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As doctor's son serves time in abortion pill case, a fight for damages gains steam

TAMPA — One March day in 2013, the married owners of a Lutz fertility clinic examined a pregnant young stranger who was carrying their unplanned grandchild.

Dr. Stephen Welden pointed out Remee Jo Lee's embryo in an ultrasound. His wife, nurse practitioner Lenora Welden, drew Lee's blood. The doctor's son, John Andrew Welden, stood in the wings, according to newly released reports.

Lee noticed the doctor's soft Tennessee accent and the sweet baby pictures on his wall, but pleasantries soon ended. She miscarried that weekend after the son — Andrew, to those who know him — fooled her into taking a drug that causes contractions, an act that landed him in prison.

Eleven months have passed since Lee helped send him there, but she appears not to be done with his family or anyone with possible ties to the loss of her nearly seven-week pregnancy.

One of her private attorneys filed papers in Hillsborough Circuit Court last month for an extension of time to make a medical malpractice claim against Stephen and Lenora Welden.

It is too soon to know what Lee might allege, but official records from the criminal case include references to both parents without accusing either of wrongdoing.

The son, now 30, has admitted using Dr. Welden's prescription pad to obtain the drug Cytotec through forgery.

Mrs. Welden's name came up when Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives interviewed Lee on March 31, 2013, at Tampa General Hospital. It was three days after the clinic visit and Lee's miscarriage had begun.

Lee described her exam by the Weldens. She got dressed, she said, and on the way out saw Dr. Welden in his office and Andrew talking to his stepmother. She told detectives she heard Mrs. Welden make an offer to Andrew.

"Let me know if you still need those pills," Lee recalled hearing, according to a transcript. She told detectives that she believed Mrs. Welden was referring to abortion pills.

Welden family attorney Todd Foster said this week Mrs. Welden denies making the statement or anything close to it.

"Mrs. Welden, Dr. Welden and Andrew deny it," he told the Tampa Bay Times. "If you are going to quote (Lee) to that effect, I suggest you mention that it is uncorroborated and denied by the Weldens."

Lee, represented by Web Brennan and Gil Sanchez, has already sued two pharmacists, a pharmacy technician and legal entities linked to Sunlake Pharmacy in Lutz, where the prescription was filled.

That lawsuit now involves at least 10 attorneys and has cleared enough hurdles for questioning under oath to begin.

One question that begs to be answered: Who at Dr. Welden's office took a phone call from the pharmacy to verify the date of the forged prescription? Dr. Welden, speaking through Foster, said it wasn't him.

Meanwhile, the FBI continues to investigate whether further charges might be warranted. The agency has not named any suspects and has not released its investigative reports.

Early on, the FBI had questions for pharmacy technician Josef Stahel, among those Lee has now sued.

According to Sheriff's Office records recently obtained by the Times, Stahel was read his Miranda rights at the request of FBI Special Agent Mike Donovan on April 26, 2013.

That was the day the FBI took over the abortion pill case, which ultimately led to federal charges against Welden under the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and a plea deal that brought him a prison sentence likely to end in 2025.

Stahel has not been charged with a crime. Neither he nor his attorney, Trevor Rhodes, responded to phone calls.

Rhodes unsuccessfully sought the lawsuit's dismissal, writing that Stahel could not have known his actions would lead to Lee ingesting Cytotec.

The lawsuit alleges that Stahel prepared a pill bottle with Lee's name on it, left the drug name blank, and gave the bottle to Welden. The label contained instructions consistent with Cytotec use, the suit states.

Welden admitted affixing an additional label that erroneously described the contents as amoxicillin, a common antibiotic, and telling Lee that her blood test showed an infection.

Additional details about the incident emerged from the recently released sheriff's report. Parts of the report were released after Welden's 2013 arrest. But many pages, including those that name pharmacy staff, were secret for 20 months. The Times obtained them after repeated public records requests.

The report states that pharmacist Ingrid Bendeck ultimately dispensed the Cytotec to Welden. She thought it was a strange request, the report states, "but she did not question it because he had a prescription."

She said Stahel took the first call from Welden asking if the pharmacy stocked Cytotec. It had to be ordered.

The sheriff's report stops in the spring of 2013.

It resumes briefly this past September, with a short release signed by Lee allowing a funeral home to claim remains of a life she once saw in the sonogram.

Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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