Philip Welsh’s simple life hampers search for his killer.
May 7, 2014 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Philip Welsh’s simple life hampers search for his killer. " By 1 p.m., Philip would leave the small yellow house in Silver Spring where he lived alone. He walked a half-block, waited for the No. 5 bus, took it to his job as a taxi dispatcher, returned home, cooked a late dinner, watched Charlie Rose and went to sleep. He never locked his front door and often left it wide open. Part was defiance. This is how I live. Part was warmth. Anyone is welcome. One February night, someone came inside — someone Philip may have known — and beat him to death. The case remains Montgomery’s only unsolved killing this year."
posted by sweetkid (30 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating story, especially for true-crime readers (Mr. Welsh may have been one himself).

It makes me ask the question, is there really such thing as a simple life? By the Post's account, he had no secrets or enemies; what you see is what you get. And yet he ends up the victim of a violent death where robbery is not (likely) the motive.

Blaise Pascal said “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone," which this man seems to have been able to do, operative word being seems.
posted by cell divide at 10:15 AM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Didn't every murder have to be investigated without a bunch of social media clues until quite recently?
posted by thelonius at 10:16 AM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, and a lot more murders went unsolved.
posted by Naberius at 10:17 AM on May 7, 2014

Really? The rate of unsolved murders has dropped since social media became popular?
posted by thelonius at 10:19 AM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Although the number of overall murders has gone down over time, the homicide clearance rate has actually decreased as well.

This basically seems to be because there isn't as much "low hanging fruit" — crimes where the perpetrator is really obvious. We've managed to eliminate those, although theories vary on why/how, but the murders that are left are the ones that have always been difficult to solve. And forensic science doesn't help as much as people think it does.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:29 AM on May 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

If it was really someone he didn't know just walking in and killing him, the best chance to solve it would be that person boasting about it to other low-lifes, I think.
posted by thelonius at 10:30 AM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Actually Thelonius, no, I stand corrected. Unsolved murders are on the rise these days.

While it makes sense that the digital wakes we leave would make it easier to trace the connections between victim and killer, I guess cops really were pretty good at doing that the old fashioned analog way.

Actual murder rates in the U.S. have dropped pretty seriously from the 80s and 90s when there were over 9 murders per 100,000 people per year.They're now down to under 5, so in like 10-15 years it looks like the actual murder rate has been cut in half.

The problem apparently is that the murders that still happen are increasingly random (drug or gang-related or just weird) and there's no obvious connection to trace. As in this instance apparently.

(or what Kadin said)
posted by Naberius at 10:31 AM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you haven't seen The Shawshank Redemption or read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (and you should) then don't read my comment!

the best chance to solve it would be that person boasting about it to other low-lifes, I think.

aka The Shawshank Redemption methodology

posted by RolandOfEld at 10:33 AM on May 7, 2014

kadin2048, that statistic reminds me of the one concerning WWI head injuries.

Physicians noted that most casualties (incapacitating injuries) resulted from head wounds. Their feedback led to the development of modern helmets that cradled most of the cranium, instead of the shallower sort that were apparently intended to stop only karate chops. Well and good.

After the new helmets hit the trenches, the percentage of head injuries that resulted in death jumped upwards sharply.

The percentage - not the gross number - because only bullets entering the face area tended to penetrate the skull, and those were much more likely to be lethal than grazing shots.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:35 AM on May 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

This comment on the article stood out for me:

How did they solve crimes before the advent of cellphones and computers? Have they forgotten the very basics of crime investigation? We are much too dependent on technology today. The electronic "bread crumbs" we leave behind can be helpful but LE shouldn't be dependent on them to solve a crime. Police departments/FBI/etc, in my opinion, are much less capable than they used to be; they appear to have mixed up tools and techniques and then fallen back on the tools, having lost the fundamentals of investigating crime. I work in the criminal justice system and I am sure these hard working professionals, like much of society, have succumbed to the easy way of doing things by depending on technology.

I was recently reading about another unsolved D.C. area crime, the 1935 Chevy Chase car bar murders. The region was admittedly much smaller at the time, and police had no choice, but there are multiple instances of this kind of impressive, shoe-leather detective work:

A bakery employee in Washington was counting money when he came across a five-dollar bill stained with blood. The bill was traced to a lunchroom in Rockville where a bakery driver had made a sale. The cashier at the lunchroom recalled that a regular customer had paid with a similar bill. The customer was located and explained that he had cut his finger while target shooting on his property and had bled on the bill when he paid for his lunch. All of this was accomplished in less than a day.

The WaPo article indicates Montgomery Co. detectives are interviewing people and doing the basics, but it still made me wonder to what degree the comment above is accurate. Is the increasing diversity and generally easy availability of phone metadata, etc. eroding other kinds of investigative skills?
posted by ryanshepard at 11:01 AM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

The problem apparently is that the murders that still happen are increasingly random (drug or gang-related or just weird) and there's no obvious connection to trace. As in this instance apparently.

There's also been (anecdotal, inconclusive) speculation on whether or not a "CSI effect" on criminals (not just juries) exists, with the proliferation of forensics-heavy police procedural dramas some say can train* criminals who aren't too impulsive or too...intellectually challenged** to premeditate or have the composure to clean up after themselves.

