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Pasco murder conviction a long time in the making

Christina Welch, shown in a 2005 family photo, died in March 2006 at age 19.

Associated Press

Christina Welch, shown in a 2005 family photo, died in March 2006 at age 19.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Soon after Christina Welch turned 18 in the spring of 2005, her biological parents got permission to visit her.

Christopher Michael and Tina Marie Wells broke down when they saw the state of the girl: so severely brain damaged by her father as a baby that she never learned to walk, talk or sit up by herself.

Tina Wells stayed by her daughter's bedside during that May 2005 visit. Christopher Wells went to the kitchen to speak with Maureen Welch, the woman who had adopted and cared for Christina for well over a decade, .

" 'I want you to know that Tina … didn't have nothing to do with this,' " Welch said Christopher Wells told her. " 'I did this all myself.' "

He said he never knew how badly he had hurt his daughter, Welch later told investigators.

Then the talk turned to forgiveness.

"I said that's up to God," she said.

Christopher Wells apologized and told Maureen Welch that she was a guardian angel sent by God to take care of the girl.

Christopher Wells was 19 when he shook his 2-month-old daughter and covered her mouth to stop her from crying. He and Tina Wells were convicted of aggravated child abuse in 1989, and each served less than a year in prison.

They went on with their lives, having several more children together. They raised their family in weathered mobile homes in rural Pasco County and then in central Georgia. Neither got in serious trouble again with the law.

And that might have been the end of it.

But when Christina died on March 15, 2006, at age 19, a medical examiner ruled the case a homicide: The brain injury her father inflicted almost two decades earlier had caused her death.

The same prosecutor who sent Christopher Wells away in 1989 came after him again, this time getting a grand jury indictment charging him with murder.

Last month, Christopher Michael Wells, now 42, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and got a 15-year sentence.

His wife, who wasn't charged in Christina's death, remains with her mother and children in a trailer in Monticello, Ga. She refused to comment for this story.

Welch, Christina's adoptive mother, now 77, is raising another adopted, disabled child in her tiny, wooden house. She says Christopher Wells got what was coming to him, and admits that sometimes she wants to do to him exactly what he did to the child she lovingly nicknamed "Beanie."

In the next breath, she'll lament that a father who might be a different person now than he was 20 years ago is being taken away from his family.

"I don't know," she said. "I just want it all to be over."

Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis said charging Wells was an easy decision. Doctors didn't expect the child to live long after the abuse, and Halkitis' office was poised to charge him with murder back then. And he said the medical examiner was clear in his assessment that her death, even though it came nearly 20 years after the abuse, was homicide.

Halkitis acknowledged that Wells had straightened up his life since he got out of prison, but the prosecutor said it didn't matter. Giving Wells a break never entered his mind.

Halkitis is satisfied with the plea agreement because the terms included Wells waiving the right to appeal. Halkitis acknowledged that defense attorneys had raised legitimate issues that could have tied up the case in appellate courts for years and even gotten it overturned. That won't happen now. Defense challenges had already dragged the case out for more than three years.

Christopher and Tina Wells initially took a plea deal and were sentenced to prison for unspecified acts of child abuse against Christina, Halkitis said. Since the infant suffered other injuries — broken ribs, a broken collarbone and a bruise on the head — the prosecutor said he was able to home in on the shaking and covering of the child's mouth as separate, specific acts that caused Christine's eventual death.

The judge consistently agreed with Halkitis, rejecting the defense's double-jeopardy arguments and the claim that Wells couldn't be charged with murder because the death occurred more than a year and a day after the offense, as per English common law, which broadly underlies American law.

In the end, Wells chose not to risk a first-degree murder trial and a life sentence. He refused an interview request and his defense attorneys did not respond to calls.

Halkitis said several noted specialists backed the medical examiner conclusions about Wells' abuse directly leading to Christina's death, even though she had myriad other health problems.

And one star trial witness would have been the plainspoken Welch, who would have talked about how she turned Christina in bed every three hours, lifted her into a wheelchair for frequent outings and sat up with her as she wailed in pain the night before her death.

"It had a lot of jury appeal," the prosecutor said.

None of that matters much to Welch, who still cries sometimes when she talks about her Beanie. She and her late husband, Jim, became the child's foster parents a few months after she was injured and adopted her when she was 5. The couple had six daughters of their own, fostered hundreds of children over the years and adopted four who were disabled.

"I took the kids nobody else wanted," she said.

After her husband died 15 years ago, the diminutive woman lifted and carried Christina from the bed by herself before the state paid for a mechanical device with slings that made it easier. The track of the machine still snakes from room to room along the ceiling of her home.

Pictures of Christina remain everywhere.

Information from Associated Press and Times files was used in this report.

Pasco murder conviction a long time in the making 04/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 4:52pm]
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