WELCH: I took over as the criminal investigator in Mena in 1981. My duties were to maintain intelligence on Mena airport concerning smugglers, basically. There was one smuggler here by the name of Simon Frazier who, like Barry Seal, was busted in Florida and rolled over [turned informant] to stay out of prison, and was later either killed in an airplane crash, or the crash was used as a front for a witness relocation.
LEE: When did you first learn about Barry Seal and the CIA?
WELCH: The first time that I heard of him was, probably, in late 1983, when the Sheriff of Polk County, where Mena is located, had started an investigation and one of his deputies, Jimmie Jacobs, told me that Sheriff Al Hadaway was conducting an investigation of an alleged smuggler that had moved in here. The deputy sheriff said that his first name was Barry and they didn't know his last name. He came from Louisiana. The investigation was serious enough that the sheriff wasn't saying too much about it. According to the deputy sheriff, Hadaway was giving his information directly to a federal task force that was investigating Barry Seal in New Orleans. Their investigation was called operation "coin roll."
LEE: Was that the DEA?
WELCH: It was a Vice Presidential [George Bush] task force. According to the deputy, Sheriff Hadaway felt that it was over the head of the state police, it was out of our league. That's the reason he skipped us and went directly to the task force - which was, in retrospect, probably a good idea. It was out of our league. Although I believe to this day that if he had come through me, Barry Seal might still be alive. He'd be working on a pea farm at the prison in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, but still be alive.
LEE: What about the CIA?
WELCH: When Sheriff Hadaway wanted to seize Seal's C-123, the people from Rich Mountain Aviation contacted him and set up a meeting at their attorney's house, in Mena, where they showed him a video that had been made by John Camp called "Uncle Sam Wants You." It was a piece of crap. The only report that linked Seal to the CIA, that I'm aware of, concerned the trip on the C-123 to Nicaragua. Somebody from one of the first subcommittees told me, on the telephone that they had confirmed a CIA interest in that flight. Under the conditions at that time, they should have had an interest in it if they were doing their jobs. For the most part, it looked like Barry Seal was just trying to keep his cocaine smuggling butt out of jail. My investigation should have been fairly simple once I got a handle on things. But, little problems kept jumping up. The longer I investigated the bigger they got.
When leaders in my own department allowed one of the subjects of Bill Duncan's investigation, and an employee of Rich Mountain Aviation, to go into the basement of the capitol building in Little Rock and make notes from my investigative telephone records, those problems had grown into whoppers. Those records had the telephone numbers of witnesses and informants from, not just the Barry Seal investigation, but any other investigation that I might be working on. They put witnesses and informants, not to mention myself, in danger. I have no way of knowing how much damage that caused. I don't know what may have happened to certain people as a result of their action. When you finish a case people just go on and you assume that they're getting on with their lives, but you don't know. I understand that certain members of the state police are saying that they had a right to see those telephone records under the FOI Act. A year later FOIA requests for my files were still being turned down. How can they expose people to that kind of danger? Why would a person want to deal with the police over a telephone if they know that anybody could go look at the officer's telephone records. This same person tried to get into the telephone records at the sheriff's office in Mena. The sheriff and local circuit judge told him there was no way he was going to see those records. At least one person got a visit because telephone records were made available.
LEE: John Camp, that is the guy now working for CNN, right?
WELCH: The same. He actually did the video for Barry Seal and it was aired on Channel 2 in Baton Rouge. It was obvious that the video was choreographed by Barry Seal. To watch that video you'd have to say that John Camp was the only person in the world that didn't know that Barry Seal was a cocaine smuggler, because it was an hour-long tirade of Barry Seal being harassed by law enforcement officers when he was really working for the federal government as a paid informant. [When John Camp later joined CNN, he made a hit piece on Terry Reed and later he made a hit piece on Chuck Harder, a publishing partner of Reed.] I later found out that Seal already had two unrelated indictments in Florida. The only reason he did anything for the DEA was to stay out of prison. The Rich Mountain Aviation people showed that video to Sheriff Hadaway and tried to convince him that they had been working for the CIA all along. The sheriff didn't believe it and neither did anybody else.
When I started the case I hoped that I would find that Barry Seal was and had always been involved in DEA or CIA activity and I'd close the case out and get out of it. I would get on with other things, things that were less heavy to carry around on my shoulders.
That wasn't the case. I found a clear window of criminal activity where Barry Seal was definitely smuggling cocaine just for himself and his people. And there was no collusion or involvement with the DEA or CIA or any legitimate covert operation.
