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Episode 15: Serious

Delia finds herself confronting a state governing board head-on at one of their quarterly meetings. Everything about the integrity of Desoto County and FDLE’s handling of the John Welles case comes into question and the pressure of the CounterClock investigation builds to a breaking point. Plus, a special finale call out for listeners to keep the momentum going.

Case Contact Information

Desoto County Sheriff’s Office

208 East Cypress Street
Arcadia, Florida 34266

Phone: 863-993-4700

Website: www.desotosheriff.com/contact/index.php

Florida Department of Law Enforcement

Sebring Field Office
3760 US 27 South
Sebring, Florida 33870

Phone: 863-386-6085

Website: www.fdle.state.fl.us/Contact-Us/Comment-Form.aspx

Florida District 12 Medical Examiner Administration

2001 Siesta Drive
Suite 302
Sarasota, FL 34239

Phone: 941-361-6909

Website: www.fldist12me.com/contact-us

Florida Medical Examiner’s Commission

Phone: 850-410-8600 and 850-410-8609

Websites: www.fdle.state.fl.us/MEC/Contacts and www.fdle.state.fl.us/MEC/MEC-Home

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is the final episode of season 4—-if you haven’t listened to the first 14 episodes, be sure to go back and binge them or else nothing will make sense.

Also, after you’re done listening be sure to email me your burning questions about season four to counterclock at audiochuck dot com.

Ashley Flowers and I will try to answer them as best as we can when we come back in a few weeks with a bonus episode.

But for now, here’s episode 15…Serious.

On Wednesday August 4th 2021 the Florida medical examiner’s commission met in person—a rarity considering the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on in-person gatherings.

The meeting marked the commission’s official third quarter board meeting.

It was open to the public…and took place inside a grand ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria Resort in Orlando, Florida.

Yep—right in the heart of the happiest place on earth, Disneyworld.

Which I have to say was kind of ironic…considering the room was crowded with dozens of medical examiner’s and FDLE agents who are employed in probably the most unhappy line of work.

Anyway, I was the only journalist in attendance …and just one of three people who’d signed up to speak during public comment.

I could tell from the moment I entered the ballroom…I stood out.

Based on the conversations and idle chatter going on around me, it felt like everyone knew each other and the nine board members who were lingering around their chairs arranged in a panel line up at the front of the room all gave me glancing looks as if to say— “who’s that?…and why does she have a recorder?”

I be willing to bet money that this group had probably never had a reporter show up to one of quarterly meetings….let alone an investigative journalist working on a podcast.

Two days earlier I’d emailed and spoken on the phone with a man named Chad Lucas who coordinates the MEC’s quarterly meetings.

I told Chad that I would be using my five minutes during public comment to request that the board review the actions of Dr. Russell Vega in the John Welles case as well as get to the bottom of why the 12th district had such an unusually large number of undetermined death rulings in 2017.

Chad communicated my information to the board members prior to the meeting and supplied them with all of the documents on the case that I’d sent in an organized packet.

Right at ten o’clock—the chairman of the board punctually hushed the room and called the meeting to order.

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

Chairman: “I’m doctor Stephen Nelson, the chairman of the medical examiner’s commission. The commission invites and encourages all members of the public to provide comment on the matters before the commission.”

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

Delia D’Ambra: after delivering those instructions, each board member stated their name out loud and their title.

*Board members stating their names*

Delia D’Ambra: They all came from various career fields—two medical examiners, a state attorney, a public defender, a sheriff, a funeral home director, another lawyer, and a county commissioner.

They were an assorted bunch for sure.

After the members introduced themselves, everyone else in the room stood up one-by-one and said their names and titles too…which I’ll be honest was really awkward considering there were like 50 or 60 people in attendance.

Not wanting to be the only one who stayed silent, I didn’t hesitate when it got to me…

“Delia D’Ambra. Investigative journalist.”

Delia D’Ambra: If there was any doubt about why I was there…it became clear to everyone in the audience in that moment.

I got some head turns and leaning over looks…but whatever, I’m used to it.

After a few more people introduced themselves, I heard a man’s voice from several rows behind me say he was doctor Russell Vega, the chief medical examiner of the 12th district.

