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Episode 12: Science

Delia brings in a forensic pathologist and a firearms reconstruction expert to evaluate the accidental shooting theory in the John Welles case. After months of testing, the group goes over their findings and the results are eye-opening.

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: When I first read Desoto County detective James Kirdy’s report from 2017 that stated John Welles’ Ruger revolver might be able to go off accidentally if it was dropped or was being slung around in the cocked position…I had questions.

To me, that seemed to be a pretty big assumption…

One that detective Kirdy could only make if he knew for certain it was possible.

The detective had been able to convince Dr. Russell Vega—the 12th district medical examiner in Sarasota– …enough that Vega had changed John’s manner of death from homicide to undetermined.

James backed up the theory he shared with Vega thanks to support from third-party forensics firm Bevel, Gardner and Associates…

But here’s the thing that’s always bothered me—Bevel, Gardner and Associates never performed ballistics tests to prove this ‘accidental shooting’ assumption was even possible.

The firm’s 5-page report on the case doesn’t detail any field experiments they conducted with the case evidence or explain with measurements or data any reconstructions they did that ultimately support the sequence of events James Kirdy claims happened.

Everything that went down between 2016 and 2017 just feels very loose…very, unscientific.

So, I decided to look into things for myself…particularly the specs of John’s firearm, a.22 magnum single-action six shot revolver

My first stop was going directly to the company that manufactured that gun …Ruger firearms.

My associate producer David and I wanted to know if the company had ever issued a safety warning or recall for John’s gun. Because if you’ll remember…James Kirdy wrote in his report quote— “This Ruger model had a recall warning issued for it advising owners not to carry it or store it in the cocked position.” –end quote.

David and I wanted to know from Ruger, was that true?

Delia D’Ambra: “The serial number for the Welles firearm is 263-96627.”

Delia D’Ambra: Ruger’s website allows you to plug in a serial number for a firearm and within a few seconds can tell you whether or not a specific model has ever been recalled or had safety warnings issued for it.

David Payne: “There it is. That pulls it up. It’s a single six twenty-two caliber Ruger.”

Delia D’Ambra: What we learned is that Ruger started manufacturing John’s specific revolver in 2000. It was a new model that had brand new safety features built into it.

An older model of the same style gun did have a safety warning issued for it telling owners not to carry it in the cocked position… But Ruger’s data made the distinction between the model of revolver John owned and the older one, very clear.

Delia D’Ambra: “How can we look for any recalls?”

David Payne: “They’ll indicate on any model number that you have whether it’s been recalled.”

Delia D’Ambra: “So, the fact that this serial number comes up in Ruger with the picture and it says new model single action six revolver, this confirms for sure, John’s gun was not recalled by Ruger.”

David Payne: “That’s right. So, they have a list on their site of all the recalled models…this is not one.”

Delia D’Ambra: David and I felt pretty confident in what we’d found online…but for me, just plugging in a serial number on a website still didn’t feel scientific enough.

So, in order to really know for sure whether or not it was possible for John’s specific model of revolver to have gone off accidentally…I hired a nationally-recognized firearms examiner who purchased the same make and model gun from Ruger.

Aaron Brudenell specializes in firearm ballistics testing and reconstructions.

He has more than 20 years of experience in crime scene analysis, firearms and tool mark examination and has worked for five accredited crime labs in four US states—this guy knows his stuff when it comes to guns.

Aaron got his hands on a Ruger six shot single action .22 magnum revolver with a six-inch barrel—manufactured the same year as John’s.

He spent a few weeks evaluating documents from John’s case file and during our first interview over zoom clearly emphasized why at first glance it might have been easy for law enforcement to assume John’s gun was flawed…just based on Ruger’s safety warning history for prior models.

Aaron Brundenell: “There have been instances of earlier Ruger single action revolver designs that were, I wouldn’t consider them unsafe. They were just archaic, which is to say that it was possible, you could fully load the revolver with ammunition. And then if you lowered the hammer, it was resting in such a way that it was against the firing pin and an impact to the Ruger gun would very easily set it off.

When I first heard about this case, oh yeah, the old Ruger’s that have the firing pin set the way it is. Okay. I could see that going off. These new ones are much less likely.
So, this gun is not the type of Ruger firearm that is known or prone for that. So, if you were to drop the gun under normal circumstances, it shouldn’t go off.”

Delia D’Ambra: After our first interview, Aaron spent several months conducting a series of ballistics tests on the stand in gun that was essentially an identical twin to John’s.

Aaron Brudenell: “We don’t have access to the firearm in evidence, so, I have to take a few things on faith that the testing I did with my reference gun is comparable to what would be done if I had access to that firearm.”

Delia D’Ambra: To make the comparison as close as possible, Aaron also purchased .17 caliber Hornady red-tipped bullets…the exact same ammo that was loaded into John’s gun back in 2003.

*hammer cocks*

*revolver fires*

Delia D’Ambra: For several weeks Aaron studied the mechanisms of the revolver and documented each of his experiments on video.

*gun hammer cocking*

*actual hammer hitting mechanism clinking*

Delia D’Ambra: He focused closely on assessing the functionality of what’s called a transfer bar.

There are pictures and diagrams of this mechanism for the gun on our website—so definitely check them out if you want a clear picture in your mind of what Aaron is referring to.

Aaron Brudenell: “This is a really important safety feature that’s really relevant to this case.

So, it’s a single-action which means you actually have to pull the hammer to the rear and the trigger performs a single action. It released the hammer. So, as I pull the trigger here…*clicks*…you watch it fall and that’s how a firing event would occur.

What happens is it falls, hits a transfer bar and that transfer bar completes the circuit. But the transfer bar is linked to the trigger. So, if that is not pulled, that hammer will fall and it will not set the gun off.”

Delia D’Ambra: So essentially, unless you pull the gun’s trigger which causes the transfer bar to rise into place between the firing pin and the hammer…the gun won’t go off.

The hammer will still fall, but it will never be able to strike the firing pin unless the transfer bar is put in place.

Period.

Mac Welles, John’s dad, knew about this safety feature before he bought John this revolver. It’s the main reason Mac says he purchased the gun for his son.

Mac felt this improved design made the revolver much safer for John to carry…regardless of whether John was going to carry his gun cocked or uncocked.

Here’s Mac.

Mac Welles: “The new one, the one he had, had a falling block in it from the factory. So, you could drop that any time you wanted to and it would never go off. You would have to manually cock it all the way back and then pull the trigger.”

Delia D’Ambra: Law enforcement’s theory in 2017 was that somehow John’s revolver had fallen out of his holster or he was gunslinging with it in such a way that it either fell and ricocheted off his four-wheeler or when it landed on the ground…it went off.

But here’s the thing…I don’t think James Kirdy or Bevel, Gardner and Associates knew that John’s revolver had the transfer bar feature that literally would not have allowed that scenario to happen.

I think James Kirdy believed John’s gun was the older model Ruger revolver that had a safety recall.

Helen, John’s mom, is convinced of this too.

Helen Huff: “This gun is not the edition that had the problems that Kirdy states, the original ones did and that’s why this was called a new edition. It doesn’t have that problem and so between his assumptions and bits and pieces of, I don’t know where he got, is them coercing. I can’t think of any better word than coercing this medical examiner.”

Delia D’Ambra: But let’s say for a minute that it was possible for John’s gun to go off— despite the fact that it had advanced safety features…let’s say there was a scenario that happened where the gun did fall and that drop created enough force to override the mechanisms…

What amount of force would be necessary to make it go off?

That’s what I brought Aaron in for to get to the bottom of.

Aaron Brudenell: “Tried it several different ways to see if I could get this hammer to go forward faster than the trigger would release and prevent that safety feature from being in position.

Subjected this gun to a lot of test firing, beatings etc. and I was not able to get the gun to shoot. I could not get it go off with an impact to the rear despite multiple different attempts, multiple different techniques of trying to do that.

The gun is designed to be safe. It’s designed to be drop safe. It’s designed to be safe so that an impact of that type will not override that safety feature and cause it to fail and that’s pretty much what I was able to determine.”

Aaron Brudenell: “I think it’s incredibly unlikely that gun if it’s in the same condition as the reference gun I examined and of the same safety type, it wouldn’t have gone off with any manner of impact or drop or fall. The few circumstances that I can think of that would allow that gun to go off are pretty outrageous.”

Delia D’Ambra: One of those outrageous circumstances would be a scenario in which John’s gun landed in a specific way that the trigger was actually pulled back when it came to its final rest.

Aaron Brudenell: “There’s always this random, weird possibility that the gun was subjected to a fall in such a way that that trigger was impacted and held to the rear…that’s a possibility.

It is falling and having something land in the trigger guard and bounce around wouldn’t necessarily be enough either to set it off in such a way that it would fire. You’d have to have it land in such a way that something hit it and retained it as it went back…and so there’s a big difference between tapping the trigger and pulling and holding it for the duration of the shot.

That’s the one kind of unknowable but theoretically possible way that gun could have fallen and gone off. That will remain a possibility that won’t be able to be disproven but it’s also highly unlikely because of the physical dynamics of what would have to happen for that to occur.”

Delia D’Ambra: I have to agree. John was out in the middle of the woods…his gun was found in the sand with no rocks or sticks or anything to fit nicely into the trigger guard and hold it back so that it could fire.

