Saturday, January 5, 2013

Eight Minutes with Jack Burch and Jim King, Co-Authors of Ghost Burglar

 Welch's aliases included changes in appearance.
Thursday morning I wrote a review of the true crime drama Ghost Burglar with its prison escapes and Duluth connection. The authors, Jack Burch and Jim King, were not acquainted with one another until their paths crossed while Burch was researching what he thought would be an interesting story. I can imagine the book becoming the basis for a film, but am not sure who the Coen brothers would cast in the lead. Any suggestions?

Bernard Welch was an east coast criminal who made his money by means of night prowling, breaking and enterings. He took on a variety of aliases as a means of staying under the radar and used Duluth, MN as a getaway for processing his loot, among other things. His name while in Duluth was Hamilton, which was the last name of the woman he lived with as husband and wife.

Jim King: I had researched his past criminal life when I was investigating the ghost burglaries. I had also helped process him when he was finally arrested and searched his house in Virginia. I had interviewed his common-law wife Linda, seen his children and saw him in court when he was tried for murder. But I did not know him. I did not know of his young life or of the criminal pattern that began to develop when he started shoplifting candy while he was still riding a bike. I knew nothing of the high school dropout, his alcoholic father or fantasizing mother. I never had heard of his trail of crime while he was a teen, his early marriage, his daughters, his houses, or his upstate New York crimes. No, I did not know these things; I did not need to. I knew enough for him to be charged in Montgomery County, Maryland, and I knew enough to exult when he was sent to prison for murder.

EN: So the book was a real team effort. You were acquainted with the criminal activity of Bernard Welch, but your co-author did the research that brought him to life.

On the surface Welch looked fairly nondescript
JK: My co-author, Jack Burch, has done a masterful job delving into Welch’s past. I learned of the dark soul Welch hid while he used others for his purposes. I learned of his desire for wealth, for success, for dominance, for recognition, all attained without regard for others. I discovered that, when he was very young, he chose the criminal path to achieve his desires. I learned he was clever, devious, daring and dangerous.

I learned he was what is known as a sociopath, a person without the internal restraints of normal people. There was no thought within his mind about what was right or wrong, only what was good for him. I learned of the wretched life of poverty he had condemned his three children by Linda to live. He had hidden money he could have given them for food, for medicine, for needed operations, but he did not. The money remained in a hole in the ground until he needed it for his escape years later. To me, as a police officer, a human and a father, this one example of selfishness clearly defined Bernard Welch. Yes, I discovered many things about Bernard Welch. These past years of research, learning of his life, learning of his actions, and reading what others have said of him have been extraordinarily revealing; I know him now.

EN: How many of Welch's neighbors did you talk with and what were their impressions after he got cuffed.

Jack Burch: During my research in Duluth for Ghost Burglar I spoke to about a dozen of Bernard Welch's neighbors and merchants of Duluth and the Twin Cities that he had business dealings with. Some of those I spoke with requested that I not mention their name.

Processing the stolen goods took time.
EN: How did the people in Duluth feel when they found out that they'd been unintentionally serving as a fence for Welch?

JB: Most of the folks in Duluth acquainted with Welch were shocked to find out that the man they knew as Norm Hamilton was actually a career criminal and had been arrested in Washington D.C. for burglary and first degree murder. It was distressing for many of the antique dealers, auction houses and buyers he dealt with to discover that the high end antiques and collectibles that passed into their hands were stolen a thousand miles away and transported to Minnesota for resale. Also the merchants Welch dealt with throughout the summer months he stayed in Duluth were paid with funds that were the proceeds from his felonious thefts. The "Hamilton's" bought rugs, drapes, furniture, jewelry, stereo systems, a projection T.V. system, a juke box, a pool table, landscaping services, groceries; every expense it takes to operate a $300,000 home with an indoor pool accommodating a family of 5 for 6 months a year in the late 1970's. Even the 2 million dollars invested in a stock account with a Duluth brokerage house was ill-gotten-gain. The nice cars, the abundance of money, and the confidence of Bernard Welch had most people convinced he was a legitimate dealer in estate sale goods, antiques, coin collections, jewelry, watches and precious metals.

