Episode 10: Security

Delia takes a step back to consider all of the suspects known in the case and evaluate law enforcement’s handling of the investigation after 2006. She and associate producer David Payne venture back out to SE Hansel Avenue to continue working the case only to find themselves face-to-face with Desoto County deputies and subjects of a 911 call.

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: Here’s the thing about time…the more of it that goes by, the further away you get from the beginning of a story.

You’ve been listening to Season 4 episodes now for, what, probably a few hours?

Did you have to turn me off to go into work or did you sit in your car to finish up the last few minutes of an episode before jogging in to clock in on time?

How we use time, says a lot about us.

Nobody knows the painstaking agony of time ticking by into oblivion better than crime victim’s families…police…and journalists like me.

With a cold case murder investigation, months turn into years and years into decades.

And more often than not, we carry on with our lives…forgetting that somewhere back in time a life was taken.

From 2006 until 2009—the name John Welles faded from people’s memories just like his picture faded from the yellow flyers Helen, his mom, spent hours nailing to telephone poles all around Arcadia.

Based on everything I’ve read in police reports, law enforcement’s investigation into what happened to the 17-year-old slowed to a standstill during these four years.

It was complete radio silence.

One thing I can confirm happened was that Curt Mays interviewed Kevin Callahan in jail…but that got the investigation nowhere.

In the public space…. local newspapers stopped running articles for the anniversary of John’s death and his high school friends graduated, grew up and moved away.

During those years, former Desoto Sun Newspaper reporter Steve Blanchard also left Arcadia and with his departure, went the last journalist who ever showed interest in the case.

When I tracked him down all these years later, he hadn’t heard the name John Welles in over a decade.

Delia D’Ambra: “What was your reaction when you saw my message and you saw, I was saying John Wells, 2003, you know, what was your thoughts?

Steve: “Um, it was surprising, um, because I’m not even a journalist anymore. And when you’re in a small town like that, you really see your audience says the people in that bubble and nobody beyond. So, when I left that bubble, I kind of left all that there.’

Steve Blanchard: “I had to reread your email a couple of times because I’m like, “Is she serious? Is, who is this? (laughs) How did she find me?” Um, but it was also exciting because it’s a part of my life I hadn’t thought about it in a long time.”

Delia D’Ambra: During our interview I showed Steve clippings of articles he wrote in 2003…and after going down memory lane, he made an interesting comment that I think lies at the core of this case and should be something everyone should think about.

Steve Blanchard: “If it was a murder, which it was determined to be that at the beginning, you know, that means somebody committed a crime and didn’t get caught for it….and therefore, they’re still out there. And what kind of danger is that to anybody else? I mean, if I was still living there, that would be my concern, you know, is there an actual murderer on the loose, God, I hope not. But if there is, that’s a lot to worry about.”

Delia D’Ambra: Steve went on to say that time passing by slowly, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Sure, there are obvious downsides to a stalled investigation…but…the same days and years that frustrate law enforcement, are the same days and years that weigh heavily on whoever killed John.

Steve Blanchard: “Things have changed so much in the past 10, 15, 20 years that there’s more resources available to get more information, you know, was, was John accidentally shot by a friend who fled and never told anybody and is, you know, freaked out.”

Steve Blanchard: “Was that person protected because it was accidental. You know, there’s, there’s so many questions you just don’t, you don’t know. But I think things like a podcast that deals with true crime broadens the scope of people who may know something, or may have heard something who can say, “You know what, now that I think about it that day, I remember whatever it might be.” And that could be the key that opens things up.”

Delia D’Ambra: A question I find myself asking a lot throughout various points in my investigation is did Desoto County sheriff’s office use time to their advantage?

Did they do anything from 2006 to 2009 to shake answers from Pat Strader or dig up new clues?

Did they try to find more corroborating information to support any of their circumstantial and even limited physical evidence?

The answers to those questions are no….no…and no.

I know this, because I’ve spoken with critical witnesses who were never contacted by law enforcement…

Witnesses who were easy to find…and who know very valuable information.

*Delia’s phone ringing*

Delia D’Ambra: “Hello?”

Martin Hollingworth: “Hi. Martin Hollingsworth.”

Delia D’Ambra: Martin Hollingsworth is a big name in Arcadia.

