The Alaskan Fishing Boat Murders

On September 6, 1982, eight people were killed on a fishing boat. The boat, the Investor, sailed from a small fishing village known as Craig in southeast Alaska. A man shot all eight people with a .2 caliber pistol or rifle. After killing everyone, the killer allegedly steered the boat towards a bay outside of town.

The killer was never caught. To this day, the Investor massacre remains a cold case.

The man, who authorities said was a white man in his 20s with a pockmarked face, returned to the boat after docking it and set the craft of the boat on fire. He then vanished.

The victims on the boat included boat captain, Mark Coulthurst, his pregnant wife, Irene Coulthurst, their two children, and four deckhands who were 18 and 19. The case is Alaska’s most vicious unsolved homicide, even today.

Craig was a small fishing town in Alaska with about a hundred fishing boats at the time. The population was only 600. Coulthurst, in particular, had a very nice boat in the Investor that was worth $1 million, and he was often recognized as someone who was very talented at fishing.

This means Coulthurst was not a regular in Craig and not very well acquainted with locals in the town. Regardless, Craig, Alaska has gained notoriety since 1982 for being the site of such a brutal crime. According to a true-crime podcast, Unresolved, Coulthurst had a reputation for being a diligent man who was an overnight success once he started fishing at 16. Coulthurst frequently told others he wanted to retire before turning 50. Bovsun also suggests Coulthurst’s quick success got to his head — his arrogant disposition would lead him to frequently get into fights.

In one week, Coulthurst caught $105,000 of fish in 1979. He was celebrating his 28th birthday at a waterfront restaurant, one of the only restaurants in the town. Witnesses said the family stayed at the restaurant until 9:30 p.m. and returned to their ship just after paying their bill. The family would last be seen alive just before 10 p.m.

Once bystanders saw the boat on fire, they put it out, but were not able to save anyone inside. No one could have survived the fire anyway. Mara Bovsun at the New York Daily News says the bystanders took four hours to put out the fires. They found four bodies, charred beyond recognition. Hale separates the scene into two crime scenes — one on the boat, and one on the dock.

Investigators also found Coulthurst and his wife had been shot several times. There were bullet holes in the bodies. The remains of three crew members were found, but only the teeth, bones, and torso of those crew members. Bovsun notes the authorities tried to identify the remains with dental records, but were only successful in identifying a few of the crew members. The remains of the Coulthurt’s 4-year-old son were never found. Ultimately, the fire eliminated much of the evidence needed to make a case — investigators had very little to piece together and almost no physical evidence.

A coroner said the Coulthursts died before the fire — there wasn’t any carbon monoxide in their lungs, and the blood alcohol tests showed high levels for the adults. Investigators also said the fire was intentionally set.

The suspect

The primary suspect was a man named John Peel, who worked for the Coulthursts before and had a fallout with the family. Peel was a 24-year-old from Bellingham, Washington, who was charged nearly two years after the murders. He had been charged by authorities from Ketchikan, Alaska for all eight murders as the primary suspect. They hoped to transport Peel from Washington to Alaska because even though Peel lived in Washington, the crimes took place in Alaska.

Peel was a man who worked for Coulthurst on the Investor in the 1980 and 1981 fishing seasons. However, Peel and Coulthurst had a fallout, and Peel found work for another boat. In 1982, Peel was working for another boat in Craig while the murders happened. One witness saw Peel and Coulthurst interacting with each other at the restaurant before the whole crew was murdered.

However, another witness said he wasn’t the man on the skiff of the boat. Authorities charged him for the murders because they believed he had a strong personal animus against the Coulthurst family for firing him. However, the evidence was circumstantial at best.

While some phoned an anonymous tip line to investigate Peel, the reason suspicion escalated for investigators was because Peel failed a polygraph test. But there was still no physical evidence. The grand jury would file a criminal indictment against Peel and charge him with all eight murders and first-degree arson. Peel was facing life in prison for the eight murders, as well as 20 years in prison for the arson charge.

Prosecutors obviously tried to argue Peel committed the crime. After all, he was in Craig and he did speak with the Coulthursts right before they died. However, Peel seemed to be a very unusual suspect. He had no prior criminal record and was deemed by all accounts to have very good character. He just got married and had his first child a year before getting arrested, and even members of the Coulthurst family described him to be “a real pleasant guy.” One friend said of Peel:

“Why, he didn’t even have the nerve to punch anyone. I’d believe (the Investor killer) was my mother before I’d believe it was him.”

As for the grand jury indictment, a police transcription of a Peel interview suggested he had confessed. The transcription stated that Peel said:

“I’m scared man, I’m scared. I can’t believe the things I did in there.”

In reality, however, Peel’s lawyers said his actual words were:

“I’m scared man, I’m scared. I can’t believe you all think I did that.”

The mayor of Craig, Alaska also said there were “probably 150 guys in town” that had the physical description of the man on the skiff. One witness said Peel bought gasoline hours before the fire, while another witness said they saw Peel on the skiff. Due to the lack of evidence, however, Peel would later be exonerated. The jury deliberated for six days after six months of testimony led to a hung jury and a mistrial.

In January of 1988, Peel had a second trial, which was the state of Alaska’s longest-running prosecution and its most expensive one. It spent $2 million on the initial investigation and then $700,000 on the retrial. Peel was acquitted again after three months of testimony and four days of deliberation. Peel filed a civil suit against the state of Alaska in 1990 for wrongful prosecution. Eventually, he settled for $900,000. The case is closed, and some law enforcement authorities still insist Peel is the killer. But Peel said his name will never be truly cleared in public opinion until the case is solved.

“Somebody was responsible for this,” Peel said. “Somebody out there knows what happened, but I’m not going to waste any more of my life on it.”

For people who loved the victims as well as Peel himself, the massacre on the Investor is likely still a painful memory, given there was no resolution. Survivors of victims of cold cases find no closure, and the real killers are also never held accountable. A Philadelphia state trooper cited research to show violent offenders were likely to repeat, and according to Unresolvedwe have to wonder whether the hyperfocus on Peel led investigators to prematurely rule out the possibility of other suspects.