LEE: Did the CIA know about that?
WELCH: Barry testified in court, as did DEA agents, that they wanted him to continue acting like he had done before. Now that can be interpreted in different ways...
LEE: When did your own investigation start?
WELCH: In 1985. Emile Camp crashed between Mena and Nella. Emile Camp was one of Barry's pilots. Freddy Hampton [of Rich Mountain Aviation at Mena airport] asked me to come out to the airport and take a part in the investigation. He was, at that time, concerned because, in his own words, Emile Camp was an important witness in a trial that was going on in Florida at that time. There was some concern that Emile Camp's death wasn't an accident, that he had been sabotaged. He kept that attitude until about three days later when Barry Seal showed up and took control. Everybody's attitude changed. At first they told me that Camp was an extremely good pilot who had flown through these mountains numerous times, day and night. After Barry Seal arrived they said, "Well, Emile Camp wasn't a very good pilot anyway, he probably flew right into the side of the mountain." It was obvious that Barry Seal, among other things, had done damage control.
We looked for Emile Camp's crash for three days before Barry Seal showed up but couldn't find it. The business manager from Rich Mountain Aviation, Rudy Furr, told me that he had contacted the governors office and Governor Clinton had promised to send some National Guard helicopters to help in the search. They never showed up, because of the weather, I think. Rudy Furr also said that the orbit of a satellite had been changed to help with the search. He said they were going to place the satellite over Mena to see if it could pick up an ELT.
About 15 minutes after Barry Seal showed up, he found the crash, just before dark. It reeked of him knowing where the crash was before he got there. The first words that I heard Barry Seal say were on a radio from his helicopter, as he was explaining how he found the crash so fast. He said, "I know my plane and I know how Emile flies," or something like that.
LEE: And then you tried to find out why it had crashed?
WELCH: There was nothing to make a determination. Like most airplane crashes it was eventually ruled a pilot error, and there wasn't anything left to determine whether it had been tampered with or not. During my investigation I did some checking with a number of people who knew Emile Camp and they all said he was just as good a pilot as you could find.
LEE: So, did you find any motive or did you have any suspicions?
WELCH: Well, at that time I wasn't sure what was going on. Freddy Hampton told me about this trial in Florida and Seal's trip to Nicaragua, allegedly to do a cocaine deal with some Sandinistas. I asked him who would benefit most from Camp's death, and he said well, Seal could benefit from Camp's death because that would give him more bargaining power because there were only three people that went on a C-123 trip to Nicaragua. I still don't know what that meant.
LEE: A year later Barry Seal died himself.
WELCH: Just before Barry died, he made a tape recording of himself, DEA agent Jacobson and another person in Panama. It was a three way telephone conversation. The tape recording was with Barry in his car when he was killed. He was returning from his office in downtown Baton Rouge with a couple of boxes and other items. And on the tape recording, among other things, there was this conversation with these three people. And Barry was a desperate man, you can tell by his voice. He is trying to help find Pablo Escobar, and the agent - you can tell by his voice - that there's nothing he can do with Barry anymore, he's done his thing and the agent is trying to get rid of him on the telephone. Barry is desperate, he is trying to keep his position and status [as a valuable DEA informant]. His trials were finished and he was about to be put on the streets. I think every cop goes through this some time in their career. The bad guy says, "I'll snitch off my friends if you keep me out of prison." The cop says, "Okay, you go first." When it's over the cop tries to keep his end of the bargain and then send the bad guy back home. You don't want to take 'em to raise. Sometimes snitches want to move in with you. Barry had been indicted in two different federal jurisdictions in Florida on drug charges. He was about to go to prison for a long time. Barry Seal snitched of some of his people, made some pretty good cases, and in return, he didn't have to go to prison. The convictions still stood but he was not in jail. Unfortunately for Seal, he still had some music to face in Louisiana, and those folks didn't like him very much. Anyway, on this tape recording, he is trying to give directions to the person in Panama, they are talking about streets, and Barry keeps telling him, "Don't use my name on the telephone," because all the telephones in Panama are tapped. The DEA agent comes in and says "Yeah, don't use Barry's name on the telephone!" And you can hear this fatalistic laugh of Barry in the background, like "I'm dead."
That was probably a month or two before Barry was killed [by drug cartel hit men].
[Excerpted and edited. Published in the March 25, 1996 issue of the Washington Weekly]