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Episode 8: Swindled

Delia investigates how a bitter land dispute and missing will could have been motive for the people close to John to want him out of the equation.

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: In every murder investigation if you find the answer to a few questions…usually you get a better idea of who could be responsible for the crime.

The questions include…. who had the physical opportunity and capability of committing the act?

Who does the evidence point to?

And probably the simplest qualifier of all…who had motive?

Sometimes people appear to have a ton of motive… but yet, they’re not the killer.

That happens all the time.

So, everything I’m going to talk about in this episode is not intended to point the finger directly at one person…instead, I want to factually walk you through what certain individuals could have stood to gain if John Welles was no longer alive.

A big question I keep coming back to with this case is, who in the world would have wanted a 17-year-old boy dead?

What kind of threat did he pose to anyone?

My obvious starting point was to look for life insurance policies that might have been taken out on John prior to his death.

If they existed, I needed to find out who would have gotten that money and how much would it have been?

Figuring out the answer to those two questions took a lot of digging…

“For quality assurance purposes a member of our supervisory staff may monitor your call.”

*ringing*

Delia D’Ambra: It just so happens that in January of 2003—the same year John was killed—-the state made a big change and brought the Florida departments of insurance, treasury, fire marshal and banking and finance under one single entity.

So, I figured Florida DFS was as good a place as any to start searching for records.

Turns out… It wasn’t.

Agent: “As far as what the state can do, we don’t have a database of that nature. So, uh, we wouldn’t be able to look up and see if there’s any policies available.”

Delia D’Ambra: the DFS agent on the phone told me to contact the National Association of Insurance Commissioners—also known as NAIC.

That entity’s website has an online form you can fill out to request a nation-wide search for life insurance policy records.

Delia D’Ambra: I waited almost 90 days, then followed up with a phone call.

Operator: “Thank you for calling the National Association of Insurance Commissioners service desk.”

Operator: “Calls may be recorded for quality and training purposes.”

Delia D’Ambra: I quickly learned that the NAIC doesn’t have its own database of insurance policy records.

NAIC sends a ping to thousands of companies letting them know I’m looking for policy history for John Welles… And if those agencies find a record for a policy, they’ll respond.

The good news is that records definitely go back far enough to figure out if John had a policy or even multiple policies taken out on him…

Agent: “Let’s say your loved one bought a policy back in 1942, that company most likely has gone out of business or merged with another company by now and they don’t always tell you where the policy is going or who that policy is transferred into. Because when companies merge, they don’t just always give them all of their policies. They split their policies up into probably 5 or 6 different companies.”

Delia D’Ambra: The bad news is that insurance agencies are not obligated to tell me, a journalist, what policies exist or who the beneficiaries are…

Agent: “Another reason they may not contact you is because you’re not the beneficiary or like the executor of the policy.”

Agent: “So if you don’t hear anything within the 90 days that typically means that there’s no policy out there that you were beneficiary of.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Okay. So, if I’m not the beneficiary, someone else could be? And I’ll just never know…”

Agent: “Correct. And they will reach out to that individual.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Does NAIC tend to have a good amount of insurance companies that they send requests to in the state of Florida, being that it is such a large state?”

Agent: “I would say probably the larger the state, the more amount of companies.”

Delia D’Ambra: In the end, because I’m not a relative and I’m not a beneficiary, I can’t take my search any further.

Law enforcement could though…

However, I can’t find any documentation that detectives working John’s case ever conducted a search for life insurance money.

Nowhere in their reports does it state they contacted NAIC or subpoenaed an insurance agency for records.

My best guess is that John just didn’t have life insurance taken out on him…or if he did, no one knew about it.

I know from talking with his mother Helen, she doesn’t think Pat had a policy for John and Helen and Mac certainly didn’t.

And even if someone did have a policy for John…it’s not like they would have been able to cash in on it immediately following his death.

He was murdered and it was unsolved. So, it’s doubtful any insurance agency would have paid out a policy for a homicide victim.

