Episode 3: Story

Desoto County Sheriff’ Office has to start their murder investigation from square one and they’re 24 hours behind. They call in help from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Delia breaks down detectives first interview with John’s grandmother to explore her version of events. Plus, Delia examines why the results of John’s toxicology screen became a major focal point for investigators.

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Kim Lewis: “This is detective Kim Lewis. It is 1:23pm the 9th of July 2003.

Present is Mrs. Patricia Strader. Is that correct?

Delia D’Ambra: For 40 minutes on the day after John was found dead…Desoto County sheriff’s office detective Kim Lewis recorded an official interview with Pat Strader, his grandma.

And Kim wanted Pat to know that investigators were taking this conversation seriously.

Kim Lewis: “Do you understand the meaning of the word perjury?”

Patricia Strader: “Yeah.”

Kim Lewis: “Perjury is lying under oath. In the state of Florida if you are found to have committed perjury you can be criminally charged for that. Do you understand that?”

Delia D’Ambra: The audio quality of these tapes is fuzzy in some parts because they were done on actual cassettes, but for the most part you can hear the exchange clearly.

Through some digitizing and post production magic the team has tried to make them as audible as possible.

Now–normally a sit-down interrogation like this between a detective and a potential suspect would be colder, pretty impersonal.

But, here’s the thing, Pat and Kim knew one another…Pat had seen Kim grow up; they knew each other’s family members.

In fact, Pat knew most of the law enforcement officers working her grandson’s case.

And I definitely picked up Pat’s casual demeanor from the start of the conversation.

Kim Lewis: “Do you swear or affirm the information you provide in this statement to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Patricia Strader: “Kim, it’s going to be to the best of my recollection.”

Delia D’Ambra: The main reason the sheriff’s office wanted to talk with Pat was because she was one of three people who’d found John in the woods.

She’d made the 911 call…

She was his legal guardian…

And on top of that, she’d admitted to removing critical pieces of evidence from the crime scene prior to law enforcement arriving.

If there ever was a checklist on why to question someone in a homicide, I’d say she fit the bill.

Authorities needed to get the story straight about what went down before they arrived on scene.

They were behind 24 hours with their homicide investigation, and one of their only ways to get the ball rolling was to have Pat, her stepson Skip, and 16-year-old Patrick Skinner tell them what they each remembered about the last time John was accounted for at the southeast Hansel property.

All three were questioned on July 9th, but in this episode we’re going to focus on Pat’s first sit down with investigators.

Patricia Strader: “I have no actual knowledge that I could say what time that he went over to go across the road, just going by what Skip said, it should have been somewhere around 12 or 12:30.

Skip came into the house and then, I, we think it was approximately 1 or 1:30 when he said, ‘You know, John’s not back. Maybe I better go check on him.”

Delia D’Ambra: According to Pat, she and Skip had that conversation around 1:30pm.

Pat told Kim that Skip then drove over into the pasture and woods to look for John.

Patricia Strader: “He went over there, and he didn’t find him.

He drove down the tree line and he said since he’s in the vehicle, he stopped, and he turned the engine off and he called him again and no answer. He just figured he was walking around out there in the pasture.”

Delia D’Ambra: When Skip returned, he reportedly told Pat that he never saw John while on that first trip.

Patricia Strader: “He came on back to the house and I fixed a sandwich and we ate and this time now we’re thinking its 2, 2:30…So as soon as I get finished with my sandwich I get in the Explorer and I go over there and possibly re-track his same, because I could see where his vehicle had gone through the pasture…and when I got down to the four-wheeler I myself saw that it was still sitting there. Nothing had been done. As I told you with the cataracts, I’m looking off. I’m not looking down at my feet. I’m looking out in the pasture for him to see him walking. You know, why would he not at this four-wheeler to unload… and I panickily screamed, you know ‘John, John Welles…John Robert Welles’…and no answer.” …So I get back in my Explorer and do the same as Skip did. Drove the tree line. Stopped, and called again.”

