Wellington, Colorado – Michael Welch II paced frantically across the living room of his parents’ farmhouse. His father lay dead in an adjoining room, shot through the heart by the lawmen who had the house surrounded. His terrified wife, Lori Romero, whimpered nearby. Put the gun down, she begged him, so that they could all walk out with their hands up.
Her 13-year-old son, Anthony, calmly focused a camcorder on the bloody chaos of Nov. 2, 2004.
“Hey, put the camera on me, bro,” Welch instructs on the tape. “Hey, is it recording?”
“Yeah,” Anthony said.
“I want everybody to know that they shot my father because he was defending his family and his Constitution. Somebody shot him right through the heart for nothing. We’re about to give ourselves up. If they shoot one of us or all of us, then I guess this is our fuck-off ode to America.”
As the tall, muscular man spoke, the camera panned from his face and blood-splattered sweat shirt to the floor of the bedroom behind him, where Michael Welch Sr., the man everyone called “Poppa,” had fallen.
“They’re going to shoot us,” Welch II said. But he put down his gun and lit a cigarette.
As the camera’s audio rolled, Welch ranted in disbelief that the cops had shot his Poppa. He worried aloud that they’d frame him for the killing.
Out on the perimeter, where a phalanx of cruisers had formed beneath a wash of blue from pulsating light bars, some officers were still breathing heavily from the high-speed chase that had led them there.
Others had heard a shot from inside, seen the guns from the house pointed at them, and then heard the shot from their own ranks and wondered what it meant.
As the camera in the house would dutifully report, Poppa Welch, a man who worked at Home Depot stores in Fort Collins and Cheyenne, who had played Santa Claus there for a half-dozen years, had been shot dead.
The fatal turn of events sent Welch reeling.
He shouted into the phones, into the camera.
His voice wavered with anger when he asked, “How did it ever come to this?”
Walk toward the light!
Poppa’s wife, Yolanda Welch, awoke at 4 a.m. on July 2, 2003, to barking dogs and a man’s voice crackling over a loudspeaker. Half asleep, she opened the sliding-glass door off her bedroom and immediately had spotlights in her face.
“Walk toward the light! Walk toward the light!” the man?s voice boomed.
She walked down to the field off her deck, where she said officers threw her against a van and handcuffed her. Poppa Welch came to the door. The 280- pound man screamed when his arthritic shoulder was dislocated as they cuffed him.
“What’s going on?” Yolanda Welch yelled.
Black-clad officers seized more than 30 marijuana plants that Michael Welch II was growing in a crawl space. They also took 40 guns scattered about the house, including machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and a Colt AR-15A2 Sporter rifle with scope and attached Remington Model 870 Wingmaster 12-gauge shotgun.
The Welches prided themselves as a family with Second and Fourth Amendment values. They acknowledged owning guns, and plenty of them, including some that were illegal. But in their view, what happened on their property was nobody else’s business.
Later that morning, the Larimer County SWAT team drove into Wellington and arrested Michael Welch II at his apartment.
He was charged with 15 counts related to possessing illegal weapons and drugs deputies found at his parents’ house. He was held on $200,000 bond and spent the next month in jail.
No charges were flied against Poppa and Yolanda Welch.
As it turned out, the Larimer County Drug Task Force had conducted surveillance on a new friend of Welch’s, a suspected weapons and methamphetamine dealer named Blaine Johnson. An informant had been sent to a cookout at the Welch ranch, and he reported seeing illegal weapons and marijuana.
Sheriff’s SWAT teams had raided Johnson’s apartment and the Welch ranch on the same morning.
Some of the guns seized from the ranch had been reported as stolen. The Welches say those belonged to Johnson.
“It was one of those guilt-by- association things,” Yolanda Welch says now of her son’s friendship with Johnson. “Little did we know that Blaine was dealing meth.”
To this day, she believes her son was not involved in selling drugs or fencing stolen guns.
Isn’t that America?
The Welches strenuously argued that the government had no probable cause to search their ranch.
“If you leave everybody alone and you’re not hurting anybody with what you do on your own property, isn’t that America, basically?” Yolanda Welch asked.
Not if you’re breaking the law, says the man prosecuting their case.
The sheriff’s search warrant laid out plenty of reasons for the SWAT team to perform its no-knock raid, Larimer County Assistant District Attorney Cliff Riedel said.
Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson charged Welch with 22 counts of possessing drugs and illegal and stolen guns. But he quickly turned over the Welch and Johnson cases to the U.S. attorney?s office, which charged both of them in federal court, where they would presumably face more substantial sentences without the possibility of parole.
Johnson pleaded guilty to possession with intent to sell more than 50 grams of meth and shaved two years off his five-year sentence by agreeing to testify against Welch.
