Psychologist says Wasilla fire victim was depressed, possibly suicidal

Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2002

PALMER (AP) -- Anchorage psychologist Susan LaGrande told jurors Monday that Samuel Welton was depressed and may have been suicidal.

Testifying in the murder-arson trial of the boy's mother, Suzette Welton, however, she stopped short of saying 14-year-old Samuel started the blaze.

Suzette Welton, 38, is accused of intentionally starting the blaze that killed Samuel and nearly killed her son Jeremiah, then 16, who escaped by jumping out a window.

Prosecutors say Welton was heavily in debt and took out $100,000 life insurance policies on her two sons shortly before the fire at the family's Wasilla-area duplex on Sept. 15, 2000.

For the past week, her son Samuel has been on trial as defense attorneys have brought in a string of witnesses to bolster their theory that the boy, not his mother, most likely set the deadly fire.

Psychologist LaGrande acknowledged her analysis was limited since she never talked to the teen. She based her conclusions on poems and other writings by Samuel and interviews with people who knew him. Still, she said, ''He certainly would be a kid I would want in treatment.''

LaGrande is key for the defense, which is trying to raise doubts about the prosecution's largely circumstantial case against Suzette Welton.

Investigators found no traces of gasoline or another accelerant to confirm the fire was arson. No one has admitted to seeing the fire start.

Welton's defense attorneys contend that one of the two boys either accidentally or deliberately set the fire. Samuel, they argue, may have been trying to commit suicide.

In her testimony, LaGrande told jurors that Samuel appeared unhappy with his new life in Wasilla after the family had moved from the Kenai Peninsula. She read from one of his poems in which he wrote, ''I give you a knife, so take my life.''

He had also stopped going to school, which was notable because he had seemed to enjoy his classes on the Kenai Peninsula, where he got good grades and participated in school plays, she said. His parents' divorce and his separation from old friends may have led to depression, she said.

''He had a pretty good life, and suddenly his whole world explodes,'' she said.

Prosecutor Roman Kalytiak, however, noted that LaGrande had never met Samuel and that he might not have even written the poems and other writings she analyzed.

Many of the writings were found on a computer and could have been authored by someone else, he said. He also noted that few adolescents commit suicide by starting a fire. Most teen boys shoot themselves, LaGrande said.

The defense was expected to wrap up its case Tuesday. Prosecutors plan to take another couple of days for rebuttal.

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