A California Crime Saga.
In last week’s installment, Russell “Skip” Welch is charged with child stealing after he takes Theresa Bier to the mountains then returns to Fresno without her. And when Detective Doug Stokes digs deeper in to the case, he learns from Skip’s nephew that there may be an accomplice other than just Bigfoot. The devil may have made him do it. A California Crime Saga
By the time the sun set on the Summer Solstice of 1987, the case surrounding Theresa Bier’s disappearance appeared to be stagnating. Interviews had been completed with anyone who seemed to have any information.
The search for Theresa in Sierra National Forest became anything but intensive, limited to periodic checks of the area and asking visitors to “be on the lookout” for the teenaged girl.
Local newspaper coverage dried up completely, understandable as there was really nothing to report.
Partly because of information gleaned in the June 20 police interview with James Welch, nephew of the suspect, Russell “Skip” Welch, authorities searched specific areas in the Sierra National Forest where Skip had worked mining claims. James told Fresno Police Detective Doug Stokes they should look in Ghost Canyon, where Skip had claims and spent much time. A California Crime Saga
Another place he suggested, if Theresa’s body was not found in Ghost Canyon, was a mining site in the Minarets area. Skip had a claim there named for his late wife, Shannon.
James Welch told the detective he thought his uncle could have possibly “taken the body to the mine shaft, dropped it in the mine shaft, or buried it on the land around the Shannon claim.”
As the summer progressed, Madera County Sheriff’s deputies searched these areas, even locating and entering some mine shafts. No trace of Theresa was found. A California Crime Saga
As the hot Fresno summer wore on, Skip remained in jail on felony charges of child stealing. His preliminary hearing was originally scheduled for early July, then postponed to late July, and eventually pushed back to August.
On August 24, he was formally indicted and ordered to stand trial. The court denied his request to be released and bail remained as set at $30,000. There was little chance the request would be considered, especially after a judge had mistakenly released him without bail shortly after his arrest.
During his initial interview with Detective Stokes, Skip told a number of stories concerning the circumstances of Theresa’s disappearance. Various early versions maintained he dropped Theresa off at school; or that she may have left for Southern California with some other campers; or even that she took off with a motorcycle gang member, whose bike she had admired, Skip said, while camping up in the mountains (which assumed that these bikers take their Harleys deep into the forest on unmaintained dirt logging roads).
Skip finally landed on “all the truth, bigger than life,” a tale that involved super-intelligent beings and the colonies of Bigfoot creatures that guarded them. But Skip was never really through talking.
In recollection, Detective Stokes found it remarkable how, as he spent that summer in the Fresno jail awaiting trial, Skip still wanted to talk. A California Crime Saga
“Even after he’d got an attorney,” Stokes recalled, “he would call me. It was like he just wanted to keep on talking and keep this thing alive.”
Stokes explained how even without his attorney present, he still wanted to talk.
“Yeah, I want to talk to you,” Skip would insist.
So the detective would make a point of taping the conversations and advise Skip of his rights, clearly stating that Welch had contacted him and he could have his attorney present if he so desired. But Skip just wanted to talk.
Doug Stokes described these conversations when I interviewed him in December 2018.
“He was always going off on these tangents that wasn’t really producing anything, other than the fact that he would change a little bit of his story. The premise was ‘I’m going to help you solve this case because I’m going to show you that I didn’t kill her.’ But he would end up, even when he obviously had been off his dope for days, you know, he’d been in jail, he still had this thing when he’d be talking about Bigfoot, he got this stare in his eyes and he almost became a different person.”
After a while, the detective started ignoring Welch’s calls. A California Crime Saga
“There were times that I didn’t bring him over [to police HQ for further interviews]. We weren’t getting anywhere.”
Stokes pointed out they had other murder cases they were actively working that summer and “it wasn’t like we were just sitting around with nothing else to do but talk to Welch.”
In August, preliminary hearings were held at the Fresno Municipal Court. Transcripts of those hearings are not available, but from docket entries and other documents, we can surmise that a number of witnesses were called.
These witnesses included the various law enforcement personnel working the case and family members and associates of both the victim and suspect, including Theresa’s great-grandmother, friends from school, and her uncle and guardian John “Blind Johnny” Richmond.
Robin Jeffryes, Skip’s younger half-brother, recalls attending the hearing. He claimed to be the only family member who showed up, noting that their mother was unable to attend.
Both of Skip’s adult children, however, were listed as witnesses, so they were at least in attendance for their testimonies. A California Crime Saga
A hearing does not seek to prove guilt but is held merely to ascertain if there is enough evidence to warrant moving forward to trial. But as Jeffryes sat watching the trial-like proceedings, the question of guilt or innocence had to weigh heavily on him and, indeed, everyone in that courtroom.
More than 30 years later, he reflected back on that very question concerning his brother.
“I asked him point blank, did you do it and he said no. And I believed him.”
Jeffryes further explained that “I knew how he was, inside out. He wouldn’t hurt a fly, wouldn’t even litter. He was the type of guy that, now I’m going to get serious with you here, he wouldn’t even fart in front of people.”
It was an odd, but heartfelt defense of his accused brother’s character.
Skip’s daughter, Chandra Welch, offered her own vehement defense and support decades after these events. How well this squares with what she told the detective in initial interviews, or with what she may have said in testimony during that hearing might be open to debate, but in online comments to a blogger made in 2017 she bluntly sums up how she viewed her father’s case:
“Do you want to know what the investigators had to show in this case? Nothing, not one single shred of evidence, not in the case file, not in the evidence room, not anywhere. Because there is none. Everything you hear is BS. The only truth to this story is that, yes, Theresa went on a Bigfoot search with my dad. Is there anything proving that he hurt her in any way? Is there evidence of her blood or DNA on him or was there anything that points to her deceased remains or even a stich of evidence to show foul play? No. My dad didn’t do anything except use very stupid judgement. If he was smart enough to pull off a crime so disturbing and make a person completely disappear, don’t you think he would have come up with better stories?”
Sadly, while the suspect Skip Welch had, and continues to have, people to speak for him, to support and defend him and his memory, there was utter silence surrounding Theresa, the 16-year-old victim, and her memory.
It is hard to imagine, in today’s media culture, the complete lack of coverage following the two stories which ran in The Fresno Bee in June. Two stories, then nothing.
No updates on the search. No profiles of a young girl, highlighting her troubling childhood.
No investigative reporting on the case that might place it in the greater context of a growing risk to girls and young women from sexual predators and serial killers. No exposés on the burgeoning meth problem in the Central Valley and how that may have contributed to this crime.
Indeed, it sadly seemed that what little coverage Theresa’s disappearance did garner mostly stood out because Bigfoot was included in the headline.
That Theresa lacked an advocate is blatantly obvious. Even her older sister, decades later, lamented that sad truth.
Sitting in a Fresno coffee shop earlier this summer, Theresa’s sister Yolanda told me “there weren’t any family members pushing the issue, there were no parents on the news saying our daughter’s missing, there was nobody that cared.”
There was a tinge of guilt and regret in her voice. She explained that during the summer of her sister’s disappearance, she was barely more than a kid herself.
She was living in Lemoore, dealing with a new baby. But all these years later, thinking back on how no one stepped up for Theresa, how no one served as a voice for her little sister, she admitted “that makes me feel bad because, like I said, maybe if I… if my situation hadn’t been what it was, maybe I could have done that.”
After the hearing in August, a trial date was set for early October. Russell “Skip” Welch was due to stand trial for child stealing. A conviction could carry a sentence of up to four years.
But authorities really wanted to see Skip face a murder charge. As Chandra Welch accurately pointed out decades later, however, they didn’t have a shred of evidence that tied their suspect to murder. They didn’t even have a body.
No one could definitively say if a murder even occurred. Well, almost no one.
Eager to protect any impending murder charge, the deputy district attorney, Elvoyce Hooper, offered a plea bargain. If Welch would plead guilty to child stealing, he would receive a sentence of one year in the county jail.
The offer was contingent, however, upon the suspect agreeing to sign a waiver of his right to claim double jeopardy if a murder case were eventually filed against him. Skip’s public defender, Melvin Rube, advised his client not to take the deal.
Skip refused to sign the waiver. He passed on the deal.
He would take his chances at trial. Whether this decision took into account things that only Skip Welch could know is unknown. Only Skip knew for sure if he actually killed Theresa, so he, better than anyone, knew the likelihood of a murder case ever being developed.
And while the legal question of double jeopardy even being applicable should a murder charge be put forth might be unclear, Skip and his counsel were obviously not interested in losing that possible lifeline.California Crime Saga
On October 3, The Fresno Bee dropped a bombshell with the headline “Abduction suspect released,” topping a lead paragraph that explained how “a Fresno man who faced trial for child-stealing—but accused Bigfoot of actually committing the crime—was released from jail Friday after the charge was dismissed.”California Crime Saga
The article went on to state that the DA’s office had asked the court to dismiss the charge because “the case against Welch may become a homicide if the girl’s body is found, and [deputy district attorney] Hooper was concerned that a double-jeopardy situation might exist if Welch were tried on the lesser charge.”
Skip Welch was a free man. Detective Stokes was understandably frustrated. And public defender Melvin Rube was pleased. California Crime Saga
In response to an email request from me for information on the case, Mr. Rube admitted that while his memory of the case might be a bit vague, “I know that at the time I didn’t really want to try the case—because of his belief in Bigfoot—so the dismissal was not only a surprise, but a relief.”
In next week’s final installment, the aftermath of this curious case is discussed, questions are posed, theories are discussed, and loose ends are anything but neatly tied up. California Crime Saga