A teenage boy doing chores on his family’s farm in Arcadia, Florida is found facedown in a watery ditch in the middle of a hot summer day. The simple investigation into his drowning takes a dark turn.
Delia D’Ambra: The best place to start Counterclock season four is to explain how John Welles name came across my radar.
I was with some family friends riding a dirt bike deep in the woods of Arcadia, Florida.
After we got done whipping through the mud and mosquitoes behind their farm, we ate dinner…and that’s when one of them casually mentioned that I should look into a weird death that happened on a creek near their property back in 2003….several years before they even built their home.
This kind of suggestion is one I get often— a lot of people mention in passing that I should investigate this death or that death because of what I do for a living.
I often have to say something like –’Thanks, I’ll look into it’—or ‘Sounds interesting, anyone you know willing to talk?”— that’s where the proposal usually fades into other conversations….but this particular night, with this particular suggestion….it was different.
John Welles was different.
The biggest detail that peaked my curiosity was the fact that he was only 17 years old when he died.
Also intriguing to me was the fact that he was found on own his family’s property…all alone, face down in a creek…just like the ones I’d been riding a dirt bike through a few hours earlier.
After I left our friends, I immediately googled the name ‘John Welles’ and nothing came up which I thought was kind of strange.
To most people…not finding anything online means there is nothing there. But not to an investigative reporter. To me, it meant the Johns story has gona completely untold and there was probably a lot more that I knew I needed to find out.
It was like he’d been totally forgotten, despite suffering what was described to me as a terrible death.
So—there you have it…the origin of season four’s case.
If there’s one thing I can tell you I know now that I didn’t know a year ago—it’s that the story of John Welles is like peering into a kaleidoscope…every time you look at it and train your focus on what you feel confident is the truth…it changes.
The people…the circumstances…everything and everyone involved in this case has a strange way of shifting on you…like the silty, soggy bottom of a Florida wetland…there’s nothing you can solidly stand on that makes you feel confident.
But here’s the thing…that’s why I’m here.
I wasn’t prepared for what I was walking into when I first heard the name John Welles…I didn’t have the luxury of bracing myself…but you do.
So buckle up for the twists and turns that are coming.
Audiochuck is releasing season 4 just like we did season 3—as a binge—because its vitally important that you listen to this story, all 15 episodes, in order, all at once. Right now!
So, let’s turn the clock back 19 years…to July 8th 2003.
This is Counterclock, season 4.
Episode one—Southeast Hansel.
I’m your host Delia D’Ambra.
To help give you a frame of reference for where John Welles’ story takes place…I’ll start by telling you about where he was from…the town of Arcadia, Florida.
Arcadia is…a unique slice of South Florida that feels like it stopped developing somewhere in the late 1990’s…
They have old service stations turned into vape shops…not-so-modern strip malls that have interspersed vacant units…a few renovated fast-food restaurants…and a lot of mom-and-pop joints that advertise ‘food with all the fixins’…a message that makes you feel like you should avoid stopping in…but once you do, you find yourself impressed and leaving with a smile and a much higher cholesterol level.
The biggest landmark in town is the local WALMART…which just recently got a fresh coat of paint and, I have to say, really looks nice.
That store is the hub of the town, with a family-owned butcher shop coming in close second.
There’s a cute little downtown with railroad tracks that separate what was, from what is…and clustered all together in the middle are the municipal buildings one would expect to see in a small town.
The public library, the courthouse, the DMV, the sheriff’s office and of course…the chamber of commerce.
In one sense, if you blink, you could blow right past Arcadia. There’s nothing special about it…at least not to the visiting eye.
It sits an hour east inland from the Gulf of Mexico…and about 2 hours west of beaches in west palm and Jupiter.
Its predominantly rural farmland, orange groves and swamp.
Highway 70 is the major road that cuts through it—going east to west.
Winding north and south is state road 17. And if you follow that up for two extremely boring hours, you’ll find yourself at the happiest place on Earth…Disneyworld.
I was vaguely familiar with Arcadia back when I was a news reporter in southwest Florida.
Every now and then something would happen in the town that my Fort Myers-based news station deemed newsworthy enough to send me or a colleague to.
Arcadia wasn’t our Target viewership area…so, whatever news broke there had to be good. Otherwise, we’d let the Sarasota and Tampa stations handle it.
Usually, the stories that requires my station make a trip involved crime…but more along the lines of a major drunk driving chase turned fatal accident…a drug bust…or in the rare case, a murder…and when I say rare, I really do mean rare.