I felt my heart jump a little bit in my chest because this was the guy I’d be speaking about during my five minutes in public comment…and he was sitting just a few seats away.

For the next 45 minutes the board quickly cruised through its agenda and before I knew it, it was time for public commenters to take the podium.

A man who was facilitating some kind of joint project with the board spoke right before me…and when he wrapped up, it was my turn to step in front of the mic…

Chairman: “Uh…Delia D’Ambra”

Delia D’Ambra: Before I could get my first word in…the chairman piped up with a disclaimer specifically for me.

Board Chairman: “We’ve received your correspondence. This is really not the format for the correspondence. We’ll give you 5 minutes to talk about that, but this is not a fact-finding board at this point. From here we will examine the complaint. We’ll look at it from the standpoint of legal sufficiency and if it is then a probable cause panel will be appointed to look at it.”

Delia D’Ambra: I thanked him and forged on with my full statement which I’d made sure timed out at just shy of 4 minutes…

Delia D’Ambra: “Appreciate it…Hello everyone my name is Delia D’Ambra and I am an investigative journalist for audiochuck podcast network. For the past several months I’ve been investigating the July 2003 death of a 17-year-old man named John Welles who died from a gunshot wound and drowning in Arcadia, Florida.

On July 9th 2003, John’s death was ruled a homicide by Dr. William Anderson of the District 12 Medical Examiner’s office. Dr. Anderson is now in private practice, but at the time was employed by the 12th District.

Two weeks after Dr. Anderson concluded his initial findings, the 12th District ME’s office requested a second physician named Dr. Daniel Spitz to consult on the case and conduct a second autopsy. Dr. Spitz’s findings were the same as Dr. Anderson’s, that John Welles died as the result of being shot by another, with a manner of death as homicide.

14 years later, in February of 2017, Dr. Russell Vega who is the current chief at the 12th District ME’s office, met with Desoto County law enforcement investigators and agreed to review the case and reconsider John Welles manner of death. On March 15th, 2017 Dr. Vega amended the manner of death on John Welles autopsy and his death certificate and changed it from being “homicide” to “undetermined” thus allowing law enforcement to close the criminal investigation into John’s death.

I have provided supporting public documents to Chad Lucas and the board on this matter which includes Dr. Vega’s two-page explanation of why he changed John’s manner of death despite expressing that he had doubts the victim’s wound trajectory and likely immediate incapacitation matched the theory that law enforcement presented.

Dr. William Anderson and Dr. Daniel Spitz have stated on record that neither of them was contacted by Dr. Vega prior to Dr. Vega filing his amendment. Both physicians feel their input would have been helpful and necessary in order for Dr. Vega to reasonably change the manner of death in this case.

I am requesting that the MEC evaluate Dr. Vega’s actions and his autopsy addendum and determine if all Florida statutes were followed. Lastly, please consider this data taken directly from the MEC’s annual workload reports dating back to 2003.

On average in the last 18 years the number of deaths ruled as homicides by the district 12 medical examiner’s office have been consistent, between 35-40 homicides per year.

In all of those years, with the exception of one year, the number of deaths ruled as undetermined averaged between 5 and 8. So significantly less undetermined deaths than the number of homicides in that region.

In 2017, the same year the 12th District changed John Welles manner of death from homicide to undetermined, his office ruled 17 deaths as undetermined. The highest number of undetermined death rulings than any year prior.

I would like the MEC to evaluate its own data and figure out why this anomaly occurred in the 12th District in 2017 and request that Dr. Vega’s and his staff provide an explanation.

As I speak before you today, I am four months pregnant with my first child.

I hope that they will live to see years beyond their 17th birthday, which was not a luxury afforded to John Welles.

For the sake of his surviving family and the general public, please consider this request and information and pursue it.

Thank you”

Delia D’Ambra: As I left the podium the room got quiet…I think everyone was digesting what I’d just laid out.

I caught a glimpse of doctor Vega and one of his assistant ME’s near the back and knew that everything I’d just said had landed on them with a lot of weight.

To be fair though, I’d requested to speak with him multiple times before that point…and I was also still waiting on his staff to fulfill public records requests.

