up on amphetamines during the bloody one-man mutiny. Add to that the fact that one witness claimed Peel actually met his ex-boss at the restaurant the night he died!

Perhaps, surprised to see Mark again, he snuck on board to confront him, full of that cocaine confidence we all know and love. Perhaps the two men then argued — debating the firing, or a final paycheck, and things turned ugly. Mark was shot down, then the rest of those on board were killed for the sake of damage control…

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Arrest

This convincing bit of inference was enough to make Peel the prime suspect in the case, but police hadn’t been able to recover any forensic evidence to match him with — not even a single fingerprint. Things were further complicated when the crime scene was confiscated by Poseidon: it sank to the bottom of the Pacific while being towed down south for storage.

And never mind that —  there were some things about the John Peel theory that just didn’t add up. For one, it’d surely take more than one man to kill the entire crew, especially when another gun was found aboard the Investor, presumably for self defense. Then there was the witness testimony.

Police showed all of their star witnesses from that day some photos of Peel, and asked if he might be the person they saw. Some answered yes, many weren’t sure, and some were 100% sure he was not the man in the skiff. In fact, two of the witnesses knew Peel personally, and were absolutely certain he wasn’t the man in the boat. You’d think you’d recognize your mate if you saw him from 20 feet away, right?

Nonetheless, the cops brought Peel in for questioning in 1983. By this point, he had started a family of his own, and settled down in Bellingham, Washington. He told the cops he was asleep at the time of the massacre, but there was nobody to verify the alibi.According to polygraph machine he was lying, however, we already know those things are about as conclusive as reading tea leaves

Certainly not enough to charge a man with murder on, so Peel was free to go for now. Over the following year, dozens more tips came down the line, leading to a few more suspects joining the pool. As the interviews piled up, one name kept cropping up time and time again.. 

All roads led back to the young ex-deckhand. He must have been the right man, but still. There wasn’t a shred of physical proof. The cops took another run at him regardless, hoping to sweat out a confession by exaggerating the evidence against him. He never snapped.

With the investigation dragging on, and little hope of any concrete evidence ever materializing, the cops decided to just go with their best hunch. In September 1984, two years after the slaughter on the Investor, they arrested John Peel for the murders of all eight on board…

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The Trials

On top of the eight counts of murder, Peel was also charged with one of first-degree arson, with bail set at unimpressive $1 million. All of the charges combined, he was looking at a theoretical max sentence of 812 years.  

The prosecution presented their case in March 1986, which was almost entirely based on circumstantial evidence. For example, when the fishermen of Craig gathered on the docks to gaze out at the smoldering wreck of the Investor the day after, the suspect was reportedly among them. One witness testified that Peel seemed to already know that those on board were dead. 

Another witness claimed that he heard screams and gunshots coming from the boat on the night of the murder, but just plain forgot about it. It wasn’t until he was later awoken from a nap by a neighbor shooting a rifle in their garden, that deja vu set in. Imagine waking up to the sounds of a literal massacre and just going back to sleep! 

When the defense asked him if he might not have been drunkenly dreaming, he said no… probably… Which doesn’t make for very convincing testimony in front of a jury. That was a recurring theme among a pool of witnesses who mostly ranged from tipsy to shitfaced the entire weekend of the murders.

Other witnesses were a bit more put together. One was Peel’s own captain Larry Demmert, who said he saw the accused on the docks with a gun that night. Another named Jim Robinson claimed he sold him the gasoline.

But without physical evidence, all of this was open for interpretation. I mean, they didn’t even have the murder weapon. Peel’s defense was mainly focussed on pointing out these facts: without anything actually placing him at the scene, all of this amounted to (drug-addled) fishermen’s gossip. 

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On the other hand, the defense team provided testimony from Mark’s friends and family, suggesting the two men got along just fine: apparently the Coulthursts even sent Peel a gift on his wedding day. Peel lived not far from Mark down in Washington state, and moved in the same social circles. If he had a score to settle, he would have had plenty of chances already. But according to these accounts, his employment ended amicably.

Peel’s lawyers also argued that the detectives had railroaded the witnesses into making false reports. For one, some of the photo ID parades contained about 1/3rd pictures of John Peel, and the images seemed specifically chosen to generate a false positive: he was wearing a baseball cap in most of them, just like the killer.