Off the top of my head, I can only think of one murder from recent years that the news media keyed in on for more than a 24-hour news cycle.
It was the brutal 2021 shooting of a beloved food mart owner named Saleh Ahmed. He owned a fiesta food mart in town and within days of his murder police arrested a 21-year-old man who wasn’t from the area.
Authorities determined that for some unknown reason the suspect came into town and robbed the store at gunpoint…killing Ahmed in the process.
This story, though extremely sad, boiled down to a totally random crime.
Other than that, unsolved murders, or even suspicious deaths are just not what you hear about coming from arcadia…at least not in the last decade.
19-years-ago though….one bizarre death did make big news in the town.
In July 2003 John and his older brother matt were not living with either of their parents—Helen Huff and Mac Welles.
The couple had ended their marriage in a bitter divorce in 1987, one year after John was born.
During the late 90’s the boys went back and forth between their mom Helen’s house in Fort Myers and their grandmother Patricia Strader’s house on a rural piece of property in arcadia.
The drive is about an hour each way.
Mac, their dad, was out of the picture for most of the boys’ youth despite living full-time in Arcadia.
By the year 2001—Helen’s relationship with her mom, Patricia, who everyone calls Pat, had deteriorated and was for lack of a better word, irreparable.
After a series of ugly courtroom showdowns, written and verbal confrontations and mountains of legal paperwork that dragged on for years—Pat was awarded full custody of John by the spring of 2003.
Matt was 21 by that point, so he could make his own decisions.
John on the other hand, turned 17 on May 1st, 2003. He had just one more year until he could be independent.
While he waited that out, he lived with his grandma Pat at home near the end of southeast Hansel Avenue.
The property consists of an old, small one-story farmhouse surrounded by dozens of acres of cow pasture and woods that butt up to a body of water known as Joshua Creek.
Half of the acreage is on one side of southeast Hansel Avenue, where the house sits…and the rest sprawls across the street and is filled with thick oak trees, sawgrass palmettos and spanish moss.
The homestead is where John’s mother Helen grew up…. *before* her falling out with Pat.
Helen Huff: “The house and the 20 acres was originally bought in like 1961-ish and we moved out there, lived in a mobile home and then the house was being built.”
Delia D’Ambra: That’s Helen, who I first met last summer.
Helen Huff: “I looked at your eyes, I said, that’s her. I know it’s her.”
Delia D’Ambra: *laughs* “Hey, nice to meet you…”
What was supposed to be our first interview to talk about her youngest son turned into an hours-long conversation at a public library —where we were shushed a lot by staff.
We’ve talked several times since and I’ve learned probably more than I needed to know about the Huff and Welles tumultuous family history.
Helen Huff: “The backstory goes back to probably 1987 when the father and I started getting divorced and all this sort of stuff. And Pat, who is my mother, but I don’t really call her that. So, Pat jumps in and she tries to get custody and it’s just a nightmare back and forth. Me and Mac had trouble, but she’s jumping in too.”
“He was back and forth up there all the time. So was Matt the older brother.”
Delia D’Ambra: In case it doesn’t become glaringly obvious, Helen did not like the fact that John lived in Arcadia with Pat.
Helen Huff: “I tried to talk to John and say, “Look, I grew up with her. She’s giving you everything you want right now…”
“I said, ‘But when that dotted line gets signed, she’s going to be the mama I knew.’ And he just wouldn’t hear of it.”
But legally, Helen had no custody of her son…that was the reality of the situation…like it or not.
The tense family situation took its toll on John according to his aunt, Laura Welles.
She says between mac and Helen’s divorce and Pat and Helen’s battle for the boys, John felt torn as he navigated his preteen and teen years.
Laura Welles: “It was hard, really hard on John. It was. It was hard on John that his parents were like that toward each other.
Mac and Helen had a bad relationship when they divorced…and of course that wasn’t a good thing for John, for them to not be close, at least be decent as parents of him…but they were at each other… Pretty much, didn’t like each other at all during that time.”
Delia D’Ambra: According to Laura and Helen, by the time John’s 17th birthday rolled around, he’d rekindled a relationship with his father Mac…and if he could have had things his way…he’d have lived with Mac over anyone else.
Laura Welles: “He was a spitting image of his father.
He would have lived there with Mac, with his dad. I mean, they were so close. I don’t ever remember them having any words or anything bad between them at all.
John was his heart. I can just say that, John, he loved John more than anything. They were very close.”
Helen Huff: “If you had a picture of Mac and John together, you wouldn’t know who was who. It looked like I had nothing to do with that kid. It looked like a clone, literally.”