Federal prosecutors charged Welch with possession of his father’s modified AR-15A2 machine gun. Johnson testified that the gun belonged to Welch.
However, on the weekend before closing arguments, Johnson called Romero from jail and told her he lied on the stand.
The next Monday, U.S. District Judge Marcia S. Krieger dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning that it couldn’t be tried again in federal court saying the government’s case was based on Johnson’s perjured testimony.
The Welches hired former Colorado Senate President Stan Matsunaka, a Loveland attorney, to ask Larimer County to return the seized guns that belonged to Poppa Welch.
“I think I took it on just because they needed representation to get their stuff back,” Matsunaka said.
But the county told Matsunaka the guns would be needed as evidence if prosecutors decided to take up the case in state court.
The county recharged Welch with felony possession of illegal and stolen firearms, as well as cultivating marijuana. On May 27, 2004, a judge signed a warrant for Welch’s arrest.
“They reinstated that case contrary to law,” said the Welch’es Denver defense attorney, Walter Gerash.
Yolanda Welch wrote letters to every government official she could think of, “pleading for help and protection from our corrupt local government.”
Meanwhile, deputies charged with arresting Welch knocked on Romero’s door a couple of times, only to discover she had moved.
On Sept. 19, 2004, they placed Welch on the list of Larimer County’s 10-most-wanted fugitives.
“We really, at that point, feared for our life,” Yolanda Welch said. “We were all being followed. We were all being watched.”
Poppa Welch vowed to protect his son from the Sheriff’s Office at all costs.
No one had any idea just where that was leading.
Calling for the media, FBI
On Election Day 2004, Colorado State Patrol Trooper Ryan Ertman pulled Romero over. She was driving in the left lane of Interstate 25 without passing. He radioed in her license and registration numbers and learned that the warrant for Welch’s arrest was connected to her car.
Welch sat nervously in the front passenger seat. Poppa Welch was in the back, growing agitated.
Returning to Romero’s red Kia, Ertman asked Welch II to take off his seat belt and lift his shirt. Records showed Welch had a tattoo on his back.
“Hit the gas,” Poppa Welch shouted.
Romero did, speeding 20 miles north on the interstate in front of an assembling caravan of troopers.
She whizzed by the exits for Fort Collins and Wellington, finally pulling off the interstate at Owl Canyon Road. She turned left over the bridge, then took a hard right up dirt County Road 7 North, under the railroad trestle and floored it for the ranch.
Overshooting the driveway, Romero turned down an embankment and uphill through a field to the farmhouse.
Romero and Welch jumped from the car and ran inside, with Poppa Welch limping along behind on bad knees.
Welch II grabbed a handgun from the bedroom and ran back toward the door just as his father lunged inside. The pair collided and the gun went off, barely missing Romero.
Poppa took the handgun and marched through his bedroom, out the sliding-glass door to the deck.
“Get off my property,” he yelled to the lawmen, who had just heard a shot fired. “We want the media! We want the FBI!”
The Welches called 911, where a dispatcher connected them to a hostage negotiator.
“I’m losing my house, I’ve lost my inheritance, I’ve lost my life and I’m not going to have these jerk cops do this to me again,” Poppa Welch told the negotiator. “I’ll go out of here dead, you got that? Because of your sheriff’s department.”
Using two cell phones and a land line, the family called the FBI office in Cheyenne, The Coloradoan of Fort Collins, and various friends and family members.
Poppa Welch took cover behind a tipped-over dresser and leveled a high-powered SKS rifle toward the troopers, who were about 160 yards away.
Out on a hill, Larimer County sheriff’s Deputy James Gonzales didn’t like what he saw through his binoculars.
“Get your head down,” Gonzales warned fellow officers.
“Watch out, he has his scope on us,” said Deputy Aaron Gropp.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Loberg, 36, lying next to a patrol car with his Remington 700 sniper rifle trained on Poppa Welch, heard the warnings over his radio. He took a deep breath, exhaled and squeezed the trigger.
The high-caliber bullet sliced through Poppa Welch’s chest, severing his spine.
“One of your fucking snipers killed my father, and now they’re going to pay!” Welch screamed as he got back on the phone with the negotiator.
For the next three hours, the couple haggled with the negotiator and Sheriff Jim Alderden over how they would give themselves up.
Finally, they settled on a plan. Alderden drove up to the property line with Yolanda Welch and a photographer from the local newspaper.
Anthony left the trailer first, carrying the video camera.
Nearly an hour later, Romero and Welch walked out the front door and over to the property line.
Welch was charged with two felony counts of threatening a peace officer with a weapon and one felony count of menacing with a real or simulated weapon.