Delia D’Ambra: Pat’s recollection was that her trek to go look for John occurred between 2:30pm and 3pm. It also was no use because John never answered and never showed up at the house.

And just as a reminder here, we’re talking about a distance of half a mile to approximately three quarters of a mile between where the trash pile was located and the front door of Pat’s house.

In between is lots of thick vegetation and fields.

So, around three o’clock Pat said she went back home and used her landline to call John’s best friend, Patrick Skinner, who lived a few houses down the street.

Patrick was 16, just one year younger than John.

Patricia Strader: “I said Patrick, I can’t find John…and I said I’m concerned. I said will you go over with me. You know how he, when ya’ll go over there, kind of where he would go. He said yes, how will I get there? And I said well I’ve got to go get some gas and I said I’ll stop by on the way back and pick you up.”

Delia D’Ambra: According to her statement to police, Pat then drove to a nearby murphy gas station at the Arcadia WALMART… And back.

Between approximately quarter after three and 3:30, she stopped at Patrick’s house in his driveway.

Patricia Strader: “I blew the horn, and he didn’t come out. I went on home, and I called him back and he says I’m walking out the door right now. He said I was having to get dressed. So, when he drove into the yard, I just waited for him and got into the Explorer and I had my three little two-way radios and I know then I had binoculars.”

Delia D’Ambra: With that gear in tow, Pat said she and Patrick set out in her Explorer to go check the pasture again for any sign of John.

While they took a more direct path to the trash dump area where the four-wheeler was…Skip had decided to walk the woods on foot and take a longer route along Joshua Creek.

He’d followed the tree line through some watery ditches that led in the direction of the trash pile.

Patricia Strader: “I went back about the same route that I had been before and went back to the four-wheeler…called John…and I walked through, down through the creek a few feet and called him again.”

Delia D’Ambra: Once they were at the trash dump, Pat said Patrick walked over to the front of John’s backed-in four-wheeler and made a strange discovery.

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

Kim Lewis: “Okay.”

Patricia Strader: “Laying right beside the four-wheeler. He said, ‘That’s unusual.” He said ‘John wouldn’t put that in the dirt’…He said ‘It’s kind of like…” I believe his words he used were ‘Buried”… like he’d hid it pretty hard. And none of us could understand that.”

Delia D’Ambra: Pat says before she knew what was happening, Patrick had picked up the .22 Revolver, unloaded its cylinder and poured out some bullets that were in it.

Kim Lewis: “Did you see it when Patrick picked it up?

Patricia Strader: “I don’t think that I saw him in the act of picking it up.”

Kim Lewis: “Okay…but then he had it in his hands bringing it to your attention?”

Patricia Strader: “I believe it might have been like ‘well here’s his gun’”

Kim Lewis: “Okay. Did anybody examine the gun?”

Patricia 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.”

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

Kim Lewis: “Yes…and what happened?”

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

Kim Lewis: “Okay…”

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

Delia D’Ambra: After that, Pat said Patrick started following a trail of other items strewn near the four-wheeler and picked them up as well,

He grabbed the stuff almost in a straight line as he got closer to the watery ditch.

She said the items he picked up were two leather belts…a nylon gun holster…and an olive-green strap that John used to tie his holster to his thigh so it wouldn’t slap against him.

As that was happening, she said Skip emerged from the woods and Patrick called him over near the edge of the ditch.

For just a few seconds, she saw them standing sort of behind the largest section of the trash mound, pointing at something in the water.

Patricia Strader: “Patrick said… ‘Skip, come look’…and of course when Skip walked over to look, I looked because I thought I was seeing the same thing you know maybe they were…and Skip made me turn around and said ‘You don’t want to see this’…Kim, what I saw when I was made aware of what it was, was I don’t recall seeing his head. Because he was like in a fetal position and I could see his shoulders and his ribs, you know, his backbone. The water wasn’t that deep over him.”