Decades ago, his family bought acres and acres of land and orange groves off of southeast Hansel Avenue.

To this day, the Hollingsworth name carries weight in Desoto County and everyone in town knows someone in the family.

In 2003, Martin lived directly behind Pat Strader’s house…and his property line butted right up against hers.

Back then, he didn’t know her well, but he did have frequent interactions with John, Matt and Mel Senior—before Mel Senior died.

Martin Hollingsworth: “He was a sweetheart (laughs) yeah, Mel was just a very likeable, mellow, man” (laughs)

Delia D’Ambra: I initially reached out to Martin because I figured he could help me understand the area better.

He’s pretty old now, and lives out of state most of the year, so I didn’t expect our interview to result in anything earth-shattering…but do to my due diligence, I reached out anyway.

When he finally called me back, he told me what I expected to hear, which was that he didn’t remember much about John Welles…

But…he did remember one very important thing from the day the teen was killed.

Martin Hollingsworth: “I was home, and I heard a shot but at that time I had no idea what it was because there are people who go hunting down the Joshua Creek swamp there.”

Delia D’Ambra: “You heard the shot and then a few hours later you saw a scene there at the Strader property.”

Martin Hollingworth: “Right. Right.”

“It was not particularly loud…

I didn’t think anything about it because it was not unusual for men to go back there with or without permission.”

Delia D’Ambra: Around lunch time on July 8th 2003, Martin heard a single gunshot ring out…and then silence.

At the time, he brushed it off…and never put two-and-two together that what he heard…and when he heard it, could have been John Welles’ murder taking place.

Delia D’Ambra: “When you saw the police scene happening at the Strader property later that day, did you have the thought to tell law enforcement, ‘Hey I heard a gunshot earlier’…or you just didn’t think about it again?”

Martin Hollingworth: “No. I didn’t, I didn’t think about it again.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Have you ever been spoken to by law enforcement to get any kind of statement about anything you heard or saw that day?”

Martin Hollingworth: “No. No.”

Delia D’Ambra: “The police never came by and talked to you since you were the next-door neighbor?”

Martin Hollingworth: “No.”

Delia D’Ambra: So—just to recap here…

Martin Hollingsworth is the only person I’ve found in this entire case that heard a gunshot in the window of time that we know John was killed.

What’s more, Martin lived steps from the crime scene…and according to him, not once has law enforcement ever spoken with him.

How is it even possible that no one ever thought to interview John’s next-door neighbor to find out what he heard, saw or knew?

I mean, there were two agencies working this case…. the sheriff’s office and F-D-L-E….so, how did Martin Hollingsworth slip through the cracks?

I find myself asking an even more concerning question…did local deputies who were initially tasked with going door to door… Intentionally overlook Martin…and possibly a lot of other important information and evidence in this case?

From the very beginning of the investigation in 2003, everybody knew everybody.

The suspects…the police…the victim.

Now—that’s to be expected in a small town with a small police force…but for one, Pat and Desoto County detective Kim Lewis admit during their July 15th crime scene walk through on the VHS recording that Pat knew Kim’s father and family well.

If that was the case…I don’t think Kim should have ever been the lead detective conducting Pat’s interrogations.

I’m not saying Kim should have recused herself entirely from the case…but she certainly should not have been the main person dealing with Pat…which from all indications, she was.

The second thing that I can’t wrap my brain around is the fact that Desoto County sheriff’s office never seized Pat’s clothing from the day of the murder.

The only items of clothing law enforcement ever took from Pat were a pair of white tennis shoes.

According to police reports, the day after John was found…deputies went back to Pat’s house and asked her for the clothing she’d been wearing on July 8th, but she told them that she’d done laundry the night before…

So—deputies just dropped it.

Now—let’s break that down for a second.

Pat told police that mere hours after John was found dead on July 8th…and she’s reeling with grief…and hosting people in and out of her house all evening, that she found time to do a load of laundry.

Why that didn’t stick out to Desoto County investigators as odd…is strange.

Regardless of whether she said she washed her clothes…deputies should have still taken the clothing for testing anyway…just like they did for Skip and Patrick.

The third thing that’s always seemed strange to me is that Skip’s phone call records in police reports are visible…but every number that Pat Strader called on the afternoon of July 8th, 2003 is redacted.