It even emerged that the witness descriptions were actually much more varied than the photo-fit suggested — one of them even described the man in the skiff as Native American (which Peel was very much not). If anything, Peel was exceptionally unremarkable in appearance. As the mayor of Craig told the Associated Press back then:  “There were probably 500 guys in town at that time that looked just like him.”

Then there’s the fact that some of the witnesses had state drug charges pending against them, which were allegedly dropped in return for collaboration (including captain Larry Demmert). Is it possible that they made up their stories to land a sweet immunity deal and dodge prison themselves?

All of this meant it was easy enough to prove reasonable doubt to the jury, and the case ended in a split jury, and a mistrial. The victims’ relatives would need to wait another year for a second shot at justice. This second trial began in January 1988, making the case Alaska’s longest-running and most expensive prosecution ever, at $2 million all in. 

The second trial was far shorter than the first, due to a ballsy move from Peel’s legal team. They realized how shambolic the prosecution’s case sounded to the jury, and never even bothered launching into a separate defense phase. 

Three months into trial number two, John Peel was acquitted on all charges…

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The Alternative Theories

So what do we think of John Peel? Is he an innocent man who had to spend 5 years of his life fighting a crooked justice system, or just Alaska’s OJ? Detective David McNeill, who aided the Alaskan authorities from down in Washington, certainly considers the case a done deal:

“They got the right guy. Just because someone is acquitted doesn’t mean they’re innocent, just means there’s not enough evidence to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Very true, but let’s consider the alternatives. There’s always the chance that someone else had a grudge against the young, successful fisherman, and Peel ended up taking the flak for their crime. He does seem like the perfect culprit, but perhaps that’s precisely why the cops were too quick to pin the blame on him. The most worrying thing is that the investigation was pretty biased from the outset — the first trial was actually thrown out of court in the pre-trial stage because of how misleading the state prosecutors were to the grand jury. 

Perhaps by focussing on Peel, the state investigators might have missed out on hundreds of potential leads that sailed out to sea in the days directly after. There were even some ex-cons actually based in Craig, who unbelievably managed to slip under the radar once the cops caught Peel’s scent. 

The Locals 

One was Jim Leroy Robinson — the garage owner who testified he sold Peel the petrol. Years later, it transpired that her was actually Kenneth Robertson, a convicted arsonist on the run from Arizona. Probably the sort of person you should keep tabs on when shit catches fire. 

This angle is made all the more interesting by what the fire investigators found on board the Investor. Apparently they discover white gas residue inside, suggesting that petrol was not used to set fire to the ship. Even if Peel did buy that jerry can at the garage, it probably wasn’t used to start the fire.

That’s not to say the twisted fire starter was to blame, but it certainly would incentivize him to heap more suspicion on the police’s favorite suspect. (Keep in mind: that’s all speculation. We’ve gone six months with no defamation claims, let’s keep it that way).

Being a little-known town at the end of the world, Craig probably had more than a few of these unsavory characters kicking around — whether permanent or temporary residents. 

However, since the ships all dispersed and the authorities honed in on a small pool of suspects, the actual culprit might have disappeared without a trace…

The Deckhands

And speaking of disappearing without a trace, remember those two deckhands from before, who were never positively identified? It’s possible one of them wasn’t actually among the dead: they were the one that killed everyone on board.

It would be the perfect crime — slipping away in the skiff, presumed dead. It would also explain why the fire was mainly concentrated in the crew’s quarters. We know that the fire accelerant turned their sleeping quarters into a funerary furnace, reducing the bones to just a few scattered fragments. If Peel had set out to kill Mark, his body would likely have been one of the worst affected. 

To add to the intrigue, reports came up from San Francisco between the murders and trial: apparently the deckhand Dean Moon had been spotted several times down there. Was he living under a new identity after getting away with mass murder? Some still think so. 

But what would be the motive? As far as anyone knew, the youngsters under Mark’s command absolutely idolized him. They each had aspirations of striking it rich in the industry, so it wouldn’t make much sense to torch your first boss (and any chance of a glowing reference down the line). 

