The Alaskan Mass Murder That's Remained Unsolved For More Than 30 Years

In 1982, the Investor, a commercial fishing boat, was set ablaze on an island near Craig, a remote fishing village in Southeast Alaska. The charred remains of eight people were later found onboard: The boat's owner, Mark Coulthurst, his pregnant wife, Irene, their two young children, and four deckhands; all shot and killed before the boat was burned. By 1984, John Kenneth Peel, a boatyard worker, was arrested for the crime, but later acquitted. Speaking with People in 2017, David McNeill — a former Washington state police detective involved in the investigation — said this is less an indication of innocence than a prosecutorial failure to present sufficient evidence against Peel.

The Coulthurst case is officially closed, and Peel's guilt goes unquestioned by many. Yet mystery remains as to what really happened the night Coulthurst, his family, and the crew of the Investor died. Some remains on the boat were burned beyond recognition, according to People's reporting from 1984, and some speculated at the time that one of the boat's crew members committed the crime and then fled. And who was the man that Craig's then-mayor, Lee Axmaker, saw return to the village on the Investor's skiff while the boat burned in the distance — but before the bodies were discovered? 

As Detective McNeill told People in 1984, "It would be easy to say that everyone who had been in Craig at the time was a suspect. We also considered everyone a witness. We felt that one of those witnesses was the guilty one."

The Investor was tied to two other ships

Deepening the mystery, the Investor was tied to two other boats that were tied to the dock — the Defiant and Decade. Per SitNews, whoever committed the crime seemed to already be on the boat — or somehow got on the boat and past the two other crews with no one noticing. According to crew members on those two other boats, early the next morning, an unidentified man was seen onboard the Investor as it detached itself from the Defiant and Decade and made its way toward the island, where it would later burn. 

Similar to what Lee Axmaker witnessed, a man also returned several times to Craig using the Investor's skiff before the fire was started but after Coulthurst and the other victims were shot and killed. The man was a stranger, though, and might have escaped on any number of vessels leaving Craig's harbor to work the fishing season. The only identifiable characteristic of the man on the skiff was a pockmarked face. He was otherwise in his 20s, witnesses said. 

Investigators narrowed suspects down to three people, one of them John Kenneth Peel from Bellingham, Washington. Peel had formerly worked for Coulthurst, and their relationship ended badly, offering a possible motive, The Cinemaholic writes. According to Holy Hanson, who knew the Coulthursts (via People), given the preponderance of evidence against him, "We never could understand why Peel wasn't the prime suspect from the beginning."

Peel was put on trial twice

Once arrested, John Kenneth Peel was put on trial twice. The first trial took place in Washington state, where Peel and the Coulthursts were from and where the Investor was docked in the offseason. The next one was in Juneau, Alaska. In the first trial, the jury failed to reach consensus, leading to acquittal. The unidentified man in Craig around the same time the murders happened did buy gasoline, but forensic evidence proved the fire was not necessarily started with gasoline, which further weakened the case.

Still, prosecutors pursued Peel, seeking whatever evidence they could find to finally put him on trial. With fresh eyewitness testimony gathered, Peel's second trial also resulted in a hung jury, though, and he was once again acquitted. Maintaining he didn't do it, Peel sued the state for the five years he spent effectively under house arrest and for his legal fees. Peel and the state reached a $900,000 settlement. With so much still up in the air about Mark Coulthurst and the other victims' murderers, the case is officially closed: In the eyes of the law, Peel did it, despite his acquittal. In 2017, Peel told People, "Somebody was responsible for this. Somebody out there knows what happened, but I'm not going to waste any more of my life on it."