Kim Lewis: “Okay”

Patricia Strader: “Had he stood up, he would have probably been in waist deep or less water. My supposition.”

Delia D’Ambra: As soon as the trio saw John’s body floating, Pat said Skip rushed her away to the Explorer and they all three rode back to the house to call 911.

By that time it was roughly 4:30pm.

No one attempted C-P-R or even checked to see if John was alive or in distress.

Patricia Strader: “We’d been looking for him for so long, you know…. It may not be a good reason.”

Kim Lewis: “You mean for why you didn’t get in the water?”

Patricia Strader: “Yeah.”

Kim Lewis: “Yeah. It is a very good reason. It makes perfect sense…but I needed you to say it.”

Delia D’Ambra: Pat’s short and sweet answer as to why no one even attempted to check John for signs of life was because he’d been missing for so long.

She said they all just assumed he was dead when they found him.

Something you hear her reiterate several times during the 911 call.

Dispatcher: “Is there anybody there giving him CPR or anything?”

Pat: “No mam. He’s been under there a long time.”

Dispatcher: “Is anyone there with him now?”

Pat: “No, ma’am. They brought me back to the house.”

Dispatcher: “Did anyone try to give CPR or anything on him?”

Pat: “No ma’am.”

Delia D’Ambra: Now—I know what a lot of you are thinking…that feels weird, but trust me we’ll get more into that over the next few episodes.

After hearing Pat’s explanation of why they didn’t do C-P-R, Kim asked Pat about the gun…most importantly why the group had removed it from the scene.

Kim Lewis: “The gun yesterday, what happened with the gun. After you guys found, did find John, you loaded up in the truck, or the Explorer and Patrick drove y’all back to the house. What happened from there with the gun?”

Patricia Strader: “It stayed in the floorboard of the explorer and the belts stayed in the back seat….Uh until late last night and I went out kind of after the crowd eased out. I went out with that towel that it’s wrapped in right now, wrapped it in a towel and picked up those belts and brought it in.”

Patricia Strader: “And put it down in the hall closet where he usually kept it.”

Kim Lewis: “And is that where it’s been until the sheriff showed up a while ago?”

Patricia Strader: “Yes. Because he went with me to pick it up, you know, to get it. He wanted to handle it. Get it. He didn’t want me to do it.”

Delia D’Ambra: Pat said because Patrick had told her when he picked it up that he didn’t think any bullets had been fired from it, she assumed it had nothing to do with John’s death…so, she felt it was in her best interest to remove it from the scene.

Kim Lewis: “You heard or saw no evidence at the scene that indicated that the gun was involved in John’s death in any way, so you continued to keep the gun from law enforcement thinking it was irrelevant. Is that correct?”

Patricia Strader: “Yes.  I mean never, I pointed to the sheriff… no one ever asked me, did he have a gun over there.”

Kim Lewis: (laughs) “Well we wouldn’t know to ask you…”

Patricia Strader: “Well of course not. But again, this is what I’m saying. I didn’t lie to them.”

Kim Lewis: “Right.”

Patricia Strader: “Because if it was not relevant, then I, I thought possibly I was stepping in a can of worms because of his age.”

Delia D’Ambra: One of the many questions Kim really wanted Pat to answer was why she and Skip had become so concerned about John just an hour after he’d left to take the trash.

If taking garbage over to the dump pile was his normal chore and he was known to spend time in the woods afterwards, then why specifically on July 8th did his absence raise red flags for them?

Her answer was not what police expected.

Patricia Strader: “You want to trust them too…you know, they need to take some responsibility.”

Delia D’Ambra: In written statements and her recorded interviews with police, Pat alluded to the possibility that John might have been up to things he shouldn’t have been back in the woods on July 8th.

She said she wasn’t sure what exactly he could have gotten into, but he’d recently displayed some behaviors that she felt were clear indicators he wanted privacy and didn’t want her meddling in his recreational habits.

