Episode 7: Sweetheart

Forensic results from FDLE are in and they create more questions than answers in the case. Delia tracks down Skip’s former fiancé who reveals an interesting take on the crime and the love of her life.

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: On August 19th, 2003— a month and a half after John’s murder—the first forensic results came back in the case.

Lab techs with the Florida department of law enforcement’s regional crime lab had started to go through a lot of items—which included materials collected at the crime scene 24 hours after the case was declared a homicide and copies of fingerprints from John, Pat, Patrick and Skip.

There were also a variety of vehicles to process which included John’s four-wheeler, the trash trailer he’d been hauling behind it and Skip’s pickup truck…

But probably most important of all was John’s Ruger .22 magnum single action six-shot revolver and a handful of Hornady brand 17 caliber bullets that authorities had found in it and in a box at Pat’s house.

These bullets had a very distinct red tip on them and were technically undersized ammunition for John’s type of revolver but they could still be shot out of it.

When the sheriff’s office had taken possession of the gun and ammo on July 9th, they’d found 5 live rounds inside the cylinder and one spent casing.

In early September, fingerprint analysis results came in —and they showed only one fingerprint was found on John’s revolver.

Patrick Skinner’s.

Now—that didn’t come as too much of a surprise because Patrick had already told police that he picked up John’s gun at the crime scene.

His print was going to be on it.

What’s interesting is that only Patrick’s print was on the gun.

Delia D’Ambra: “Did you find it odd that John’s fingerprints weren’t on that gun?”

Patrick: “Absolutely.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Why so?”

Patrick: “Because it’s John’s gun. I mean he takes care of his things, but he doesn’t wipe them down every time he touches them.

It come out of my possession into their possession, okay…obviously they were very careful not to touch any part of the gun. Skip and Pat I mean. So, for it to pass through my hands, Skip’s hands, I don’t know if she ever touched it or not, I don’t remember, even though it was in a holster to not have anyone’s but my fingerprints…that’s just weird.

If someone wiped the gun prior to me getting there is the only way that I can, my prints would be the only ones on the gun.

It stayed at that house that night up until the cops actually went and seized it…John’s fingerprints should have at least been on it.”

Delia D’Ambra: Why John’s fingerprints weren’t on his own gun feels strange to me too…

The next finding by the lab had to do with a Coors light beer can from the trash pile that authorities suspected John could have used to smoke cannabis out of in the woods.

Well, their theory was off, because testing on that item showed no traces of drugs were present whatsoever.

So, that put to rest once and for all law enforcement initial assumption that John had gone out to the woods and used the can as a makeshift pipe.

The next report from the lab was for swabs of gunshot residue from John’s body—but for some reason F-D-L-E declined to run tests on those.

Staff stated in the report that because John had been submerged in water after his death… GSR testing wouldn’t provide any information of value—so, they just didn’t even attempt the test and sent the swabs back.

Nowhere in F-D-L-E’s reports could I find information about what they found or didn’t find in Skip’s pickup truck.

From September until December of 2003, results for blood and ballistics came in.

Staff had spent those months comparing the spent shell casing that was found in John’s gun to the bullet found in his head— to see if they were a match.

They test fired 15 bullets from John’s gun using the 17 caliber ammo they’d seized from Pat’s house.

They wanted to determine if that brand of 17 caliber ammunition would even properly fire from John’s gun.

Like I said before—the 17 caliber ammo was undersized for that make and model of revolver—so, it wasn’t really meant to be shot from it.

Their conclusions were as follows:

One—John’s gun was functioning properly.

Two–there was a high probability that the empty casing found in his revolver was fired in his gun.

Three–because the 17 caliber ammo was undersized and left no rifling characteristics when it exited the barrel—the lab couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that the bullet retrieved from John’s skull matched that empty casing.

The bullet that was found in John’s head did not have enough distinguishable microscopic characteristics about it for the lab to say ‘yes, it’s a 100 percent match’

The best they could do was say that the spent casing found in the cylinder had likely been fired by John’s gun—as far as whether the discharged bullet matched that, was unknowable.