The likelihood of that scenario happening I think fits the label Aaron gave it pretty well—’outrageous’’

The next thing we had to consider was the fact that John’s gun was loaded with undersized ammunition.

In the weeks leading up to the shooting, Mac learned that John was using .17 caliber ammo in the revolver and Mac scolded him about that.

Mac Welles: “I’ve got onto him about that. He mentioned it, and I told him that under no circumstances are you to ever put any ammunition in any weapon unless that is the right information.

I’ve got all over his ass about putting those damn .17s in a .22. I said, “You never do that to any gun. That is just pure stupid.

…and sometimes you just can’t tell kids things. They sometimes don’t do what they’re told. And if I’d known he was making a practice out of it, I would have been really hard on him.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, the question is, could undersized ammo have contributed to John’s gun going off accidentally?

According to Aaron…no.

He found that the undersized ammunition had zero effect on the safety features of the revolver.

The FDLE lab back in 2003 noted that as well, but since Aaron was already doing his thing, it didn’t hurt to have him double check on that.

As a part of his experiments he took velocity measurements while firing .17 caliber ammo from the revolver.

Normally that gun should have been loaded with the right size ammo—.22 caliber bullets…but we know that wasn’t the case when John was killed.

Aaron Brundenell: “That cartridge is going to be underpowered. So, that bullet is not going to leave the barrel like it would under normal circumstances because of that poor fit. It’s basically a very small bullet going down a much larger barrel a lot of that gas, a lot of that pressure that’s going to propel it forward is just going to go around it.”

Delia D’Ambra: What Aaron determined was exactly that… When you shoot .17 caliber ammunition out of a .22 revolver the bullets come out slow and sloppy.

Aaron Brudenell: “The velocity testing of the 22 magnums out of that handgun I was getting results that were right around 1500 feet per second, so that’s pretty fast.

But with the 17 it was only doing 750 more or less. So, we’re talking about half.

Generally speaking, that’s a slow velocity for a modern handgun, bullet and ammunition…and that’s because its undersized.

That bullet, because it’s not flying nose first, its tumbling in the air as its traveling…it’s going to impact with a sort of different face of that bullet every time.

If he’s using the regular intended ammunition and it hits him anywhere in the head, I think he’s done. I think that would have happened…BUT the question is, with that ammunition he had, if it hit him anywhere but the eye…there’s a decent chance he would have survived that injury. Is what I’m getting at.

The fact that that bullet went into the eyeball, so soft tissue only, made it to the back of the skull without damaging the skull, so it only went through this much soft tissue…I put all of that together and I’m thinking, you know, this, this guy is extremely unlucky in that, that type of ammunition hit him in the eye, otherwise there’s a really good chance he would have survived.”

Delia D’Ambra: That’s a pretty wild finding when you stop and think about it…

If John had been hit by a .17 caliber bullet shot out of a .22 revolver anywhere else on his body other than his eye…he might have survived.

I find that really compelling…and extremely tragic.

Aaron Brudenell: “22’s are very deadly weapons. They can be. I mean, and the fact that this was using the wrong ammo made it less deadly, but it still, it still killed him…and had that shot hit him right in the forehead…I don’t really know what would have happened but there is definitely a chance he would have had a survivable injury and that’s where I would leave it on that.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, if we’re looking at a scenario where someone intentionally shot John…then the shooter more than likely had to have known that they needed to shoot John in the face if they were going to kill him with .17 caliber ammo.

I guess…to be fair…you also have to consider a scenario where maybe the shooter never intended to kill John, but when they picked up his revolver, they accidentally pulled the trigger…and by sheer coincidence the bullet entered in the exact area of John’s face that caused the most damage.

These are all factors and scenarios that one would think Bevel, Gardner and Associates would have considered and worked through before delivering their final findings to James Kirdy in 2017…but for some reason, the firm didn’t.

And I want to know why.

When I contacted Bevel, Gardner and Associates for this story the firm declined to comment about its work on the John Welles case.

A secretary told me that because they were a private entity, they weren’t obligated to provide me with anything—which is true.

For months, all of my emails to the group’s five partners have gone unanswered…and the only address I could find for the business is a billing address in Edmond, Oklahoma.

The first of many questions I have about BGA’s involvement in this case is why James Kirdy chose them as a consultant in the first place?

It seems strange to me that the Desoto County sheriff’s office…a small department in the middle of nowhere Florida would ask a forensics firm in Oklahoma to evaluate John’s case.

In 2017, why didn’t Desoto County just take its new theory to FDLE again? –a state agency it had already worked with. Why not choose a forensics consulting firm in Florida to look at the case? —there are plenty of them.

Why tap Bevel, Gardner and Associates for the job?

The answer to that question remains unknown.