After my life insurance quest bust…I went back to square one and poured over documents on this case looking for anything that stuck out as potential motive for someone to want John gone.

And that’s when I realized there was something significant…

Several of John’s friends who police interviewed at random in 2003 and 2004 had subtly alluded to it…

Female Voice Actor #1: “John and Skip fought a lot and had problems and argued over the sawmill.”

Male Voice Actor #1: “Skip has been trying to fill Mel Senior’s shoes and that caused friction between John and Skip.”

Male Voice Actor #2: “I thought it was odd that Mel Senior had not left a will for Skip to inherit the North Fort Myers Bayshore property.”

Female Voice Actor #2: “I spoke with John 4 days before he died, and he told me he was looking forward to the future. He said that Mel Senior left him the sawmill.”

Delia D’Ambra: Those were voice actors reading witness statements I found in police transcripts.

The real identities of these witnesses are redacted, so I don’t know who they are…but what they all say in one way or the other is that they were faintly aware of something tethering Mel Senior’s estate to John…

To remind you, Mel Senior is John’s grandfather by marriage, Pat’s husband and Skip’s actual father.

According to probate records, when Mel Senior died in June 2003— just mere weeks before John—no one could find a will for him.

That document would have designated who Mel’s sawmill business was going to go to and who would inherit his 45 acres in north Fort Myers on Bayshore road.

At the time, that land, the old farmhouse and the cattle living on it was worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Deed records show that Mel Senior and his first wife, Skip’s mother, purchased the land for next to nothing in 1973.

The sawmill in Arcadia was also a fairly lucrative business.

Today, the north Fort Myers land is a coveted piece of property near state road 31. It’s developing into a busy commercial and residential corridor.

So, needless to say, what belonged to Mel Senior back in 03’ was worth fighting for.

According to Keri, Skip’s girlfriend who you heard from last episode, Pat and Skip got into a bitter dispute over Mel Senior’s estate in the fall of 2003 about four or five months after John died.

Because no one could find Mel’s will…the question of who got what, became a heated debate.

Keri: “She didn’t want Skip to have anything.

We had to hire an attorney, a real estate attorney, because we were fighting the will that never was and Skip wanted his homestead. So, that cost us a fortune.

They didn’t get along. She was kicking him out of the house.

Because there was no will. She wanted it all.”

Delia D’Ambra: Naturally, one would think that Skip would inherit at least some of his father’s property…and some of it would also go to Pat, his second wife.

But…without a will, no one knew for sure.

And it wasn’t like Mel Senior was around anymore to clear up the issue.

What’s interesting to me is that according to several people who knew John, including, his mom Helen, his ex-girlfriend Beth Flowers and his aunt Laura Welles…Mel Senior had promised John that he would be a beneficiary of his estate.

His mom actually mentioned this during an interview she had with Desoto County sheriff’s office back in July of 2003.

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

Helen Huff: “I’m going to tell you. That is a big question somebody needs to find out. Was there a will?”

Helen Huff: “I’m telling you; my gut is telling me there’s to do with the probate of Mel and is there or is there not a will. That could answer lots of stuff.”

Delia D’Ambra: During Helen’s interview, the detectives blew past these statements…they focused more on questioning her about her alibi and learning the ins and outs of her bumpy relationship with Pat.

Helen’s suspicion that her son might have stood a lot to gain in the wake of Mel Senior’s death wasn’t just her belief though…

John’s aunt Laura also remembers hearing something similar.

Laura Welles: “He and Skip were having a little bit of a set-to about who, after the grandfather died, who was going to take over the sawmill. Because the grandfather evidently had promised it to John…and then Skip said that it was his.”

Delia D’Ambra: I interviewed one of John’s friends from high school, a woman named Lacy Bachert who says she also heard from people in the community that shortly before he was killed…John had told people he was expecting to inherit some, if not all of Mel Senior’s assets.

