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Episode 2: Slug

When the medical examiner processing John’s body discovers an intact bullet in the back of his skull, the case turns into a murder investigation. Other clues unearthed during John’s autopsy bring up even more questions about the hours and days leading up to the teen’s death. Delia launches into where police followed their suspicions.

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: At nine o’clock in the morning on July 9th, 2003…16 hours after paramedics pronounced John Welles dead, doctor William Anderson started his autopsy at the district 12 medical examiner’s office in Sarasota, Florida.

William Anderson: “At the time of Mr. Welles death, I was the associate medical examiner in Sarasota.”

Delia D’Ambra: Back in 2003, the ME’s office in Sarasota wasn’t a government entity…it was a private group of physicians that contracted with several surrounding counties, including Desoto, to provide pathology services.

John Welles was one of the last autopsies Dr. Anderson conducted in the 12th district, before leaving that office to go into business for himself…where he’s currently employed today.

William Anderson: “I practice area of forensic and anatomic and clinical pathology. And I’m presently in private practice.”

Delia D’Ambra: During his time with the 12th district in 2002 and 2003, Dr. Anderson worked hand-in-hand with Meghan Simrak, the investigator that brought John Welles case to him.

I mentioned her in episode 1.

William Anderson: “Megan was one of the investigators. She was probably there a year or so. She probably just came about the same time I did in 2002.

As a medical examiner, the pathologist really needs to be in a position to be evaluating the body as little disturbed as possible. So, we discourage investigators and certainly law enforcement from trying to do an examination on the scene, because it can really screw things up.

Megan did really exactly what she should have done. She didn’t touch the body very much by the autopsy where we have them under controlled circumstances, we can do a proper scientific examination.”

Delia D’Ambra: The first step in Dr. Anderson’s examination was to do x-rays.

Within seconds of the first image developing…he knew, John’s case was not just an accidental downing like many of the people at the scene believed.

William Anderson: “In the X-ray, as you can see, there was a projectile in the back of the skull. So that was pretty much a slam dunk as far as being a gunshot wound.”

Delia D’Ambra: A projectile…a-k-a, a bullet.

Fully intact.

William Anderson: “Went back into the skull, essentially, involved portions of the brain and ended up going from right slightly left and going into the back part of the brain.”

Delia D’Ambra: Anderson knew right then and there that the preliminary theory law enforcement and investigator Simrak were working off of—the notion that John had hit his head after falling in a shallow body of water and drowned—was incorrect.

William Anderson: “That’s why you have the medical examiner, a physician doing the autopsy and evaluating it, because they can be misinterpreted by law enforcement and anybody else looking at the body.”

Delia D’Ambra: Anderson knew from reading Meghan Simrak’s field report that she hadn’t listed a firearm as being located at the scene…and in the brief conversation he’d had with Desoto county sheriff’s office investigators the day before, they hadn’t mentioned a gun either.

But before he alerted law enforcement that he’d discovered a bullet, Dr. Anderson needed to finish the autopsy.

He wanted to provide police with everything he could from a pathology standpoint—so that their investigation would get off on the right foot.

In his report, he wrote that when John was found and when his body arrived to the morgue; his eyes were closed.

It was only after taking x-rays and lifting John’s right eyelid that Dr. Anderson determined a .17 caliber bullet had gone into the teen’s right eye.

It had entered sort of between the upper curvature of his eyeball but between the eyeball and the inside of his eyelid—a fairly unusual injury according to Dr. Anderson.

The bullet caused John’s actual eyeball to explode and as the round traveled, slightly downward, right to left through his head, it tore through his brain.

Because the bullet was such a small caliber, it slowed down as it traveled and because it didn’t come in contact with any bone, it stayed intact.

Eventually it stopped in the back of John’s head and rested near the base of his skull.

There’s a really good anatomical diagram of the bullet’s trajectory I pulled out of the autopsy report. Its on our website and I highly recommend you take a look so you can understand what I’m describing.

Trust me, it pretty important.

In Dr. Anderson’s opinion, all of the damage the bullet caused occurred internally…meaning, at first glance looking at John’s face, there wasn’t significant trauma that would make anyone think he’d been shot.

Really, it just looked like John was asleep…and was healing from a black eye.

The only sign of injury was a small, oval scab-like bump on the outside of his right eyelid near where his brow bone hung over his lid. Crusted around that area was some dried blood

When Dr. Anderson examined the wound closely, he found that a few of John’s eyelashes were missing—which in his professional opinion likely meant the bullet had torn them off as it entered.

What was odd to Anderson was the absence of soot or tiny burns on John’s skin near the entry wound…those burns are what’s referred to as stippling.

In single-victim gunshot wound cases, particularly to the head, Dr. Anderson usually found stippling.

