Palmer jury convicts mother of killing her son in arson fire

Posted: Sunday, June 02, 2002

PALMER (AP) -- A jury on Friday found Suzette Welton guilty of murder and arson in a Wasilla house fire that killed her 14-year-old son, Samuel.

Welton, who did not testify at her trial, broke down sobbing when the verdict was read in Palmer Superior Court.

''Oh, my God,'' the 38-year-old mother sobbed softly. ''How could they think I could do this?''

Superior Court Judge Milton Souter set sentencing for Oct. 9.

Jurors deliberated just over two days before finding Welton guilty of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and first-degree arson. The trial itself lasted more than seven weeks.

The verdict ''was right on,'' said the defendant's ex-husband, Dennis Welton, who was granted custody of the couple's two surviving children. ''Any logical thinking person would have had the same conclusion.''

The couple, married 18 years, divorced two years ago.

''I don't feel hatred; I don't feel anything for her,'' he said. ''I miss Sam every day.''

Palmer District Attorney Roman J. Kalytiak said the jury came to the right decision.

''I think the jury did the right thing,'' he said. ''It's verdicts like this that reaffirm our faith in the legal justice system.''

Public defender Greg Heath, co-counsel for the defense, said there was insufficient evidence to find Welton guilty and he would ask the court to acquit her.

Prosecutors maintained that events surrounding the fire were more than just a strange series of coincidences. Prosecutors contended that Welton set the fire in hopes of collecting on $100,000 life insurance policies she took out months before on both boys.

Prosecutors said Welton also drugged drinks for the two boys to sedate them before setting the fire on Sept. 15, 2000. They said hand cranks to the boys' bedroom windows had been removed and smoke detectors disabled.

Welton and her other two children, Jeremiah, 16, and Bree, 6, escaped the fire, but Samuel died of smoke inhalation in an upstairs bedroom.

Defense attorneys contend the boys drugged themselves, then one of them started the fire, either accidentally or deliberately. Both boys used to set lighter fluid on fire for fun, the defense said.

Jeremiah, now 18, admitted to smoking marijuana at least three times while living in Wasilla, and also told friends he took the drug PCP.

Bill Weith, a former Alaska state trooper who served as a juror, said it was ''the totality of all the evidence ... all circumstantial'' that produced the guilty verdicts.

Juror Heather Jackson, the mother of two young children, said testimony regarding the life insurance policies purchased by Welton and the drugged drinks weighed heavily on jurors.

''I pray that she (Welton) prays for forgiveness,'' she said.



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