Detective Kim Lewis pressed her to be more specific…but Pat didn’t give specifics.

Then Kim asked her if John could have been doing drugs right before he died….and Pat didn’t outright confirm that, but she also didn’t squash the suggestion.

The audio quality of that part of the tape-recorded interview isn’t good and at one point the tape even cuts off, which is why I just recapped it for you.

But my point is, it was detective Kim Lewis who first suggested it could be possible that John was consuming illegal substances in the woods.

I think she did this for two reasons…

One, Kim knew at that point that John’s autopsy showed he had drugs in his system.

And two, Kim wanted to see if Pat would confirm that or maybe allude to another piece of evidence she’d hidden from the scene to protect John from people finding out he might have used drugs.

But the tactic failed. Because Pat didn’t confirm anything.

I can prove that this idea that John could have been consuming drugs before his death was something law enforcement actually had on their radar… Before sitting down with Pat.

In fact, according to police reports at one o’clock on July 9th—while DCSO detectives were interrogating Pat and simultaneously doing interviews with Skip and Patrick—the Desoto County sheriff had called in the Florida department of law enforcement—also known as F-D-L-E.

Together deputies and state agents had gone back out to the southeast Hansel property to process the crime scene…at least what was left of it.

By that time the four-wheeler and wooden trash trailer had been moved back to Pat’s house…there were various sets of tire tread marks in the pasture leading to and from the crime scene…and… A ton of shoes tracks, and footprints were all around the area near the trash pile.

All of that disruption is what crime scene experts call scene contamination.

It wasn’t done intentionally. The commotion occurred when emergency responders initially came to the scene and thought they were just dealing with a drowning accident.

To try and make some progress though, F-D-L-E had their crime scene tech do as good of a job as he could in terms of processing the scene and collecting items that he thought were potential pieces of evidence.

First, he inspected the ground where the ATV had been parked and noticed some small red stains and smears on some blades of grass and vegetation.

Then he picked up a Coors Light beer can and noted that it quote— “was fashioned into a pipe”–end quote.

After that he bagged a piece of plastic wrapping what appeared to have a red stain on it…and scooped up a handful of sand that also appeared to have a dark red stain soaked into it.

Everything else F-D-L-E seized as evidence included the Honda four-wheeler, the wooden trash trailer, the rake that was in the trailer, John’s .22 Revolver, the five unfired 17 caliber bullets that were in it, the holster, the leg strap, two of John’s belts, the towel Pat said she’d wrapped those items in, John’s jeans and boots and socks, as well as Skip’s clothing and shoes.

Law enforcement only took Pat’s shoes though, not the clothing she’d been wearing the day before. When they asked her for them, she said she’d done laundry overnight after John died…so police just dropped it.

The one saving grace F-D-L-E did have in order to get an idea of what the scene looked like closer to the time John was killed were M-E investigator Meghan Simrak’s pictures from the scene.

Those are some of the photos you can see on our website Counterclock podcast dot com.

The pictures provide proof of where the four-wheeler was parked and give a good general sense of the scene before everything was totally disrupted.

They obviously don’t show John’s gun, holster, belts or leg strap though, because those items were removed before anyone got there.

But thankfully Meghan was thorough in her picture taking and she did get a lot of shots of the ground around the ATV.

And those images showed some of the dark stained areas that the F-D-L-E tech had collected evidence from…the pictures also showed some weird lines dug into the sand that state agents determined could be indicative of drag marks.

So, between what the F-D-L-E guy found and what he gathered from the M-E investigator’s report and photos…law enforcement wrapped up their crime scene processing by mid- afternoon on July 9th.

They towed the ATV and trailer along with Skip’s Ford F-250 pickup truck to their lab in Fort Myers and immediately started figuring out what they could test and what they would have to send off to other labs in the area to determine if blood, DNA or traces of drugs were present.