William Anderson: “Soot and stippling are burning powder, travels certain distances in the air from a weapon.

Soot generally will travel about six, eight inches in the air. So, if it’s deposited upon the skin, then you know the weapon was close.

Now if the gun is further away than that, then all that powder and burning powder doesn’t make it, it basically drops to the ground. It doesn’t make it to the skin. So, if we know we don’t have any soot or stippling, then we know the gun has to be further than, say, two feet away.”

Delia D’Ambra: Dr. Anderson tucked that observation away in his mind while he continued the autopsy.

Next, he checked out John’s torso, arms, legs and hands.

William Anderson: “He’s got a number of abrasions, which would indicate some prior trauma or some trauma about the same time.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Is an abrasion just another word for a bruise?”

William Anderson: “Well no. A contusion is a bruise. Abrasion is a scrape.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Is there a difference between a scrape and more of like a deeper…scrape”

William Anderson: “Sure, it indicates superficial contact versus something deep, where you have a lot of deep top tissue injury and, again, hemorrhage, and that’s what causes bruise.”

Delia D’Ambra: “So, these abrasions just mean that there’s a prior trauma, but how prior?”

William Anderson: “Quite possibly at the same time.

It could have been possibly evidence of a struggle with someone struggling with him.”

Delia D’Ambra: The small cuts and scrapes gave Anderson a sinking feeling that something bad had happened to John…

He surmised that the teen was either a victim of a suicide or a bizarre terrible accident, neither of which made sense to the doctor because again, he had not read anything that indicated a gun was found at the scene…or he’d been murdered.

With the pathology findings not supporting suicide or an accident…the only other likely scenario was that John had been killed by someone else.

Anderson’s internal examination only confirmed his growing suspicions that John’s case was looking more and more like a homicide.

In John’s lungs the doctor found 200 cc’s of fluid…a little less than a cup.

According to official documents, that liquid was a mixture of dirty creek water and bodily fluids.

In our interview, Dr. Anderson explained how those fluids got there because of what was happening to John’s respiratory system as he died.

Delia D’Ambra: “What is hyperinflation of the lungs?

William Anderson: “Well, that means it’s expanded more than usual.”

Delia D’Ambra: “And why would that be?”

William Anderson: “Just sometimes with individuals as they get short of breath, particularly with developing pulmonary edema, they’re going to essentially breathe harder.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Gasping?”

William Anderson: “Yeah.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, the fact that there was traces of dirty water present in John’s lungs, meant he was still breathing when he became submerged in the ditch.

Delia D’Ambra: It was a combination of the bullet wound and water inhalation that Anderson felt, ultimately caused his death.

From reading investigator Meghan Simrak’s field report, Dr. Anderson learned that most of the blood in John’s body—what’s referred to as livor mortis—showed most of his blood had settled in the front of his chest, arms and face and nowhere else.

Meghan’s report also noted that John was in full rigor mortis when she got to the scene around 6:45 pm on Tuesday July 8th.

Anderson told me that John being in full rigor meant that he would have had to die four to six hours prior to Meghan Simrak assessing his body…which would have put his approximate time of death between 12:45 pm, at the earliest, and 2:45pm, at the latest.

Remember that window of time, because it’s going to be very important in the next few episodes.

The only thing that could affect Anderson’s rough estimate about John’s time of death would have been if John had consumed any substances or been in a state of hyperactivity close to the time he died.

In other words, had he consumed drugs or alcohol that would speed up rigor mortis setting in?

To answer that, Dr. Anderson turned to John’s stomach contents and toxicology…and what those showed…was, very interesting.

In John’s stomach Dr. Anderson found roughly 2 cups of fluid and undigested food material—indicating John had eaten breakfast or an early lunch just hours before his death.

William Anderson: “Usually the stomach will empty pretty much in a couple hours. Because again, it depends on how much you eat. If you take a huge steak dinner, it may take longer. If you just take a few bites or something, it’s going to be quicker.”

Delia D’Ambra: “So, if this victim ate breakfast that morning, for example, this partially digested food could be what that is, would it be his dinner from the night before?”

William Anderson: “Probably not.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Dinner would have been processed already?”

William Anderson: “Yeah, correct.”

Delia D’Ambra: When Anderson ran tox screens on John’s urine the results showed that John had acetaminophen, cannabinoids, cocaine and benzoylecgonine in his system.

Now—cannabinoid is just a chemical term for cannabis.

Cocaine—that’s pretty straight forward.

And benzoylecgonine is what’s excreted after cocaine is broken down by your liver.

What’s interesting to me is that all of those things showed up in John’s urine—not his blood.

I brought this up to Dr. Anderson during our interview because I wanted to understand why the substances only appeared in John’s urine.

