From the cold case files: the 1965 murder of Jean Welch in Cumberland, Maryland
Jean Welch carried her basket of wet laundry outside to dry on the clothesline behind her apartment. May 17, 1965 was a sunny, spring day in Cumberland, Maryland, and besides warm to hang clothes on the line, Jean had trader her winter clothes for shorts a short-sleeved blouse.
Cumberland had once been the second-largest city in Maryland. Located in the Appalachian Mountains in western Maryland, the city had boomed with the coal and railroad industries. As those industries struggled and declined, the city's population had peaked in 1940 and had been falling since then to around 31,000 in 1965. Because it was such a small city, it contained neighborhoods that looked more as if they belonged in the suburbs rather than a city. Jean Welch and her family lived in one of these neighborhood on Cumberland's south side.
Jean was an attractive brunette and looking at her, one might find it hard to believe she was 33 years old, let alone the mother of three children. And someone was looking at her as she hung the clothes. A witness would later tell police she had seen Jean hanging the laundry around 1:30 p.m.
Someone else most likely saw her, too. This person wouldn’t give a statement to police. The police would never know his name. They would only know what he did.
Jean lived in her apartment on Oldtown Road with her husband, Dale, and their three daughters. Two families lived in apartments on the second floor of the building. No one was home that afternoon in one of apartments, but in the other, a woman was inside going about her day. She noticed nothing amiss.
“One woman from the other second-floor apartment was at home and investigation revealed she had heard a knock on the Welch's side door,” reported the Cumberland Evening Times. The side door was located on New Hampshire Avenue and it was used more often by family and friends than the front door on Oldtown Road.
Neighbors across the street were sitting on their front porch watching the people walk by and traffic zip up and down Oldtown Road. No one would later recall anyone approaching the front door to the Welch apartment. However, they did recall that the drapes in the large picture window of Welch’s apartment had been open when Jean was hanging clothes, but by 3 p.m. someone had closed them. Given that the day was so lovely, it was odd enough for the couple to recall them being closed, though they didn't notice anyone pulling them shut.
Around 4 p.m., Judy Woodson, Jean’s 13-year-old daughter from a prior marriage, returned home from school and entered the apartment. She found it a mess, which was unusual. Her mother was a good housekeeper. Then Judy found her 1-year-old sister Dee Dee strapped to her training potty in the back bedroom. Judy’s other sister, 2-year-old Loy Lee was also in the apartment and crying.
Loy Lee explained what happened next decades later.
“Mom!” Judy called.
She looked in her mother’s bedroom but it was empty. The door to the bathroom was closed. If her mother was in there, why hadn’t she answered Judy’s call. Judy knocked on the door.
When there was no answer, Judy opened the door.
Her mother was inside. The sight would haunt Judy for many years to come. Jean was laying face down in a partially filled tub of water and not moving. Judy screamed.
Dale Welch had spent the afternoon playing golf. He had been at the Cumberland Country Club since noon. He finished his round of golf around 4:15 p.m. and got in his car to head back to Air-Flow Roofing and Siding Company where he was vice president.
“While en route from the golf course to the office, Mr. Welch was advised on his two-way car radio that there was 'an emergency' at his home,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported.
Welch rushed home and was met by police at the apartment who showed him his wife’s body. They then led him to where his daughters were and began questioning him.
The deputy county medical examiner determined that the killer had struck Jean several times with a blunt instrument. Unfortunately, no one could find the murder weapon. Besides striking her, the killer had strangled Jean with a drapery cord and pushed her face down into the tub to drown her. Her time of death was estimated to be around 2 p.m., shortly after she was last seen hanging laundry.
Though Cumberland was a city, it was not plagued by a high murder rate as seen in many cities. The number of murders each year could be counted on one hand, usually one finger.
The case fell under the jurisdiction of the Cumberland Police Department but because of the violent nature of the crime, a multi-agency investigation team was formed. It included Deputy Maryland States Attorney J. Frederick Sharer, Cumberland Detective Lieutenant Thomas See, Cumberland Detective Harry Iser, County Investigator William F. Baker and the deputy Allegany County Medical Examiner.
At least 10 police officers were assigned to the case full time. They began going door to door, questioning neighbors. They also visited with friends and relatives of the Welch's. Within a week, more than 300 people had been interviewed and their statements recorded.
Cumberland Police Detective Captain James Van and other officers stopped cars along Oldtown Road during the time period the murder might have occurred and questioned the drivers if they had seen anything on the day of the murder.
“The residents of Oldtown Road area have been cooperative and many have cut their lawns, trimmed their hedges seeking the murder weapon in an effort to assist police,” reported the Cumberland Evening Times.
Besides the murderer, the murder weapon continued to elude the invesigators. Police searched trash cans, a nearby lake and construction sites. The Cumberland Sewer Department personnel cleaned out catch basins and sewers around the Welch's apartment hoping to find the weapon. City workers also cut grass on nearby open lots, hoping the weapon might simply have been tossed away.
It was never found or identified.
No clear motive was ever established, either, though sexual assault was alluded to in some reports.
Cumberland Police Chief B. Frank Gaffney told the newspaper, “As of now there has been no basic motive established and we are operating on all theories. The murderer could be a friend or stranger, local or transient.”
Jean was buried March 20, but the investigation and rumors were just beginning. The rumor mill was naming the killer even though the police had no evidence to support the accusations, though each one needed to be investigated. The rumors resulted "in some leads, on the other hand, they have necessitated many endless hours of checking for county, city and state officers," reported the Cumberland Sunday Times.
The volume and nature of the rumors became so bad that State's Attorney Donald Mason warned the public, “Persons who start or repeat these false rumors are subject to legal action for civil slander by persons whose names are mentioned. These false rumors also hinder the work of the investigating officers who are working tirelessly on this case.”
The target of many of those rumors was Dale Welch. This is not surprising since the spouse is usually the prime suspect in such a case, but Welch had an air-tight alibi. He had been playing golf miles away from the apartment with a number of other men who testified to that fact.
When the Cumberland Police brought in a lie detector with a trained Maryland State Police examiner to use with some key witnesses, Welch volunteered to be tested, hoping to clear his name. He passed two separate tests, showing he had no knowledge relating to the death of his wife. It was enough for the police, though rumors would always surround him about what he knew about his wife's death.
A Botched Crime Scene
Despite the diligence of the police during the investigation, they had mishandled the crime scene during the first day. Blood samples and fingerprints had been lost due to mishandling. Though a large number of investigators were needed to handle the searches and interviews, it may have led to a case of having too many fingers in the pie.
“It wasn't that someone committed the perfect murder and got away with it. Things got messed up,” said Loy Capshaw, the adult Loy Lee Welch.
At the investigation's peak, 10 officers were assigned full-time to the case with many other people from different agencies looking at it on a part-time basis. Sylvester J. Smith, president of the Air-Flow Roofing and Siding Company where Welch worked, offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the capture of Jean's killer. This only added to the volume of tips and leads that police needed to investigate.
No one was ever arrested and the killer remained at large.
Capshaw noted the fact that the case was never closed haunted her father until his death. He had always hoped that the killer would be found so that he could have closure.
For a short time, it seemed like that might finally happen. Sources familiar with the case were saying that an under-the-radar investigation by the state's attorney office in the early 2000’s had found forensic evidence that indicated a living family member might be the murder. If true, this would not have been Dale Welch because he had already passed away. However, no one was ever indicted and the case was not reopened. It remains unsolved and part of the Maryland State Police's cold case file.