Plus, Mark never kept any money on board. Surely you kill the guy after your paycheck comes in, no? Unless Dean Moon had some kind of unprecedented mental break, I struggle to buy this angle…

The Drug Runners

Perhaps the final theory is a bit more realistic. This revolves around the rumors that circulated around the fishing community at the time, that Mark’s ship transported more than just salmon. Some said that he was involved in the drug trade, which could explain how he was able to afford such a fancy boat. 

As I mentioned before, several industry websites suggest that practically everyone involved in commercial fishing is off their nut 24/7, so the drugs have to be making their way up to Alaska somehow. What better way than buried deep in the hull of a trawler? 

If Mark really was the Scarface of the salmon trade, then the killings could have been a professional hit job, by a rival or angry supplier. The sheer brutality of the massacre is certainly more consistent with drug gang violence, rather than a simple crime of passion. 

It might sound like we’ve tossed Occam’s Razor right out the window here by introducing drug running cartels into the mix, but this isn’t some internet conspiracy theory: even Sheriff Shapley considers it a real possibility. He later told an Alaskan news station “I’ve heard a lot of talk that it was a drug boat. They say Craig floated on drugs in those days.”

You’d think he would be a bit more knowledgeable about the town’s drug culture, since it was his job to know and all. But the fact he doesn’t deny it adds a bit more credence to the rumors. This version of the story goes that Mark transferred a large quantity of cocaine off his ship after arriving in Craig. 

But if that were the case, then why bring the wife and kids? Toddlers typically don’t make for great muscle during drug deals. I learned that the hard way. But maybe for a high-level mule, a family-friendly fishing trip makes for the perfect cover. 

We have to be careful with these kinds of angles though. If it’s all a fantasy, perhaps cooked up by some folks who were jealous of Mark’s quick wealth, then we risk dragging the name of a regular fisherman through the dirt. 

What’s important though, is that we consider the possibility that Peel wasn’t the only one with motive to harm Mark. Professional rivalries can get pretty intense when six-figure paydays are on the line (whether from cocaine or fish)

In fact, Peel’s motive seems pretty weak, all things considered. Even Mark’s own sister agrees. After decades spent believing Peel massacred her loved ones, she agreed to meet him in a diner, looking for closure. Instead, the meeting only brought more confusion. Now she’s even less convinced:

“I don’t know if he’s actually the one who pulled the trigger. But I think he knows more than he’s saying.”

The mystery could potentially run far deeper than we’ll ever know…

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Wrap-up

That brings us to the end of the evidence for today’s mini mystery. Although it remains Alaska’s biggest unsolved murder case, the state troopers who worked it consider the matter wrapped up (albeit very messily). Spokesman Tim DeSpain went as far as revealing “the case is closed”. For the better part of a decade, Peel was their white whale — still they refuse to entertain any alternative theories, certain they got the right guy. 

Shame the case they put together against him was so shoddy, then. In fact, Peel actually managed to profit from the whole thing, because of how poor the evidence against him was. Two years after his acquittal, he filed a 177 million dollar civil suit against the state for wrongful prosecution. That’d be enough to buy a mega yacht and retire for life.

The case dragged on until 1997, when he settled for a comparably modest 900k — just about enough to cover the financial ruin the case wreaked on his family. If he really is innocent, then the Investor Massacre trial was an undeserved nightmare. On the other hand, if you believe he’s guilty, then he surely has to be one of the most successful killers we’ve ever featured…

Dismembered Appendices

1. The matter of the missing bodies never played too much of a role in Peel’s court cases, because the state had all three unidentified — Dean Moon, Chris Heyman, and John Coulthurst — declared legally dead while pursuing the first indictment. This effectively nullified the murderous deckhand angle outright. If one of them were to blame (not including the 4-year-old) then this was the cherry on the top of a perfect crime.

2. Perhaps the trouble which the witnesses had in identifying Peel was down to his masterful knack for disguise. Each time he appeared in court, he would wear a different quirky disguise: wigs, sticky moustaches, and the like. His lawyers said it was an oddball attempt to protect his privacy. Still, I’m not sure those dollar-store disguises would be enough to fool a dozen witnesses…

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