Lacy Bachert: “When I was a little girl my family, we used to go out there and buy wood from his grandpa. There was a wood mill out there. So, we used to go buy wood and I guess it was still sitting there and I guess he was going to, when his grandpa passed away…I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I was hearing it that he was going to hand that down to him and he was going to start it back up.”

Delia D’Ambra: “You distinctly remember hearing from people in the community that knew a lot of the family members and knew John, that there had been some expectation from John that he would inherit Mel Senior’s sawmil?”

Lacy Bachert: “That’s what I think if I can remember correctly. I know it’s been a while but I’m thinking that’s what someone had told me and I don’t remember where I heard it but I heard it somewhere.”

Delia D’Ambra: So—working through the logic here…

If it’s true Mel Senior modified or drafted a new will leading up to the summer of 2003 which named John as a significant benefactor…that would mean after Mel Senior died in June…John would have been set to inherit a lot once he turned 18.

If Skip and Pat didn’t want that to happen, that might point to a possible motive for them to want John gone sooner rather than later.

However, my question is, did Mel Senior ever draft a will at all? Did it ever exist to even go missing?

Did someone intend for it to go missing so John could be swindled out of his potential inheritance?

Did someone take the document out of the equation and then take John out of the equation?

The only place to turn to for answers is public record.

So that’s what I did…went on a hunt for this supposed missing will.

In the state of Florida, you can access a ton of information, records and legal filings if you know where to look.

According to the Desoto County clerk of courts office, there’s a large volume of records on file regarding the probate of Mel Senior’s estate…but those filings are sealed.

They’re considered private… Not public.

So, I can only see abbreviated headings for significant filings in the case…and none of the descriptions indicate that a will was ever found for Mel Senior or read in any kind of official proceeding.

From what I could see, most of the court submissions have do with Pat, his widow, filing paperwork to ensure she was representative of his estate.

Attorneys I’ve spoken with say that if Mel Senior ever made a will or modified an existing one…it likely was never entered into a court system’s record.

Meaning, the original document and any copies that were made only exist with whoever has the original and the law firm that would have helped him draft it.

The problem is… There are literally thousands of law firms in southwest Florida that Mel could have consulted to help him craft a will or rework one to add John as a beneficiary.

He could have used legal services anywhere in Desoto County or in Lee county, where he was originally from.

I’ve had no luck in finding a firm that could have done this for him.

Attorneys retire…die…or merge firms all the time. There’s just no way to know if Mel Senior’s will still exists or who has a copy of it now 19 years later.

What I do know is that by the end of 2003 sorting out Mel’s probate proceedings without a will allowed things to move swiftly in Pat’s favor.

The court decided by default that she would get full control of her husband’s remains and assets.

She buried him in Joshua Creek Cemetery…in the Huff family plot…where, coincidentally John would also be buried…and according to Keri and Helen, Pat eventually worked out a deal with Skip to divvy up the north Fort Myers property.

Helen Huff: “There was a little, two one house frame house with a really nice barn.

They were having a falling out about that… Skip ended up having to go get a mortgage to pay her to get his own home back that he was actually living in.”

Keri: “Skip and I got a new mortgage on Bayshore and in return to get Bayshore we had to buy, we had to give her money, Pat money and we had to give her the 40 acres with the cattle on it on 31 up here. That’s the only way that we could get Bayshore back.”

Delia D’Ambra: After Pat and Skip finalized their deal, Keri says everything pretty much went back to normal.

Keri: “It went on for a few more months and Pat laid off of Skip. She, she had told everybody in Arcadia she thought Skip did it…but she kind of let up for a little while.”

Delia D’Ambra: By spring of 2004 Keri and Skip were working on renovating the dilapidated Bayshore road house…and Pat sold off most of Mel Senior’s acreage along with the cattle.

The sawmill remained untouched though and to-this-day still exists on the southeast Hansel Avenue property.

I’ve been told that Matt Welles, John’s older brother maintains it.

Delia D’Ambra: But when my associate producer David and I took a trip to Arcadia to check it out…

We didn’t get the impression the sawmill was still operable.