So—it’s not like there wasn’t fair warning and due diligence on my part.

The chairman quickly got things moving along again though and the next public commenter spoke for—I’m not kidding—20 minutes.

So yeah, that whole… ‘you only have five minutes’ thing…had a loose enforcement policy, I guess.

The lady that spoke well over her allotted time did end up getting cut off though…not by the board, but by a really abrupt interruption.

*fire alarm strobe siren*

PA System: “May I have your attention please…”

Chairman: “We are adjourned. Thank you.”

PA System: “There has been a fire alarm reported in the building.”

Delia D’Ambra: Somewhere in the hotel someone had pulled a fire alarm.

Delia D’Ambra: In a matter of seconds, the MEC meeting adjourned and everyone started quickly scurrying from the ballroom.

PA System: “There has been a fire alarm reported in the building”

Woman: “Who pulled that alarm?”

*laughter*

Woman: “Somebody did that on purpose.”

PA voice: “Do not use the elevators”

Delia D’Ambra: As I was walking and shoving my notebook, laptop and recording equipment into my bag…a man came right up alongside me…

Delia D’Ambra: “Hello..”

Delia D’Ambra: It was doctor Russell Vega.

Delia D’Ambra: Unfortunately, in the commotion of the moment with the fire alarm blaring, people brushing past me, and me trying to juggle a bunch of stuff in my hands…my recorder stopped recording.

I don’t know if I hit a button or what, but either way…I wasn’t able to capture my brief face-to-face interaction with doctor Vega as we were walking out.

For about 2 minutes we spoke in the corridor right outside the ballroom amidst clusters of attendees and the alarm still echoing through the building.

His first words to me were that he did not appreciate me quote– “ambushing him” and that he’d be happy to sit down and talk about the John Welles case any time.

He gave me his business card with his direct contact information on it and said I could reach out to him for a formal interview and he would gladly talk things through with me.

I told him I’d had no intention of ambushing him but felt that speaking at the meeting was necessary considering all the information I’d brought up and the fact that up until that point I’d only gotten minimal cooperation from his office.

We agreed I’d reach out and could go from there…then we both left, in opposite directions.

A few hours later when I’d returned home from Orlando, I sent doctor Vega an email requesting an interview.

The next day he replied…saying quote—unfortunately, I now understand from speaking with staff at the medical examiners commission that you filed a formal complaint against me on Tuesday, August 3rd, the day prior to the meeting.  Accordingly, I will not be able to speak with you about the case, nor can I have any further correspondence with you until that issue is resolved.”–end quote.

This email frustrated me for one big reason…

I had specifically asked Chad Lucas when we spoke prior to the MEC’s meeting whether or not my request to the board would be considered an official complaint against doctor Vega.

I specifically said that I did not want to blast Vega in a formal capacity…I simply wanted to bring my concerns to the attention of MEC board members.

Over the phone and via email, Chad assured me that what I’d submitted for public comment would not qualify as an official complaint.

But some time between our conversation on the afternoon of August 3rd and the morning of August 4th… That had changed.

When I expressed my disappointment about the mix up to doctor Vega and Chad….Chad’s response suggested that the only way to remedy the situation was for me to officially withdraw what I’d submitted.

It felt like a trap…and I wasn’t going do it.

I informed the MEC that despite the unfortunate mess they’d made by categorizing my request as an official complaint…I wasn’t going to take back what I’d said or asked of them.

If Vega wanted to talk with me…my door was always open.

And that’s where we left it…

Until October 22nd— almost three months after the quarterly meeting.

The Florida MEC sent me an official letter informing me that they’d found no probable cause to pursue my request.

The full letter is available on our website if you want to read it.

The two big things they addressed were—-

One—-that the MEC board believes doctor Vega’s amendment to John Welles death certificate was justified since it came after a thorough review of materials from the original death investigation and law enforcement investigations as well as the report provided by Bevel, Gardner and Associates.

And two—under Florida law, doctor Vega has the ability to review historical cases and provide professional medical opinions without the consent of previous medical examiners who worked on a case.

