Episode 13: Similarity

Delia discovers another .22 Magnum Ruger single-action six shot revolver loaded with 17 caliber ammunition was present on the Southeast Hansel property the day of John’s murder. What happened to this revolver after John died? That’s the million-dollar question that Delia tries to get to the bottom of. Plus, what a former DNA forensics lab that worked on the John Welles case says could be done to gather more information thanks to new advancements.

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Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: Of the hundreds of statements uttered in this case…there are two that have caused me to wrack my brain every time I think about them–and they both came from 16-year-old Patrick Skinner during the first 48 hours of the investigation.

On July 9th—less than a day after John was found—Patrick told detectives that when he picked up John’s revolver at the crime scene…he unloaded it and saw that there were six unfired rounds inside of the cylinder.

This gave him a little bit of comfort, because he knew that the absence of an empty casing meant it hadn’t been shot.

Here’s Patrick reiterating that in our recent interview.

Patrick Skinner: “I pick it up and it’s a little .22 revolver. I remember pulling a pin and the whole cylinder falling out of it and you know putting it back together.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Did bullets come out?”

Patrick Skinner: “They did and that’s part of my memory. That I, I didn’t think at the time it had been fired….based on what fell out in my hand.”

Patrick Skinner: “I still don’t know that I ever heard from the detectives whether or not it was fired because I could have sworn it had not been fired.”

Delia D’Ambra: “So it was a six shot. So, six unfired bullets should have fallen out if it wasn’t fired. Five full bullets plus a casing should have fallen out..”

Patrick Skinner: “Right.”

Delia D’Ambra: “…if it was fired.”

Patrick Skinner: “Right and I don’t remember seeing an empty casing.”

Delia D’Ambra: It was only after Patrick found out that John had been shot that he realized six live rounds being in John’s gun…didn’t make sense.

But still—he was sure of what he saw.

When Pat Strader was interviewed immediately following investigators’ chat with Patrick…she also remarked that when her and Patrick found John’s gun at the scene—they determined based on the rounds inside of it that it had not been fired.

Which was one of her reasons for taking it from the scene…because she thought the fact that it was still fully loaded meant it likely wasn’t involved in John’s death.

Here’s pat during her July 9th, 2003 interview with detective Kim Lewis.

Pat Strader: “I asked him to check to see if there’s any, if he could tell if it was… what would you say..

Kim Lewis: “If there’s any empty casings in the gun as if it had been fired.”

Pat Strader: “Yes. Yes. Because that was my concern.”

Kim Lewis: “Yes…and what happened?”

Pat Strader: “He had to work with it to get it where he could…”

Kim Lewis: “Okay…”

Pat Strader: “and he told me none had been fired.”

Delia D’Ambra: The second statement Patrick made that has always puzzled me came out during his second interview with investigators.

He told detectives that there may have been more than one gun like John’s around.

It was a short remark but a statement that clearly suggested Patrick knew there was another .22 revolver at the southeast Hansel property that looked a lot like John’s.

For some reason though investigators never asked Patrick to elaborate on what he meant by the remark…but I’ve looked into what he might have been referring to…and what I’ve found is pretty jaw dropping.

Thanks to a crop of public records that the Florida department of law enforcement took seven months to turn around for me—I can say with certainty that there were two identical Ruger six shot single action revolvers present on the Strader property on the day John died.

One was John’s…and one belonged to his step grandfather, Mel Senior—who’d died of a heart attack in June 2003.

For a long time in my investigation, I was forced to read between the lines of documents from Desoto County sheriff’s office that were heavily redacted.

I’d seen several references made about a .22 revolver…but because there were so many chunks of text missing, it was hard to know who was talking about this gun, if they were saying it was John’s or another firearm or what…

So many black lines on the pages made the information muddy and difficult to decipher…but then, FDLE fulfilled my request for special agent Jonathan Smith’s reports from 2003…and bingo.

Everything I needed to see was spelled out clear as crystal in those documents because they were un-redacted.

What I learned is that there were more than a dozen guns in storage inside the Strader home on July 8th—one of which was a Ruger .22 six shot revolver that had belonged to Mel Senior.

