In last week’s installment, Russell “Skip” Welch was awaiting trial for child stealing in connection to the disappearance of 16-year-old Theresa Bier when charges were dropped and he was released from jail. Authorities had failed to develop a murder case, double jeopardy provided an excuse to deny justice, and Theresa was on her way to becoming utterly forgotten.
I have to surmise Theresa is still in Ghost Canyon…
In the fall of 1988, a little more than a year after Skip Welch was released from jail and charges were dismissed, The Fresno Bee reported that renowned Bigfoot researcher Grover Krantz of Washington State University was going to speak at Fresno State. Grover’s friend and Fresno State anthropology professor Roger LaJeunesse remembers that public lecture.
“Yes, Grover came down and gave a talk on ‘Squatch. And it was well attended. There were a lot of people there.”
I can’t help but wonder who might have been in that crowd.
Thinking back to the Prologue of this series, I have to wonder if a certain troubled young man from Merced may have attended. It would be another year before his younger brother, Steven, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Two years until his uncle was shot to death. And a little over a decade until he, Cary Stayner, murdered three tourists at Yosemite’s Cedar Lodge and then later killed and decapitated a female park naturalist at Foresta.
During his trial a couple years later, Stayner’s obsession with Bigfoot would be made public. And while it is interesting to ponder Stayner’s possible attendance at the Bigfoot researcher’s FSU talk, it’s unknown if the future serial killer, now at San Quentin on death row, made the trip to Fresno to hear Krantz speak.
A much more likely attendee, however, was Skip Welch. No stranger to the campus, the house painter who never finished high school had years before met with anthropology professor Roger LaJeunesse to show evidence of Bigfoot.
Another time, he convinced a geology professor to let him speak to a class on his practical knowledge of local Sierra geology. I asked LaJeunesse if he thinks Skip could have been at Grover’s lecture.
“That’s a good question,” the professor told me. “Given the size of the crowd, he could have been there without me noticing.”
While an interesting question to ponder, there are more significant questions to consider besides whether Skip Welch or Cary Stayner might have attended that Bigfoot lecture at Fresno State.
When I consider how child-stealing charges were suddenly dropped, I have to ask: Double jeopardy? Really?
The official story was because the district attorney’s office feared that if a murder case were developed, and Skip had been tried for that lesser charge, the defense could then claim double jeopardy. The explanation being these charges emanated from “similar circumstances.”
I’m no lawyer, but it seems like apples and oranges to me. The detective on the case, Doug Stokes, expressed a similar sentiment. He remembered how “basically, the DAs office got caught up on the idea of double jeopardy, and we [police investigators] said how does double jeopardy apply if we just charge him, if we finally just charge him with… if we put him in jail for the child abduction?”
I have not seen a satisfactory answer to that question in any of my research.
So what happened to Skip Welch after this? A murder case was never developed, primarily because the body of 16-year-old Theresa Bier was never found. And while the DA claimed they could always go back and refile the child-stealing charge if a murder case was not developed, they never did.
Skip Welch never stood trial. Not for child stealing, not for murder.
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There are indications, however, that Skip was forever-after tormented by the circumstances surrounding Theresa’s disappearance. Detective Stokes recalls speaking with family members years later who claimed Skip was “really off the wall, talking a lot again about Theresa.”
He would reportedly take long baths — three or four hours long — and would scrub his skin raw with lye soap. Skip seemed to be trying to clean his soul and lamented that God would never forgive him for all the things he’d done.
In March 1998, a little more than 10 years after Theresa disappeared, Russell “Skip” Welch died. He was 54 years of age. The death certificate lists severe coronary artery disease as the cause.
There are some in the family who believe a drug overdose killed Skip. Other family members maintain it was simply his bad heart. Meth use places profound stress on the cardiovascular system, and so while the years of drugs may not have killed him directly, it contributed to an early death.
What about John Richmond, Theresa’s uncle and guardian? I have to wonder if Blind Johnny was somehow involved in Theresa’s disappearance.
Five years after Theresa went to the mountains with Skip Welch (and never returned), The Fresno Bee conducted a follow-up interview of the supposed grieving uncle.
“We were close,” Richmond told the reporter. “I loved that child. She was just starting out in life and this had to happen.”
To me, the sentiment expressed rings false, knowing the allegedly abusive relationship Theresa had with her uncle. And another comment he made in the article oddly captures Blind Johnny’s character.
“Man, she’s dead,” Richmond was quoted as saying. “Or she’s been sold into slavery. No one could be gone that long and not get in touch with their family.”
Sold into slavery? Odd he would go there. Who would think that?
Blind Johnny was well-known to law enforcement. If I am to believe a former girlfriend of his — her reliability admittedly suspect, but her allegations explosive — he served as police informant; had sold meth to well-known political figures; and possessed tape recordings of conversations with dirty cops.
I also have it secondhand from another source that Richmond’s two young sons actually told investigators that their father had something to do with Theresa going missing.
Indeed, Detective Stokes recalled that “there was a speculation that Welch owed Blind Johnny some favors, or money, and that it was a matter of hey, why don’t you just take my little niece and drop her off somewhere because she’s starting to make statements about what’s been going on with us… about us sexually. And so that was probably the agreement, not necessarily kill her. Maybe it was, I don’t know.”
The theory was evidently never effectively pursued. As his girlfriend from those days recalled, “He got away with everything, you have no idea.”
She summed up her opinion of John Richmond by stating “that dude was fucking evil, he was evil.”
Sometime around 2008, John “Blind Johnny” died of cancer.
Has any trace of Theresa ever been found? Have any other theories of her disappearance surfaced?