In other words—Vega didn’t have to consult doctor Anderson before making his change to the manner of death.

What the letter did not address in any shape or form was why there were so many undetermined manner of death rulings by the 12th district ME’s office in 2017.

Like—it’s just completely absent from the board’s response letter.

I don’t know if they intentionally chose not to look into this or what, but as far as I can tell…it’s not going to be addressed which I feel is a big problem.

If the very entity that defines itself as being… ‘charged with establishing uniform standards of excellence in statewide medical examiners services and conducting administrative investigations’… Isn’t going to look into that anomaly…then who is??

After receiving the letter…I reached out to doctor Vega one more time requesting an interview…but I never got a response.

I hope that if he hears this show…he’ll change his mind. I think it would be really important for everyone to hear his side of things.

Non-responses have been a consistent theme with folks in this story.

Desoto County sheriff’s office won’t talk…Vega won’t…and of course, there’s Pat Strader who won’t either.

It’s disheartening, but in the end that’s how it goes sometimes.

The sheriff’s office’s silence though has troubled me the most.

If John’s case is technically labeled as closed or cleared in their book…then why not speak about it? Explain the conclusion you came to so there’s no lingering doubt just hanging out there.

After thinking about that for a long time…I can only reckon in my mind one reason why their silence has gone on for so long.

And that’s because maybe they’re just not confident in James Kirdy’s investigative findings from 2017….and now it’s kind of past the point of no return.

Maybe they have doubts about what the truth really is.

The reason I say this is because when you read through James’ 2017 final report…it just feels very surface-level.

On top of that…I found something in his report that calls into question the integrity of the entire thing.

On page three of the document James wrote quote– “Follow up—on May 24th, 2016 I re-interviewed Patricia Strader and Patrick Skinner. Upon completion of their interviews their testimony was consistent with their original accounts.” —end quote.

The problem with that statement is that Patrick Skinner has no memory of that interview taking place…like at all.

Patrick Skinner: “Probably around 07’ was the last call I think I got from Curt.”

Delia D’Ambra: “I have this report from the cold case guy who closed it…and he, um…”

Delia D’Ambra: “So this is the detective’s report who closed the case in 2017 and so, (page turn)…He goes through like your old statements…yeah, so detective Kirdy says ‘on 5-24-16 I re-interviewed Patricia Strader and Patrick Skinner. Upon completion of their interviews their testimony was consistent with their original accounts.’…Were you not interviewed in…”

Patrick Skinner: “In 2016? May of 2016?”

Delia D’Ambra: “5-24-16… ‘I detective Kirdy re-interviewed Pat Strader and Patrick Skinner. Upon completion of their interviews their testimony was consistent with their original stories.’”

Patrick Skinner: “I know memory is fallible but I’m, I’m…”

Delia D’Ambra: “Did you speak to him on the phone?”

Patrick Skinner: “I don’t think so…what was his name?”

Delia D’Ambra: “His name is detective James Kirdy.”

Patrick Skinner: “James Kirdy…”

Delia D’Ambra: “From Desoto County Sheriff’s Office.”

Patrick Skinner: “I feel like my wife would know about that too. Because, I mean, we were together. May…May of 2016. So, that was before I moved up here.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Were you still in Arcadia?”

Patrick Skinner: “I was still in Arcadia.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Do you ever remember a detective coming by re-investigating this case?”

Patrick Skinner: “I’m drawing a blank.”

Patrick Skinner: “If it was a quick phone call, I feel like I would remember.”

Delia D’Ambra: Now—just to be clear…I’m not saying James Kirdy lied in his report about interviewing Patrick.

Maybe he did interview him…but I can’t find the paper trail that proves that.

The fact that Patrick doesn’t even recognize James’ name or speaking with him at all I think is devastating to the credibility of Desoto County’s investigative process in 2016 and —ultimately— the entire document James submitted.

I’m not here to cast judgement or say what’s right or what’s wrong…but this glaring discrepancy speaks volumes.

I don’t know why DCSO has moved on from this case with no questions asked.

I mentioned in the last episode that their motivation just being that they wanted to get an open homicide case off their books doesn’t seem like a realistic reason to me.