There were also roughly 10 to 12 rifles and 2 or 3 shotguns in the house.

According to a statement from Skip, all of those guns were kept in a safe in a hallway closet that John did not have access to.

Matt—John’s older brother—had a key to seven locks that secured that safe and Skip indicated he had a way in as well.

During his two interviews with law enforcement on July 18th and September 5th of 2003—Matt explained more about this safe and went into detail about Mel Senior’s revolver.

A report that details Matt’s statements says quote— “The .22 Ruger that John owned was identical to their grandfather Melvin Eugene Strader Senior’s revolver which was usually kept on top of the refrigerator as a vermin gun before Melvin Strader Senior’s death”–end quote.

Matt went on to explain to police that Mel Senior’s Ruger was an older model than John’s and sometime in the four weeks between when Mel Senior died but before John was killed—Matt had taken it upon himself to remove their grandfather’s revolver from the top of the refrigerator and put it in the hallway safe.

While transferring the gun, Matt said he checked the cylinder and found six unfired .17 caliber red-tipped Hornady bullets in it…

He told investigators he’d never seen those brand of bullets before and as a precaution took them out of the gun and put them in a drawer in the safe.

Now, let me just stop right here— because when I compared the two statements Matt gave to police, I found a pretty big contradiction.

When Matt first spoke with FDLE and Desoto County sheriff’s office in July of 03’ he stated that he knew his grandfather kept a box of .17 caliber red-tipped Hornady ammunition. He specifically told investigators that those bullets had traditionally been stored in a glove box of the diesel truck that Mel drove when he was alive.

But in Matt’s second statement taken two months later, Matt stated he’d never seen those kinds of bullets before.

So, why did he go from admitting he knew about them and where they were stored…to denying their existence altogether?

The origin of where the .17 caliber undersized ammunition came from is something I wanted to pin down…because Matt going back and forth about that specific detail seems odd.

I don’t know when those bullets came into the picture, for all I know Mel Senior could have bought them months before he died…but what I do know is that Matt saying he never knew about them during his second interview with police—is just not true.

Mac Welles knew his sons knew about them…

Mac Welles: “Those 17’s I think he might have gotten that from, his grandfather might have had them in his truck, from what I remember.”

Delia D’Ambra: Here’s what’s really strange though—Pat Strader has a completely different story about where the red-tipped bullets came from.

And where they were stored in the house right before John’s death…

Pat Strader’s statements to police from day one have always been that she had no idea what ammo went to what guns in her house…or really any knowledge about firearms whatsoever.

Pat Strader: “I don’t shoot guns. They can talk about the .44, the seven millimeter, and the magnum…I don’t know what in the world they’re talking about…a gun is a gun.”

Pat Strader: “I can’t tell you what’s a rifle and what’s a shotgun.”

Delia D’Ambra: She claimed to be completely ignorant of John’s interest in guns and was unaware what ammunition he used or why…

Kim Lewis: “When he stored the gun in there did he typically unload it or leave it loaded?

Pat Strader: “I don’t know. I don’t handle that gun, so I don’t know.”

Kim Lewis: “Did he normally wear the gun when he went out in the woods?”

Pat Strader: “I can’t answer you that he did every time.”

Delia D’Ambra: She didn’t know anything about a box of .17 caliber red-tipped bullets being in Mel Senior’s pickup truck—and had no idea where John got them from.

Pat Strader: “He found those somewhere in something.”

Delia D’Ambra: The only thing she remembered was that John asked her about the bullets right before he loaded his revolver and went over to take the trash to woods on the day he died.

Pat Strader: “John came to me. I was in the computer room and he said where are these and he named them all and I said John I don’t know. During your grandad’s funeral we had people in here cleaning and I said they likely could have shoved it anywhere. So, he went in the kitchen and opened the drawer and went right on the corner and he said ‘Here they are’…and I said “What kind are those?’…and I believe it’s one of those types when they mushroom out…I said man you better be careful with those.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, to summarize everything for you to make it less confusing…

We have Patrick, Mac and Matt all saying they knew.17 caliber ammo was at the Strader home and John became aware of it shortly before his death.

