Attorneys present opening arguments in murder trial

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 11, 2010

VIDALIA — The case of Mike Welch and Michael Kelly Stevens is one of friendship.

That’s how defense attorney Madaline Gibbs led in her opening statement at Stevens’ murder trial Tuesday.

They lived together in a situation analogous to a domestic setting, with Stevens doing chores around the house and cooking meals for Welch, Gibbs said.

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After a day involving a lot of drinking and taking pills, Stevens and Welch got into a fight about Welch not allowing Stevens to use his truck, with Welch trying to stop Stevens with a kitchen knife, Gibbs said.

“They are angry, they are fighting,” she said.

“What is constituted here is a man who had a friend — a close relationship — and got angry.”

The jury will ultimately have to decide what happened that night, Gibbs said.

“The decision you have to make here is not whether Mr. Welch is dead — though that has to be proved — but how it happened.”

Stating that Stevens lost a friend in Welch’s death, Gibbs said, “Mr. Stevens weeps bitter tears for his friend.”

What happened that night began as self-defense and happened in the heat of passion, she said.

“What this is not is a stranger attacking a disabled man in his yard and killing him for his truck,” Gibbs said.

District Attorney Brad Burget’s opening statement set forward the state’s version of the narrative of the events leading to Welch’s death.

“Mr. Stevens murdered Mike Welch for his truck and the money in his wallet,” Burget said.

The night of Oct. 4, 2009, Welch’s brother went to check on him because he had not heard from him in several days, Burget said.

After not getting a response from a knock, the brother went to the neighbor’s house, spoke with them briefly and then went and entered Welch’s house, discovering him on the floor.

Moments later, a teenage neighbor — Christopher Johnson — entered the house and saw Welch on the floor. After an emergency call was made, paramedics entered the residence and determined he was dead.

“His throat had been sliced. He looked like he had almost been decapitated,” Burget said.

After paramedic Chucky Deweese determined Welch was dead, Vidalia police officers started to arrive, Officer Shea Hudnall first, followed by Lt. Drew Harrison and the then-assistant investigator Terry Thames.

Testimony from several witnesses stated Welch had pillows on his head when they entered the house.

After Vidalia Investigator Randy Stockman arrived on the scene, he called in the Concordia Parish Felony Task Force.

Investigators found Welch’s wallet and insurance card on the floor, and used that information to determine that his truck was missing. They put out a notice to be on the look out for the truck.

Searching the house the next day, investigators found bloody shorts and shoes in a bedroom, where they also found check stubs with Stevens’ name on them, as well as two Bibles with his name inscribed.

On the couch in the living room, they found a bloody knife under a bloodstained shirt, and under the blanket where the knife sat they found a cell phone covered in blood.

On Oct. 6, Welch’s autopsy was conducted in Jefferson Parish.

“The wounds start behind Mr. Welch’s head, all the way around his neck, 8-9 wounds, sometimes 2-3 inches deep,” Burget said.

“He also had defensive wounds on his hands.”

From there, Burget said investigators went on to interview anyone with a connection with Welch until Oct. 13, when they received a call from Harris County, Texas, that Stevens had been arrested.

There, investigators took a video statement from Stevens in which he told them he had wanted to borrow Welch’s truck to go see his son, and the argument escalated when Welch did not want him to take the truck.

After cutting Welch, Stevens took money from his wallet, Burget said.

On Oct. 1 — the last time anyone saw Welch alive — Welch closed out a bank account that was in his deceased wife’s name.

Because Welch was in poor health, he was allowed to close out the account from the drive-through. Stevens was in the truck with him at the time, Burget said.

“He killed Mr. Welch for his truck and $224,” Burget said. “He killed him in a rage, and he nearly took his head off.”

Much of the testimony Tuesday focused on police operational procedure, both in the initial response and in evidence collection, but both the teenage neighbor — Christopher Johnson — and paramedic Chucky Deweese took the stand to talk about their experiences as some of the first people to see Welch dead.

Welch’s friends Karen Menard and Lester Veasey also took the stand and spoke about Welch’s medical conditions.

Veasey described Welch as a man who was in failing health, stricken with tumors on his spine and over most of his body, heart problems, and a removed lung.

He wasn’t able to get in and out of vehicles without help, and couldn’t without a walker, according to Veasey, who said he often accompanied his friend of five years to the doctor.

Menard testified that Welch had spoken to her on the telephone about “another Mike” who was at his house and who was preparing meals for him.

Veasey said he met Stevens when Stevens accompanied him and Welch to a doctor’s appointment the Tuesday before Welch was found dead.

Vidalia meter reader Dariel Mays also testified, stating he saw Stevens at the Welch residence on Oct. 1.

Law enforcement officials who testified Monday about the investigation and initial response included officer Shea Hudnall, Lt. Drew Harrison, Investigator Terry Thames, dispatcher Gayle Cowan, officer Robert Douglas and CPSO Investigator Jack Fletcher.

The trial will resume at 1 p.m. today.