TAMPA — John Andrew Welden pleaded guilty Monday to federal charges of product tampering and mail fraud, admitting in court, as he had to detectives, that he slipped his ex-girlfriend an abortion drug.
He will be sentenced Dec. 5.
Before accepting the pleas, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara warned Welden, 28, that he could get more than the 13 years and eight months in prison that attorneys for both sides have recommended. But if the judge adopts the sentence and Welden gets gain time for good behavior, he could be free by age 40.
His family listened as Welden affirmed facts of the case set forth in a plea agreement, including that he had forged his gynecologist father's signature on a prescription for Cytotec, a drug that causes contractions. Former girlfriend Remee Jo Lee lost an embryo of nearly seven weeks.
When the topic of the forged prescription came up, Welden's stepmother put her arm around the doctor, Stephen Welden, and rubbed his back as he leaned forward on a bench in the gallery.
"How do you wish to plead to count one?" the judge asked the son.
"Guilty," Welden said to the product tampering charge.
"How do you wish to plead to count two?"
"Guilty," Welden said again, this time to mail fraud.
Throughout the 40-minute proceeding, Welden responded to the judge in a tone that was clear and firm, telling him at least twice, "I understand you have full authority."
His family members — including sister Hope, who entered the room calling out, "I love you, Andrew" — were equally stoic.
Welden didn't back away from any of the allegations.
"Nobody feels good pleading guilty," defense attorney Todd Foster said later, "but he recognizes what's happened and he's taken responsibility for what occurred and I think he's comfortable with that."
The judge reminded Welden of eight pages in the 25-page plea agreement that describe his acts in late March: the pharmacy inquiry about Cytotec, the trip to Dr. Welden's office with Lee, the submission of the forged prescription, the conspiracy over a pill bottle and the alteration of Cytotec to obscure the name.
Lazzara wanted to be sure that Welden was pleading guilty as an acknowledgement of his actions.
"Do you dispute or contest any of those facts?" the judge asked.
"No, I don't," Welden said.
At the end of the hearing, he walked outside flanked by private security through a thicket of news reporters but did not respond to questions.
As he descended the courthouse steps, victim Lee, 26, turned her head to stare.
Welden's exit had disrupted a news conference featuring Lee, her parents and their attorney, Gil Sanchez, who prepared a civil lawsuit against Welden in May but put it on hold pending results in the federal prosecution.
At the news conference, Sanchez thanked the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which initiated the investigation, the FBI, which continued it, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for bringing charges against Welden.
"As you all know, John Andrew Welden is now a convicted felon," Sanchez said.
Lee did not comment but stood beside Sanchez, a smile fixed on her face. Her attorney said it had been a difficult time for Lee and her family.
"Nothing is ever going to bring back what was taken from her," Sanchez said.
It was a few minutes later that Welden exited the courthouse. His security detail directed him to a waiting caravan of vehicles, led by a black Humvee.
Private security was a bail condition imposed by Magistrate Judge Anthony Porcelli. From the start, Welden was considered a flight risk because he faced life in prison if convicted of murder under the 2004 Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
With a life sentence no longer a threat, defense attorney Foster filed a motion late Monday seeking a reduction in security measures, a move unopposed by the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Muldrow.
Instead of two armed guards, Welden would have one. He would no longer be locked in his bedroom — secured by window bars and a dead bolt — when authorized visitors come to see him at his family's Lutz home.
According to the motion, future visitors will include members of law enforcement and the U.S. Attorney's Office, perhaps a clue to the next stage of the case.
Welden's plea deal references an unidentified co-conspirator at a pharmacy in Lutz.
The government has announced no new charges.
But Welden is duty-bound by his plea agreement to assist in any investigation.
Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.