The fourth thing they concluded was that John’s particular model of Ruger revolver had a distinct safety mechanism in it that prevented it from firing accidentally—even if it was cocked and loaded.

It had what’s called a transfer plate between the hammer of the gun and the firing pin.

That transfer plate only moved into place to complete the chain reaction of firing the gun if the trigger was pulled.

So, in essence—the revolver could be loaded and cocked…but unless someone applied enough pressure and pulled the trigger, it wouldn’t go off.

This was a really important point…because it was the lab’s way of saying ‘hey, the ballistics on this gun shows it would be extremely difficult to override this safety mechanism. So, it’s pretty clear someone else shot this kid’

What most supported that conclusion were additional ballistics tests.

Techs didn’t do traditional GSR testing on John’s skin…but they did visually inspect his boots, jeans and socks for the presence of microscopic burns or gunshot residue …but they didn’t find any.

The lab determined after test firing John’s gun from several distances that traces of burned black vapor residues from the gun powder could have traveled as far as two feet away from the end of the barrel.

Unburned particles of gunpowder traveled as far as six feet from the end of the muzzle.

So, that meant the gun was fired at least several feet away from John at the time it discharged.

About a week before Christmas in 2003, forensic results for presence of blood on items of evidence came in.

According to F-D-L-E’s report—small traces of John’s blood were found on the barrel of his gun, one of his belts, the thigh strap, the Coors light can, and on several spots on the four-wheeler.

Specifically, there were specks of his blood on the ATV’s right-side fender mud flap, the center console and right clutch handle and brake lever.

Authorities believed that blood evidence proved John had been shot in close proximity to the four-wheeler….if not sitting on it when he was killed.

The cylinder of the revolver, the gun holster, the towel Pat wrapped it in, another one of John’s belts, and all of Skip’s clothing, along with Pat’s white tennis shoes did not have John’s blood on them.

For some reason, F-D-L-E wrote in their report that they did not perform blood tests on the red-stained plastic wrap and clump of sand from the crime scene. They also didn’t swab the trash trailer for anything.

Techs also didn’t test several hairs they’d found on Skip’s socks, jeans and John’s clothing.

They never provided an explanation as to why none of these items were examined for traces of blood.

The red stained sand and plastic wrap seem like pretty significant items of evidence to me…

Unfortunately, as 2003 came to a close, the forensic results had left investigators no closer to making an arrest.

While they’d waited for results to come in, Desoto County detectives had tried once to get the state attorney’s office to consider bringing charges in the case.

DCSO wanted to arrest Pat and Skip for evidence tampering in the hopes of getting them to crack…but the state attorney’s office declined to press charges.

Instead, they told authorities to wait.

Detectives took that advice and waited.

After the disappointing results from the first round of forensic tests, the department sent off all of their items for additional DNA testing but those results were expected to take anywhere from six months to a year to complete.

Remember, this is 2003 we’re talking about…the infancy of DNA analysis for labs.

In the meantime, detectives had to move on.

They wrote in their reports that the circumstantial evidence they’d gathered so far pointed to Skip being the best man for the crime.

…and possibly Pat was involved too.

Something that bolstered their belief in this was the case had information they’d learned after two interesting conversations with Skip’s girlfriend in August of 2003…and Matt Welles, John’s older brother.

Desoto County detectives and F-D-L-E special agents had briefly interviewed a woman named Patricia Durrance.

That conversation was not recorded or videotaped.

At the time, Durrance was Skip Strader’s on-again, off-again girlfriend who lived in north Fort Myers.

According to police reports, she told investigators that on the night of July 8th, after everyone learned John had died, she’d ridden with Skip to Avon park to pick up John’s brother Matt.

On the way back, Durrance said that Skip stopped at the Arcadia Walmart and he and Matt got out and bought .22 caliber bullets.

She said Skip had said he wanted to go shooting with Matt to blow off steam and cope with John’s death.

A few days after speaking with Durrance, investigators interviewed Matt.

That interaction was not recorded or videotaped…. all I have is a rough transcript of the interview.

In his statement Matt told detectives that around 7:30pm on July 8th  Skip and Patricia had driven about 45 minutes northeast of Arcadia to Avon park to pick him up at south Florida Community College.

That’s when he said he was told his younger brother had accidentally died earlier in the day while dumping trash in the woods behind the sawmill at their grandma’s house.

Matt confirmed that he, Skip and Patricia stopped at the Arcadia Walmart on their way to Pat’s that night.

Matt said he purchased shotgun shells because he wanted to shoot with Skip to relieve stress.

Reading between the lines of what officers wrote in their reports…I get a sense that detectives felt Skip purchasing ammunition and intending to shoot a firearm so soon after John had died…. made it look like he knew before anyone else did that John had been shot…and that Skip wanted to ensure if police found gunpowder residue on him…there would be an explanation for it.

Either that, or they just felt like this random Walmart trip and story about wanting to go shooting felt like odd behavior for grieving family members to be doing.

I don’t really know why authorities doubled down on Skip as the prime suspect…but based on everything that I’ve found, the information from Matt and Patricia definitely contributed to their suspicions.

Unfortunately, I can’t get any more information about this from Patricia Durrance because she’s deceased—and Matt Welles declined to be interviewed for this podcast.

He still lives with his grandma on the southeast Hansel property in Arcadia.

My associate producer David and I went by to ask him if he’d sit down for an interview in person…but he didn’t answer my calls…

After bumping into a few neighbors…a guy who lives across the street rode up to us on a golf cart and volunteered to call Matt from his cell phone.

Matt answered him right away…

Neighbor: “They’re producers working on a story about the John Robert case.”

Delia D’Ambra:…But once he realized the neighbor was a conduit for our request….Matt said he didn’t want to talk.

Neighbor: “Okay. I’ll let them know. Okay. Alright, I’ll let them know. Alright bye. They said they don’t want to talk to anybody.”

Delia D’Ambra: David and I weren’t totally out of luck though.

While I’d been poking around on the case for a few months I heard that Skip had started dating another woman in the late fall of 2003—a woman who eventually became his fiancé.

Her name is Keri.

Keri was someone David and I were determined to track down and find.

We felt like she probably had a lot of insight into what was going on between law enforcement and Skip in late 2003.

After checking out a few old addresses for her and leaving a business card with one of her neighbors…Keri called us back.


Keri: Hello.

David Payne: “Hi, is this Keri?”

Keri: “Yes it is.”

David Payne: “Hi Keri, its David Payne, how are you?”

Keri: “Good. How are you?”

David Payne: “Good. I’m doing great. Thanks for calling me back. I really appreciate it…”

Delia D’Ambra: I hovered over our recorder, anxiously waiting to jump in…and that’s when something really interesting happened…

David Payne: “I’m with my partner here, Delia D’Ambra”

Delia D’Ambra: “Hi.”

Keri: “Hello.”

David Payne: “We dropped by earlier today because we’re working on a story…we’re producers working on a story of an old cold case from 2003…”

Keri: “In Arcadia, Florida.”

David Payne: “You got it.”

Delia D’Ambra: Yea—we definitely had the right Keri.

Keri: “I can only tell you what I know.

We were together about five years…and it was in the works right as I was starting to date Skip”

Delia D’Ambra: An hour after touching base on the phone, we drove over to her house to interview her in person.

She agreed to speak with us on the condition that I not say her last name.

She values her privacy… So—I agreed.

First things first, I wanted to know how she got connected with Skip.

Keri: “There used to be this gorgeous boy that I would see at every horse show growing up and I would always look for him at the shows. In his later years he became a bull rider and he was so good he went to Oklahoma, he traveled with it but he got hurt and he came back home from Oklahoma and he taught bull riding for a while.

I would see him in the livestock building at the fair every year. Never knew who he was…just knew that I’d been watching him for years.”

Delia D’Ambra: Fast forward to fall of 2003 and Keri and the bull rider she’d been enamored with for years were adults and hit it off.

Keri: “I was at a bar one night shooting pool and Skip walked in. Sat down next to me and started talking and I said, ‘I’ve been watching you for a lot of years’…and he goes ‘Who are you?’…come to find out he knew who my family was, he remembered all the horse shows. Well, we started dating from that night on.”