If Pat was just as much a suspect as Skip…then why has the sheriff’s office protected her calls from public record but not Skip’s?

You can’t argue with any of the facts here…and maybe it’s not enough to convince you…but before you write off a connection between Pat and DCSO as just coincidental, keep listening.

The last thing that I think is probably the most glaring oversight police made back in 2003 is the fact that they did not impound or process the blue-green Ford Explorer that they knew had been driven all around the crime scene by one of their suspects.

Nowhere in evidence logs or police reports can I find a shred of paperwork that states authorities impounded that vehicle and searched it for clues.

They did –however—impound Skip’s pickup truck and tore it apart. The results of which have never been reported.

But just to be crystal clear—I don’t think the importance of the Explorer can be overstated.

That SUV belonged to Pat, but John drove it the most…

He had driven it to Walmart an hour before his death…

Pat had driven it to get gas and her and Patrick rode in it to the trash pile..

John’s gun, holster, thigh strap and belts were placed into it…

Pat, Patrick and Skip all rode in the Explorer right after finding John’s body…

This car is a critical piece of evidence.

Patrick Skinner thought the same when I interviewed him. In fact— after his first few interviews with investigators in 2003—he said he never heard what happened to the Explorer or any of the vehicles that were known to be on the property when John was killed.

Delia D’Ambra: “They never seized the Explorer or impounded it or processed it. Did you ever know that?”

Patrick Skinner: “I didn’t know…”

Delia D’Ambra: “Does it surprise you to know that they didn’t?”

Patrick Skinner: “I didn’t know that they impounded Skip’s.

If they tore that apart, I would have…I would have to think that they would have torn this apart if they think they had probable cause to tear his truck apart.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Do you think of the two vehicles, this one should have been looked at since…”

Patrick Skinner: “Well, that’s the one we actually took over there. I mean, this is what John drove for the most part. John did not have really his own vehicle. This, everything belonged to his grandmother…but John drove this more than anyone…and this is what we were in when we found him.”

Patrick Skinner: “And what the gun went into…So, it’s…I guess, yeah, that’s a little odd to me,”

Delia D’Ambra: So, why was the Explorer never impounded? —-and what happened to it after the murder?

Well…I can now confidently answer that second question.

The blue-green Ford Explorer that is so central to the sequence of events on the day John was killed…has been a mystery within this bigger mystery for me.

David Payne: “How far is it?”

Delia D’Ambra: “It is 1.3 miles on the right…”

Delia D’Ambra: During a field reporting trip to Arcadia to try and interview Martin Hollingsworth, my associate producer and I found ourselves driving alongside the backside of Pat’s property—where her land butts up to Martin’s driveway.

Martin wasn’t home that trip, but our attempt to knock on his door allowed us to see a different side of a field behind Pat’s house that we’d not noticed before.

And by sheer luck—we made a discovery.

David Payne: “She’s got every angle of this covered. There’s the Ford Explorer.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Oh my gosh. No way.

David Payne: “Get a picture of that.”

Delia D’Ambra: “That’s the Explorer!”

Delia D’Ambra: “That is definitely the same Explorer from back in 2003.”

Delia D’Ambra: David slammed on the brakes…there was no doubt—we’d found it.

A turquoise dark blue-green old model Ford Explorer—that looked like it hadn’t been moved or driven in years.

Delia D’Ambra: “I knew it had to be here!”

“That’s wild. That is wild.”

Delia D’Ambra: Next to it was a broken-down beige sedan…a bunch of rotted and rusted farm equipment, tall grass and cows.

Delia D’Ambra: We took pictures from where we were parked on the public right of way and you can see those images on our website counterclock podcast dot com.

After I got over my initial excitement…I wondered why after all of these years; Pat had held onto the Explorer.

Why had she parked it on this abandoned section of her land?

From the looks of things…it appeared to us that she didn’t want anyone to access it… Or any square foot of her property for that matter.

No trespassing signs were mounted on several fence posts and these signs were not like the little paper ones you buy at a hardware store.

Pat’s signs were two feet tall, made of plywood and listed a lengthy warning for strangers like us and law enforcement to not step foot on her land unless we were invited or had a warrant.