But Mac specifies that John told him he found the ammo in Mel Senior’s truck…and Matt at first said that too—but then later claimed he’d never seen the bullets before.

And lastly, we have Pat with a completely different story that says John got ahold of some red-tipped bullets but they were not in the safe—they were in a kitchen drawer.

Here’s my point with all of this…there’s no doubt, there were two identical Ruger revolvers in the mix back in 2003 that were both capable of being loaded with .17 caliber ammunition.

Rounds of that kind of ammo may have been stored in two places in the home…the safe and the kitchen drawer.

But in my mind, the only way six bullets get in the kitchen drawer is if Matt or someone else put them there after unloading Mel Senior’s gun if it was in fact unloaded and stored in the safe like Matt said.

If no .17 caliber bullets were ever put in the kitchen drawer, then Pat’s whole story about John finding them there before he went into the woods is a lie.

Where I’m going with this is that I feel there’s a very real possibility that either gun could have been used in John’s murder.

Why law enforcement didn’t consider this scenario in 2003 is something I can’t explain.

I mean—detectives were told about the two guns…they were told undersized ammo was loaded in each of them…and they knew all of their suspects could have accessed them.

Documents in the case file show that after talking to Matt, FDLE agents took the six Hornady bullets that Matt claimed were the rounds he took out of Mel Senior’s gun as evidence… But at no point was the actual firearm seized.

It never underwent ballistics tests or a forensic examination…

It was never fingerprinted or sent for forensics testing…

It was never considered as relevant in the investigation.

But I think it could be really relevant.

So, that’s why I had to find out what happened to it after the crime.

Turns out…it didn’t go far.

It ended up with Skip and our team only found that out after speaking with Keri…his former fiancé.

Keri: “The only guns that I have left of Skip’s, I have in a holster. I believe it’s a Ruger.”

“I believe it’s a six-shot.”

Keri: “Skip’s name is engraved on it.”

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

Keri: “Mhm. In my storage building.”

Delia D’Ambra: Keri made that comment when David and I spoke with her last and I think as soon as she said it… She had a realization.

Keri: “I don’t know if I even should have brought it up.”

“*shy laugh* That’s odd…”

Delia D’Ambra: I followed up with her after that and she agreed to take me to her storage unit and look at the gun…but then every time we tried to meet up, it couldn’t happen for one reason or another.

Then one day, she called and told me that she actually didn’t have the gun anymore. She said she’d forgotten to tell me that she sold it in exchange for a four-wheeler a few years ago—and it was a cash deal.

The irony.

Anyway, David and I weren’t sure what to make of Keri’s story about selling the gun and forgetting to tell us.

She seemed pretty sure during our recording that she still had it in her storage unit—and to be honest we kind of felt like she had connected the dots about how relevant the gun was.

We felt like she just didn’t want to let us see it… But the truth is, I have no idea whether Keri has the gun or not anymore.

If she did sell it in a cash deal in order to buy a four-wheeler…then so be it.

That sale likely wasn’t conducted through the proper channels…so finding a record of who purchased it from her is slim to none.

I also can’t look up the serial number for it because when police wrote it down in their reports…they incorrectly missed a digit…so I have no way of tracing it.

The good news is that the firearm itself is pretty unique it’s an old model six shot single action Ruger revolver that is engraved with Melvin Eugene Strader’s name.

I’d say that’s kind of distinct.

So, whoever has that gun now…if you’re out there, listening, please contact me.

That firearm could be of extreme importance to this case.

I’m not saying ballistics tests would confirm conclusively it was involved in John’s murder …but maybe, just maybe DNA analysis could be done on it even this many years later.

I know that seems like a long shot…but it’s not impossible.

DNA Labs International confirmed that the testing they’re doing now to retrieve small samples of DNA from firearms is the best it’s ever been.

How long an item has sat or possibly been in an unideal environment is not as big of a challenge thanks to advances in technology.