This whole idea though of bringing in a third-party firm to prove something isn’t a murder has always puzzled me. It felt…unusual.

And Dr. William Anderson—the initial medical examiner on John’s case— shares the same sentiment.

Delia D’Ambra: “Have you ever worked or been familiar with Bevel, Gardner & Associates or heard of them?”

William Anderson: “No.”

“I mean, this is the type of thing you see if the police are sure that it’s a homicide and nobody will agree with them, because they want to make sure that they can prosecute a homicide. So, that’s when you would bring in somebody if everybody disagrees that it’s a homicide and the police think it’s a homicide, I mean, that’s happened occasionally. But the other way around, I’ve never heard of this happening before. It’s amazing.”

Delia D’Ambra: Dr. Kent Harshbarger, a forensic pathologist with decades of experience, is also perplexed as to why Desoto County sheriff’s office would hire Bevel, Gardner and Associates as a consultant instead of a state lab or even the FBI lab.

After reviewing the firm’s 5-page report—Kent was surprised and honestly a little concerned by how BGA staff spoke with a sense of authority on things they had no credentials to be weighing in on.

Dr. Kent Harshbarger: “I think it’s unusual, I don’t think it’s wrong. The only problem I have with the report and it’s an assumption…I don’t know how, you know, they talk about cause of death. Well, they’re not qualified to talk… *laughs*…if they’re crime scene analyst people, great. But to say he could have walked and all of those comments that they put in that report…unless they had the appropriate consultant involved, but a crime scene person shouldn’t be making those kinds of comments in my opinion.”

Delia D’Ambra: I’m not sure I’ll ever feel super awesome about the whole Bevel, Gardner and Associates—Desoto County relationship…but regardless of why the two entities crossed paths…the fact remains that they did and the result altered everything for John’s case and his family.

The last type of testing Aaron conducted before wrapping up his work for us involved firing .17 caliber ammo from the revolver to see if any bullets could be matched exclusively to that firearm.

The police have always assumed that the bullet Dr. Anderson found in John’s skull was shot from his own gun…but technically back in 2003 FDLE could not say for sure because the bullet didn’t have rifling on it that allowed them to say with 100 percent confidence that it was shot from John’s revolver.

When Aaron conducted similar tests…he was faced with the same challenge.

Because .17 caliber ammunition is too small for the barrel of a .22 caliber gun, the bullets don’t get microscopic etching on the sides…essentially a fingerprint for the gun they come out of.

Rifling on a bullet allows examiners like Aaron to say for sure what specific gun the cartridge was fired from.

Aaron says the lack of rifling on the .17 caliber round that is alleged to have come out of John’s revolver is super important to this case…because it can’t rule out other .22 caliber firearms as potentially being involved.

David Payne: “Would law enforcement be able to definitively say whether the bullet recovered was from that particular gun that they think was the murder weapon?”

Aaron Brudenell: “No. In fact, very critically, because there is no rifling engagement…there’s really no tool marks left behind on that bullet to identify it to that particular firearm.”

Aaron Brudenell: “Any other gun that is a .22 Magnum chamber firing that type of ammunition would be indistinguishable scientifically.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, if the testing we did on a firearm that’s identical to John’s shows it’s highly unlikely his Ruger revolver went off accidentally…then I think we have to at least consider that James Kirdy and Bevel Gardner and Associates findings could be very wrong.

…which means the information they provided Dr. Russell Vega was wrong…and the end result is that John’s case is no longer being investigated as a crime.

But I’m not so sure it can stay that way for long.

Despite DCSO being so convinced that John’s revolver is the gun that fired the deadly shot into his head back in July 2003…I think that assessment—like so many others they’ve made in this case—could be wrong too.

You see, not long ago in my investigation…I had a breakthrough.

I learned that there was actually another Ruger .22 magnum, single action six shot revolver right beneath investigators noses all these years.

A gun…they were told about…but never paid attention to.

Patrick Skinner: “There may be more than one gun like that.”

Delia D’Ambra: A gun that was at the southeast Hansel property on July 8th 2003…

Detective: “Is there an inventory of what guns are in that safe?”

Detective: “How many rifles? How many shotguns? How many pistols?”

Skip Strader: “10-12…2 or 3 shotguns. Couple muzzle loaders and I believe my dad had maybe two pistols.

Delia D’Ambra: A gun that could blow this case, wide open.

Keri: “The only guns that I have left of Skip’s, I have in a holster…”

“…I believe it’s a six-shot.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Is it a Ruger?”

Keri: “I believe so…and then Skip’s name is engraved on it.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Do you have that here?”

Keri: “Mhmm. In my storage building.”

Delia D’Ambra: That’s on the next episode of counterclock— “Similarity”—listen, right now.