Delia D’Ambra: After about a month of dating, Skip and Keri were living together at her place on the weekends and Skip would be at a farm property that his late father owned on Bayshore road in north Fort Myers.

Skip spent a lot of time there cleaning up the dilapidated house and caring for cattle.

That property was still going through probate…which meant after Mel Senior’s death in June of 2003, the courts had not decided if it would go to Skip or Pat as part of Mel Senior’s estate.

It was basically in limbo.

Four months after John’s death—in October of 2003 Keri got a frantic call from Skip about the situation with the Bayshore land.

Keri: “She was telling him that he was having to get out. That she was going to take it over.

Skip didn’t tell me the reason she wanted him out of the property here.”

Delia D’Ambra: Up until that point Keri assumed growing animosity between Skip and Pat over the Bayshore land was just a result of complicated court wranglings.

It wasn’t until she got that phone call from Skip that she learned the real reason why there was so much tension between her boyfriend and his stepmother.

Keri: “Skip told me the reason she wants me off of the homestead on Bayshore is she thinks I murdered her grandson.

I guess my mouth dropped and I thought ‘Oh Lord. This is way over my head’ and I said ‘Well, tell me about it.”

Delia D’Ambra: Keri learned all the details of what had really been going on in Arcadia and in Skip’s life during the summer of 2003—before they’d gotten together.

She learned about John’s murder and the fact that Skip was a prime suspect in the case.

Keri: “He said I haven’t wanted to tell you this because I didn’t want you to leave or think terrible of me or think that I did it.

I didn’t tell my parents for about 4 months and Skip called me at work one day and he said the Sheriff’s department in Arcadia wants to come back up and do a saliva test. Well, I kicked in and said absolutely not without an attorney. Either way do not do that I’m begging you, don’t do that.”

Delia D’Ambra: Skip didn’t take Keri’s advice and provided his DNA sample to investigators in Desoto County.

He told her that he was innocent—and she believed him.

Keri: “He had nothing to hide. That’s why when I got involved in it, I said stop cooperating with them and he said, ‘I have nothing to hide. I didn’t do anything.” and then it was on. It was on after that. Because I just thought that he was being framed. From what I could tell.”

Delia D’Ambra: Keri worked some family connections and got Skip a lawyer and that’s when things between him and law enforcement came to a screeching halt.

To Keri—there’s no way Skip was involved in what happened to John.

Keri: “He was very well-liked, he was truthful, never said a foul thing. Foul thing ever came out of his mouth.”

Delia D’Ambra: Even for all his flaws…

Keri: “He’d got where he’d drink.”

Delia D’Ambra: She doesn’t think he could be capable of killing another person—and certainly not a teenage boy.

Keri: “The only reason I agreed to do this today is I want Skip’s name cleared. He did not have anything to with this. Nothing. I know it as I breathe and as I walk every day. He had nothing to do with this and he has been accused wrongly.”

Delia D’Ambra: I had to press Keri on that.

Since she was so sure her sweetheart was innocent, I wondered if she’d ever had the same questions for Skip that police had?

Like, why he denied seeing drag marks but told Patrick he saw them…and why he’d not done CPR on John…and why he hadn’t used his cell phone to call for help the moment he saw John in the water?

Delia D’Ambra: “Did you ever ask him, ‘Why didn’t you call 911?’

Keri: “There was a conversation, I’m trying to remember…

I don’t know. I don’t have an answer.”

Delia D’Ambra: The biggest thing I wanted Keri to answer for me was why Skip had helped Pat remove evidence from the crime scene?

Keri: “I don’t know. I can’t honestly say that. I don’t know.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Did Skip ever say if he was intimidated by her?”

Keri: “Well, I can tell you when I met Skip, he was intimidated by her.

She did not want authorities to know that he had a gun.”

David Payne: “Did Skip ever talk about whether Pat might have done it?”

Keri: (laughs) Funny you should say that…No.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, Keri is convinced Skip didn’t kill John and she doesn’t have any reason to believe Pat did either.

But before we wrapped up our interview…she explained why…and dropped a serious bombshell…

Keri: “Skip said, I froze. He said I didn’t know what to do.”