To date, no trace of Theresa Bier’s body has been found. Her sister, Yolanda, was recently asked to provide a DNA sample. Does this mean authorities found something? Apparently, from what Yolanda was told, they were attempting to determine if a body that was found in an orchard many years ago (closer to the time of her disappearance) might be Theresa.
If DNA showed it was her, the authorities said they would let her know. Yolanda did not hear back, so the assumption is that whoever was found in that orchard was not Theresa.
Which brings us to a well in Linden, east of Stockton. In Part One, I discussed a rash of disappearances and murders in the Stockton area that would eventually be linked to Loren Herzog and Wesley Shermantine, who became known as the Speed Freak Killers. They were eventually arrested in 1999.
In 2001, Shermantine was convicted of four murders. Herzog was charged with five murders and convicted of three. Herzog’s sentence was eventually overturned; he later committed suicide.
Shermantine, on death row at San Quentin, began a campaign to raise money in exchange for information on other murder victims, which led, in 2012, to the excavation of a well in Linden. More than 1,000 human bone fragments were recovered, and three more victims of the Speed Freak Killers were identified.
During the news coverage surrounding the excavation of this well, a private investigator who had been looking at dozens of cases that were never solved proffered a list of possible victims who might be in that well. Theresa Bier was included on that list.
To this day, members of the Welch family — who maintain that the only thing Skip was guilty of was poor judgment in taking Theresa to the mountains — cling to the theory that the Speed Freak Killers abducted and killed Theresa.
I asked Rob Dick, an investigator who has worked the Speed Freak Killers case for nearly two decades, about the likelihood of that theory. Was there any specific reason Theresa’s name was included on that list, I asked him.
“Or was she simply added because it was an unsolved disappearance in Central California and thus technically a possibility, however slim?”
Dick responded that he could not definitively state the Speed Freak Killers had anything to do with Theresa’s disappearance.
“You’re right. It was just [a list of victims of] any possible case in the Central Valley.”
Of the three victims identified from those bones excavated from that well in Linden, none were Theresa Bier. She wasn’t in that orchard. She wasn’t in that well in Linden.
I have to surmise Theresa is still in Ghost Canyon.
What do I think happened?
I’ll be blunt here. I think Skip killed her.
I will say, however, that I don’t think he was of sound mind at the time. He may not have even purposely killed her.
I’ll give Skip that little benefit of the doubt. He may have been delusional at the time. He might have believed that he was appeasing a devil spirit or was forced into it by a colony of superhuman creatures.
I also believe he may have been pressured into it by a much less supernatural force, namely John Richmond. I can well imagine Blind Johnny had something on Skip and was able to manipulate him to do his bidding.
And Blind Johnny may have seen Skip as the perfect stooge, knowing his propensity for outrageous stories about Bigfoot could work in his favor if Skip were ever to confess a conspiratorial plan to make Blind Johnny’s problem (Theresa) go away.
But this is all just conjecture.
I will continue to ponder Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot, and perhaps dive back into the research of this remarkable saga at some point.
Meth continues to be an epidemic in the Central Valley. And everywhere.
Murder, unfortunately, will always exist in human society.
And Bigfoot? Do I believe. No, I don’t think I do.
I am a skeptic by nature. But do I completely deny the possibility that Bigfoot could exist? No.
A couple months ago, hiking by myself deep in the Sierra National Forest close to where I believe Ghost Canyon to be, I heard knocking. From far away, a rapid succession of what sounded like violent wood-on-wood strikes.
It didn’t sound like a woodpecker. It didn’t sound like anything I could identify.
It was a sound Squatchers call “tree knocking,” which they believe serves as a warning from the creatures not to venture any farther into their lands. For half a second, the hairs on my neck stood up on end.
Then I remembered, oh yeah, I’m a skeptic. I quickly convinced myself it was just a woodpecker or maybe someone working a jackhammer deep in the forest.
My telling of this California Crime Saga is dedicated to the memory of Theresa Ann Bier. I admit it has often focused on Skip Welch, mostly because we know so much more about him.
But I’ve constantly reminded myself that I tell the story because Theresa can never tell it herself. And while no one seemed to advocate for her, we have to remind ourselves that everybody counts, or nobody counts.
Finally, I admit I’ve focused on Bigfoot as a means to entice readers, but not arbitrarily, I hope. Indeed, I feel that the central irony of this story is that the thing that was blamed for Theresa’s disappearance — Bigfoot or Sasquatch or Hairy Man, however you want to name the mythical (or real) beast — is the thing that ultimately helped to keep her memory alive.
I was led to Theresa’s story because of curiosity about Bigfoot.
And Theresa, we must always remember, counted.
The author would like to thank the following for their input, assistance, and support on this project: Laura Krantz for her podcast, Wild Thing, that indirectly inspired this whole project. Stevo Watson and Cliff Barackman for a foot up on my Sasquatch research. Bryce, Michael, and Riley at the Bigfoot Collector’s Club for giving this story its first voice. Tim Christensen for a great blog entry about the Restless Spirits of Shuteye Peak.
For answering my emails and giving me information, thanks to former public defender Melvin K. Rube, Rob Dick at Renegade Investigations, Gerianne Eldred from Central High, Rainbow Ausburn at the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, and Don Hoang at USDA/Forest Service.
Several people agreed to speak with me, in person or via telephone, and my appreciation for their time and sometimes unpleasant memories cannot be overstated. They are (some last names are left off or purposely outdated) Doug Stokes, D.W. Grantz, Robin Jeffryes, Tamara Newman, Yolanda Bier, Roger LaJeunesse, and Michelle Ryan.
Thanks also to the Fresno Attorney’s office for providing me with nearly 70 pages of police reports and the staff at the Fresno Public Library History Room for their assistance operating the new microfilm printers.
Finally, thanks to Sarah and John at 3 Rivers News for indulging this newbie crime reporter.