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Episode 14: Statistics

The cleanliness of John’s revolver brings into question whether it was ever the murder weapon at all. Delia uncovers data from the 12th District Medical Examiner’s office that raises concern about the number of undetermined deaths recorded the same year John’s manner of death was changed.

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: When it comes to re-creating a crime scene there are guidelines on what to consider and what not to consider.

Someone who knows that without a doubt is Aaron Brudenell—the forensic firearms expert and crime scene analyst who we hired to evaluate the John Welles’ case.

Aaron Brudenell: “There’s a phrase we have in reconstruction circles. It’s called the limited universe.”

“It like a filter. You’re building a giant filter with all the facts that you can assemble from the case to help sort out what’s possible from what’s not possible, what’s likely from what’s not likely and try to compare scenarios. But what you never get at the end of this is ‘Oh yes. This is exactly what happened.’”

Delia D’Ambra: When Aaron and I first went over the facts known about John’s crime scene…the scenarios of what could have happened to him based on the evidence, seemed pretty straight forward.

Aaron conducted tests to rule out suicide.

Then he looked at whether John’s revolver had the capability of firing if its safety features were overwhelmed—which he proved with a high degree of certainty was not possible.

Finally, he evaluated scenarios that pointed to murder….but not murder by a total stranger…

Murder by someone present at the southeast Hansel property that day.

Someone who made sense in the limited universe of the case.

Aaron Brudenell: “You can never rule out this hypothetical possibility of some unknown shooter came in fired a shot.

Well, we tend to disregard that because we’re using the limited universe of what we have available.

Delia D’Ambra: The facts that point to John being a victim of a homicide are—

One—the shot that killed him came from several feet away.

Two—it’s statistically impossible for John’s revolver to have gone off accidentally.

And three—his body somehow got from the four-wheeler to a watery ditch roughly 40 feet away.

For Aaron and Kent Harshbarger—the forensic pathologist who I also consulted for this show–those three factors support John death being a homicide.

Dr. Kent Harshbarger: “I think that in the very beginning, they’re going down this pathway is this is an accident.”

Dr. Kent Harshbarger: “Knowing the weapon part. Now that that’s brought to my attention, I don’t see how you can call it an accident.

Delia D’Ambra: When I confirmed through case documents and transcripts that another .22 Ruger revolver just like John’s was accessible at the southeast Hansel property the day of the crime…that changed things for Aaron Brudenell.

It widened the scope of the limited universe in the case.

Meaning, in order to be thorough—Aaron believes authorities should have evaluated Mel Senior’s gun as an important piece of evidence just as much as they considered John’s.

Aaron Brudenell: “In this case because you have another gun that apparently does have the older, lack of safety features, and potentially even some kind of family significance that makes it more valuable to the family AND you also have what you said an 18-hour period where the gun was taken and no one knows where it was or no one whatever…that stuff enters the limited universe just fine.”

Delia D’Ambra: Aaron says the existence of the other .22 single action six shot revolver opens up another possible scenario for consideration.

He suggested that perhaps John was actually carrying his grandfather’s revolver in the woods on July 8th…and it was that gun that went off by accident.

But then when suspects in the case discovered that gun and John’s body by the four-wheeler…they manipulated the scene to remove Mel’s gun and swap in John’s for some reason.

Aaron Brudenell: “What if that was the gun he had there and that was the whole reason it went off. That’s a whole lot easier to reproduce. You’re not having to overwhelm safety features with massive force of exotic circumstances. Since they take the gun away, maybe they just were like ‘Well, this is the family heirloom. Let’s just say it was this gun instead. I mean it could be as simple as that. Which would one, explain the accident a lot easier and then you have at least some kind-of post-scene manipulation. Maybe even innocently. Like, well, we know this gun is going to get taken by the police let’s give them his gun since it doesn’t have any engraving on it or something. It’s not a family heirloom. I don’t know. It’s one of many possibilities.