Delia D’Ambra: Keri told David and I that the reason she’s always believed Skip is innocent and Pat is also not a killer is because Skip told her that John…took his own life.

Keri: “So, Skip rode Joshua Creek, was kind of following some tracks that looked new and came up on John…and John’s four-wheeler was halfway in the creek and halfway up like I think there was kind of a crossing there that Skip told me about and he was dead and he had a pistol on him…like, it had fallen, it was close to his hand. It was in his lap, on him.”

Delia D’Ambra: According to Skip’s story to Keri when he finally revealed he was a murder suspect…he told her that during his first trip to search for John, he’d found the teen dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Keri: “Skip said, I froze. He said I didn’t know what to do. He said I just froze. Well, that’s when we had Nextel’s the beep, beep you know. So, he Nextel’s Pat. Well Pat comes up and I don’t know if she came up on a four-wheeler, I don’t know if she drove her truck up, I don’t know any of those details, but when Pat came up…she took the gun…she moved it.

Skip said she either put the gun in her truck and took it back to the house or she moved it off of John, but she’s the only one that touched the gun.”

Delia D’Ambra: Keri told us that Skip said the reason he’d not told police that version of the story was because John’s grandma did not want the community to know what John had done.

So—Skip said he’d gone along with a cover up to protect John’s reputation.

Keri: “She did not want where she was from, Arcadia, to think that her grandson, she didn’t want anybody to know or think her grandson committed suicide. She is all about the image.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Why do you think he didn’t tell law enforcement ‘I found John. I think it’s a suicide.”

Keri: “I think that he thought it was an awful thing that happened and that anybody might have thought he did it.”

Keri: “I wouldn’t have thought Skip would have put it out there until it was investigated. I don’t think Skip would have ever put it out there…but Skip, I’m telling you as I’m sitting here, told me that that woman moved the gun before authorities got there.”

Delia D’Ambra: Keri’s revelation about what she remembers Skip telling her as the true story…is certainly interesting…

But here’s the thing—none of the physical evidence at the scene or on John’s body supports that version of events.

Like, at all.

For one thing— John’s autopsy revealed that there was no stippling or small burns on the skin of his face or arms that would have had to have been present if he shot himself.

Both Dr. Anderson and Sr. Spitz’s 2003 autopsy findings confirmed that.

Here’s Anderson going over that point.

William Anderson: “It would have to have been essentially greater than two feet away, when the thing goes off.”

“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: To be extra sure, I sent all of John’s autopsy materials and the forensics reports about his firearm to a friend of mine who is a forensic pathologist and current chief coroner in Montgomery County, Ohio.

His name is Kent Harshbarger.

Kent Harshbarger: “To take a revolver…and if the barrels say it’s even four or five inches to then have the weapon that you’re holding pointed towards your head, your hand has to be seven, eight inches. So, it becomes very awkward to make that shot without having the weapon near or close to the skin, which then burns it, which then you’re going to see the gunpowder stippling. That’s not going to wash away.

That’s nearly impossible unless you were holding it with your thumb, uh, and you know, pulling the trigger with your thumb. So, I’m not capable of saying or willing to say it’s not possible. It’s just on that realm of probability its way on the other end of possible because the markers even in water of thermal damage or stippling should be there.”

Delia D’Ambra: John’s autopsy findings also indicate that the shot that killed him followed a trajectory of going front to back, slightly downward into his eye.

Everyone who’s looked closely at this case believes that strongly suggests John’s shooter was standing away and above him when they fired.

Besides the science that proves pretty clearly John did not take his own life…no one who knew him well at the time thinks he would have ever considered making that choice.

Here’s Patrick Skinner…

Patrick Skinner: “Despite some of the problems John had at home. Despite some of the problems he had with the rest of his family, he was a happy person for the most part.

I’ll never believe that he took his own life. Ever. Nor that he was in a state that he would have even wanted to.”

Delia D’Ambra: Here’s Mac Welles, John’s dad…

Mac Welles: “If he was off character, I would have noticed it, because we talked a lot.”

Delia D’Ambra: “So he never told you like, “I’m afraid of anyone,” “Dad, I got into something,” “Someone’s after me,” “I’m sad,” like none of that?”