Delia D’Ambra: “Why would drugs show up on a urine test sample and not on a blood? What does that indicate about when he consumed those drugs?”

William Anderson: “Well, it indicates that it was sometime before, because then the liver has had time to clear whatever it is from the blood. But it still basically goes through the kidney and ends up in the urine, so you’ll detect drugs in the urine long after someone has stopped using them. So, it may be absent in the blood.”

Delia D’Ambra: “But if he had used these substances that morning or even a few hours that night before, would they have shown up in his blood?”

William Anderson: “Well, it depends actually how much was, because the liver will clear at a certain rate. So, if you don’t have a lot of it, then you may get the liver clearing that out of the blood, but you’ll still find it in the urine. So, it probably was earlier maybe the day before or so and probably not a lot.”

Delia D’Ambra: “If it was a lot, would it had to have been several days before?”

William Anderson: “Yeah, right.

Delia D’Ambra: “If we’re talking several lines like it would have had to been significantly a few days before?”

William Anderson: “Yes, right.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, what I took from his answer was that more than likely John had not taken a hit of cocaine on the morning of July 8th… Or shortly before his death…or else Anderson would have found high levels of it in his blood and unprocessed amounts of it in his liver.

Same goes for the cannabis.

Dr. Anderson’s final ruling at the end of John’s seven-page autopsy report was clear—he felt that the teen’s cause of death was complications from a penetrating missile injury to the head…and the manner of death was a homicide.

Regardless of what the doc found in John’s stomach and toxicology; he was convinced those substances did not contribute to his death.

Anderson wrote in his report that the most likely scenario, based on his external and internal pathology findings, plus the slightly downward trajectory of the bullet, was that John had been murdered.

The doctor drafted an official death certificate and signed it… Specifying that he believed John was shot by another person.

William Anderson: “It’s a distant gunshot wound…and that indicates that in all likelihood, the person was shot by someone else.

We have a saying in medicine, if you hear hoofbeats in the United States, your diagnosis probably is horses instead of zebras, whereas in Africa it might be different. So, you take the most likely.”

Delia D’Ambra: After completing his findings, Anderson shared everything he’d learned with Desoto county sheriff’s office.

According to case reports I dug up, that was around 11 in the morning on Wednesday July 9th…and no one at that point other than Dr. Anderson and law enforcement knew John had been shot.

Naturally, by that same time, word of John’s reported drowning had spread all over Arcadia.

Internally, the sheriff’s office had produced incident reports of their call out to southeast Hansel Avenue from the day prior.

One of the first people to read those reports was former Desoto sun newspaper reporter Steve Blanchard.

Steve Blanchard: “I would visit, uh, with the women in records who knew me because I would go there every day. Um, they would either tell me, “Oh, there’s some good stuff in there. You might want to check out X, Y, Z.” Or I would just pick them up and head back to the office and, and, and then go through them.

If I found a story that was interesting, um, I would usually go back to the Sheriff’s office and asked to speak with Major Wise, who, uh, Major Will Wise. And he was my main contact at the Sheriff’s office.”

Delia D’Ambra: Chief deputy William “Bill” Wise was one of the Desoto County staff members on scene the afternoon John was found.

He didn’t return my calls for an interview for this podcast, but back in 2003 Bill was Steve’s main source at the sheriff’s office.

Steve Blanchard: “I would go in and I would sit at his desk, and we would have a very candid conversation. Uh, he was, we had a really good conversation most of the time because he trusted me and he knew what I would and wouldn’t report on. And we kind of had an understanding of what was on the record and what was off the record. So, um, I built a lot of trust, which let me get a lot of great stories.”

Delia D’Ambra: An accidental drowning of a teenage boy on a local farm was sad, but in terms of content for a small struggling newspaper, it was going to make a great story for Steve to break.

Steve Blanchard: “I remember, um, seeing the report and going, “Holy cow, this is different than anything I usually cover. This isn’t a school board story. This isn’t somebody getting pulled over or somebody leaving a kid in a van which happened way more than it should have.

It caught my attention because it was so different than what I would usually see in the reports. So, I knew there was a story there and, you know, the, when you get the police reports, they’re like very short, you know, a couple of sentences, maybe a paragraph. And so I knew I needed to get more details and I also knew that this was going to be probably the front-page story the next day.”

Delia D’Ambra: And it was.

Steve published a brief piece about John Welles that showed up in newspapers the next day with a headline that read— “Local teen found drowned in canal”

After reporting his first article, Steve went back for follow ups…but he noticed that his normal give and take relationship with the Desoto County sheriff’s office slowed to a trickle.

There was a lot of off-the-record conversations…and strange hushed talking behind closed doors.

Gone were the mornings where Steve and Bill Wise would drink coffee together and discuss the crime blotter.

