Tuesday, February 20, 2018
News Roundup

Past pain comes to bear in Tampa abortion-pill case

TAMPA — In the fall of 1991, a teacher at Tampa Day School asked her first-graders to come up with Halloween costume ideas.

"A princess," said one.

"A witch," said another.

The teacher turned to John Andrew Welden, then 6, the South Tampa boy with the gloomy eyes. His parents were in the middle of a divorce, but his answer still stunned her.

"A liar," he said.

The breakup of Dr. Stephen Welden and Linda Byars Welden and their bitter battle for custody of four young children raged on for nearly a decade in Hillsborough Circuit Court. The wife never remarried. The husband's affair with a former patient led to discipline by the Board of Medicine. Only the lawyers and psychologists prevailed, billing in six figures.

Out of it, years later, emerged Andrew Welden, a man who seldom argued and who seemed to get along with everyone, portioning his time among family members.

At 28, he was preparing himself to go to medical school. But March brought a desperate act, one that cast the gynecologist's son as an unwitting player in the nation's abortion wars.

Federal prosecutors say Welden tricked his pregnant ex-girlfriend into taking Cytotec, a drug linked to miscarriages. Remee Jo Lee, then 26, lost a nearly 7-week-old embryo.

Though defense experts dispute that a single pill would have such power, Welden faces a life sentence if convicted under a rarely applied federal law that punishes the killing of an unborn human during the commission of a separate federal crime — in this case, product tampering.

Welden told detectives he acted on impulse.

He had another girlfriend and they had talked of marriage. His relationship with Lee, born of a lonely spell and a visit to a bikini bar where she danced, was over.

"I told her I didn't want to bring up a kid into a separated home," he said. " 'Cause I grew up in a separated home."

He made the same point again later to detectives.

"I didn't want a life around that's separated."

• • •

The youngest child, a girl, was 20 months old when Dr. Welden filed to divorce Byars, who was his second wife. Andrew was 5; his brothers were 3 and 9.

Under oath during the proceedings, the doctor admitted to affairs at the beginning and end of the 11-year marriage.

"You have trouble with women, don't you?" asked attorney Arnold Levine, who represented Byars.

"Yes, sir," Dr. Welden responded.

One affair, with a medical resident, cost him his teaching job, a former boss testified.

The one with the former patient brought a reprimand and two years of probation, Board of Medicine records show.

Attorney Todd Foster, who represents the Welden family, would not allow the Tampa Bay Times to interview Andrew Welden or Dr. Welden. His ex-wife won't comment on the divorce but says she wishes the children never had to go through any of it.

The nine-volume court file, reviewed by the Times, offers glimpses of a divided home.

• • •

Never had she seen a child change so much in two months.

That's what Tampa Day School teacher Lisa A. Fields wrote about Andrew Welden in November of 1991. His parents had enrolled him for reading help after his eardrums burst as a toddler, his mother said.

"He has regressed in all areas of academia and spends most of his days 'thinking,' " Fields wrote.

Her remarks were addressed to psychologist Ellis Gesten, who had been hired to evaluate the Welden family and recommend a custody arrangement.

Since summer, everything in Andrew's life had changed, starting with the sale of his family's $750,000 waterfront home in Culbreath Isles. Byars, who had been living there, balked at signing closing papers and Dr. Welden, who had moved out, let the utilities get shut off.

Fields described Andrew as "confused," "torn," "showing severe signs of emotional distress."

Other students were starting to quote his laments.

"Dad doesn't give Mom enough money for food so we are hungry," he would say.

"Dad hasn't given Mom money, so I have to wear old, small and torn clothes."

The doctor, who made $373,000 a year, had kept up his tuition payments. The dramatic statements made no sense to school staff, who had witnessed his tenderness with the children.

"They should not be used like this," Fields wrote. "They are being destroyed in this process."

Which parent was telling the truth? The children were unsure, Gesten reported, and that was a problem. They needed to know where to turn in times of trouble.

Gesten described Andrew, then 7, as "very conflicted."

Uncertainty wore on the boy, especially with his mother talking about moving them all back to her native city of Memphis, Tenn., where she still had friends.

"It will be a sad day in May," Andrew told his teacher in 1992, as a custody decision neared.

He was asked why.

"When I have to move to Memphis and I can't see my dad."

One day, his little sister came to school with her fingernails painted and said her dad did it.

The teacher told Gesten.

He noted that the children seemed happy around their father, who appeared stable.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Sam Pendino, weighing options, decided that Byars was "emotional" and had allowed anger to dictate her behavior.

The parents would share responsibility, but the father was named primary caregiver, with veto power if the two disagreed.

Byars returned to Memphis, consigned to visits of one weekend a month and summers.

• • •

It was settled only on paper. The parents squabbled long-distance, using attorneys to talk to each other.

He accused her of under-visitation and over-visitation. He objected when she sought to fly one child at a time to Memphis, an effort to spread out expense.

She had complaints, too.

After getting temporary custody of Stephen in 1996 — the year Dr. Welden married his current wife — Byars demanded physical exams of the other three children, calling them "emaciated." She sent a list of their weights to the court.

Dr. Welden called the numbers "grossly and deceptively inaccurate."

It went on, year after year, until there was one last clash:

He accused Byars of giving false court testimony about her education. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office declined to file a perjury charge — out of concern for the children.

With that, the lawyers were quieted. Andrew was 15.

• • •

He soon joined his mother and older brother in Memphis.

There, Christian Brothers High School transformed teen boys into disciplined men, demanding short hair, close shaves and the word "sir."

A softer side had them sitting through screenings of the musical film My Fair Lady, the tale of a phonetics professor who sets out to make a commoner, Eliza Doolittle, presentable to high society.