Delia D’Ambra: Heavy chains and locks were strung along every gate—so the chances of us getting anywhere near the Explorer to take a closer peek were non-existent.

Just the fact that it was still there though…and who knows, may holds some valuable clues made for a wild day of field reporting.

And our adventure wasn’t over yet…not by a long shot.

The more time David and I hung around southeast Hansel Avenue—stopping at homes on the street to find people who lived there back in 2003—the more and more we felt like we were being watched.

Call it intuition—or just a journalist’s good instincts—but to us there was a noticeable sense that every move we made while out there wasn’t going unnoticed.

And we were absolutely right.

David Payne: “The sheriff is waiting for us here.”

Delia D’Ambra: While talking with some homeowners who were renting a house across the road from Pat’s property we saw a Desoto County sheriff’s deputy pull up behind our rental car.

We’d left our white jeep parked in the right of way, so that other cars could go around it.

A deputy got out of his cruiser…and we walked over to him.

He said that a person who lived on the street had called in to report us.

Delia D’Ambra: “Did the Straders call or Matt Welles?”

Deputy: “Ah, it was anonymous.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Oh. Okay….did they, did we disrupt somebody?”

Deputy: “They just said a white vehicle it looked suspicious going house to house so…”

David Payne: “Got it.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Oh. I see.”

Deputy: “Someone calls. We have to come out. So…”

Delia D’Ambra: “Yeah.. Yeah.”

Deputy: “No. But…Yall are good.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Okay. Thank you. Thank you so much have a good day.”

Delia D’Ambra: I strongly suspected that Pat had been the person who called the cops on us.

Minutes before the deputy showed up, we’d been poking near the Explorer. So, for me the timing of the call was no coincidence.

When I’d asked the deputy if Pat Strader or Matt Welles had placed the call to the sheriff’s office, he said it came in as ‘anonymous…’

But here’s the thing though—in the state of Florida—when you dial 911 those calls get recorded and are accessible via public records request.

You just have to know how to get ahold of them before they’re purged from a department’s data center.

I’m 100 percent sure the person who called the cops on us didn’t know this…

But their loss, was our gain. Right after chatting with the deputy, David and I left southeast Hansel Avenue and drove straight to the sheriff’s office.

I told the records division that I wanted to request a 911 call that had come into the sheriff’s office that very day between the hours of 11am and 11:30am…and a few days later, an audio file and police report showed up in my email inbox.

Here’s a copy of the call

Dispatcher: “Desoto County Sheriff’s Office on a recorded line, how can I help you?”

Pat Strader: “This is Pat Strader. Do you have a detective on…there today?”

Dispatcher: “Detective who?”

Pat Strader: “Anyone…okay, well Kim’s not working today, is she?”

Dispatcher: “No. She’s off.”

Pat Strader: “Okay. Who would take her place?”

Dispatcher: “Um. We don’t have any detectives on right now being that its Saturday. We just have road patrol today.”

Pat Strader: “Okay this is what’s –raw redaction tone

There are a couple of people over there talking to my neighbor wanting some information. I want somebody to come tell them to stop it however legally you can do it.”

Dispatcher: “Ok. So, are they on your property?”

Pat Strader: “Not at this point. No, they’re out on the edge of the road.”

Dispatcher: “Okay.”

Pat Strader: “But there, I think they’re wanting to interview me but who’s the, gosh I can’t think of his name. He retired but he worked with Kim. There’s a new detective that has that and there was someone come here several years ago wanting to go in and look and do some things, he told me to tell them to come to him.”

Dispatcher: “Okay. Alright. So, they’re just trying to get information –raw redaction tone

Pat Strader: “That’s correct…or write an article or something. Now he’s… –raw redaction tone—

Pat Strader: “Aggravating the hell out of me.”

Dispatcher: “okay alright what’s –raw redaction tone

Dispatcher: “Are they there right now?”

Pat Strader: “They’re across the road talking to my neighbor but I think their white Jeep is parked down there next to the wood bridge and they look like they might be walking back down towards their vehicle.”

Dispatcher: “Okay. So, looks like they might be leaving?”

Pat Strader: “Well, they’re not talking to him any longer because raw redaction tone

Dispatcher: “Okay.”

Pat Strader: “And he told them not to tell them, tell them to call the sheriff’s office and I’m calling you to tell you what I know about it.”