The traces of drugs thing are an important theme here…

Based on their reports, both Desoto County investigators and F-D-L-E were convinced that John had smoked some kind of drug out of the Coors Light beer can while he was back there in the woods.

I literally can’t find anywhere in documentation about what their specific basis for this was…other than the fact that they just thought it could be possible.

But reading between the lines, I think the reason they were so convinced of it was because, again, Dr. Anderson had told authorities that cocaine and cannabis had showed up in John’s toxicology screen.

I wanted to explore further this idea that John used drugs…and to best do that I tracked down his old high school sweetheart, a woman named Beth Flowers.

She’s married now and has since changed her last name to Waldron, but she went by Beth Flowers back in 2003… no relation to our executive producer Ashley Flowers by the way…

Beth Flowers-Waldron: “I knew him around age 12, I would say so 11, 12 until he passed.

We actually lived right down the road from each other, maybe like three miles or so. And so we had a couple of us that lived a couple miles away down the road and stuff, and we would all gather up and we rode horses at the time or just rode around in the orange groves or hang out.

There wasn’t nobody, he really disliked and he’s definitely missed by a lot of us.”

Delia D’Ambra: Beth and John dated most of middle school and high school, but broke up a few months before he died.

She said their break up was a combination of growing up and John starting to hang out with a different crowd…but not a crowd that was into hard drugs.

Beth Flowers-Waldron: “He never used cocaine or anything around me, never cocaine.

He wasn’t really into stuff like that. He may have done something he wasn’t supposed to, but I mean, he didn’t walk a straight line, but he just wasn’t all out for the partying crowd. Like he may show around a party, but he wasn’t going to party all the time. We’d all just hung out, it wasn’t nothing crazy.

I did know that he used marijuana time to time.”

Delia D’Ambra: She says based on her knowledge of how hard John’s life had been up until that point, she can see why he would have consumed cocaine maybe once or twice to blow off stress of feel something new.

She thinks the main reason he would have even ventured into that territory was to cope with the loss of his step-grandfather…Melvin Eugene Strader Senior who had died of a massive heart attack on June 6th, 2003…just weeks before John would eventually be killed.

Mel Senior was Pat Strader’s second husband and had become a kind-of father figure to John while he lived in Arcadia.

For a long time, Mel operated an independent sawmill business on the southeast Hansel property that made wood pallets for companies that needed to transport sod or other materials.

Since John was young, Mel had taught him how to use the mill and make something from his hands. It was apparently the type of relationship John desperately craved with his biological father Mac, but never got.

According to Mel Senior’s death certificate and autopsy, the 70-year-old abruptly died

From everyone I’ve spoken with for this story, losing his grandfather in that way took a big toll on John.

Despite the fact that John and Mel Senior weren’t even blood related.

Here’s Beth again.

Beth Flowers-Waldron: “He also he absolutely loved his grandfather who died a month before that. And he always helped him out at the sawmill…and he always did stuff around the house. He’s very respectful to his grandparents and it was completely shocking for sure.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, in the weeks leading up to his death, it’s conceivable to think that John might have begun to dabble in drugs outside of his normal cannabis use.

But John using drugs at all, was something Helen, his mother was unaware of.

Helen Huff: “Everything was going south, but I was oblivious.”

Delia D’Ambra: Helen didn’t have daily or even weekly contact with John due to ongoing legal issues with Pat and an active restraining order.

But during the few times she did see her son in the summer of 2003…she began to suspect that something might be up with him.

She was especially concerned after an interaction they had days before he died, which turned out to be the last time she ever spoke with him.

She’d driven to Arcadia in late June around the time Mel Senior’s funeral was supposed to happen to put papers in her mother’s mailbox that were aimed at preventing Pat from burying Mel Senior in the huff family plot in Arcadia.

Pat’s first husband, Helen’s father, was buried there and so is Helen’s brother and it’s a private section of Joshua Creek Cemetery designated for members of the Huff family.