Everything had to be tagged.
Some of Welch's neighbors trusted him implicitly. The Seilers lived across the street from Bernard Welch and they would leave the keys to their house with him when they traveled or went on vacation. Welch was a good watchdog and they had no complaints about the safety of their property. Others were suspicious of him and thought things just didn't add up. One neighbor stated he wasn't very sophisticated or well read for a man in his line of work. His vocabulary and point of reference seemed like that of someone who had dropped out of school in the 7th or 8th grade. A prison GED certificate just couldn't make up for that.

Duluth coin dealer Stan Sunde exclaimed, "No! That can't be!" upon hearing of Welch's arrest for murder during a burglary. Stan continued, "He always had plenty of money. Why would he have to burglarize a house?" not realizing that was the real source of Welch's wealth. Another merchant thought it odd that Welch paid for his goods with cash in a paper bag. He wondered out loud if Welch was in the Mafia or maybe a drug dealer. A Hidden Valley neighbor, Kay Gower said Welch was always so proud of the possessions he had purchased and collected. He could spend all day showing you around the house describing the importance or the value of one item or another. Precious metals dealer Daniel Kalstadius said Welch brought him into the house in 1979 to show off a Patek Philippe watch worth $40,000.00. That episode and the five gallon buckets full of Sterling silver that Welch had scattered about his property made Daniel quite curious about where "Norm" got these high end goods.

The casual acquaintance or distant uninvolved neighbor seemed able to talk openly about Welch. Close neighbors, and those who spent a lot of time with Welch, felt embarrassed for not catching on to what kind of person this really was. These folks and those in law enforcement or the legal profession were unwilling to discuss him at length and possibly open themselves to scorn or ridicule for not seeing through this con artist. I am afraid Bernard C. Welch left a wide swath of red faces in the city of Duluth.

EN: What are the take-aways from the story of Ghost Burglar?

He also stole and collected guns.
Jim King: One of the primary things to be learned from our book is that Bernard Welch was a rarity in the criminal world. Few career criminals are so active for so long. But even he, as intelligent, cunning and secretive as he could possibly be, was eventually caught. No one can roll the dice and win every time. At some point, even the best of the best must lose. We explain in Ghost Burglar that it was only a matter of time until Welch made a mistake and was arrested.

It must be remembered that Welch spent a lot of time in prison. He served many years of hard time in New York State before his first escape. I am unsure of the exact amount of time, but it was a big percentage of his early adult life. He was out only for about six years before going to super max prison for the remaining 17 years of his life. He did get out for three months, but was returned. In super max he was caged 23 hours a day in his small cell.

Was it worth it? Do all those millions of dollars he stole and then lost when he was arrested make up for the years he spent alone in prison? Did he miss not seeing his children grow up? Did he miss being a free man? When he was dying alone in a prison infirmary, did he miss not having his family nearby? The take-away here is crime does pay, but only in the very short term. In the long term, crime is a loser’s game.

EN: Is it easier today for a criminal to operate?

JK: The invention of the computer and security camera has made being a criminal much more difficult. When Bernard Welch was active, neither were commonplace. Today, police monitor what’s stolen and what’s sold. Rather than having to read long lists and trying to compare thousands of items from memory, a police officer can sit at a computer and do the same thing in minutes. Information, finger prints and photos can be transferred to other officers and police departments in seconds, not the days it used to take when everything was done by mail.

With the prevalence of security, bank, traffic, speed, red light, dash and ATM cameras, it is much more difficult to be anonymous than before. Just go to AOL and watch videos of robberies, assault and car chases as they happen. Often the perpetrator can be identified from the video, which is sent around the world. The security procedures implemented since 9/11 have made air and train travel much more difficult. Getting a valid driver’s license, which is needed for everything, is also more difficult.

Has all this stopped crime? No, it has not, but it has made certain criminal enterprises more difficult. It is doubtful if Bernard Welch could operate now as he did for so long.

This interview was conducted via email correspondence. Click images to enlarge.

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