On Tuesday, Sept. 7, 1982, a young Washington fishing family and their four teenage deckhands were found murdered on a fishing vessel, the Investor, in Craig, Alaska. Eight people were killed, including Mark and Irene Coulthurst, both 28; Kimberly Coulthurst, 5; John Coulthurst, 4; Mike Stewart, 19; Dean Moon, 19; Jerome Keown, 19; and, Chris Heyman, 18.
The family and deckhands were last seen alive two days earlier in town, enjoying a birthday dinner at a waterfront restaurant and making phone calls from a Laundromat pay phone. Fishermen in Craig that day remember the 58-foot Delta Marine seiner arriving in late afternoon and rafting up to two other seine boats at the dock. The Investor was a boat to be admired—nearly brand new and made of gleaming fiberglass, it was "a Rolls Royce among battered Buicks." The skipper enjoyed giving tours of the boat, he'd just purchased it the previous year and was proud of what it would mean for his future.
That first week of September was the end of fishing season and deckhands and skippers were anxious to get home to their families after months at sea. The Coulthursts and their crew were no different. In fact, Irene and the kids were scheduled to depart Craig on a Monday flight to return to their hometown of Blaine, Wash. Kimberly was going to be starting kindergarten that week.
Instead, it is now believed that after the family and four deckhands returned to their boat Sunday night, a person (or people) boarded the boat and shot and killed everyone with a .22 calibre weapon. Several fishermen recalled the Investor drifting away from the other boats at the dock around 6 a.m. the next morning. A deckhand on the Decade waved to a person he saw standing in the Investor's wheelhouse, believing him to be the skipper. After all, who else would he expect to be behind the wheel?
The killer motored the Investor to a cove of a tiny island (Fish Egg Island) a mile north of town, but the heavy fog that day kept it hidden from view. The culprit may have tried to sink the boat, escaping to town using the Investor's skiff. The following day, perhaps realizing he was unsuccessful, the killer returned. He doused the decks with gas, lit it on fire, and, once again, used the Investor's skiff to escape. This time, however, he crossed paths with a handful of individuals who were racing to the scene to help. Years later, it would be these witnesses' memories that courts would rely upon to cement their case against the only man they ever believed was responsible.
In Craig that day, people watched as a fisherman's dreams went up at smoke. The sight of a nearly million dollar boat on fire was troubling enough. Within a few hours, however, it became known that bodies had been found on board—and that they'd been shot.
No one could understand why anyone would want them dead.
Alaska State Troopers searched two years for a killer, eventually arresting the man they believed to be the culprit — a former deckhand named John Peel. Peel was acquitted of all charges in 1988 following the longest and most expensive trial in state history. Peel has maintained his innocence, blaming a broken justice system for the mistake. For decades now, rumors about what may have happened have continued to grow, grief has persisted, and questions have remained unanswered. The case has never been re-opened, considered to be "Closed by Arrest and Trial."
In the News:
A Look Back At Alaska's Worst Unsolved Mass Murder by Dave Kiffer, SitNews, September 6, 2006.