Delia D’Ambra: Living with Mac was never an option for John though.
For one, Mac wasn’t viewed by the courts as a suitable caregiver for his sons because he lived in a camper out in the sticks, was known to use drugs and could not hold a steady job.
After the divorce, Helen’s side of the family wanted to make sure he stayed at a distance.
I tracked him down to get his side of things…because as you’ll soon learn, John and mac’s relationship is very important to the rest of this story.
After months of persistent calls, he agreed to speak to me, despite not talking publicly about John’s case for almost 20 years.
Mac Welles: “All three of us were trying to get custody…and you know, that’s a nightmare. Seeing him, I had money, but I didn’t have what you would call a big home, and washer and dryer, and all that. It was pretty close to camping out all the time, which he didn’t have any problem with.”
The travel trailer I was living in was 23-foot long, only had two bunks, but I had satellite TV and electricity and all that, so it wasn’t a terrible place to be.”
Delia D’Ambra: When John was old enough to drive, he frequently snuck away from his grandma’s house in the evenings and on the weekends to spend time with Mac.
They usually shot sheet together, hunted small game or just hung out in Mac’s trailer playing dominos and watching old movies.
Mac Welles: “He was a great child. He loved the outdoors, and he loved spending time with me anytime we got a chance. I taught him a lot of things about shooting, game laws, what to do and not to do, and he was just a perfect gentleman.
We were extremely close. The boy just pretty much lived to shoot and hunt and fish and anything that a normal child that age would do.
I’ve never had to get onto John about anything.
John would do surprising things, like he’d make me something or… I didn’t want him to buy me birthday presents and Christmas presents, all that. I’d rather them make something with their hands that I might need around camp, and he never got very far away from me, because I was a fun dad to be around.”
Delia D’Ambra: Despite how much fun Mac and John may have had…or where John wanted to call home, he was stuck for the time being at his grandma’s on Southeast Hansel…and according to his Aunt Laura, that arrangement eventually grew on him.
Laura Welles: “He liked it. She catered to him and Matt. So, she pretty much catered to both of them. She was, I feel like from what I… I mean, I’m not… I don’t know perfectly how they were toward each other…but I know that he loved his grandmother and she took care of him. She took care of him. I think that she cared a lot about those boys.”
Delia D’Ambra: John was responsible for maintaining the large property and doing chores.
Because Matt had moved out by the summer of 2003 and was attending a community college about an hour away—so, everything fell to john to get done.
On Tuesday July 8th, while on summer break from Desoto County High School, John was doing a chore he’d done plenty of times…packing household trash into a small wooden wagon, rigging the wagon up to the back of a four-wheeler and driving it across the street to dispose of in the woods.
A-K-A…illegally dumping it.
Now-I know this probably sounds wild to some of you, especially if you didn’t grow up in a rural area, but families all over Arcadia back then used sections of their land to discard household waste.
A lot of people buried it or burned it…and some, like john’s grandma, just left it in the woods to degrade and sink into Joshua Creek.
It’s definitely something the Department of Environmental Protection fines people for *if* they find out, but in Arcadia…well, nobody out there really cared about the D-E-P.
Anyways, John was last seen going over to dump the trash around 12:30 PM…
Four hours later…at 4:30 PM this 911 call came into Desoto County sheriff’s office.
Dispatcher: “Desoto County Sheriff’s Office.”
Dispatcher: “Yes mam may I help you?”
Pat: “My name is Pat Strader.”
Pat: “And I have a problem here at my house. I need the emergency people. The ambulance.”
Dispatcher: “Okay. What is the problem?”
Dispatcher: “Ma’am. Are you at SE Hansel?”
Pat: “Yes ma’am. My grandson he went across the road and he was gone a long time. We went over to try and check on him. We made two trips and we just come back from over there and we found him in a ditch over there under water.”
Dispatcher: “Is there anybody there giving him CPR or anything?”
Pat: “No ma’am. He’s been under there a long time. He’s been missing since…When did you go over there, Skip? (muffled)…about 1:30 or 2 and he called and called and we didn’t know what was taking place and figured he was walking through the pasture…and then I went over there later and called him and he didn’t answer. So, I went and got his friend, and we went out there walking and looking for him and they just found him.”
Dispatcher: “Do you have a cell phone or anything that you can take over there to try to resuscitate him?”
Pat: “Oh…uh she wants us to try and walk over there to resuscitate him. That means he has to take him out of the water and try to resuscitate him?”