So, Helen felt like Pat burying Mel Strader Senior there was unacceptable.

And she let Pat know it.

Helen Huff: “I said, “What are you thinking?” I said, “You know what? Your name is going to be mud if you do something like that.” I said, “People know us.” I said, “Putting your ex-husband, a stepfather, whatever you want to call him in there.” I don’t remember at what point she hung up on me, so then I knew, “Well, it’s done.”

Delia D’Ambra: So once again, the tension and infighting between Pat and Helen had grown to a fever pitch and on the day Helen showed up at Pat’s mailbox, John came out to confront her.

He was really upset that Helen was trying to keep Mel Senior, his beloved step-grandpa, out of the Huff family plot.

Helen Huff: “He came out and I stopped, and I got out of the truck, but he came up in the Explorer, roaring up and then just like slammed on the brakes and shoved it into park and come out…and I was like, “Hey,” and all of a sudden like, who is this person?

He started screaming and hollering at me about Mel and this, that and the other, and I said, “He doesn’t belong there. It’s nothing against Mel, he does not belong there, and she doesn’t have the right to do that. I’m trying to do things legal and all that.” And then he started coming at me and he had a hat, and he threw it down and… I’m sorry, this is the last face to face memory I have of him…*chokes up*

He uh…he said something about, “You’re not welcome at the funeral,” or whatever. And I said something like, “Do I look like I’m going to a funeral?” I said, “I’m not going to the funeral.” I said, “He just doesn’t belong there.” And then you could tell he wanted to fight, and it wasn’t going to go anywhere so I got in my truck and left and as I did, he threw a fit. There’s a stop sign right there; he was hitting the stop sign and stuff. And I came to the house.”

Delia D’Ambra: “So, John was mad at you the last time you guys talked?”

Helen Huff: “Yeah. About Mel.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Do you remember the last words he said to you?

Helen Huff: “It was something like, I think when he said, “Come on, you want a piece of me,” and started like he wanted to fight…and I think I said, “What’s wrong with you,” Because I described him, he didn’t have any sunglasses on or nothing, and I remember his eye, he just had like pin, like the iris, not the iris, the pupil was like the size of a pin, like coke. And when he had taken his shirt off, you know if you don’t bathe in a couple of days, you have that sheen and that oiliness, and it wasn’t like him because he was a clean kid…And I said, “Who the (BLEEP) are you? What’s wrong with you?” And you know I think it just made him more angry, because I’m not… In my mind, his face is my son, but his actions, he would never talk to me that way because I didn’t ever allow that. It just did not ever happen. If they did, it was behind my back. They did not do that to me.”

Delia D’Ambra: I did some digging to figure out if John had gotten into any trouble or had a rap sheet related to drug use during the summer of 2003…and turns out, he did.

A very, very small rap sheet.

According to police reports I found with the Charlotte County sheriff’s office—a jurisdiction that neighbors Desoto county—John was picked up for misdemeanor marijuana possession on May 4th, 2003, and released the same day.

The incident occurred during a traffic stop, three days after his 17th birthday.

The agency does not have any paperwork still available about the arrest, but from what I gathered based on the booking sheet and court records, it appears John didn’t serve any time for this and it was pretty much dropped.

But I think that’s because by the time it rolled around onto a court docket, John was already dead.

The record his arrest generated though was something Desoto County authorities investigating his murder in July paid attention to.

They wanted to drill down on his possible drug history as one avenue of investigation.

And the people they needed to talk to were not his tight-lipped grandmother and step-uncle.

The people detectives needed to speak with were John’s friends…specifically, one friend.

Patrick Skinner.

Patrick was not only an insider to John’s life and habits…but he was also a witness who investigators knew had been at the original crime scene with Pat and Skip Strader.

Patrick Skinner: “I do know he wanted to get out.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Of Arcadia?”

Patrick Skinner: “Not out of Arcadia specifically, out of the house he was living in.”

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