For Steve, this drastic change alerted him to a very important reality…one that any good journalist could pick up on… Something was up with the John Welles case.

Steve Blanchard: “Law enforcement couldn’t tell me anything yet, except for he was found, we thought he drowned, but now there’s a bullet wound. We don’t know anything beyond that

Right after the coverage, it was a lot of, “We don’t know yet, and we’ll let you know, and, you know, we’re investigating and we’re looking for suspects and…” But I, I don’t ever remember there being something concrete to grab onto, to warrant a story. Um, other than repeating the same thing that we repeated before.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, Steve was forced to hold off on his reporting for the time being until law enforcement gave him something more to work with.

Most people in the community avoided talking with Steve on the record, because he wasn’t from Arcadia…and he was with the media. So, without police or public participation, Steve was stuck and moved on to other stories in the meantime.

From law enforcement’s perspective…that’s exactly what they wanted.

You see, because while Steve was fishing around for more of the story, investigators were in the beginning phases of their own hunt.

The hunt for a killer.

By noon on July 9th, they were creeping close to being 24 hours behind on the case.

Remember, when DCSO and paramedics initially responded to the trash pile off southeast Hansel Avenue, they claimed there was no gun…no bullet casing…no way for them to have known that John was shot…and in terms of physical evidence, that is all true.

But-–remember the 911 call John’s grandma placed to report finding him? —

Well, I listened back through that call a couple of times and there’s a very short part where she brings up something important before the dispatcher quickly interrupts her…

Dispatcher: “Did you hear anything or anything?

Pat: “No, ma’am. No ma’am. Uh…Oh, he took his pistol with him, but then we found out that this last time when he was walking around and we couldn’t imagine what…

Dispatcher: “Ms. Strader, can you tell if he was breathing whenever you went out there a few minutes ago, could anyone tell?”

Delia D’Ambra: Did you catch it?

Pat: “Uh, he took his pistol with him…”

Delia D’Ambra: Pat Strader, told a Desoto County emergency dispatcher that 17-year-old John owned a gun and he took it with him when he went to dump the trash.

My point here is that if investigators had keyed in on this small detail from the 911 call from the jump, they might not have mis-judged the crime scene so much.

To give them the benefit of the doubt though, even Dr. Anderson says John didn’t have any obvious signs of being a gunshot victim…and really other than knowing the findings from the autopsy, no one could have known he’d been shot.

Anyway, the first thing Desoto County sheriff’s office chief deputy Bill Wise and sheriff Johnny Fugate chose to do in order to reconcile how John could have been shot in the woods…was to take a trip back to grandma’s house and speak with Pat.

When she answered, the sheriff asked her point blank if she and Skip had noticed or found a gun near the trash pile and four-wheeler when they discovered John in the ditch the day before.

Her answer was…yes.

According to police reports, Pat told authorities that she and her stepson Skip along with a teenage boy from down the street, named Patrick Skinner, who was friends with John had all three found John dead.

She said when they made the discovery, they also saw John’s Ruger .22 magnum single action six-shot revolver laying in the sand near the four-wheeler.

They also found a belt, a nylon holster and an olive-green colored thigh strap for a firearm strewn between where the A-T-V was parked and where they ultimately found John in the water.

Pat explained to the sheriff that she’d purposefully removed the gun, holster, belt and strap from the scene before police arrived because she was afraid that she would get in trouble for allowing John—who was underage— to carry a firearm.

At the time, she said she didn’t think it had anything to do with him drowning. She emphasized that she thought he’d been stung by bees and gone to the water get away from them.

A sentiment you repeatedly hear her mention in the 911 call.

Pat: “I believe he might’ve got into some ants or a wasp or something stung him.”

Pat: “To me, my description of seeing this is if there were bees or something after him, he would have been in there and bent over to get out of there.”

Delia D’Ambra: Pat was John’s legal guardian who still had ongoing legal issues with Helen.

She said it wouldn’t bode well for her to be the responsible adult who let a teen carry a gun alone in the woods.

At that point—law enforcement wasn’t sure what to make of her story. They told her straight up that John had been shot, and explained why what she had done not only made her, Skip and Patrick look bad, but technically they’d interfered in a murder investigation.

Pat’s reaction to that was to hand over everything to police and agree to come to the station for a sit-down interview.

The story that followed is one investigators had to navigate carefully…

Patricia Strader: “Now I don’t remember in here exactly, but Patrick found the gun…”

Kim: “Okay.”

Patricia Strader: “Laying right beside the four-wheeler. He said, ‘That’s unusual.”

Helen Huff: “He picked up that gun because Pat told him to. “Pick up the gun and see if it’s been shot.”

Delia D’Ambra: That’s coming up in episode three— “Story”—listen, right now.