Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot: A California Crime Saga – Part Six

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A smoldering campsite.

In last week’s installment, Skip tells a whopper of a story, but Detective Stokes is no closer to knowing what happened to Theresa Bier in the mountains east of Fresno. Maybe taking Skip back up there will shed some light on this mystery as authorities hope to find some clues, and find Theresa.

Skip Welch had a drug problem. Specifically, methamphetamines.

Detective Stokes well knew that. Several people he had interviewed in the course of his investigation, including both of Skip’s adult children, had commented that he was something of a speed freak.

Drug use had negatively impacted his life many ways. His wife, Shannon, a 38-year-old beauty whose parents were former Hollywood film actors, had died less than two years before from an apparent drug overdose. meth murder and bigfoot

By most accounts, Skip was distraught over her death, and perhaps this exacerbated his substance abuse. 

From his already erratic behavior and the wild tales he claimed to believe, 43-year-old Skip Welch seemed to present a classic example of meth psychosis. Meth-induced psychosis is a state that generally comes about during the withdrawal process. It can also arise from overdose, which is often referred to as being “spun” or “tweaking.” 

Symptoms may include hallucinations, delusions and obsessive behavior. This combination of delusions and hallucinations can lead to aggressive and violent behavior, which may manifest in fits of rage, unexplained anger and misdirected fury.

The morning after Skip told his delusional tale involving Bigfoot, super intelligent beings, and a demon man in his back seat, any misdirected fury was held in abeyance and he presented to authorities the picture of cooperation. Surely that burger, fries, and a night’s sleep in the Fresno jail didn’t hurt.

Skip was going to honor his agreement to show Detective Stokes where he last saw Theresa several days before. He accompanied the detective to the Bass Lake Substation of the Madera County Sheriff’s Department, where they were met by several deputies, and in two vehicles the group made a 25-mile drive deep into the forest of the High Sierra.

The granite flat just past Brown’s Creek. (Jay O’Connell photo)

 

Field research: Jay O’Connell searches for Skip and Theresa’s campsite. Alone.

Using detailed directions set forth in a subsequent police report, I recently made that drive. After driving only a few miles past the community of North Fork, I turned off of Road 225 and drove for nearly an hour on a dirt road, which became increasingly more narrow and remote.

Indeed, I didn’t pass or see another car for nearly the entire trip.

I am certain I then found the place Detective Stokes described in his report, wherein he noted they “passed the area of Peckinpah Meadows… and passed an area referred to as Whiskey Falls and finally crossed Brown’s Creek.” meth murder and bigfoot

Like that Skip-led caravan of lawmen, I drove a short distance past Brown’s Creek and pulled off onto a granite flat area 100 yards by 50 years wide, which dropped off to a meadow across the creek. This was the place Skip told authorities he had set up camp with Theresa.

A small grove of trees just off the meadow, which could very well be the exact site of the camp where Skip took authorities. (Jay O’Connell photo)

Skip’s campsite. Or is it?

While the Madera sheriff’s deputies walked the meadow looking for a possible campsite, Stokes noted that Skip “began to talk excessively about Bigfoot and [his] numerous sightings in the area. He told me to remain still and that if I looked into certain trees that I would be able to see the Bigfoot creatures.”

Stokes did not see any Bigfoot creatures.

“At one point, he even pointed to the far side of the meadow across the small creek and told me that he could see ‘Sam’ running up the side of the hill with the blond-headed girl… one of the super intelligent beings,” said Stokes. 

The detective saw neither. But eventually, they did come upon the campsite. And that’s when things started to get even weirder.

Skip led them to a small grove of trees at the meadow’s edge.  As described in the police report, they “noted that at the inner area of this grove… that there was a smoldering fire… among the heavy layer of pine needles that appeared to be somewhat damp. This smoldering burnt area was approximately 3½ feet wide by 8 feet long.” 

Even 30 years later, Detective Stokes remembers that campsite. Not only did he remember that there was actually a little smoke still coming up from the smoldering fire, but he recalled that “there were these blankets that were put up, and they were in a certain formation.”

This, Skip told them, is where they camped. 

There was ample evidence that this was indeed where they had camped. Per the police report, Stokes “noted that at the far end where still one could see smoke… that there was a camera and a purse.”

They also found some articles of clothing in this area that “were obviously of female items,” including an off-white bra and a T-shirt with animal caricatures with the words “Party Animals” underneath. Most remarkably, they found Polaroid photos in the purse. 

No, these were not photos of Bigfoot. Nor were they of the super intelligent being that appeared to be a young blond woman.

“We observed several pictures of the countryside immediately around where we were at along with a picture of Welch playing guitar as he was sitting by what appeared to be the blanket that was in the grove area,” Stokes wrote in his report.  meth murder and bigfoot

And there were pictures of a female, who looked similar to a small school picture the detective had acquired of the missing person.

“I assumed this person to be our victim… and [Welch] definitely identified the girl in the pictures as being Theresa Bier.”

Campsite debunked.

“Here’s what’s really interesting,” Doug Stokes told me when I interviewed him at his Clovis home earlier this year. “We looked at the pictures, and there’s this whole campsite and this is exactly where it’s at, he’s taken these pictures here. So I’m showing it to these investigators, the two guys from the Madera County Sheriff’s Department, and they look at it. Well, they see a mountain that’s in the background that I never would have been able to make any sense…”

Hearing this, I knew where he was going. “Oh, so the pictures weren’t from there?”

