Previously on Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot, 16-year-old Theresa Ann Bier turns up missing after a camping trip to Sierra National Forest with 43-year-old Russell “Skip” Welch. Suspected of foul play, the self-professed Bigfoot expert and known meth user leads authorities to a campsite where he last saw the teenaged girl. Or is it?
On June 11, 1987, following an excursion to the supposed campsite near Brown’s Creek in Sierra National Forest, Detective Doug Stokes brought Russell “Skip” Welch back to Fresno Police Headquarters where he was officially booked on two charges.
The first was a misdemeanor, charging that the “suspect knowingly removed 16-year-old victim from area, victim was truant from school.”
The second similar but more serious charge stated that the suspect “without legal authority, removed 16-year-old victim from Fresno County and kept victim concealed from guardians.” Unlawful concealment of a minor, or “child stealing,” is a felony with a recommended sentence of three to four years in prison.
But ultimately, there was only one charge authorities really seemed to care about: murder.
In the days following Skip being charged, investigations and search efforts intensified. A timeline breaks down as set forth below.
* * *
Friday, June 12: Madera County Sheriff’s officers, along with a mounted posse, tracking dogs, and infrared-equipped air support, return to the area to search for Theresa.
Detective Stokes drives to the Sunnyside residence of Welch to search his Monte Carlo.
He finds no physical evidence in the vehicle linking him to the missing person, but does notice an empty jug of cheap wine.
Following his search, Stokes speaks with Skip’s daughter, Chandra, who states Theresa didn’t have any luggage when they stopped by before leaving for the mountains.
Later that afternoon, sheriff’s deputies inform Stokes they were unable to locate the missing person but would continue efforts the next day.
Tuesday, June 16: Russell “Skip” Welch is arraigned in Fresno Municipal Court and released on his own recognizance by Judge Gallagher, who is unaware that Judge Austin had increased the bail to $30,000 after reviewing the case.
Wednesday, June 17: John Richmond and Tamara Newman show up at Fresno Police HQ for an interview with Detective Stokes.
Richmond tells him about Theresa’s background: the history of physical abuse by her mother, her subsequent years in foster care, the efforts of her father to regain custody, and how she eventually ended up living with her dad’s elderly grandmother before coming to live with him.
Stokes confirms much of this history by talking to Theresa’s former foster parent, her great-grandmother, and her sister, Yolanda.
Stokes also learns something Blind Johnny neglected to mention: that there was suspected sexual abuse taking place in her most recent living arrangement. [see Part Two: Theresa Ann Bier]
Thursday, June 18: It is learned that Welch had been mistakenly released on his own recognizance. A new bench warrant is quickly issued, and Stokes re-arrests Welch, bringing him back to jail without incident.
Friday, June 19: The Fresno Bee publishes the first newspaper article about the case with the headline “Man blames Bigfoot for missing girl.” The article recounts the intensive search conducted on June 12 and 13, but quotes Madera Sheriff’s Lt. Al Conway as saying that “the search for the girl…has been scaled down to periodic checks of the area and asking campers and other visitors to be on the lookout for her.” He later told the National Examiner that they were still searching, but on a limited basis, adding “we have to assume the girl’s still alive.”
Conway notes that “the dogs have scented her in the area, but we haven’t been able to find her. If her body is covered, then it was probably covered by somebody.”
When the supermarket tabloid asked if he believed in Bigfoot, Conway replied “Not until someone catches me one.”
Saturday, June 20: A second article runs in The Fresno Bee with a photograph of Theresa, claiming she is “believed to have met with foul play.”
Perhaps because of the press the case was finally receiving on that June Saturday nearly three weeks after Theresa’s disappearance, Detective Stokes received a number of phone calls. A very concerned Sharon Newman, mother of Richmond’s teenaged girlfriend Tamara, called expressing concern for her daughter’s well-being. She feared Tammy was in danger and did not feel comfortable with how much time she was spending with Blind Johnny, whom she believed was trafficking drugs.
The detective also received calls from various members of the Welch family. Skip’s younger half-brother, Robin Jeffryes, told the detective he believed his brother was somewhat mentally unstable in regard to his beliefs in Bigfoot.
Leaotta Welch, a niece of the suspect, called and while initially hoping to remain anonymous, told the detective that the family had been talking and most felt that the girl was not just missing but dead and probably buried in the mountains somewhere. She also said comments had been made amongst the family that the camp where Skip took authorities was a fake camp, and that there had been a lot of discussion about Ghost Canyon being the actual location where the girl had been left or killed.
A subsequent call from Leaotta’s brother (and Skip’s nephew) James Welch reiterated these theories and led the detective to pay a visit to Michelle Ryan, who James claimed had actually been to Ghost Canyon with Skip the summer before. Initially reticent to tell Stokes anything, Michelle finally told a disturbing tale that may have indeed foreshadowed Theresa’s fate. [see Part One: Ghost Canyon]
Further examples of Skip taking young women to the mountains, and Ghost Canyon in particular, were brought to light when Detective Stokes talked to a Fresno State geology professor at some later point in his investigation. In my recent interview with the retired detective, Stokes recalled how Skip once gave a presentation at Fresno State University.
He had gone to the geology department and convinced a professor to let him talk to a class about the local geology of the nearby Sierra. As an amateur mineralogist, Skip professed practical real-world expertise.
“He then encouraged these students to hike in and look at all these geology type formations…it was close to this Ghost Canyon,” Stokes recalled the professor telling him. “I remember I talked to at least one boy and two girls. They had hiked back into this place, and he gets them way back in this remote area. He’s doing his meth. [They start] hearing noises during the night. They’re terrified. He’s telling them that he saw, you know, the eyes of Bigfoot, and he hears these noises and there’s this whistling through the trees, and these kids are terrified. They were up all night thinking that they were going to be attacked by Bigfoot who they probably thought was going to be Welch cutting them up into little pieces and eating them.”
Stokes was having a bit of morbid fun in this recollection, but you get the point.
The Fresno police detective also received a call that busy Saturday from Peggy Babb, who told him that she and another classmate were told by Theresa days before she disappeared of her plan to go to the mountains with Skip, contradicting any spur-of-the-moment assertions about the whole episode.
And a follow-up visit with John Richmond and Tamara Newman by Stokes that day (he was actually accompanying another detective on a completely unrelated and different homicide investigation) yielded an interesting and adamant insistence, from both Blind Johnny and Tammy, that they had only just met Skip a week or so before. Barely knew him. And no, they hadn’t heard anything from Theresa.
By mid-afternoon, Stokes was contacted by Sharon Newman a second time, recounting an angry phone call she had received from her daughter and John Richmond, imploring her not to talk to the detective anymore. The call ended with Richmond and Sharon Newman shouting at each other.
It had been an eventful day for the detective, and the case was feeling more and more like something other than just a missing person case. Indeed, in the minds of most concerned, this was a murder case.
Perhaps most enlightening, once Stokes peeled away some of the more demented details, was his sit-down interview with James Welch. The 19-year-old nephew of Skip came to police headquarters late that afternoon of June 20.
James was, as he put it, “ready to explode because of the information that he had inside.” He claimed to be emotionally upset about the missing girl, and needed to talk.
He explained he was close to his uncle, had spent a lot of time with him up in the mountains, learning things he never could have down in the valley. He noted that Skip had “gathered so much information about the strange and wonderful things that exist in the Sierras,” but admitted that “if somebody starts off trying to find the good, and things get twisted around, that sometimes evil can come of their good desires.”
James then told a twisted tale.
When he first heard about the girl missing, James Welch figured his uncle had taken the girl to Ghost Canyon. He believed that the campsite Skip later took authorities to was “a fake campsite and that his uncle was just trying to lead us on a wild goose chase,” said Detective Stokes.
James told of an earlier argument he’d had with his uncle after Skip talked about a “burial site of the devil.” When James told his uncle there was only one true God and that was Jesus Christ, Skip became argumentative, insisting that devil gods existed in Ghost Canyon.
James told how one time, in Ghost Canyon, Skip showed him a rock that had an odd marking on it, explaining it was a sacrificial design.
“He stated that a woman’s hands needed to be tied behind her head and off to the side when she was laid across the rock on her back and it was here that she was presented as a sacrifice to the devil gods.”
It was the teenaged James Welch who, the summer before, had urged Michelle Ryan not to go to the mountains alone with Skip. He claimed he had convinced Sam and Corky to go along.
He echoed other family members when he talked about his uncle’s proclivity for underage girls. It had been rumored for years that his uncle brought various young women, girls really, to the mountains and that he had done this because Bigfoot worshipped women. James at first thought this meant they worshipped women in a positive way, but admitted that now he suspects maybe it was in a more, let’s say “sacrificial” manner.
Perhaps most jaw dropping was James’ summation that “he believed that this was part of the game that Skip was playing with us, that he could sacrifice someone and bury them in one location, lead us to another location and completely confuse the authorities. He stated that he knew that his uncle completely believed that he would be able to walk away from this situation, knowing that he would gain a lot of publicity and that at most he would only spend a year or so in jail for child neglect or child stealing.”
Was James Welch being incredibly prescient or utterly fanciful? Did he himself have reason to throw his uncle under the crazy bus or was he genuinely upset over what might have happened to Theresa and was truly trying to help authorities? Was James Welch any more believable than his uncle Skip?
In late August, Russell “Skip” Welch faced formal arraignment for, to quote the court filing, “VIOLATION OF 278 OF THE CALIFORNIA PENAL CODE, A FELONY TO WIT: The defendant, on or about June 1, 1987, and continuing to the date of the filing of this information, not having a right to custody, did willfully, unlawfully, maliciously, fraudulently take, detain, conceal and/or entice away a minor child: Theresa Ann Bier, born April 16, 1971 with the intent then and there to detain or conceal said minor child from JOHN RICHMOND, the person having lawful charge of said child.”
Authorities, both from the Fresno Police Department and the Madera County Sheriff’s Department, were a long way off from knowing what had really happened to Theresa Ann Bier. And with no physical evidence — you know, like a body — there was no way they could make the charge they increasingly thought applied: Murder.
In next week’s installment, as authorities try to build a murder case, the District Attorney’s office tries to make a deal, and a mind-boggling decision shocks everyone.