Trucker helped in fugitive's recapture

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A truck driver who was giving escaped fugitive and murder suspect Justin Welch a ride was instrumental in Welch's recapture on Thursday about 34 hours after he made a violent escape at a rest area along Interstate 40 near Van Buren, Ark., according to one account of Welch's arrest.

Welch, charged in the Oct. 1 slaying of Kimberly Smith of Oconomowoc, was arrested about noon Thursday near Sallisaw, Okla., along I-40 and just west of Van Buren.

The truck driver had given a lift to Welch, who was hitchhiking. Welch apparently asked the truck driver to stop at a Wal-Mart or Walgreens, and the truck driver did.

While Welch was in the store, the truck driver noticed a gun in Welch's belongings and became concerned for his safety, according to family and friends of Kim Smith, who said their information about Welch's arrest came from Waukesha County authorities.

The truck driver sent a text message or called a friend who is a police officer, according to the family's account.

Welch got back in the truck, and the driver resumed his trip.

The truck was then pulled over by police, and Welch was arrested without incident.

Welch was taken to the Sallisaw Police Department and later transferred to the Sequoyah County Jail, the Sallisaw Police Department said.

Welch, 26, was being transported from the San Diego County (Calif.) jail to Waukesha County to face a first-degree homicide charge when his brazen escape occurred about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. Welch had been held in San Diego after his Nov. 18 arrest in Mexico as he attempted to cross the border into the United States.

The private prisoner transport company, North Atlantic Extradition Service, stopped at the rest area near Fort Smith, Ark., to allow Welch and four other inmates to use the restroom.

Inside the restroom, Welch attacked North Atlantic Extradition guard Michael Nowland, 29, of Columbus, Miss., with a screwdriver type tool, stabbing him several times, including in the right hand, the back of the neck and the head, according to Lt. Brent Grill of the Van Buren Police Department.

At some point before the attack, Welch's handcuffs were removed, but his legs remained shackled, Grill said.

When Welch overpowered Nowland, he got Nowland's Glock pistol and keys and removed the leg shackles, Grill said.

Welch then handcuffed and shackled the guard.

He also robbed a truck driver who was in the restroom of his jacket and cell phone, Grill said.

Grill said the guard did not check to make sure the restroom was empty before bringing the prisoners into it. The guard should have done that, he said.

Welch left the restroom and then awakened a sleeping second guard, Marian Pulliam, 35, of West Point, Miss., at gunpoint. Grill fired several shots at Pulliam as he fled the van. Pulliam, who was not armed, was not injured.

Grill said that Pulliam was sleeping when the van pulled into the rest area and was not even aware that the prisoners were taking a restroom break.

The North Atlantic Extradition Service van never should have stopped at a rest area, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel said.

"When we contracted with them, we were provided with their policies which prohibit stopping at public restroom facilities. The protocol is to stop at local jail facilities for restroom breaks," Schimel said.

North Atlantic Extradition, based in Columbus, Miss., is a private prisoner transport company. Its officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Welch is accused of somehow getting into the Smith's home on Oct. 1, binding her hands behind her back and stabbing her in an alleged murder-for-hire plot.

Police found a knife and a pair of medical-style gloves used in the slaying in a storm drain near Smith's home. DNA found on the evidence was connected to Welch, who had a criminal record in California, according to court records.

Smith was in a bitter custody dispute with Darren M. Wold, 41, of Lubbock, Texas. According to the criminal complaint filed in the case, Wold, Jack E. Johnson, 65, of Mexico and formerly of Waukesha, and Welch conspired to kill Smith. Wold and Johnson are longtime friends, according to court records.

Welch is charged with first-degree intentional homicide. Wold and Johnson are charged with first-degree intentional homicide as a party to a crime.

Wold and Johnson were in Waukesha County Circuit Court Thursday afternoon for a preliminary hearing that was continued from last month.

Schimel is presenting evidence he has said will link Wold, Johnson and Welch to Smith's slaying Smith through a money trail that includes a Wal-Mart Moneygram, a Western Union money wire transfer, records of phone calls and other conversations.

Wold, of Lubbock, Texas, funneled money through Johnson to Welch so that Welch could fly to Wisconsin under an alias and kill Smith, investigators say.

Wold and Johnson are long-time friends, according to court records.

The preliminary hearing is scheduled to continue on Jan. 22.

Copyright (c) 2010, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.