“He had created a campsite,” Stokes explained, “to look exactly like where the pictures were. He had gone and moved the campsite and put it back together in the same configuration with the blankets and everything that would make you think, hey, if you’re looking for Theresa and the campsite, this is where it was.” meth murder and bigfoot

From the topography in the photos, the local deputies were able to guess that the actual camp was 20 miles away. Twenty miles as the raven flies, a lot longer on the winding and vastly indirect dirt roads in Sierra National Forest.

And though the retired detective couldn’t say just what distinctive mountain peak provided this clue to the actual location, from my explorations of the area and research on the location of Skip Welch’s mining claims, I have to believe it was Madera Peak, from which Chiquito Creek flows down through a mysterious place known to Skip as Ghost Canyon.

Madera Peak, which could be the mountain deputies spotted in the Polaroid photo that indicated the actual camp was many miles north of where Skip took them.

A full-scale search commences.

Whether Theresa was last seen near that meadow along Brown’s Creek as Skip claimed, or 20 miles away at Ghost Canyon, a full blown search of both areas commenced.

(It is unclear just how much time passed before deputies realized that the Polaroid photos of the campsite were taken in an entirely different location. The police report for that day does not mention this apparent revelation, so we must assume it was some time, even days, later. But both areas were eventually searched. The lag time, however, is unclear.) 

Details of the search are limited. I tried to obtain reports from the Madera County Sheriff’s Department, but was denied because, as they stated, this is still an active investigation. When I asked to speak to someone familiar with the “ongoing investigation,” I was told they would not allow anyone comment on the case.

And so what little specific information I have on the search, which was coordinated by the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, comes primarily from what Detective Stokes can recall more than 30 years later.

One indication as to the scope of the search effort was the fact that a California Highway Patrol helicopter equipped with infrared technology was brought down from Sacramento. As the retired detective pointed out, these days that wouldn’t be such a big deal, but back then it was one of the only such-equipped helicopters in the state. meth murder and bigfoot

“So we were very hopeful when we found out about this unit that had that capability,” said Stokes. “There were a lot of man hours, a lot of money spent on it. They said, even if he buried her in a river bed and there’s water, we can pick up the infrared. So, yeah, we were very hopeful.”

They also reportedly brought in tracking dogs and the U.S. Forest Service organized volunteers into search parties. A request to the Forest Service, under the Freedom of Information Act, yielded no documentation. According to the Special Agent in Charge of the Pacific Southwest Region, “after conducting a search, we found no records responsive to your request.”

One way we know that tracking dogs were involved can be deduced from a detail in Detective Stokes’s police report from the previous day. It is an odd and frankly creepy detail, which at first glance seems better left private.

Back to Blind Johnny.

After booking Welch into jail the evening before, Stokes drove to the residence of the missing person. There he obtained from John Richmond, her uncle and legal guardian, a piece of Theresa’s clothing for a tracking dog to get a scent. It was “a pair of girl’s white underwear that appeared to be stained with blood. Richmond explained these were in fact Theresa’s and that she had started her period the day before she had been missing.”

Why Richmond chose to provide that particular article of clothing, and why he made explicit mention of Theresa’s menstrual cycle status, is unknown. That it very well could imply something about her condition, or lack of a condition, is perhaps reading more into it than is justified.

But, when we consider the moral character of Richmond, or Blind Johnny as he was commonly known, to consider this detail for all that it seems to be saying is not the case, it could indeed be a clever misdirection. We will leave that for later consideration.

Meanwhile, with the search underway (and perhaps before authorities even realized they were being sent on a wild goose chase), Skip continued to be Skip, and to exhibit his moral character. The helicopter had spotted something on the hillside above the Brown’s Creek camp.

Pocketful of meth.

It was an article of clothing. Deputies retrieved a blue Pendleton shirt. It belonged to Skip. They found a white powdery substance in the front pocket. meth murder and bigfoot

Stokes continued, “Welch was standing some distance away as we were looking at the shirt and immediately started to walk towards us and asked what we had found in the shirt. To this [Madera County Sheriff’s] Sgt. Tomlinson asked him what he thought we might have found. To this he responded that it wasn’t shit, that he didn’t care about what we had found, that it was no big thing, that everyone knew that he took a lot of methamphetamines and that he took it for the pain in the migraine headaches that he has.” 

Skip Welch had a drug problem. And now with a search finally underway for Theresa — and the realization (eminent, perhaps) by authorities that they were being deceived — and an utter lack of credibility in anything the suspect has told police so far, Skip had a much bigger headache he was going to have to deal with. meth murder and bigfoot

In next week’s installment, the search for Theresa continues while Skip remains in jail awaiting trial for child stealing. Detective Stokes continues his investigation, trying to build a murder case, and a bombshell is dropped just days before Skip’s trail is set to begin.

Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot: A California Crime Saga Part Five

Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot: A California Crime Saga Part Four

Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot: A California Crime Saga Part Three

Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot: A California Crime Saga Part Two

Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot: A California Crime Saga Part One

Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot: A California Crime Saga Introduction

 

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