It’s not an absurd scenario to think that maybe that was the gun he was carrying. That’s why it went off by accident AND it was substituted for other reasons.”

Delia D’Ambra: Now—I know what you’re thinking…that scenario is kind of wild

And you’re absolutely right. There’s no proof that’s what happened.

But it is a scenario you have to consider in the limited universe of what we now know in light of Mel Senior’s revolver being in the mix as a potential alternate weapon.

But I’ll be honest with you—I’m not 100 percent convinced that’s what happened…however, because Mel Senior’s gun was never processed as evidence, we’ll never know if it was fired that day as the actual murder weapon or if it was discharged as a result of an accident and then covered up.

Let’s just say for a minute though that Mel Senior’s revolver was the actual murder weapon…

That means John’s revolver was a plant—and if Patrick Skinner is right, then just like he’s always claimed—John’s gun was fully loaded when he found it.

But at some point between the evening of July 8th and mid-morning on July 9th, someone realized in order for police to believe that John’s gun was the gun that fired the bullet that killed him…there needed to be a spent casing in the cylinder.

So, someone took the spent .17 caliber shell casing out of Mel Senior’s gun and put it into John’s revolver…before handing John’s revolver over to law enforcement.

Again—let me be clear—that’s just a scenario to consider.

It’s not a theory police ever looked into but it is one that the evidence could support.

Even though it’s a bit conspiratorial—Patrick admits it’s a viable theory that would explain a lot.

Patrick Skinner: “It come out of my possession into their possession, okay…obviously they were very careful not to touch any part of the gun.”

“Even though it was in a holster to not have anyone’s but my fingerprints…that’s just weird.”

Delia D’Ambra: Patrick’s fingerprint being the only print on John’s gun is kind of weird when you look at the grand scheme of things.

This is a point I’ve made once before this season.

If you consider DCSO’s current theory that it was John’s gun that went off…you’d at least expect to find his fingerprints on the gun along with Patrick’s.

Why was Patrick’s the only print on it? Why did DNA Labs International not find a shred of John’s DNA on the gun when the processed it in 2010?

Then it hit me…

It might not have been cleaned intentionally by the killer to remove evidence at all. It might have been clean all along.

Follow me here…

I know for a fact that John was meticulous about cleaning and wiping down his revolver.

There are multiple people who corroborate that.

Including Patrick Skinner…

Patrick Skinner: “John took care of his things. Especially his knives, his guns. He was actually a clean freak in some ways when it came to that stuff.”

Delia D’Ambra: And Beth Flowers.

She told detectives during her July 2003 interview that John’s cleanliness with his gun was excessive.

Detective: “Do you know if he had a favorite gun?”

Beth Flowers: “A Ruger. The pistol. His dad got it for him.”

Beth Flowers: “He showed me that and if it had one speck of dirt on it, he would go and clean it for like hours, he loved it. He never put it down in the dirt or anything like that.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, if John was always cleaning and polishing his revolver…maybe that’s why it was clean as a whistle when Patrick picked it up by the four-wheeler.

Maybe it had been sitting in John’s room the entire day, but at some point was planted at the crime scene before Patrick showed up and touched it.

That could explain why only Patrick’s fingerprint was on it…and why it was fully loaded with six unfired bullets…

The only thing that doesn’t add up to me with that scenario is the fact that FDLE found traces of John’s blood on his revolver…like a tiny, tiny amount right on the end of the barrel.

So, if John’s revolver was a plant and was never present during his actual death…then his blood being on it, even in the tiniest amount, doesn’t support it was planted evidence.

Its contradictory—and actually points more to John’s gun being the one that fired the bullet that killed him.

This kind of process thinking and working through what the evidence supports and what it doesn’t is something authorities should have done and should still be doing in this case.

But now with John’s manner of death being labeled undetermined, they don’t have to.

What I can’t figure out is why no one in Desoto County law enforcement, or at FDLE or the 12th district medical examiner’s office wants to figure out what really happened to John?

Why don’t they even want to look at the facts again?

How many other cases like this are out there that are now stuck in the same frustrating limbo?

Well…I think I’ve found the answers to some of those questions.

And they’re buried in hundreds of pages of data from the medical examiner’s office that only the counterclock team has taken the time to comb through.

According to the FBI’s uniform crime reporting system—there was only one murder in Desoto County in 2003—which you probably guessed it, was John Welles.

Between then and 2019, there’s only been a handful more…with some years going without any homicides.

That should be a comforting thought for people living there—but here’s something that’s not so comforting…in the past 20 years, nearly a quarter of all murder victims in Desoto County were between the ages of 10 and 19. This statistic, unfortunately includes John Welles too.

As a journalist, I tend to look at stats like this…take them for what they are…but find myself desiring to know more.

Simply evaluating one rural county’s murder rate isn’t enough information to get a full picture of what the realistic murder rate is for a regional area.

So, in order to widen out my search for information I went to the one place that I figured would have a lot more data…the Florida medical examiner’s commission—also known as the MEC.

The MEC was created in 1970 to ensure standards of excellence and monitor the performance of every medical examiner’s office in the state.

According to its website, the entity is housed within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement—an entity you’ve heard me mention a lot this season with the letters FDLE.

The MEC board is comprised of 9 members who are responsible for overseeing medical examiners in all 25 districts in the state.

The board also conducts investigations into allegations of misconduct and corresponds with the public and journalists like me.

Every year the board has four quarterly meetings and it’s at those meetings that they discuss the progress of investigations into complaints as well as go over annual workload reports.

By law, the MEC has to provide the annual workload reports to the public…and if you click around long enough on their website, you’ll find massive PDF documents that go back all the way to 2001.

They’re filled with charts, graphs, summaries, and tables of data.

It wasn’t the most exciting research to do…but I spent several days reading through the annual reports for the 12th district medical examiner’s office…the office that Dr. Russell Vega has been the chief of since 2003.

Vega and his staff handle autopsies for Desoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

When I was finished reviewing the office’s annual reports from 2003 to 2019—a time span of 16 years—I found something strange…

Something I couldn’t explain…but was deeply concerning.

In 2003 the 12th district ME’s office ruled 3 deaths as undetermined.

The data for 2004 to 2016 was similar…. less than 10 undetermined deaths a year.

But in 2017—the same year John Welles manner of death was changed to undetermined—the 12th district ME’s office ruled 17 deaths as undetermined.

The highest number of undetermined death rulings than any year prior…and the highest number since.

This forced me to ask…. What in the world was going on in 2017 at the 12th district medical examiner’s office that resulted in so many people’s manner of deaths being labeled as undetermined?

It’s unclear if the addendum that Dr. Vega made to John’s death certificate accounts for one of these 17 undetermined death labels or not…but if it doesn’t that would actually mean 18 deaths were labeled as undetermined by the 12th district in 2017—John’s being sort of retroactive in a sense.

I needed to figure out why this number was so high?

Like Dr. William Anderson said in an earlier episode…an ME labeling a death as undetermined is usually something pathologists try to avoid if they can.

William Anderson: “Undetermined is basically a wastebasket. You really don’t know what the manner of death is.

It usually happens in decomposed bodies or skeletonized remains, that sort of thing where you really just can’t tell.”

Delia D’Ambra: A forensic pathologist having a long track record of undetermined deaths isn’t a desirable outcome for anyone.

William Anderson: “If it’s a homicide, just keep investigating it. Who knows when somebody will turn up and say, if you make it undetermined, police are going to stop.

There’s not going to be more investigation. You don’t do cold cases on undetermined deaths. They got enough cold cases as it is. So, the medical examiner is essentially saying, well, we can’t determine, well, then there’s no way you’re going to be able to take it to court because it’s undetermined.”

Delia D’Ambra: Anderson feels 17 undetermined death rulings coming out of the 12th district in 2017 alone is odd.

Like he said before, he can’t understand at all why Dr. Vega changed John’s death from homicide to undetermined.