Romero was charged with the same crimes, plus the felony charges of vehicular eluding and acting as an accessory to a crime.
Each faces decades in prison.
At a news conference two days later, Gropp said Loberg saved his and other officers’ lives when he shot Poppa Welch.
Although no order had been given to fire, Loberg, a trained SWAT sniper, told investigators that he shot Welch Sr. because he felt he and other deputies were in danger.
Yolanda Welch bailed her son and Romero out of jail about a week later.
At the funeral, family members railed against the government.
That summer, Yolanda Welch started driving by Loberg’s house at night.
She sent his wife a birthday card, with family pictures and a note inside:
Dear Mrs. Loberg, … As difficult as it is living without my husband, it has to be hard living with yours, knowing he killed a loving husband, father, and Poppa.
I pray you have the strength to face the future as the “Blue Wall of Silence” that has protected him is starting to crumble. I look forward to facing him in court knowing the lies will be exposed. – Yolanda Welch
The Lobergs took out a restraining order.
For a while, Welch and Romero appeared regularly at court hearings. But they grew frustrated with their court-appointed lawyers, who urged them to ask for a plea deal.
“We weren’t willing to take a deal,” said Romero, now 36. “We stood up for our rights. My father in-law died because he wanted to protect the Constitution, and nobody would listen.”
That October, the couple drove north into Wyoming, through Montana and crossed the Canadian border into British Columbia. They turned west and drove until they ran out of highway in Zeballos, a fishing village on Vancouver Island.
They realized the law would catch up to them sooner or later, but at least they would be explaining their “core beliefs” to the Canadian government instead of Larimer County.
One of those beliefs was that they were innocent.
“Nobody in my family is a convicted felon,” Welch, now 33, said by phone. “We’re not dangerous.”
On Jan. 12, 2006, when Romero and Welch missed court dates, Alderden, the sheriff, issued a nationwide alert for their arrests. Three days later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested them as they watched an Avalanche game and shot pool in the Zeballos Hotel bar.
Yolanda Welch got on a plane, picked up Romero’s son, Anthony, and drove back to Colorado.
Romero and Welch told the police they were American refugees. They spent the next nine months in separate Canadian jails.
In late September of last year, they were allowed out on bail. They rented a one-bedroom basement apartment in Port Coquitlan, outside Vancouver. The Canadian government put them in ankle bracelets.
Anthony, now 16, flew up and rejoined them on Christmas Day. He has also joined their petition for refugee status.
Their Canadian lawyer, Shepherd Moss, says the couple was justified in initiating the standoff and fleeing to Canada.
“You have to put yourself in their shoes and wonder how you would have felt after spending your life savings on beating federal charges and having those federal charges dismissed with prejudice and having the state charge you again for the same crime,” Moss said.
“To turn around and face the same charges, it feels like a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which protects us from double jeopardy.”
A Larimer County judge has ruled that the state’s case does not amount to double jeopardy.
“I don’t think there’s anything on the record to indicate any illegal action on behalf of the state of Colorado or any of our law enforcement agencies,” said Cliff Riedel, the Larimer County assistant district attorney.
He hopes that Canada extradites Welch and Romero sometime this year, but for now, it’s out of his hands. Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice have told him extraditions from Canada can take several years.
“Maybe we’ll get them back someday,” Riedel said.
They killed my husband
Back at the ranch, Poppa Welch’s ashes sit in an urn on his widow’s bedpost, under a baseball cap bearing the words, “Just call me Grandpa.”
“Some days, I don’t want to live,” Yolanda Welch said recently, holding back tears. “I have no money. I’m flat broke. They killed my husband. My son’s a fugitive.
“Jen’s all I have here,” she said, rubbing the very pregnant belly of one of Lori Romero’s two other children, who was visiting from Denver.
Yolanda Welch, now 55, dwells on the last moment she saw her husband alive.
He was outside feeding hay to the horses. He was wearing a brown knit ski mask to keep the November chill off his face and bald head. She thought the getup looked “goofy.”
Something compelled her to drive over to him before she headed to work. She rolled down the window and gave him a kiss.
“Have a good day,” she said.
She drove down their dirt driveway and stole one last glance at him in the rearview mirror before making her turn and heading to her job coding medical invoices at Poudre Valley Hospital.
She painfully remembers how she spoke by cell phone later that morning with her son.
The home video recorded his end of the conversation.
“Mom, I watched. Mom, he died in my arms! Momma, what do I do?”
Today, Yolanda Welch is in a state of limbo, uncertain of her family’s future, unwilling to let go of the past.
In her mind, she is still driving down her dirt lane to the county road, looking in the rearview mirror at the man she used to turn to for answers.