Returning to Mena on Sunday, Welch told his wife that he didn't feel too well. He thought he had gotten the flu. Monday the symptoms were worse. By Tuesday Welch was certain that he had a serious case of pneumonia. He had had pneumonia before and recognized the symptoms. Tuesday night he could hardly walk and his wife took him to the local hospital. The doctor gave him some over-the-counter cold tablets and sent him home.
But, Welch's condition deteriorated further to the point where his wife took him to another doctor in Mena the next day. Dr. Calleton, a Vietnam vet, immediately called the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and told Welch's wife to get him to Fort Smith immediately. The doctor told her that he should go by ambulance but she might be able to get there faster if she left right then. He called the CDC one more time before they left.
In Fort Smith a team of doctors were waiting. Dr. Calleton had called them twice while Welch was in transport and they had been in contact with the CDC. Later the doctor would tell Welch's wife that he was on the edge of death. He would not have made it through the night had he not been in the hospital. He was having fever seizures by now.
A couple of days after Welch had been admitted to St. Edwards Mercy Hospital, his doctor was wheeling him to one of the labs for testing when she asked him if he was doing anything at work that was particularly dangerous. He told her that he had been a cop for about 15 years and that danger was probably inherent with the job description. She told Welch that they believed he had anthrax. She said the anthrax was the military kind that is used as an agent of biological warfare and that it was induced. Somebody had deliberately infected him. She added that they had many more test to run but they had already started treating him for anthrax.
It took Welch a while to digest what the doctor had told him. Welch knew that in his business if you couldn't document something and/or corroborate it somehow, then it never happened. The next day, in the hospital room, the doctor told Debbie Welch, that they believed her husband had military anthrax and they were going to treat him for it. The doctor also told Debbie that Russell was very sick now and it was going to get worse before it was over, because the disease was going to have to run its course. She was right. The following day Arkansas State Police Investigator Andy Wiley was in Welch's room and heard the doctor repeat the diagnosis. This time Welch told the doctor that he read about an outbreak of anthrax in some cattle in southeastern Arkansas a couple of weeks earlier. The doctor told Welch and his visitors that the warfare biological agent is not the same as the cow disease. She shook her finger in Welch's face and said emphatically, "No, somebody did this to you. Somebody sprayed you in the face." She described how the infectious agent is carried in canisters. She said, "This is the same stuff that Saddam Hussein was going to use on our troops." Investigator Wiley wrote down the names of Welch's medication and later confirmed that he was, in fact, being treated for anthrax. Other state police officers went to the hospital room, periodically, to help Debbie Welch, who stayed in the private room with her husband day and night for the entire 14 days that Welch was hospitalized. Investigator Charles Lambert and Investigator Bobby Walker were among those that heard the doctor discuss Welch's circumstances and the anthrax.
The treatment was very effective against the anthrax but had severe side effects. Welch suffered a partial kidney failure. The doctor said it was a calculated risk that she had to take when she decided to treat him for anthrax. Welch was a weight lifter and stayed in good shape. The doctor told him that if it hadn't been for that the chances are that he still might not have survived the disease. The doctor also credited his physical conditioning when he gained back most of the 40 percent of his renal functions which had been lost due to the anthrax treatment.
After this incident, Welch spent time trying to figure out how he could have gotten the anthrax. One possibility, he finally concluded, was through envelopes carrying padding material in which the infectious agent, Bacillus anthracis, can be transmitted. The Arkansas State Police used these for a while to mail microcassette tapes containing investigator's dictation. Welch's padded envelopes were returned to him with the tops torn off. When he complained to the secretary, Kim McBride, in Hope, Arkansas, she told him that the padded envelopes were not torn when she mailed them. Welch told his supervisor, Lt. Finis Duvall. Rather than do an investigation to find out who was tampering with official state police mail, some of which was sensitive, Lt. Duvall just said, "Well, I'll be damn... wonder who's doing that."
Last fall a news team from a British television program called "The Big Story" traveled through Mena. The anchor for the show told Welch that he had worked for three years in South Africa. He said that sending biological warfare agents through the mail was a commonly-used weapon during a particular ongoing war in that part of the world. After Welch got out of the hospital he never again received any torn envelopes.
Welch was discharged from the hospital on October 8, 1991. From there on, Welch's career in the State Police never was the same. He suffered harassment, transfers, unwarranted criticism, and public hearings of his performance. His superiors in the state police were concerned that he was answering questions from the press now that Bill Clinton was seeking the presidency. At one point he was interrogated about whether or not he was writing a book. After nineteen years of honorable service, solving difficult cases, being requested by victims and their families in other parts of the state to be assigned to their investigations, Welch was being humiliated like an enlistee in military bootcamp. All of this was being done at the hands of men appointed by Bill Clinton and Jim Guy Tucker. An honest cop just trying to do his job, Welch finally left the State Police on January 16, 1996. After 20 years on the force, he left a poor and disillusioned man.
Even though Welch and Duncan sent boxes of evidence to Lawrence Walsh in Washington, Walsh never showed any interest in Mena at all.
[Excerpt from the book "Mena - a tale of drugs and politics" scheduled for publication this summer.]
[Published in the April 1, 1996 issue of the Washington Weekly]