The only explanation he offered was that perhaps Vega…and staff at the 12th district have felt pressure from law enforcement agencies…and that’s why with John’s case in particular, the change was made.

William Anderson: “In the medical examiner system, law enforcement has a very, shall we say, lopsided influence.

The police and law enforcement arm choosing a medical examiner and also choosing to reappoint a medical examiner, which happens every six years in Florida, basically are heavily weighted toward law enforcement because they’re making the decision. So, I think it’s no secret that in order to keep your position, you need to keep law enforcement somewhat happy and so forth. So, I don’t know how that played into this but you never know.”

Delia D’Ambra: If that’s true, that would mean the Desoto County sheriff’s office would have needed motive to make sure John’s manner of death was amended…

James Kirdy’s determination to have it changed had to come from somewhere.

But the question is, who benefitted from John no longer being a murder victim?

For Helen Huff…she thinks it’s the current sheriff James Potter.

Helen Huff: “That’s the million-dollar question. That’s what I’m saying. What do y’all get out of it? The only thing that could come out of there good is, “Oh look, Potter solved this case.”

Helen Huff: “Kirdy I think was brought in to clean up things, to make Potter look good, to get re-elected.”

Helen Huff: “As long as it stays a homicide, it has to stay open.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Why do you think they want it closed?”

Helen Huff: “Because, it makes Potter look good. He solved a case. I mean, this happened… Look at the time, 2016 to ’17 election.”

Delia D’Ambra: Helen raised an interesting point.

Delia D’Ambra: The change to John’s manner of death and ultimate end to law enforcement’s investigation did happen right as James Potter was running for his first term in office.

Election records show that James Potter won his seat in November 2016—and within just a few months John’s case was considered a ‘cleared’ homicide in his department’s eyes.

When he ran for office again in 2020, he won a second term.

But to me—the suggestion that somehow John’s case was changed just as a means for Potter to earn favor with constituents seems hard to buy.

I mean, it’s not like Potter touted the closure of John’s case a win for his campaign or anything…

He didn’t make a promise to voters that he’d be the sheriff who would get to the bottom of the mystery.

In fact, despite having an extremely active Facebook page and presence in Arcadia, Desoto County sheriff’s office has never released a statement or capitalized on a public relations announcement promoting the fact that they no longer consider John’s case to be a murder.

They haven’t made a big deal about it at all.

And if you go and take a look at how much this agency posts on social media—you’ll get what I mean when I say them not taking credit for what James Kirdy accomplished in 2017 is kind of mystifying.

If I wasn’t doing this podcast…I honestly doubt anyone in the area would even know the department considers John’s death an accidental shooting.

Everyone that I’ve spoken with in Arcadia—even people totally unrelated to the case—still think John was murdered.

Which, if you think about it, if you’re a member of law enforcement—that’s kind of messed up to leave just hanging out there for people to think.

Regardless of what Desoto authorities have determined behind closed doors…the fact remains that none of John’s close friends of family think for a second that his death was a result of an accident.

Mac Welles in particular thinks the reason for so much secrecy is because things were not done on the up and up…

By law enforcement…

Mac Welles: “Somebody’s hiding something. And the damn police department are helping them.”

Delia D’Ambra: Or by the 12th district medical examiner’s office.

Mac Welles: “It’s clear to me…somebody is shielding somebody.”

Delia D’Ambra: Which is why I decided to take these concerns to the one authority I knew had to listen…

Chairman: “Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Medical Examiner’s Commission meeting.”

Delia D’Ambra: Nine people who couldn’t turn a blind eye…

Chairman: “Members of the public shall limit their comments to 5 minutes.”

“Delia D’Ambra. Investigative journalist.”

Delia D’Ambra: But my time in front of the Florida MEC board… Came with an unexpected curveball.

PA System “May I have your attention please. There has been a fire alarm reported in the building.”

Delia D’Ambra: That’s on the season four finale of counterclock— “Serious”—listen, right now.