Dispatcher: “Alright and you said your first name was Patricia?”

Pat Strader: “That’s correct.”

Dispatcher: “Okay.”

Pat Strader: “I said Pat but yes, its Patricia.”

Dispatcher: “That’s fine. Is your phone number (Beep)

Pat Strader: “That’s what I’m talking to you on.”

Dispatcher: “Perfect. Okay. So, would you like me to send a deputy out to speak with you about it?”

Pat Strader: “I would. Because they’re walking up and down the road…”

Dispatcher: “Alright.”

Pat Strader: “They look like they have stepped into the driveway off the road going across in the pasture. Now, they’re still on county property. They’re not trespassing, but they’re stopped there and they’re discussing things.”

Dispatcher: “Right.”

Pat Strader: “And so, they’re probably going to be taking pictures of something. So, if you could come and get a deputy to come down and ask them what they’re doing and make them tell you what they’re doing.

Dispatcher: “Okay. Alright. I’ll have someone on the way over. Okay?”

Pat Strader: “Okay…now I’m north-raw redaction tone

Dispatcher: “You’re south of the 4-way stop?”

Pat Strader: “That’s correct.”

Dispatcher: “Okay. I’ll get them out there as soon as we can. We’re kind of a little backed up on calls right now. Okay?”

Pat Strader: “Okay. Now I understand you can’t hold my hand but never the less…”

Dispatcher: “That’s alright. We’ll help you any way we can.”

Pat Strader: “Okay, well thanks a lot. I’ve done my duty I think.”

Dispatcher: “You’re welcome.”

Pat Strader: “Thank you. Goodbye.”

Dispatcher: “Alright. Bye, bye.”

Delia D’Ambra: It’s really hard to put into words how surreal something like this is.

Having the grandmother of a murder victim call the police to report that she’s upset that journalists are operating within the law to try and figure out what happened to her grandson is something I’ve never experienced before in my entire career.

While listening to the audio it’s hard not to chuckle at the tone and disposition of the dispatcher who’s trying to figure out why Pat is even calling.

He seems genuinely helpful but also genuinely confused about what she wants him to do.

Something I think is even more interesting though is who Pat asks to speak with when she gets on the line.

Pat Strader: “Well Kim’s not working today, is she?”

Dispatcher: “No. She’s off.”

Delia D’Ambra: I emphasize again…Pat and Kim’s relationship seems weird to me.

Why is Pat asking specifically for Kim? What does she think Kim will do for her that any other deputy won’t be able to do?

Another thing this 911 call confirmed for me was that Pat didn’t just want us to be shooed away…she wanted to know what we knew, what we were talking to people about.

She’d been watching David and I intently while we were working— following our every move…and was able to give the dispatcher a play-by-play of where we went…

Dispatcher: “Are they on your property?”

Pat Strader: “Not at this point. No, they’re out on the edge of the road.”

Delia D’Ambra: Who we spoke with… And precisely where we were at any given moment.

Dispatcher: “Are they there right now?”

Pat Strader: “They’re across the road talking to my neighbor but I think their white Jeep is parked down there next to the wood bridge and they look like they might be walking back down towards their vehicle.”

Pat Strader: “They look like they have stepped into the driveway off the road going across in the pasture. Now, they’re still on county property. They’re not trespassing, but they’re stopped there and they’re discussing things.”

Delia D’Ambra: I can literally see it—her peering out at us from behind her window curtains, phone receiver hard pressed against one ear.

Clearly David and I just being in the area made her upset. But why?

Why wouldn’t she want us to find out what happened to her grandson?

That’s one of many questions I have for Pat…and DCSO.

What’s frustrating is that Pat has declined my requests for an interview and so has Kim Lewis.

I’ve sent multiple requests to the sheriff’s office asking to interview the county’s current sheriff, James Potter about John Welles’s case—but those inquiries have been ignored as well.

The department has no reason not to talk to me.

They can’t claim the case being under investigation as an exemption any more…


Patrick Skinner: “It doesn’t seem plausible to me. It just doesn’t.”

Delia D’Ambra: The answer is on the next episode of counterclock—Switch

Helen Huff: “I’m mad. I am furious. It’s an insult.”

Delia D’Ambra: —listen, right now.