Andrew didn't simply watch.

He sang along.

"He knew the movie word by word," basketball teammate Justin Sypult recalls.

It was his mother's favorite.

In Tennessee, their relationship matured.

She met his classmates, who came by to play basketball.

During breaks from school, he washed dishes at an Italian restaurant and dug ditches for a plumbing company.

Sypult says his friend wanted to help pay bills at home.

"He felt he needed to be strong for his mom," Sypult said.

• • •

In Tampa, in his 20s, he juggled work, school, a girlfriend, home improvement and a bulldog named Wilma.

He started at the University of South Florida in April 2011, after studies at Ole Miss and the University of Memphis. He inched toward degrees in biomedical sciences and religion.

He also ran one of his family's weight loss clinics. He fixed up a house his father bought, tiling floors and replacing sheet rock.

Early on, he met girlfriend Tara Fillinger, who attended family gatherings with him.

Her parents were both legally blind, and she noted Welden's helpful interactions with them in a court paper supporting his bail request.

"Andrew and I wanted to build a life together," she said.

They knew each other nearly seven years. She called Wilma, who recently died, "our" dog.

They had discussed marriage but Welden wanted to start medical school first, Sypult said. The two broke up for a while.

She was off in Ohio on an extended stay last year when Welden went to a bikini bar.

He wasn't sure she was coming back, his mother said.

He got lonely, she said.

"I wish he had found more constructive things to be unlonely about," said Byars, 59, who now lives in Clearwater.

When Welden and Lee met, she was wearing normal clothes and told him she was a student, his mother said.

Byars wishes her son had done a background check, like she did.

He might have found a 2012 Clearwater police report describing Lee biting a Dillard's security guard and claiming she had AIDS after she was found with $291 worth of stolen makeup. Her breath smelled of alcohol, the report said.

She fled a crash scene in 2012. Police found a small amount of marijuana in her car a year earlier. She had a 2005 DUI conviction, state records show.

Welden isn't dumb, his mother said. Just naive.

"He felt like she was groping to get on her feet and find her way," Byars said, "and that was how the relationship started."

He tried to break things off, Byars said. Lee was persistent.

One night in November, she made a scene outside his house and he called the police.

"There is a female refusing to leave," the dispatcher noted.

But Welden, Lee and a third friend were together near 3 a.m. on Jan. 24. That's when a police officer noticed a Toyota Camry skid to an abrupt stop at a traffic light in north Tampa.

Lee was driving. She would later beat a DUI charge in court, after refusing a breath test. That night, she was under arrest.

The officer let her say goodbye to Welden through a patrol car window. A microphone was on.

"Do you love me?" she asked.

"Of course," he said.

"Are you going to stand by me?"

"Yeah," he said.

"Will you dump her to be with me?"

"You didn't do anything wrong."

"Will you be with me? Will you be my boyfriend"

"Call me whenever you can," he answered.

The window closed on them and she cried out for more time, screaming, "Andrew, don't go" and "Andrew, please."

Then she became quiet. Alone in the car with the police officer, she said this:

"That's the love of my life. That's the inspiration.

"I let him down.

"I'll never marry him now."

Seventeen days later, by her estimate to her attorney, Lee became pregnant.

• • •

Lee wasn't Eliza Doolittle, and Welden wasn't a professor.

But she had changed for him.

She reminded him of that during a March 31 phone call that detectives recorded, one where she got him to admit that, days earlier, he gave her abortion pills camouflaged as antibiotics.

"I went from being a Class Act stripper, dancer, when you met me, to, now look," she said. "What do you have to say about how I am now?"

"I know who you are now," he said, according to a transcript.

"Who am I now?"

"You're courageous and you're funny and you're fearless of anything."

She wanted him to be proud to have her at his side, she said.

She had prayed for something to love more than alcohol, she told him. God had sent Andrew and hopes for a baby.

She knew he didn't feel that way. She had seen his reaction when Dr. Welden confirmed the pregnancy. Andrew looked like he was going to cry, she reminded him.

She kept him on the phone for an hour. She berated him and interrogated him, called him the love of her life, goaded him about Fillinger and asked him to come over. The conversation was like the relationship had been, with opposing explosions of tenderness and rage.

"What did you give me, Andrew?" Lee asked.

She said those words 14 times.

"I want you to tell me the truth," she said.

"You want me to go to jail," he said.

He called himself a monster, a terrible and horrible person, a coward, an idiot, selfish, totally selfish, evil, the devil, desperate and completely pathetic.

He would burn in hell, he said.

In the weeks ahead, people who had known him for years would use dozens of kinder words to describe him, telling a judge he was nurturing, polite, generous and considerate. They would recall that he gave rides to homeless people.

He told Lee he never wanted to cause her pain. Everyone makes mistakes, she said. She wouldn't hold it against him.

"Why didn't you want the baby?" she asked. "Just say it, you didn't want it with me."

"No. I didn't want a separated home."

"But why do we have to be separated? Why couldn't we just be together?"

"We were going to force something to try to happen," he said.

She said she could have raised the baby alone.

"I didn't want to be that guy that …" He said something inaudible. "Just like my Dad, he just doesn't even give a s--- about you. 'Cause I had a Mom like that."

Minutes later, she asked what he planned to tell his Dad.

He didn't answer. He cried.

• • •

The next night, before the world knew, before their story fell out of their grasp, a woman who thought she loved a man sent him a text message.

She quoted a Buddhist monk.

"When another person makes you suffer," the monk had said, "it's because he suffers deeply within himself and his suffering is spilling over."

And then the lawyers came.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.

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