I mean they still have plenty of unsolved murders in their jurisdiction—some even date further back than John’s.

They’ve got open-ended murder cases as far back as the 1980’s on their roster.

So, why clear and close John’s case and not take any credit for it?

Again, I think it comes down to a question of confidence.

I would argue that the reason we are where we are is because mistakes were made…and compounded…and perhaps covered up.

Finding a way to conclude my investigation and really wrap my mind around this story has been tough.

It’s been emotionally draining…

But I think where I’ve ultimately landed is that I believe John was murdered.

If you’re not convinced of that by now—that’s fine.

Maybe I’m in the minority here.

But regardless of which conclusion you’ve come to, one thing I know for sure is that a lot of the people who knew John during the 17 years he was alive …and the people tasked with finding out how he was killed– failed him.

For better or for worse, his family’s non-stop in-fighting…and their inability to get him the help he might have needed to deal with behavioral and emotional problems—hurt him.

From everything I’ve learned about John—from the moment he was born, he was denied a chance at healthy loving relationships that would have benefited him…and maybe even changed the course of his life.

He was a young man with a big imagination and dreams…

Helen Huff: “He liked animals. He liked the outdoors…and you know, he talked about going to the Coast Guard. When he was little it was so weird, he said one day he wanted to own a general store and just sell everything. And I asked him and I said, “What’s going to be the name of it?” He says, “White Cherries.” I said, “What?” “Yeah, White Cherries. I’ll sell lanterns and pickles,” and he started naming weird stuff. I thought, “Well, that’s good.”

Delia D’Ambra: His real family may have been scattered and tattered, but his close friends—people like Patrick Skinner—considered him family…and still would, if he was around…

Patrick Skinner: “I think we would have definitely still been friends.

I would imagine he would have kids by now…He would be free.

He would be out of that place. I’m sure we’d still go fishing…quite often.”

Delia D’Ambra: John’s dad Mac was a distant figure for most of John’s life…and over the years has blamed himself for his failures as a father.

Including being the person who purchased John’s Ruger revolver for him.

Mac Welles: “They’ll never know what it’s like to buy a child a weapon and that same weapon is responsible for your son’s death. I carry that with me every day, all day. What if.”

Delia D’Ambra: Mac has always believed that John’s gun was the weapon that killed him…which based on what I’ve presented in this show, may not necessarily be the case.

Even with that being said though…these days Mac is less concerned with figuring out what firearm killed his son…and more concerned with identifying the person responsible for pulling the trigger.

Mac Welles: “One of the most horrible things that always passed across my mind was maybe it was somebody had a very, very deep vendetta against me and took his life for revenge, but I just haven’t pissed that many people off in my life. They would have come back for me. They wouldn’t have shot my son just to get back at me

Mac Welles: “but…one day somebody’s going to talk. Everybody does. I don’t care if they’re 80 years old or 26, male or female, they’re going to talk to somebody about it to get it off their mind or off their shoulders and maybe try to repent.”

Delia D’Ambra: “What would you tell the person who’s responsible for his death, who has been unknown or not identified all of these years?”

Mac Welles: “Probably wouldn’t be any conversation to it. I’d put them down. Because they wouldn’t ever speak another word because that had been their last day on earth. I’d kill the son of a bitch if I could find them.”

Mac Welles: “I don’t give a damn who it is. I mean, they’re not going to live any longer than I’ll let them. If I find out who it is, they ain’t got long to live.”

Delia D’Ambra: The last time Mac ever saw John was the Monday evening before he was killed.

John was at Mac’s trailer and left to go the house party at Danny Jones’s.

Mac said before John crossed the door frame, he got out of his recliner and gave his son a hug and told him he loved him.

That moment has forever stayed with him…and he hopes that when it’s time to go, he’ll get to play that scenario out again.

Mac Welles: “I’d tell him maybe, I love him, and I miss him, and I’ll be seeing you.”

Delia D’Ambra: The last family members who I think—like it or not—considerably failed John… Are Skip and Pat Strader.

Regardless of their reasons why—-they hid critical evidence and information from investigators. In doing so, they thwarted law enforcements’ ability to investigate the crime scene un-manipulated.