Mac Welles: “No. No, nothing that would ever ring any kind of alarm to me. I knew the boy too well.”

Delia D’Ambra: Where I ultimately land with Keri’s second-hand information that Skip told her John took his own life and then a cover up occurred…is that I think her facts are just a bit jumbled.

She admitted at the end of our interview that it’s been a long time since she spoke about this and to me, I think it’s possible she’s misremembering.

To this day she defends Skip, her former sweetheart, tooth and nail even in the face of contradicting evidence.

Unfortunately, I can’t ask Skip about any of this for myself—he died of a heart attack in May 2006…just three years after John’s murder.

He was at home with Keri when she woke up and found him dead in their bed.

Delia D’Ambra: I confirmed the details of Skip’s death after I picked up a copy of his autopsy report from the Lee County medical examiner’s office

Woman: “Hi. Need help?”

Delia D’Ambra: “Hi.

Woman: “Are you the podcast lady?”

Delia D’Ambra: “Yes. I was here to pick up my records.”

Woman: “60 cents.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Okay.”

Delia D’Ambra: I couldn’t let the fact that Skip is dead slow me down though.

I had to keep digging into his life…I felt like something had to be there tethering Skip to Pat… That wasn’t just the fact that they both were present at the southeast Hansel property on July 8th.

I need to know…was there any truth to them possibly being in on a cover up of John’s murder?

Pouring over dozens of names in police reports landed me on a phone call with one of Skip’s oldest friends from childhood.

A guy named Matt Martell.

Matt provided me with a lot of the same info about Skip that Keri had—which was that Skip was a nice guy, well-liked and big deal in the north Fort Myers community.

Matt Martell: “He was always pretty comical, always had something funny to say. He’d keep everybody laughing and everybody in a good mood, always cutting up a little bit.

I never knew him to have any enemies. Maybe a bar fight, a scuffle or something when everybody had a little too much to drink, but it was usually with friends. Get in a fight and then get in the same truck together and go home.”

Delia D’Ambra: “The fact that Skip is someone that police interviewed pretty intensely about this death, does it leave you with any questions, as his former friend? What would you want to know, even though he’s not here to say it?”

Matt Martell: “No. I mean, if it come to life that … it would really surprise me to know that Skip had something to do with it. I mean, almost to where I’d almost had to been there to see it to believe it.”

Matt Martell: “He wasn’t a vicious person. I mean, that just … I would just have to almost have been there to see it to believe it.”

Delia D’Ambra: “So at no point in your friendship with Skip, did you ever see him be violent or keep secrets or be an over drinker or anything like that?”

Matt Martell: “No. I mean, he would drink. We’d all go to the bar or something and everybody would have a little too much to drink, but I mean, I wouldn’t call him a drunk. We’d all sometimes drink a little too much when we went out on the weekends. But aside from that, no.”

Delia D’Ambra: “And he would have no reason to want to harm any member of his family?”

Matt Martell: “Oh, absolutely not.”

Delia D’Ambra: I asked Matt if Skip was the type of person who would lie for someone close to him…to protect them from getting in trouble…

Matt Martell: “I would agree with that.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Why so?”

Matt Martell: “Family friend or just somebody that needed help. I would agree with that 100%.”

Delia D’Ambra: “It’s possible if Skip knew something that may have not been so good about another person, he may not have wanted to reveal that, to protect that person?”

Matt Martell: “I would agree with that.”

Delia D’Ambra: That response—as vague as it was—made me wonder…

Was part of Skip’s story that he told Keri possible?…the part about a cover up.

Would he have a reason to cover up John’s murder because either he was involved, or he was close to the person who was responsible?

Would there have been a reason for him and Pat to manipulate the crime scene…together…?

And that’s when I realized it.

The Bayshore land…the sawmill…everything that belonged to Mel Senior…

All of it could be way more important that anyone has thought.

Keri: “Skip’s father died without a will.”

Helen Huff: “That is a big question somebody needs to find out. Was there a will?”

Helen Huff: “Maybe John was in that will.”

Delia D’Ambra: That’s coming up in episode eight– “Swindled”—listen, right now.