Rachel: “When we’re measuring DNA, we’re able to see smaller quantities now. Amplification, where we basically make xerox copies of the DNA. We do that now at more locations and with higher efficiency than we previously did. And then the last part where we’re actually generating that DNA profile, those instruments have all been updated and made more sensitive.
Even in tough conditions. We’ve gotten DNA from a gun that was recovered from the inner coastal which if you’re not familiar with Florida is like a canal that kind of runs adjacent alongside the coast line so obviously not ideal circumstances and we were able to get touch DNA off that gun. Do you remember how long that was in there?”

Allison: “A week. It was in the inter coastal for a week in saltwater.”

Allison: “There’s definitely technology and we barely need any DNA to get results at this day and age, where they needed a lot more back then. So, the likelihood of us getting something now is much more likely.”

Delia D’Ambra: “What year do you guys think that really changed?

Allison: “2017.”

Delia D’Ambra: “In 2017.”

Allison: “When we all changed to the chemical kits.”

Allison: “Some cases we would see when we initially ran it we’d see 2 DNA profiles but when we ran it after with these newer kits we would actually see 4 people’s DNA profiles. So, they were always there, we just weren’t detecting them before. So, now when we go back to cold cases, we can detect a lot more people or DNA profiles than before.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Are there any cases and we’ll just say for instance, touch DNA cases, where knowing what you have at your disposal now if you could have the opportunity to go back and get cases from 2007, early 2000s, late 90’s that you’d say ‘I think we could do so much more.’

Rachel: “So many. And there’s so many cases…I keep a running list for new technology that I know is going to be six months of 12 months or 24 months down the road where we keep running excel sheets so when that technology is available, I can be like, beep, beep beep, and call up that detective and say ‘Okay that think I told you about 5 years ago? It’s here let’s do this’”

Delia D’Ambra: “So if I have a case from 15-20 years ago where touch DNA was analyzed but there was nothing that could be assessed from it…if a case like that were to come back and be resubmitted today what kind of things could be applied that could perhaps bring a few more answers?”

Rachel: “Any time a report says due to the limited amount of information or the limited amount of DNA I’m always like, try it again now. If it was anything prior to 2016…try it again now.”

Delia D’Ambra: The last thing that has me convinced Mel Senior’s identical .22 revolver should have been and still needs to be evaluated as a potential murder weapon has to do with bullet count.

You see—law enforcement seized a box of Hornady .17 caliber ammunition from the Strader home after John’s murder.

There were 38 bullets in that box according to police reports.

Traditionally—that particular brand of ammunition was sold in 50 count boxes.

I verified that with our firearms expert Aaron Brudenell.

Aaron Brudenell: “They typically are in the 50 round boxes of that type. I’m not saying there aren’t some out there but this particular brand and this particular type of ammunition that is the only way I’ve ever seen it.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, if there were 38 bullets left in a 50-count box when law enforcement got the ammo on July 9th–that meant there were 12 bullets missing.

Six bullets presumably loaded in John’s gun from either the box itself or the kitchen drawer…and six that were unaccounted for.

Those unaccounted-for bullets realistically could have only been one of two places—in Mel Senior’s identical .22 revolver …or rolling around the safe drawer where Matt Welles said he put them shortly after his granddad’s funeral.

What’s an absolute fact is that one of those 12 bullets ended up being fired into John’s eye—killing him.

The question is, what gun did it come out of?

If Patrick Skinner is right when he said he found John’s revolver on July 8th with six unfired rounds in it—then how did a spent shell casing end up in it by the time authorities got ahold of it on July 9th?

Did a swap of fired and unfired ammunition take place between the two revolvers in the critical hours that the gun was away from the crime scene but not yet in the hands of investigators?

Patrick Skinner: “It come out of my possession into their possession, okay…

“It stayed at that house that night up until the cops actually went and seized it…”

“Whether or not he was shot with his own gun, I don’t think I ever even, definitively found that out.”

Delia D’Ambra: That’s what I’m exploring more, on the next episode of counterclock—

Aaron Brudenell: “We don’t know for sure if this particular firearm in question was the one used.”

Delia D’Ambra: Listen to episode 14—“Statistics”—right now.