Delia D’Ambra: “There’s a distinct feeling that there is to be no access to any of this for whatever reason.”

David Payne: “Three locks on this gate now…two no trespassing signs…”

Delia D’Ambra: “Which is to the sawmill, which if the sawmill is still active…I mean, I get that, there’s some equipment back there. There are some trailers, there’s some tractors, that’s expensive stuff…. but the signage and just the extent of security here and the fact that like all of the neighbors seem to be as on board with that is just interesting to me.”

Delia D’Ambra: It didn’t take long before a friendly neighbor pulled over to ask us what we were doing.

Delia D’Ambra: “Did you live here back in 2003?”

Edward Mason: “Oh yeah. Name is Edward Mason. Yeah, I lived…”

Delia D’Ambra: “Hey nice to meet you. I’m Delia. This is David. We’re doing some research about what happened to John in 2003. John Welles. The teenager.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Yeah, we’re trying to kind of chat with people in the area to figure out, you know people that were here, and it was a big deal.”

Edward Mason: “Yeah it was…my total knowledge of it was merely that, um, he ended up disappearing. He’d gone out shooting or hunting or whatever the case may be on that and then, didn’t find him.”

Edward Mason: “Point was, he didn’t come back when they found his body, he was shot.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Did you ever have any interaction with him?”

Edward Mason: “No, not other than just neighbors.”

David Payne: “Is that the sawmill that they used?”

Edward Mason: “Correct. Still do. It’s current.”

David Payne: “Okay.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Oh. They still use it?”

Edward Mason: “Yeah. Matt, his brother.”

Delia D’Ambra: “Gotcha. Does Matt still live here with Pat?”

Edward Mason: “Oh yes.”

Delia D’Ambra: So, the sawmill is still active…despite looking like it’s been closed for years.

Before Edward drove away from us…I asked him if he knew Pat and he said he’d known her for decades.

He called her patsy.

When I asked him if he’d ever spoken to her about John’s murder…or would respond well to us knocking on her front door…he had a strange reply…

“Patsy wouldn’t shoot anybody.”

Delia D’Ambra: Patsy wouldn’t shoot anybody.

I had to wonder why that was the response he chose.

From the looks of things, Pat and Skip made out pretty well when it came to keeping control of Mel Senior’s north Fort Myers property and the sawmill in Arcadia.

In the wake of Skip and Pat’s arrangement, Helen was outraged.

When the one-year anniversary of John’s murder rolled around…law enforcement had still gotten nowhere in the case…and the two people Helen felt knew more than they were saying were living normal lives and splitting up property she felt would have been intended for John, if he’d lived.

She couldn’t prove it… But still, she had a gut feeling.

Everything that had happened in the first year of her son’s death caused Helen to reach her breaking point.

She launched her own public awareness campaign…which included printing and posting hundreds of neon yellow flyers that offered an undisclosed monetary reward for information in the case.

At the top was an ominous message written in bold…

“Do the right thing and set yourself free…clear your conscience…”

The flyers featured a photo of John along with a copy of his death certificate.

Helen even paid to have several large campaign signs printed with similar messaging.

You can see photos of these on the blog post for this episode.

Every day, she would drive from Lee County to Desoto County and staple hundreds of her flyers on telephone poles and fence posts surrounding her mother’s property in Arcadia.

And in north Fort Myers, at Keri and Skip’s house, she took it a step further…

Keri: “We came home one day and we had contractors there that were doing ceiling work.

We came in and our whole house, the whole inside shell was covered with flyers and buttons and paperwork on the murder of John and I looked up and Skip said ‘Well…’…I said ‘What is this?’…and he said, ‘Well, obviously Helen has been here’…and all down old Bayshore on every tree there were flyers nailed to every tree and I asked the contractors, I said ‘Where did this come from?’…and they said ‘Some woman came up in here and said that Skip had murdered her son.’…and I just hit the roof.”

Delia D’Ambra: Keri and Skip never retaliated against Helen…but for months they lived knowing full well that she was watching them.