The choices Skip and Pat made on the day John died and in the days after that, crippled the authorities’ ability to do their job in some ways.

As adults, the fact that they did not even attempt life saving measures on John when they found him face down in the watery ditch was a lack of action that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to understand or reconcile in my mind.

The one person that I think didn’t fail John was his best friend—Patrick Skinner.

A voice you’ve heard throughout this entire series.

Patrick spoke with police willingly every time they asked…he’s never wavered on his story…and he’s been the only person to not run and hide when asked to discuss the intimate details of this case.

He sat down with me, a total stranger, nearly 20 years after finding his friend dead in the water…and he didn’t hold back.

I believe Patrick sincerely wants to know what happened to John and is upset he’s never gotten clear answers.

He genuinely still missing his best friend…and you can hear it in the way he talks about John.

Patrick Skinner: “I would love for him to be able to meet my wife, *chokes up* meet my daughter… *sniffling*…I don’t have a lot of close friends. Never have. He was one of my close friends. It would be nice to have somebody like him that I’ve got things in common with and I can actually confide in.”

Delia D’Ambra: I don’t want to leave this story open ended…but sometimes that’s just the nature of this line of work.

There’s not a pretty bow to tie up everything with a happy ending.

I will tell you though that I feel this case is far from over…or at least there’s a bit of light that I think is coming from a cracked door that will just take a bit of pushing to swing wide open…and possibly result in some big changes.

Just a few months ago, doctor Russell Vega called Helen Huff.

They spoke for a half hour and afterwards she called me.

Vega told her that he was not an expert in the way firearms function…he solely depended on law enforcement’s information when he changed John’s manner of death in 2017.

He said he didn’t have enough expertise to know if the information that was given to him was wrong.

He specifically said that he did not consider John’s death to be a true accident…he said he actually leans more toward it not being an accident, however based on the info he got he felt there was enough doubt raised that he changed the death certificate.

He said he couldn’t and wouldn’t swear in court to John’s death being a result of an accident—but what he needs is more information.

He told Helen he has no problem with FDLE getting involved again if they choose to…he’d be happy to speak with Ruger firearms as well—whatever it takes to give him cause to evaluate the case for a second time.

Until he’s provided new credible information from an official law enforcement source that contradicts what he was given in 2017…he unfortunately just won’t be able to do anything with the case.

So, here’s where I think you all as listeners can help.

If you believe that the criminal investigation into John’s death needs to be reopened—then write, call, email…snail mail the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s headquarters and their Sebring, Florida office…as well as the Desoto County sheriff’s office.

You can also reach out directly to the district 12 medical examiner’s office in Sarasota.

The contact information for all of those agencies is in the show notes and on our website counterclock podcast dot com.

This July is the 19th universe of John’s death.

If he were still here, he’d be 36 years old by now…and who knows, maybe he’d have opened up that general store he told his mom about.

Maybe he’d have some kids…a family life better than his own.

Maybe he’d be a business owner…

Nobody will ever know what would have been.

He’s not here… He never made it out of that pasture in July 2003.

The same land that to-this-day is heavily fenced, and barb wired off from visitors.

After all the work I’ve put into investigating this case…I’ve realized that my initial assessment about all that security on the southeast Hansel property might have been wrong.

I don’t think the barriers and signage are about keeping people out…

I think they’re there to keep something in… Something that may explain who took John Welles’ future.

…something that can only be uncovered by re-examining the past.

I hope you all enjoyed listening to this season of counterclock and take action to contact the entities I told you about.

If you like the show and want to see more behind the scenes videos and pictures of the people, places and evidence involved…go to our website counterclock podcast dot com.

Like we’ve done with all of the seasons so far, executive producer Ashley Flowers and I will be back in a few weeks with a bonus Q&A episode to answer your burning questions about season four’s case.

Be sure to email your questions to counterclock at audiochuck dot com.

Only submissions to the official email account will be read and reviewed.

Counterclock is an audiochuck original show.

Executive producer is Ashley Flowers and all research, reporting and writing is done by me, your host, Delia D’Ambra.

So, what do you think chuck, do you approve? *howl*