In last week’s prologue, Cary Stayner was profiled and his seminal sighting of Bigfoot at the western edge of Yosemite National Park was recounted. This week, we travel a mere 20 miles or so, as the raven flies, to the southern edge of Yosemite. There the narrative examining Theresa Bier’s 1987 disappearance begins with a harrowing and disturbingly prophetic episode in a mysterious place known as Ghost Canyon.
In 1987, Michelle Ryan told a Fresno police detective that she did not “feel much like talking about Skip and the things that happened in Ghost Canyon.” But the detective pressed the teenage girl.
He had been told disturbing things and wanted to hear from Michelle herself just what had happened up in the mountains east of Fresno the previous summer. Detective Doug Stokes had good reason to be investigating Russell Welch, known to most everyone as Skip. But Michelle would just as soon forget she had ever known the 42-year-old, fast-talking tweaker.
Michelle was 16 years old when Skip Welch convinced her to go camping with him in Sierra National Forest, just south of Yosemite National Park. Hiking trails lead to many creeks and small lakes, and steep canyons wind between numerous peaks, some towering to over 10,000 feet.
A fire lookout, built in the early 1900s, still operates atop the somnolently named Shuteye Peak. Its lookout tower metaphorically serves as sentry over this untamed wilderness. But whatever surveillance it provides over the vast expanse is no match for the mysteries contained therein.
A TRUE MOUNTAIN MAN
Skip Welch knew a thing or two about these mountains. An amateur mineralogist, Skip had filed several mining claims and spent a great deal of time searching for strategic metals in the area.
Some of these claims were not far from Shuteye Peak, but he also owned claims farther north, near the southern Yosemite boundary. In a steep canyon where Chiquito Creek flows down between Quartz Mountain and Madera Peak, the area’s most guarded mysteries were revealed to Skip. It had been, he believed, the site of Indian burial grounds. It was a place he knew as Ghost Canyon.
But Skip, through personal experience, realized it was a place populated by more than just those ancient spirits. And it was to this haunted place he chose to bring pretty, young Michelle Ryan late in the summer of 1986.
Michelle was warned against heading off alone into the wilderness with Skip Welch, but she was intrigued by his stories of amazing things he’d seen up in there. Although he worked as a house painter in Fresno, there were a lot of times he wasn’t working, getting by on disability payments, and was free to head up to the high country. And since the death of his wife, Shannon, from a drug overdose the year before, he found himself spending more and more time up in the mountains, working his mining claims, traipsing through the woods, or just clearing his mind. His energy and curiosity were often augmented by a raging methamphetamine habit.
A POOR MAN’S COCAINE
In the mid-1980s, Fresno was on its way to becoming America’s methamphetamine capital (although in the intervening decades, several cities throughout the country could reluctantly claim that moniker). Fresno was not just another small agricultural town in the Central Valley.
Even in the 1980s, it had a population of a quarter million people, making it the key city in a region that was becoming a meth distribution hub. Extremely pure forms of the drug became easily available throughout this agricultural heartland. The so-called “poor man’s cocaine” quickly gained popularity in the economically challenged region.
The stimulant effect of meth is said to last 50 times longer than cocaine. Its use initially creates feelings of euphoria and invincibility.
Users can stay awake for days on end, impairing cognitive function and contributing to an increasing paranoia. Repeated use can alter brain chemistry and cause schizophrenia-like behavior.
Hallucinations, delusions, and obsessive behavior are all symptomatic of a condition called “meth psychosis.” In the vernacular of the street, users were called “tweakers” or, if one was particularly known for meth use and its attendant symptoms, a “speed freak.”
Skip Welch was a tall, wiry guy. He was talkative.
In the words of one Fresno police detective 30 years later, “People that use crank often are very talkative. And Skip was very talkative.”
Michelle described him as “cool, and like, very persuasive.” And in 1986, he convinced her to go to those mysterious mountains with him.
But Michelle had friends who counseled against it. Even Skip’s daughter, Chandra, just a couple years older than Michelle, didn’t think she should go.
Chandra later admitted that her dad was known for plying young girls with drugs and enticing them into sexual relations. Another friend, when he couldn’t talk Michelle out of going, insisted that at least her “sort of” boyfriend, Sam, and another guy they knew called Corky go along on the trip.
If Skip was disappointed that two other men, both around 30 years of age, had become part of his excursion into the wilderness with the sexy, young, blue-eyed beauty, it was never mentioned. But looking back, it was a good thing they went along.
THE SPEED FREAK KILLERS
After all, in the previous couple of years, several young women had disappeared farther north in the Central Valley, in the Stockton area.
In late 1984, 19-year-old Kimberly Ann Billy went missing. She’d been gone two weeks before her grandmother even reported her missing. As she was legally an adult, she couldn’t even be ruled a runaway. She was, however, never seen nor heard from again.
Then, in 1985, JoAnn Hobson, who was 16, disappeared from her east Stockton neighborhood, leaving home in the middle of the night while her mom was at work. Even at such a young age, it was days before her mother reported her missing. Like Kimberly, she had seemingly vanished and was never heard from again.
