In last week’s installment, we met Theresa Ann Bier, a 16-year-old girl who was already the victim of a horrendous childhood, living in a nightmare situation, when she decided to go to the mountains with Skip Welch. A day later, we meet the Fresno Police detective who will investigate her case.
Detective Stokes on the case.
Doug Stokes grew up in the Fresno area but left for college in Southern California, where he also attended the Los Angeles Police Academy. Then, after several years as an LAPD officer, he returned to his hometown and joined the Fresno Police Department.
A hard-working, straight-laced, and well-educated young officer, he made detective in 1983. Detective Stokes was still more than a year shy of his 40th birthday when, on June 2, 1987, a case landed on his desk. At first, it seemed like any run-of-the-mill missing-person case. Probably just a misunderstanding or teenage runaway, but Detective Stokes knew better than to make uninformed assumptions about any case.
During Detective Stokes’s initial conversation with John Richmond, the RP (reporting party in cop speak), he learned that 16-year-old Theresa Ann Bier had left for school the day before with a man named Skip. Richmond admitted that the school called around mid-morning to say she wasn’t there and he told them that she was home sick. He then started calling around, finally becoming worried for her safety after talking to people who let it be known what a weird guy Skip really was. The detective’s first goal, then, was to find this Skip character. Find him, and it followed that he would find Theresa.
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ON THE TRAIL OF SKIP WELCH
Richmond, commonly known as “Blind Johnny,” told the detective he had a girlfriend who might know somebody who might know where to find Skip. This launched Stokes down a path littered with teenage girls not much older than Theresa herself.
He first spoke with Richmond’s so-called girlfriend, Tamara Lyn Newman, who was 17 years old. Tammy lived with her mother but spent most nights at Richmond’s place. Her mother hated this, but seemed unable to stop it. Sharon Newman feared for her daughter’s safety, convinced Richmond was involved in trafficking drugs but, again, was ineffectual in doing anything about it.
Detective Stokes, however, did not know any of this when he spoke to Tammy. But she did tell him that Skip was a speed freak who fancied himself some kind of survivalist, always talking about the canyons up past Bass Lake. Tammy admitted that she heard Theresa was missing, but figured she’d be back soon. She also mentioned a “part-time” girlfriend of Skip’s named Michelle, and Tammy told the detective she could take him to her place. Michelle might be able to tell him more about this guy Skip.
Michelle Ryan, also 17 years old, had little to say to the detective. No, Skip was in no way her “boyfriend,” she insisted. He was just a casual acquaintance. She hung out with some young people and one of them just happened to be Skip’s daughter, and she didn’t even know her that well.
After a short discussion, Michelle agreed to take Stokes to where they might be able to find Skip’s daughter, Chandra. There was so much more about Skip that Michelle could have told the detective. Pertinent and disturbing things that had happened the previous summer, but for the time being, these were things she kept to herself.
More about Michelle here:
Tammy and the detective then went to the residence of Lanelle Malarkey, 20, who said she used to be roommates with Chandra Welch, but didn’t know where she was these days. She did mention that she had recently traded cars with Chandra’s dad, Skip. She had given him a brown ’76 Monte Carlo for the white Pinto now parked in front of her apartment building. A seemingly fair deal as both were pretty crappy cars.
Now the detective at least knew what kind of car to be on the lookout for. And while Lanelle couldn’t say where Chandra was currently living, one of her roommates was able to tell the detective that Skip had a son, Terry, and knew where he lived.
Detectives Stokes’s interview with Terry Welch was enlightening. The 21-year-old noted that he had minimal contact with his father, whom he described as a “speed freak” who was “losing touch with reality.”
Terry was able to provide the detective with his father’s date of birth — July 14, 1943 — and his full name: Russell Shelton Welch. He said he believed that his father had visited his sister Chandra the day before, and then admitted that Skip had even been by to see him as well.
As Stokes wrote in his police report, Terry “stated that his father had come by his residence and that he did in fact have a female with him who matched the description of our missing person. I asked him if it appeared that Bier was hurt in any way and he stated that it did not. He stated that she was free to come and go and did not appear injured in any way. She seemed somewhat excited about being out of school and talked about going to the mountains.” Terry then explained how his father was obsessed with Bigfoot and had several mining claims up in the Sierra where he supposedly had found burial sites.
Through Terry, Stokes was finally able to track down Chandra, who also admitted to seeing her father with Theresa the day before. She confirmed that Theresa was excited about skipping school and going to the mountains with Chandra’s dad. She then, somewhat surprisingly, offered further damage to her dad’s increasingly negative reputation.
“Chandra then told me,” Stokes wrote, “that she asked Theresa if she did drugs and Theresa said that she did not.”
The detective wondered why she would ask such a question. Because, Chandra explained, everyone knew her dad did drugs and, as his written report states, “it had been rumored… he involved young girls in the use of drugs and that after using the drugs that he had enticed them into sexual activity with him.”
ASSEMBLING THE PIECES
So now Detective Stokes knew that Russell “Skip” Welch, a known drug abuser and rumored sexual predator, had gone to the mountains with a 16-year-old girl, presumably driving a brown 1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Once back at HQ that afternoon, Stokes ascertained that there were outstanding warrants out on 43-year-old Welch for drunk driving and vehicular charges.
It had only taken a few hours for the detective to realize this was not just some run-of-the-mill missing person case. Two things seemed clear: Theresa had not been forcibly coerced into going with the suspect Welch, and there was a strong possibility they were still together. Stokes’s report further concluded that “because of statements made by Welch’s own children and by Richmond regarding the missing person’s abilities, I believe there’s a strong possibility that Welch could approach her regarding sexual activity.”
FOREST MINES AND MAZES
Detective Stokes made contact with the US Forest Service, and his contact there was able to find four mining claims that the suspect, Welch, had listed. They were located in the wilderness east of Chiquita Lake and Quartz Mountain, an area the Forest Service rangers knew as Red Top. The nearest trailhead was at the end of a side road that turned off the main road near Globe Rock. It was an area that included, Stokes would only later learn, a place known to some as Ghost Canyon.
Sierra National Forest is huge, with myriad logging roads, trails, and creeks scattered through a seemingly endless forest. Even with this information of mining claims, the detective knew they’d be looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Stokes touched base with the Madera County Sheriff’s Office at the Bass Lake sub-station, speaking with a deputy who was familiar with Skip Welch. The self-proclaimed mountain man had a history of being reported missing himself, having gone into the backcountry on earlier occasions and not returning when expected.
The deputy told Stokes he’d recognize him if he saw him and would notify all the deputies to be on the lookout. Stokes then spoke with Special Agent Pat Lang of the Forest Service, who agreed to make an effort to have the trailheads searched and, if the brown Monte Carlo was located, would himself check the area on horseback to try to locate the suspect. It is not known if those efforts focused on the area of Welch’s mining claims, and it was several days before any further information came through.
SKIP’S CAR SPOTTED
On Friday, June 5, Skip’s beat-up Monte Carlo was spotted by a member of the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, parked by a trailer park near the town of North Fork, a small foothills community that serves as a kind of gateway to the Shuteye Peak region of Sierra National Forest. Stokes would only later find out that Welch had driven down from the mountains to the residence of his friend, Dorothy Davis, who lived right behind that trailer park.
Davis would later tell authorities how Skip had showed up extremely upset and possibly high on something, talking about a girl that some type of satanic group had gotten control of and had physically changed into something all “white looking.” Skip claimed they had taken her and that she was still up there. Dorothy assumed Skip was delusional and did not believe his far-fetched tale or even that the girl was up there in the mountains. But this revelation was, unfortunately, not something Stokes knew about for several days to come.
Madera Sheriff’s deputies did not find Skip or talk to Dorothy Davis when the car was first spotted near the trailer park. Instead, they merely noted that by the following Monday the car was gone, telling the Fresno detective they would attempt to relocate it.
SKIP ARRESTED AND INTERROGATED
In the meantime, on that Monday, June 8 (now nearly a full week after Theresa was reported missing), Blind Johnny claimed he received a threatening phone call the day before. According to Richmond, a female, who sounded young, told him Skip wanted her to tell him “if you continue to make trouble for him, you will have more trouble from him, even your kids can get hurt.” She added that Skip was “packing a pistol.” She then told Blind Johnny that he should “tell the police that Skip had taken Theresa to school, dropped her off, and some unknown blond girl had picked Theresa up.”
Two days later, on Wednesday, June 10, Stokes received a call from Terry Welch. He had just spoken with his father and knew where he was.
When Stokes and two other officers picked up Skip Welch at his mother’s residence in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Fresno, he seemed to know exactly why they had come for him. Skip claimed there must have been some misunderstanding, because he had dropped Theresa off at school. Stokes arrested him, and he was taken downtown to police headquarters.
Once set up in Interview Room #3, the official interrogation began.
“Prior to asking any questions regarding the whereabouts of the missing person,” Stokes wrote in his report, “I made reference to the fact that several people had told me that he (Welch) was interested in Big Foot. For the next 5 to 7 minutes [he] spoke exclusively of his sightings of Big Foot in the back country and the high Sierras. He talked on and on regarding the facts that he had literally hundreds of sightings of Big Foot and that there was a community of Saschkatchawans [sic] as he referred to them, living in the high sierras numbering several hundred to thousands.”
At that point in the report, Stokes felt it necessary to note that the suspect was very serious and did not take the subject lightly.
Stokes continued in his report, “He further stated that he had established a strong relationship with this community of Big Feet [sic] that lived in the Sierras and that he had not violated them and that therefore they made themselves readily available to him.”
Welch also referred to several photographs he had, hinting that perhaps he had evidence to back up his sensational claims. As the interview continued, the strange case was about to get a whole lot stranger for Detective Doug Stokes.
In next week’s installment of Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot, we take a look at the history of Bigfoot in Central California and meet a Fresno State University anthropologist who examines Skip’s proof that Sasquatch exists.
Last week’s installment: