CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — The officer allowed Joe Welch to finish his prime rib before taking him into custody.
A few hours earlier, on June 26, Seldovia, Alaska, Police Chief Shad Haller received a call from the Alaska Fugitive Task force informing him that a Wyoming escapee was probably working in his jurisdiction. Welch had no idea he was being watched until he got up to pay for his dinner.
The officer approached Welch and advised him of the warrant. Welch had been on the lam for 31 years.
“I made them show me identification,” Welch recalled in a recent interview. “I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ Things went south from there.”
Welch was sent to jail, given a $500,000 bond — it was talked down to $10,000 — wore an ankle monitor, and eventually lost his fight to stay in Alaska. He was extradited to the Wyoming State Medium Security Prison in Torrington on Oct. 5.
He owed the state as little as one month of incarceration.
On Feb. 4, Welch’s attorney, Geoffrey Phillips, received a letter from Gov. Matt Mead. Welch was granted a sentence commutation — the first approved since Mead took office in January 2011. Welch was freed that day.
Welch had spent four months in the Torrington prison while fighting his incarceration. He lost his job and his house. His health is waning. His retirement plan is “down the drain.”
Welch’s supporters say Wyoming wasted funds and resources to ruin a man’s life while pursuing a questionable escape charge. Wyoming Department of Corrections officials say they simply followed state statutes ensuring that the amount of time people are administered is served.
“They jerked me out of my life,” Welch said. “It takes them 31 years to decide I escaped or walked away . they came and got me, and for what?”
Calling his situation an “escape,” Welch said, is an exaggeration at best and a misnomer at worst. He prefers to call it a miscommunication.
All parties agree that Welch was convicted of felony burglary in 1980 and was sentenced to 16 to 72 months in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. He was transferred on March 11, 1981, to the state hospital’s alcohol treatment program in Evanston.
But time has muddied the facts from there.
Welch contends that by late May 1981, the hospital and prison were playing custodial hot potato with his case, each claiming he was under the watch of the other. Welch said his attorney at the time, Oscar Hall, finally told him to walk out the front door. The attorney assured him he would take care of the release paperwork.
Current Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Tim Lockwood said there would be no way of knowing if there’s another side to the story. Employees retire, transfer or die. Proving a negative is difficult even without a three-decade time lapse.
In early 2012, a Department of Corrections employee took over the escape files and noticed there wasn’t an active warrant out for Welch. There were a number of cases that hadn’t been updated for years, Lockwood said.
The relatively slender stack of files contained only nine Wyoming escapees. Many were found to be deceased by that point, but the statuses of Welch and three others were unknown.
Don Albert, convicted of assault and burglary, escaped on July 21, 1974. He would have turned 75 on Friday. Robert Nicholson would be 80. He was convicted of rape and escaped on Aug. 22, 1964. Robert Carpenter was convicted of grand larceny and escaped on Oct. 1, 1962. He would be 88.
At 57, Welch was the youngest of the fugitives.
There is scant information on the remaining three, Lockwood said. But a few Google searches for Joe Welch proved more efficacious.
When looking for escapees, the staff begins with the individual’s file to gather such information as aliases, Social Security numbers and family members’ names, said Department of Corrections Deputy Director Steve Lindly.
If nothing is found by that point, the staff will run a driver’s license query on the National Crime Information Center. They will also check other websites such as Ancestry.com to see if the escapee has been listed as deceased. If the Department of Corrections can obtain a death certificate, the file is closed.
“It only takes one small piece of information in the file to be the key to finding out where they are,” Lindly said. “But, given the amount of time which has passed on these escapes, the file material is often sparse.
“All in all, it’s just a lot of hard work and perseverance by our staff.”
Welch blamed his capture on the fact that he was never hiding.
Welch said that after he left the hospital, he returned to his mother’s house in Rawlins at the same address he gave the court as his primary residence.
He was arrested in Colorado soon after for buying and selling stolen items, and spent five years in the Colorado State Penitentiary.
Wyoming had a hold on Welch, but for some reason Colorado let him out before transferring him back to Wyoming, Lockwood said. Again, it is unclear if records of this transaction even exist at this point.
Welch said he’s been a good citizen since the Colorado conviction. He married Donna Coté in 1988 before moving to Oregon and then Alaska in 1993. He has two sons and has worked in mining and construction ever since.
Coté was shocked when she heard about the arrest. She knew a bit about Welch’s criminal history and there were jokes here and there, but Welch had never fully explained anything to her.
“There was a DUI, speeding . (no major crimes) that I know of anyway,” said Coté, Welch’s now ex-wife. “I think I had some good influence on him at some point.”
Under Wyoming law, Welch was unable to petition District Court to consider the circumstances of his case. He was not eligible for parole. His only legal option was to petition the governor.
“The incarceration was intended to punish Joe for his bad acts and rehabilitate him to return to society,” the application read. “It worked. Joe is a resounding success. He is an outstanding citizen. He no longer commits crimes.”
It was a long shot — Mead is renowned for his tough stance on crime. Up until this point, the former federal prosecutor denied every previous request for commutation. The Wyoming Board of Parole has recommended 17 since 2011.
But the governor took heart. Although he would deny a pardon or restoration of rights, Welch’s request for commutation — which was submitted directly by his attorney — was approved.
Mead said his decision was primarily influenced by Welch’s medical condition, kidney failure. Upon his release, the Department of Corrections helped Welch secure an apartment in Cheyenne, apply for Medicare benefits and get an appointment for dialysis.
“I wish Mr. Welch well and Godspeed,” he wrote in closing.
“I didn’t believe it until they took me out of there,” Welch said in a phone interview after his release. “It hit me last night after spending the night in the motel. It’s finally starting to settle in.”
Welch’s first meal as a free man was Mexican food. He’d missed it while he was in prison, along with many things he’ll never get back.
“Subsequently, I lost my house, mostly everything I own, my job, reputation, and on top of that I got sick,” he said. “. All they wanted to do is get my body and take me to prison.”
Welch’s attorney, Geoffrey Phillips, rhetorically asked if it was all worth the state’s effort.
“He was a productive citizen, a good family man . under the circumstances, it just can’t be justified that a person like this goes to jail for a lengthy period of time,” he said.
“We have so many serious crimes out there where the state resources are needed, and we’re wasting it on a guy like Joe Welch. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Phillips thinks there needs to be more attention paid to the details of these types of cases, rather than placing them all under the same “escapee” umbrella. The way the Wyoming statute is written, he said, someone who fled from a maximum security prison and one who walked out of a hospital are treated the same way.
“You’ve got two levels of injustice,” he said. “It’s a sad, sad thing for Joe.”
Welch thinks he’ll probably go back to school for something or another. He doubts he’ll ever be a construction superintendent again.
“At my age, 58 years old, it’s going to be tough to start over,” he said. “It’s tough to start over when you’re 40.”
Welch said he plans to stick around a bit to take care of his health issues. His Cheyenne doctor is the only one he’s dealt with since going on dialysis.
“Other than that,” he said, “I don’t want to be in Wyoming.”