Later that year, Robin Armtrout was last seen getting into a red truck with two men in front of her mother’s home near Stockton’s Del Mar Park. Days later, her body was found by a creek outside the small town of Linden, 14 miles east of Stockton. She had been raped and repeatedly stabbed.
Then, in October 1985, Chevelle Wheeler went missing from Franklin High School in Stockton. She had told friends that she was skipping school to go to Valley Springs with some guy.
That guy, authorities would later determine, was a big, dour-looking 19-year-old named Wesley Shermantine. He, along with his buddy Loren Herzog, had both graduated from Linden High School in 1984. The two would later be known as the Speed Freak Killers, two of California’s most notorious serial killers. It would be quite some time, however, before they were suspected in Chevelle’s disappearance or any of the numerous others in the years to come.
But in the summer of 1986, Michelle Ryan had no way of knowing all of this. It is doubtful she was aware of the disappearances of young women just a two-hour drive to the north.
So it probably wasn’t the fear of a similar fate that made her insist on Sam and Corky going along on this trip to the mountains. It was a combination of some good advice and the inherent creepy vibe that Skip, old enough to be her father, must have given off.
But if he slightly creeped her out before the trip, what followed once they got there would absolutely terrify her.
INTO THE MYSTERIOUS CANYON
The place Skip took Michelle and her friends Sam and Corky was by no means easy to get to. After taking the winding but paved Sierra Scenic Byway north, skirting Bass Lake to their west and Shuteye Peak to the east, they finally turned off near Globe Rock — an otherworldly rock formation — and onto a narrow, barely noticeable dirt road. The ruts and washboards of the old logging road jostled Michelle and her three older male companions in Skip’s beat-up Ford Pinto.
Finally, after having driven for hours, they arrived at their destination and hiked back into a place Skip called Ghost Canyon. Setting up camp, Skip began talking a mile a minute.
Michelle, when asked later on by a police detective if drugs had been used, admitted that, in the deadpan language of a police report, “there might have been some methamphetamines consumed.” More than 30 years later, she would wonder if maybe she’d been slipped LSD or something else because of the things she experienced.
One reason Michelle wanted to come to the mountains with Skip was because he had supposedly seen Bigfoot. He loved to tell stories about the legendary creature, to the point of near obsession.
Both Sam and Corky scoffed at that. They did not believe that nonsense for one minute.
But evidently they were up for some righteous partying in the woods and also felt rather protective of 16-year-old Michelle. And as the sun was setting and the shadows began creeping through the canyon, Skip began to talk about things that seemed far more sinister, far more evil.
Yes, Skip talked about Bigfoot. But it was more than just one fleeting glimpse of a single hominoid scurrying off into the woods that he told of.
There were colonies of the creatures living up in these mountains. And Skip had communicated with these supernatural entities. Telepathically. He knew much about their mysterious culture.
It may have started out as entertaining (albeit bat-shit crazy) tall tales in the minds of Sam and Corky — one can even imagine them egging Skip on, encouraging his ever-more outrageous assertions — but as the night deepened, the drug-fueled discussions ran even farther afield.
Skip explained how the Bigfoot creatures worshipped women. And then his talk took a darker path, when he mentioned the presence of devil gods in Ghost Canyon. He even talked of Satanic sacrifices.
FACE TO FACE WITH EVIL
And by now, Skip was insisting that every unexplained noise or unidentifiable shadow was a creature or a spirit. Bigfoot or devil gods. Who knew what they were now hearing and seeing?
Corky would later tell people that some of the weirdest things in his life happened that night. Sam, convinced he saw eyes glowing at him in the night — that they had to be supernatural creatures based on the height — grabbed his rifle and fired into the woods.
All this and the talk of giant creatures worshipping women and Satanic spirits made happy by sacrifices gave Michelle a strange feeling, a fear that she herself might be sacrificed, as she slipped into an uneasy sleep that night. Or simply passed out.
In the deep, dark dead of the night, Michelle woke up. Her screams would wake Sam and Corky. What she saw upon awaking was horrible, “the worst thing I ever saw,” she would maintain decades later.
“It was like a total….almost a devil,” she said. “But it didn’t look like a devil. It was white, it was like three feet tall, its face ugly and it had big eyes. I mean, it was evil, evil, evil.”
And while Michelle’s memory of what happened next is cloudy, Sam later told her that she started yelling, “He’s going to kill me, he’s going to kill me” and ran toward a cliff with a huge drop off.
Sam grabbed her, saving her life. That is what she believes to this day.
A year after that traumatic trip, when Fresno detective Doug Stokes asked Michelle Ryan about that night, she stated that she “did not feel much like talking about Skip Welch and the things that happened in Ghost Canyon.”
In next week’s installment, it is one year later and we meet another 16-year-old girl, Theresa Ann Bier of Fresno. We’ll take a look back at her troubled, and troubling, childhood. We’ll examine her messed-up family situation. And finally, recount how she ended up going to the mountains, hoping to find Bigfoot, with none other than Skip Welch.
Previously, on Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot: