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13 yo Teen in 3 Adult Jails - Acquitted


Arrested at 13, Owen, spent 27 months in three different adult jails before being acquitted of first-degree murder. ... rd-lessons

In 3 adult jails, teen awaiting trial learns hard lessons
Submitted by SHNS on Mon, 11/21/2011 - 15:15

    * By ISAAC WOLF, Scripps Howard News Service
    * national

BLOOMFIELD, Mo. - On his 14th birthday, Owen Welty got an unexpected gift: a half-pint carton of milk and chocolate sheet cake for 40 -- enough to share with all his fellow inmates and the guards at a Missouri jail.

Already confined eight months while awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges, Owen savored his drink and his cake. On the inside, mundane items become luxuries, metal and glass containers can be weaponized, and jailhouse noise can keep sleep at bay, leaving plenty of time for contemplation.

"I'd sit down and just start thinking," recalls Owen, now 18.

Back then, he fixated on being charged in the death of his 64-year-old neighbor, and the possibility of 30 years in prison. Cravings for Big Macs and clean clothes. Fears about fighting off older inmates who targeted him for attacks. Boredom from being kept in isolation for weeks at a time. Costly legal efforts that burdened his family.

Owen was a baby-faced 13-year-old when he entered Missouri's justice system in November 2006, spending all but one of the next 27 months moving among three adult jails. He was finally tried, acquitted and released in February 2009. Now a high school student with long, thick sideburns, he's been out of jail slightly longer than he was in.

It's taking time to recover from the experience, Owen says while sitting at the kitchen table one sweltering August evening and in subsequent interviews. He cites daily flashbacks and a tendency to look over his shoulder in the school cafeteria. The setting reminds him of other institutions.

In jail, inmates "would mess with me because of how young I was," says Owen, who has since grown to roughly 6 feet tall and more than 200 pounds. They would "knock the crap out of me. It was like a little game to them. But I finally got to where I guess you could say I fight good."

The jails' administrators confirm that Owen mingled at least occasionally with adult inmates, though they dispute the fighting and maintain the boy was kept safe.

That he was incarcerated for so long didn't make the sheriffs' jobs easier.

It's difficult to put Owen's case in context among those of other juveniles held in adult jails while awaiting trial -- 7,500 at any given time, the U.S. Justice Department says. No national data track the amount of time they spend in jail, the conditions they experience or their case outcomes.

Rural jails, like two in which Owen was held, may not have the same level of resources found in those in more populous areas, said Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. Its members come from all 50 states.

Why was Owen placed in adult jails instead of in an age-appropriate youth facility? Retracing Owen's saga -- through dozens of interviews and an extensive review of court materials, police reports, jail records and a review of applicable laws -- reveals the simple answer: because federal and Missouri law allow it.

Continued from above article: ... rd-lessons

TUESDAY, NOV. 14, 2006

Darkness had fallen when the Welty family -- parents Ronnie and Lori, Owen and his younger sister Veronica -- drove the few miles back to their Bloomfield-area home from a visit and apple pie with Lori's mom. Someone spotted a light on at their neighbor's farm -- strange for about 8:30 p.m. Don McCollough, a construction foreman who lived in the nearby city of Dexter, Mo., often stopped by his farm and its workshop but usually left before dark.

Ronnie Welty pulled into McCollough's driveway, and his wife climbed out of the car to check on their neighbor. Moments later, her family heard her scream.

Owen ran to his mom outside the workshop, where he saw McCollough lying motionless on the ground, dead from a wound to the head. His thick white Santa beard -- source of his nickname "Fuzzy" -- was matted with blood.

Ronnie Welty raced to the home of another neighbor, who phoned for help. Six minutes later, at 8:52 p.m., a Stoddard County sheriff's deputy arrived.

With no eyewitnesses, the investigation quickly turned to the Welty family. By 11:10 p.m., a juvenile officer and state highway patrol detective were questioning Owen, with his father present, at county offices.

Owen acknowledged he'd spent the afternoon hunting on another neighbor's property, about 100 yards from where McCollough's body was found. Owen said he'd fired a single shot -- at a turkey, though out of season -- down a ravine and in the opposite direction from McCollough's workshop.

Owen and his parents insisted he hadn't shot at McCollough. But they faced skepticism. Early that afternoon, McCollough had met with Stoddard County Sheriff Carl Hefner to say he suspected that Owen had shot and killed his bull a couple of months earlier. McCollough told Hefner he'd confronted the Weltys and was concerned that Owen might be dangerous, according to the sheriff's report.

Later that night, authorities asked to interview Owen alone and to have him take a polygraph. His father refused. At 2:17 a.m., the "interview" ended and the family went home.

At 3:55 p.m. that Wednesday, a sheriff's deputy and juvenile officer knocked on the family's front door with a warrant for the arrest of Owen Austin Welty.

Owen was escorted out in handcuffs, "bawling my eyes out," he remembers.

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 15, 2006

A few miles away at the 25-bed Stoddard County Juvenile Detention Center in Bloomfield, Owen got a physical, an orange uniform and a one-person cell.

The center provided structure -- seven hours of classroom instruction on school days, group discussions and recreation -- along with crisis intervention, substance-abuse services and access to a licensed counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

Inmates got three unlimited meals a day -- with fare such as meat loaf and mashed potatoes -- plus ice cream and other bedtime snacks. Owen said he never went hungry.

But, except for frequent visits with his parents, he went without much social interaction during his month-long stay. Owen didn't participate in classes or other activities -- he said he wasn't aware of them. When he wasn't in his cell, Owen said he sat a common-area table and shuffled a deck of cards.

Owen caused "problems (by) banging on walls/sink where other detainees can't sleep," according to psychologist Patricia Carter, who reviewed his records for a court-mandated psychological assessment. Carter's written report detailed a long history of psychological difficulties.

He was prescribed Strattera and Trazodone, drugs usually used to treat hyperactivity and depression.

Juvenile officer Mike Davis declined to talk about Owen's time in the youth facility, saying that as long as the teen was in the juvenile justice system, he retained a right to privacy.

A day after Owen's arrest, Sheriff Hefner and Davis announced in a press release that the 13-year-old was being charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action. It noted Davis' request for a hearing to consider prosecuting Owen as an adult -- which almost inevitably would mean transfer to an adult jail and, if convicted, a harsher sentence.

Bail was set at $250,000, cash only -- 10 times what Ronnie Welty made in an average year as a truck driver. Lori Welty is a homemaker.

"We are poor people," Ronnie Welty said.

Meantime, investigators were building a case. An autopsy ruled McCollough's death a homicide, noting that a bullet had entered McCollough's jaw on the left, traveled through his neck and to his right shoulder.

A ballistics test on a bullet fragment found at the crime scene initially ruled out Owen's .243-caliber Rossi single-shot rifle. But Kathleen Green, the Missouri State Highway Patrol's crime lab expert, decided to repeat her test a month later -- and overturned the finding, ruling that his gun could have shot the bullet.

He was a juvenile "and that bothered me. I just wanted to make sure I did everything possible in this case one way or another," Green said in an August phone interview. "... I just felt like I missed something."

TUESDAY, DEC. 19, 2006

At the hearing a month after Owen's arrest, juvenile officer Davis recommended to the youth court that the teen's case be transferred to the adult criminal justice system.

The judge presiding over the case, in the juvenile division of the Circuit Court of Stoddard County, agreed.

"It is not possible to devise a treatment or rehabilitative program in the juvenile justice system," Judge Joe Satterfield wrote in his decision a week later.

He also noted that Owen -- who at 13 weighed about 200 pounds, according to medical records -- might be a threat. "The protection of the community requires that the juvenile be transferred to the court of general jurisdiction," he wrote.

Satterfield declined interview requests.

That day, Owen was moved a few doors down to the county jail -- a 32-bed adult facility in a low-slung concrete-and-brick building. Owen had an "observation" cell, a tiny space with room for little more than a bed. A small window in the door broke the monotony of cinderblock walls.

Owen spent 23 hours there each day, with a break for recreation.

"I couldn't do anything," Owen recalls. "It was like sitting in juvenile (detention) ... and not being fed all the time."

Food took on increased prominence.

Sometimes, jailers would "'forget' to feed me. I don't want to sound like a violent person but I'd start kicking the door and raising hell," Owen says, a claim Sheriff Hefner contests.

Unlike the juvenile center's menus designed for growing youths, a typical jail lunch might be a hot dog or bologna sandwich served with orange Kool-Aid, though dinner would be more substantial, Hefner says.

For recreation, Owen was taken outside to a narrow, grassy yard, its fence topped with coiled barbed wire. His rec time initially coincided with that of female inmates, then with male inmates, he claims.

Owen says he spent the time walking in circles and talking with other inmates. Hefner says Owen sat by himself, was supervised constantly and never was in physical danger.

The rest of the time, Owen did pushups or read James Patterson crime thrillers or Louis L'Amour westerns he found on a jail bookshelf.

Hefner says Owen frequently disobeyed orders, shouting and chipping at a crack in the concrete floor so he could communicate with -- and pour water on -- an inmate in a basement cell below.

"I don't think he was crazy. I think he was just mischievous," Hefner says of Owen. He "was 13 years old. He was bored to death. Every time you would walk by, he would be looking out the door and yelling."

Owen claims he had reasons to yell.

One day while he was crouched in his cell, trying to talk through the door's open food slot, a jailer kicked it shut and the metal plate gashed his nose, Owen alleges. Weeks later, his parents photographed the scab using a cellphone smuggled into a visitation room.

Hefner says he doesn't know what caused the injury -- "you mean that little scratch on his nose?" he asked -- or whether Owen received medical attention.

Neither account could be verified; the sheriff didn't respond to an open-records request.

Owen says there were other problems. Once, a jailer took him to the bathroom for a strip search and "grabbed me in between my legs," he says. Another time, a jailer used a stun gun on him.

Hefner disputes these allegations, saying the jailer in question has a stellar reputation and that any incident would have been recorded on cameras around the jail. But Hefner admits that Owen's cell did not have a camera during most of the nine months the teen spent in the Stoddard County jail.

Owen has a history of making unsubstantiated sexual assault claims. In 2004, he accused a school official of fondling him but recanted in 2005 after he was caught telling "another student to lie about it," Carter wrote in her psychological report.

While he was in jail, Owen and his parents sought help from federal authorities.

Owen wrote several letters that his parents mailed to the White House and U.S. Justice Department, including one dated March 29, 2007:

"I'm thirteen and it's really hard to be in an adult jail. Only seeing my parents once a week. ... I just want to go home to my family & friends. ..."

The letter reached Tammi Simpson, a senior trial attorney in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Simpson responded in a letter to the family that she could not help. Ronnie Welty says he also emailed an FBI tipline.

Simpson declined to speak with Scripps Howard, and an FBI spokeswoman said the agency had no record of contact with the Welty family.

Continued from above article: ... rd-lessons

TUESDAY, SEPT. 25, 2007

Two months after Owen's low-key 14th birthday celebration, his case was transferred to Cape Girardeau County, about 45 miles northeast of his family's home.

At "Cape County," as it's commonly known, Owen was the only juvenile among 178 inmates. At first he was kept apart because of his age, though with the murder charge he should have been placed among other inmates accused of violent crimes, says Sheriff John Jordan, of Cape Girardeau County. "We were trying our best to accommodate a fish out of water."

Not long afterward, Owen said he got bored with his situation and asked to be housed with the general population. He was switched to a 32-bed housing "pod," where he still had his own cell but more interaction.

Jordan said Owen was in daily contact with adult inmates whose charges ranged from drunken driving and burglary to assault.

Owen was in danger, jail records show. In a memo dated June 20, 2008, a jail official wrote: "We where (sic) also informed by several inmates that if we didn't move Owen that he would most likely get hurt" for throwing water on sleeping inmates.

One night, six inmates tied the teen to his bunk with a sheet, Owen alleges. One got on top of him, and Owen says he stabbed him with the makeshift knife he slept with.

"I never got raped when I was in there," he says. "That was the only encounter with that."

The jail has no record of Owen stabbing anyone, though in December 2006 staff found a shank he'd made from a plastic "spork."

Two months later, Owen told authorities that an inmate had slapped him on the buttocks, choked him and threatened more violence, records show.

Jordan, the sheriff, says there was no evidence that Owen ever had been physically harmed. Owen was a troublemaker and a liar, he adds: "He would constantly stir up problems."

It's unclear whether the presiding judge, William Syler, was aware of Owen's allegations. He did not respond to an interview request.

Owen's day typically began at 5 a.m. with pushups. Between meals, he did more pushups, read and played hearts or spades with other inmates, he says. The day ended as it began, with more pushups.

He wasn't focused on learning. Neither county jail -- at Cape Girardeau or Stoddard -- supplied teachers. Instead, Lori Welty brought her son math worksheets and science, social studies and math textbooks -- only soft-cover versions allowed. But Owen didn't understand the material, and his mother's pleas for a teacher went unheeded.

Hefner, the Stoddard County sheriff, said that, given the tiny jail, "we had nowhere in our facility to put (Owen) and allow a tutor to come in."

Jordan, the Cape Girardeau County sheriff, said his jail wasn't required to provide a teacher.

But with few exceptions, Missouri mandates that youngsters under age 17 receive a formal education. Its Compulsory Attendance Law obliges parents or guardians "to ensure that the child is enrolled in and regularly attends public, private, parochial school, home school or a combination" for the full academic year.

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials did not return calls seeking more information.

School districts and county jails have a joint obligation to educate youths in their care, says Peter Leone, a University of Maryland education professor who works extensively with the federal Justice Department and states to monitor detention facilities.

Told that the two counties didn't provide a teacher for Owen, he responds: "That's outrageous."

FRIDAY, JUNE 20, 2008

Owen's parents and lawyers, concerned that he wouldn't get a fair trial near his home, succeeded in getting the case moved once more -- to St. Louis County. The teen was transferred to the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton, about 170 miles north of Bloomfield.

For his first week in the 1,232-bed facility, he was isolated in medical observation. County mental health experts and the jail's placement staff judged that Owen -- almost 15 -- could handle being housed with adult inmates.

Owen was moved to Pod 4-B, a 64-bed wing for inmates detained on suspicion of property crimes and other nonviolent offenses.

Its center is an attractive two-story atrium with natural light, clusters of tables painted with checkerboards, and a television and bookshelves. Inmates come here for meals and medication dispensed by a nurse, and go to the adjoining gym and showers.

Two floors of cells encircle the open area. Owen spent 16 hours a day in his: a Spartan, 84-square-foot space with a metal bed attached to a cinderblock wall, a toilet, sink and a small desk etched with graffiti.

Owen says conditions there were markedly better than those in Stoddard and Cape counties -- especially in terms of schooling and psychological care.

Herbert Bernsen, St. Louis County's justice services director, says he considers it his responsibility to provide an education to all inmates -- especially young ones: "I know they need it."

Owen signed up for math tutoring and took classes in GED test preparation, anger management and positive motivation. When he began his GED prep class, he scored at the sixth-grade level. By the time of his release seven months later, he'd progressed to the 12th-grade level, his instructor told the jail's volunteer coordinator, Richard Bruenderman.

Owen was ready to take the GED exam "but, because of his age, the Missouri Dept of Education would not let him take the test," Bruenderman wrote Scripps Howard in an email last August. "Owen was a very good student who made great progress."

At the same time, the teen's behavior had deteriorated.

After months of minor infractions -- an unclean room, possible theft of office supplies -- Owen in late November 2007 mouthed off to a guard and then, days later, was found with six unidentified pills in his shoe.

The jail put him in "administrative segregation" -- corrections-speak for solitary confinement -- from Dec. 1 until his release Feb. 13, 2009.

While housed with the general population, Owen says he felt threatened. He was stabbed in the ribs and left arm in late summer 2008, he alleges, adding that staff bandaged his wound.

Owen's inmate record doesn't indicate any physical mistreatment. Bernsen says he's "very confident" that the teen never was harmed.

Paul Fox, a spokesman for Missouri's 21st Circuit Court, says the court had no indication of any danger to Owen. A former public defender, Fox adds: "Whenever I represented a certified juvenile, I got nervous about them being in an adult jail" because of safety concerns.

Amid the transfers from juvenile detention center to the three jails, a central question loomed: Who was responsible for Owen's well being? Who held guardianship: his parents or the court?

Parents technically retain responsibility over an incarcerated child, said Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center, a national nonprofit public-interest firm in Philadelphia. But "as a practical matter, jailers run the kid's life day to day."

Missouri agencies, jail and court officials said that because Owen had been labeled an adult, they had no reason to extend the protections usually given to children.

The state's Department of Social Services does not have any oversight of certified youth, spokesman Seth Bundy said. Its Department of Corrections' spokesman, Chris Cline, said his agency "does not provide advisory opinions regarding legal matters."

Fox, the St. Louis court's spokesman, said he wasn't sure that Owen even needed a legal guardian after his certification at age 13. "For the purposes of the justice system, he is an adult," Fox said. "So I don't know if he maintains that need or not."

Stoddard County juvenile officer Davis, who supervised Owen for the first month after his arrest, said he had no idea Owen later was housed with adult inmates -- risking abuse -- and deprived of access to a teacher. Once Owen was out of his jurisdiction, "I wasn't concerned for his safety," he said.

Stoddard County's Sheriff Hefner said Owen's parents retained guardianship: "I don't think of myself as a parent in a jail setting."

But his staff sometimes took away Owen's weekly phone and visitation privileges for poor behavior, according to Carter's psychological report.

The jail should not have kept Owen's parents from seeing their son, Schwartz said: "One isn't supposed to lose the right to see one's parents prior to being convicted."

Ideally, Hefner said, juveniles certified as adults should be kept separate, and safe, from older inmates -- but tight finances often preclude that. "Even though they are certified as adults," he said, "they are still children."

Continued from above article: ... rd-lessons


Roughly 27 months after Owen was arrested, his case went to trial. Jury selection began on Feb. 9, 2009, a Monday. By Thursday, Owen was acquitted. He was released from jail that Friday, Feb. 13.

In an interview, Briney Welborn, who prosecuted Owen, admitted that he had a weak, circumstantial case in the murder of Don McCollough. There were no eyewitnesses, and the ballistics report couldn't prove Owen fired the fatal bullet.

Welborn was voted out of the prosecutor's job last November. Owen's case was not a factor in his defeat, he says. Now he's a private attorney handling criminal defense and family law, among other things.

Welborn says he's conflicted about whether he thinks Owen killed McCollough: "It's kind of a Catch-22. I believe in the system. They (jurors) acquitted him, so I believe he's innocent. But there's no other leads out there, no other suspects."

The victim's son is not sympathetic to Owen's long detention and jail experiences. All that defendants have to do is make bail "and they're out," says Michael McCollough, 51, who lives near his late father's home. And "just because somebody don't get convicted don't mean they're innocent," he continues in a brief phone conversation, declining to talk further.

Right after his release, Owen, younger sister Veronica and mom Lori moved from Missouri to Clay County, Ark., where the family had relatives and hopes for a fresh start. Dad Ronnie stayed behind in Bloomfield for a year until he found truck-driving work closer to their new place. A mobile home set in a wooded lot, it has a "no trespassing" sign affixed to its side.

Owen immediately enrolled in Piggott High, a school with about 460 students.

At first, other students taunted Owen and Veronica, school counselor Phyllis Morgan recalls in an August interview at her office. "You're going to have your older kids that want to be bullies and make comments."


Owen, now 18 and a senior, long since has made friends among his classmates and teachers. Last spring, he went to prom, wearing a black tuxedo with a spiffy red vest, tie and kerchief. He spends free time with friends -- at parties, driving around town or lounging at home on Facebook.

Piggott High helped him attain enough credits so that he should graduate this May. However, he took the ACT college entrance exam in March and scored in the sixth percentile. Morgan attributed that to so much missed schooling. She described Owen as hardworking and intelligent, with a strong interest in technical topics.

Owen dreams of going to college or tech school, maybe becoming a master welder. "I hope it turns out how I want it to turn out but..." he says, his voice trailing off. "Maybe it does."

He won't be able to get much financial help from his family. Ronnie Welty filed for bankruptcy in October 2010.

Owen's doing what he can to help. He spent the summer picking weeds in a cotton field; in fall, he worked for a pumpkin patch and haunted house.

He's also working on "an anger problem, but it's gotten a lot better," Owen says during a car ride one August afternoon.

Owen says that, after he got out of jail, he had weekly sessions with a psychologist. He no longer sees anyone -- his parents don't think it's necessary. But when they weren't around, he confided he might still like someone to talk to.

Nor do his parents think Owen needs drugs to control his behavior. "He hasn't been on medication for years," Lori Welty says at the family's kitchen table.

The family has several reasons for talking about Owen's case. Ronnie Welty wants compensation -- maybe a scholarship to make up for lost education -- for what his son and family endured. Lori Welty wants Owen's arrest record expunged, but the family cannot afford several thousand dollars for an attorney to take on the case.

For his part, Owen wants people to know what he experienced. Maybe another young teen won't have to go through what he did in terms of the conditions and duration of his jail time.

"It was bad. It was real bad. It took two-and-a-half years out of my life, out of my family's life. We fought, we spent our life savings on it," he said. "It's terrible. I don't think juveniles should be transferred into the adult jails. You know what I mean?"

(Email reporter Isaac Wolf at wolfi(at)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

Gee. Over two years of this kid's adolescence spent in adult lockups, and... they didn't even have more than a "weak, circumstantial case" to begin with.

Whatever happened to Missouri's claim to fame as having a humane, progressive and rehabilitative juvie system? Not to mention its averred preference for multisystemic therapy (MST)? Or have I just got it A-L-L-L-L wrong? . . . :eek:


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