Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Fork in the Road

Jack Burch, circa 1978.
Every newsie likes to know how a story ends.  And for years, there was one story that I just couldn't get out of my head. That's why when I finally had some time on my hands in 2006,  I contacted a public library in Northern Minnesota to follow up on a story that always left me wondering, "so then what happened?" It involved a big-ticket burglar who was discovered living a double life right in the midst of the good citizens of Duluth. The research librarian, Ellen Pioro, gave me some leads on  newspaper articles connecting the burglar to the murder of a prominent Washington, D.C., heart surgeon. They detailed the shooting of the doctor during a burglary and the shocking chase and capture of a murderer whose trail lead the police to this bucolic port city at the southern tip of Lake Superior. Career criminal Bernard Welch was clearly more than just a Duluth, Minnesota, cat burglar.

I learned that Welch had been systematically burglarizing homes in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding communities for five years, all while he was an escaped convict on the run from a New York state prison. The murder trial garnered a lot of publicity on the East Coast and the D.C area because of the fame and character of a noted heart surgeon, Michael Halberstam, brother of Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam. But in the Twin Cities and national media, the whole story was never told because attention went to the larger stories of the shooting of John Lennon, and then an assassination attempt on president Ronald Reagan. One of the most interesting elements of the story that was covered was the almost incredible amount of stolen treasure Welch had stored in his million dollar home in a toney D.C. suburb when he was arrested. It reflected proceeds of just two months of theft, and still the dozens of boxes of high-end merchandise filled an entire 12 foot truck. Experts placed a retail value of the stolen goods between four and five million dollars. A partial listing of the items filled two-plus pages of the Washington Star newspaper.

James King, December 1980.
Clearly, the "Duluth cat burglar" story I had set out to investigate suddenly became a lot more interesting.  Wanting to know more, I traveled to Washington, D.C., later in 2006 to speak with Welch’s defense attorney, Sol Rosen, and a number of Welch’s neighbors. During that trip, I made it a point to visit Detective Jim King to see what light he could shed on a story that was looking much bigger than I originally realized. Right after the murder in December of 1980 and up through the 1981 trial, Jim King was the go-to guy for background and opinions on Welch and his criminal activities. Jim expressed an interest in working on the project, and I thought his background and insight into what made Welch tick could be invaluable. We forged a partnership and started working up a manuscript in 2007. I was fortunate. Detective King was a great choice because of his expertise in police and investigative work and insight into the psychology and motivation of this escaped convict millionaire, Bernard C. Welch, Jr.  Together, we were able to see a much bigger picture as we pieced together elements of a complicated and far-ranging story of a criminal whose activities strained the boundary of credibility. 

Today in Duluth, a mention of Welch's name among the over-50 crowd still brings knowing nods or uncomfortable snickers. His neighbors and those he had business dealings with are still embarrassed to the point of refusing to talk about it. Those who should have been on to him run the gamut from jewelers to county attorneys, from furniture store owners to coin and antique dealers, realtors, stock brokers, postmasters and chiefs of police. In reflecting on how this all began, I can't but help thinking about the wisdom of that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, who recommended, "When you get to a fork in the road, take it."          
                                                                                           ― Jack Burch

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