Dispatcher: “If it’s safe for him to do so without getting hurt?”
Pat: “He said he can’t do that.”
Dispatcher: “He can’t do that?”
Dispatcher: “How old was your grandson Mrs. Strader?”
Pat: “He was 17 the 1st of May.”
Dispatcher: “Ms. Strader, can you tell if he was breathing whenever you went out there a few minutes ago, could anyone tell?”
Pat: “There was no bubbles or anything coming up, was there? No.”
Pat: “I believe he might’ve got into some ants or a wasp or something stung him.”
Dispatcher: “Was he with anyone, or he went off by himself?
Pat: “No ma’am, he was alone.”
Pat: “And this is not unusual. He goes over there like that from time to time. It’s just that he was gone an extra-long time. And like I say we went over there to look for him and assumed that he was walking the pasture…”
Dispatcher: “Okay…and who found him? Who did you say found him?”
Pat: “My stepson, Skip.”
Dispatcher: “And how long ago before you called did Skip find him?”
Pat: “Has it been 10 minutes, 15 minutes, the most? About that… because they got me right out of there.”
Dispatcher: “Okay. So about 10 minutes before you called, or?…”
Pat: “Yes ma’am.”
Dispatcher: “He was just laying there. Tell me what he saw.”
Pat: “He was standing in the water and he in a…”
Dispatcher: “Did you see him yourself, Ms. Strader?”
Pat: “Well, when they…uh he’s like he’s in a fetal position? The knees would be curled up, bent over, face down.”
Dispatcher: “Okay, so Skip noticed him in a fetal position?”
Pat: “Yes ma’am.”
Pat: “To me, my description of seeing this is if there were bees or something after him, he would have been in there and bent over to get out of their… I don’t know why he would’ve done that.”
Dispatcher: “How deep is the water there?”
Pat: “I don’t think it’s very deep. I mean…you could see his back.”
Dispatcher: “So it’s just a ditch, you said?”
Pat: “Yes ma’am.”
Dispatcher: “Okay. Maybe two foot, three foot? What would you guess?”
Pat: “She said two or three feet of water? At the most.”
Dispatcher: “I’m sorry?”
Pat: “At the most. Two or three feet. He’s hardly covered with water where he is.”
Dispatcher: “Is anyone there with him now?”
Pat: “No, ma’am. They brought me back to the house.”
Dispatcher: “Did anyone try to give CPR or anything on him?”
Pat: “No ma’am.”
Dispatcher: “What was his name, your grandson?”
Pat: “John Robert Welles. W-E-L-L-E-S”
Dispatcher: “He was 17 years of age?”
Pat: “Yes. May 1, yes ma’am.”
Dispatcher: “I’ve got an ambulance and a deputy on the way. If you could just stay on the phone. You said there’s nobody with him now?”
Pat: “That’s right. They’ve got somebody on the way. You want to go out there and wait?”
Skip: “Yeah, I’ll go get the truck and help them take it back there.”
Pat: “Take the…take the Explorer…Okay…”
Dispatcher: “You said the ambulance is there?
Pat: “Yes, ma’am.”
Dispatcher: “All right. I’ll let you go so you can stick with them, okay?”
Pat: “Thanks bye.”
Dispatcher: “Thank you.”
It took emergency responders several minutes to coordinate their response…
Dispatcher: “*** Southeast Hansel Avenue it’s going to be in reference to a child that has been missing since 13:0 this afternoon. They just found him on the water in a ditch near the house.”
Delia D’Ambra: Several days before this, heavy rains had come through the area, so the pasture and specifically where Pat said John was, was mushy and soft.
The ambulance couldn’t make it back—so, EMT’s had to load their gear into sheriff’s office trucks to make the three-quarter mile trek into the dense area.
Deputy 1: “Where are ya’ll at?”
Deputy 2: “South Hansel…You’ll see a patrol car. Are you in a four-wheel drive?”
Deputy 1: “I’m walking directly east from the sidewalk now.”
Deputy 2: “Just stand by, we’re coming to get you. We’re down here in the woods.”
Delia D’Ambra: What emergency crews found when they did finally arrive on scene was the lifeless body of John Welles…floating face down in a shallow ditch off of Joshua Creek…
It took Desoto county sheriff’s office about 15 minutes to assess the scene and at 4:45pm paramedics pronounced John dead.
Shortly after five o’clock deputies called the district 12 medical examiner’s office in Sarasota and asked for an M-E investigator to get to the scene and examine John’s body further.
According to case documents I retrieved from that office, the investigator who came was named Meghan Simrak.
By 6:30pm she’d arrived and joined seven men who worked for Desoto county sheriff’s office—which included a captain, a lieutenant, a major, the sheriff and a detective.
Meghan’s report and police narratives state that John had not been touched or moved by anyone in between the time he was first found and when all these investigators arrived.
He was face down, mostly submerged in about two feet of water with the back of his right foot and boot sticking out of the water.
He was shirtless, wearing blue jeans and floating in the water partially on his back was an old rusty drum. Littered in every direction were pieces of trash, metal and garage.
Photographs of the site are on our website in the blog post for this episode…they’ll help you visualize this scene much better.
The images do not show John’s body.
Parked about 30 feet to the right of where John was, was a four-wheeler with a wooden trailer attached to the back of it, with trash and a rake still inside of it.
Helen and I went through the photos during our first interview.
Delia D’Ambra: “So here’s the ATV and…”
Helen Huff: “Right. And then the water is over here.”
Delia D’Ambra: “He was found over here?”
Helen Huff: “Yeah.
I think that’s after they drained it. It was only two to three feet deep, it wasn’t deep at all. And that’s in a…”
Delia D’Ambra: “This is still pretty shallow.”
Helen Huff: “Yeah. And you’ll see the pumps in a minute where they had a floaty pump.”
Delia D’Ambra: “Do you think all these pieces of metal would have been covered by water at the time?
Helen Huff: “They were covered by water.”
Delia D’Ambra: After snapping the pictures, Meghan felt John’s body and noted in her report that it was warm to the touch and was in full rigor mortis. She turned him over and with help from some others on scene, fished him out of the water by his belt loops.
One look at his face showed he had a swollen cut on his right eyelid…but other than that, he looked perfectly fine. Meghan wrote that there was a little bit of blood coming out of his nose and some foam at the corner of his mouth.
Within a few minutes, Meghan and the deputies preliminarily determined that John had fallen into the water somehow and struck his head on a piece of rebar or old pipe, which rendered him unconscious and he drowned.
They brought in some water pumps and drained most of the ditch in order to take some more pictures of the rusty metal shards.
After that, Meghan and D-C-S-O called the medical examiner in Sarasota to tell him about their drowning theory and the doctor, a man named William Anderson, agreed it sounded like a drowning accident.
He scheduled an autopsy for the following day, July 9th
After that, John’s body was removed from the scene and transported to Dr. Anderson’s office.
By eight o’clock that night, Helen received word that her youngest son was dead.
Helen Huff: “Next thing I know I’m getting a deputy in my yard saying that my son’s been in an accident, and you know that was unbelievable.
I go down the hallway and open up the door and the cop is pulled up in the driveway and he’s like leaning up against his car with his arms crossed and just a straight face.
I said, “What’s going on?
The guy, he said, “Just wait a minute.
I turned around and said, “What the hell man?”… “Well, your son has been in an accident.” And I said, “Which one?” And he didn’t know, or he didn’t tell me or whatever and that’s when the lightning hit me.
I kind of remember, because I think I asked the guy what happened? Did he roll the Explorer? Because my first thing he was driving fast and had a wreck.”
Delia D’Ambra: The deputy broke the news to Helen that John was gone…and after that, everything was a blur.
Helen Huff: “I remember I was in the shower. I don’t know. I felt sick or something, it was like spinning or whatever, but I had all my clothes on and I just couldn’t believe it.”
Delia D’Ambra: By nightfall, extended family members like Laura Welles had learned about John’s passing.
Laura Welles: “We all loved John. It broke our hearts. We were sick.”
Delia D’Ambra: People who knew John and his grandmother stopped by the southeast Hansel house to offer condolences.
But what nobody knew, was that this tragic drowning…was about to pivot in an entirely different direction.
Helen Huff: “He got a phone call and said something like Houston, we have a problem.”
Delia D’Ambra: What happened in the woods off of southeast Hansel Avenue from 12:30 pm on July 8th until Pat Strader placed that 911 call at 4:30 is where my investigation begins…
Because *nothing* about that window of time or what people say happened during those few short hours makes sense…
Steve Blanchard: “Law enforcement couldn’t tell me anything yet, except for he was found, we thought he drowned, but now there’s a bullet wound.”
William Anderson: “It could have been possibly evidence of a struggle with someone struggling with him.”
Delia D’Ambra: In the next episode…I’m breaking down the one thing that made John Welles death something worth taking a second look at…
A bullet in his head.
Listen to episode two—”Slug”—right now.