Helen says over time though, she gave up hounding Skip.

Helen Huff: “They had lawyered up. Nobody was talking and nobody was getting anywhere.”

Delia D’Ambra: And she’s right.

On multiple occasions in 2003 and 2004 both Skip and Pat had declined law enforcement’s offer to take polygraphs.

Each of them had hired attorneys and they were no longer cooperating fully with police.

They, along with Patrick Skinner, had already given F-D-L-E their fingerprints and saliva samples and they felt they had nothing else to offer.

The only thing police could do was keep waiting for DNA testing results to come in on items of evidence they’d sent off in the fall of 2003.

Authorities hope was that something from those results would confirm their suspicions about Pat and Skip…or…point them towards a new avenue of investigation.

In November 2004—all of the information police had been waiting for came in.

The lab determined that there were traces of John’s DNA on the right-side fender mud flap of the four-wheeler…and the barrel of his gun.

That was no surprise, since techs had already determined from prior blood testing that John’s blood was located in those spots. His DNA being in those places was expected.

Technicians had also extracted DNA from the buckle of one of John’s belts and found it had a mixture of two people’s profiles on it.

One was John’s…and one belonged to another person the lab couldn’t fully identify.

Patrick and Skip were definitively ruled out as contributors…but Pat couldn’t be excluded.

That wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk either, because authorities knew that Pat had touched John’s belts when she handed them over to detectives the day after John’s death.

The lab also found DNA on the empty Coors light beer can but there wasn’t enough genetic material present to develop a readable profile.

No DNA whatsoever showed up on John’s thigh strap.

What I find odd is that according to F-D-L-E’s report, techs decided not to conduct any DNA analysis on the handle of John’s revolver, his other belt, the four-wheeler’s center console, right clutch handle, foot brake or engine.

The lab also did not do DNA extraction on what I think could be the most important pieces evidence in the case…the bullets.

Nowhere in the forensic reports could I find documentation that the F-D-L-E lab examined the five unfired 17 caliber bullets and the one fired shell casing that law enforcement found in John’s gun.

Now, to me, that seems like a huge oversight.

I’m not saying whoever shot John loaded his gun….more than likely John loaded his gun…but…I mean, to not even attempt to look for foreign DNA on those pieces of evidence seems outrageous to me.

I don’t know if this is because F-D-L-E just didn’t want to test these items…or they weren’t asked to…or they didn’t have the technology to…but whatever the reason, it’s extremely frustrating to me.

And Desoto County sheriff’s office was feeling equally as frustrated about the DNA testing results by the end of 2004.

Investigators had hit a complete wall in the case and were at a loss as how to move forward.

On December 6th, 2004—almost a year and a half after John’s murder— F-D-L-E sent a memo to the Florida Lieutenant governor’s office explaining the dire status of the case.

It says in part quote—

“(redacted) of victim are prime suspects.

Family dispute, removal of weapon are factors but insufficient evidence exists to charge either to this point. Additional interviews with either are not anticipated at this time.

No evidence of value to prosecution noted.

Bottom line, homicide not classified as cold case but leads dwindling. Has proven to be difficult case to solve, particularly in light of limited physical evidence and status of (redacted) as suspects.

Both agencies will do all possible to solve.”

—end quote.

And that’s where the criminal investigation into John’s case stayed…for two years…

Until detectives re-interviewed John’s older brother…

And a simultaneous a tip came in in the fall of 2006 that re-ignited the investigation…

But this new information had nothing to do with the people law enforcement had labeled their “prime suspects”…

This tip pointed to a person of interest that police had never considered…

An acquaintance of John’s who’d made some startling claims to a girlfriend in the years after the murder…

Sarah Rhoden: “He said ask me about John and the green Explorer.”

Sarah Rhoden: “He goes ask me about John and the green Explorer Sarah…ask me about John and the green Explorer.”

Delia D’Ambra: That’s on the next episode of counterclock— “Sketch”—listen, right now.