* Across town, Ray Peavy runs the homicide unit for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. He thinks criminals are watching crime shows and taking notes. "Things like cigarette butts, coke cans, beer cans, a sweaty hat band or blood or semen, hairs, all those things that used to be left. Those things are no longer being left at crime scenes," Peavy says.

** "When they try to escape detection from what they see on CSI, they're actually leaving more evidence," Houck contends. "A good example of that is instead of licking an envelope [for fear of providing DNA in their saliva] they'll use adhesive tape. Well, they'll probably leave fingerprints on the tape, and it'll pick up hairs and fibers from the surroundings. So the more effort you put into trying to evade detection, honestly, the more evidence you leave behind."
posted by blue suede stockings at 11:01 AM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

You have to wonder how often "the basics of crime investigation" we might look back on fondly was more like "find some random undesirable railroad him".
posted by ODiV at 11:12 AM on May 7, 2014 [22 favorites]

If he had a bird named Bill, I'd say Kilgore Trout came to life.
posted by dr_dank at 11:25 AM on May 7, 2014

He never locked his front door and often left it wide open.

As a person familiar with Silver Spring, Maryland, I'm not surprised this ended badly.
posted by Rash at 11:30 AM on May 7, 2014

I have been researching a lot of old crimes, and, especially if there was no public outcry or the person wasn't especially public, it's a bit disappointing how often the police just let it drop, or insisted it was suicide. One fellow in Omaha, Frank Potatoes Polito, was shot in the face in his bar a week after he had taken out insurance because he was afraid someone would bomb his bar. The police declared it suicide. His brothers pointed out that he had a still-lit cigar in his hand. Who shoots themselves while smoking a cigar? they asked.

But I guess the cops figured, who cares? Polito was a small-time hood, and they may have been glad to be rid of him.

Another local woman, 22-year-old Ada Swanson, was brained with an ax in the basement of the house where she was a somestic. Cops thought it might be her boyfriend, couldn't pin it on him, and just let it drop. Never solved. Later that year, in Omaha's tony Gold Coast neighborhood, a man was shot to death during a robbery, and the cops literally said they had no way of finding out who the killer was. Now the public balked, the newspapers filled with cartoons of Omahans walking around with their pockets emptied, pocketwatches and wallets pinned to their chests with notes saying "Feel free to take these," and hands held in the air.

So the cops finally got embarrassed enough to make a police sketch and offer a reward, and, lo and behold, the killer showed up in Kansas. It wasn't very complicated policework, bit, in 1915 in Omaha, you couldn't even expect that unless the public seemed ready to start firing cops.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:37 AM on May 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

i applaud the writer for wringing maximum interest and pathos out of a bog-standard homicidal beating, and i have a theory. a tweaker did it opportunistically to rob stuff to support his habit, and backed off at the sight of the bloodshed.

i live in the oregon countryside. one time, i opened my front door and there was a tweaker right on the other side, glazed bloodshot eyes and all, and he told me his car had run out of gas at the foot of my driveway, but when i confronted him, he was able to drive off in it. how about that? he was real lucky, the slightest different element in this episode and i would have shot his ass off.
posted by bruce at 11:42 AM on May 7, 2014

I do not doubt the police who say that Facebook etc is a help - I just suspect that this aspect of the crime may be over-stated as an angle for the story
posted by thelonius at 11:48 AM on May 7, 2014

Reminds me of how John Gray spoke of the assault and death of his father by a hitchhiker, which may have been solved, but was unsettling in a similar way.
posted by childofTethys at 11:48 AM on May 7, 2014

Fantastic (though ultimately sad) read to break up the monotony of my work day.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 11:57 AM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm curious why they don't think it was an attempted robbery. Looking at the pictures of Welsh's house in the article, it doesn't appear that he had anything valuable that would immediately be apparent and easy to carry out. A robber could have surprised him, killed him, realized there was nothing to take, and left. Also, I wonder if he had had a social media account if it would just reflect who he was without social media. He would have tweeted thoughtful short poems and people would have tweeted nice things back to him. Still no help for the police.

I live down the street from the scene of those Chevy Chase car bar murders. I'm on my neighborhood's crime watch email list, so I get the police blotter for my area sent to me weekly. I'm always surprised at the number of people who don't lock the doors to their homes and cars. It's a pretty safe neighborhood, but there are a fair number of thefts and an occasional assault and a lot of them happen to people who didn't lock up.
posted by bluefly at 12:05 PM on May 7, 2014

I originally read this as his hampster's were searching for his killers... which was seriously like 4 steps above and beyond a Disney movie. (G-Force) I would be a bit bummed on the double take of it if the story hadn't been pretty fascinating.
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:22 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

kadin2048, that statistic reminds me of the one concerning WWI head injuries.

IAmBroom, that in turn reminds me of one of the war correspondent stories in P.J. O'Rourke's Holidays in Hell. About to go into a area with a lot of unfriendly fire, O'Rourke gladly avails himself of a Kevlar vest but decides to forgo a helmet: he asks if the helmet will stop a bullet and receives the response, "No, but it will slow it down." He thoughtfully concludes that he does not need any slow bullets in his head.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:33 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suspect murder clearance rates are dropping because violent crime has been pretty successfully ghettoized and important people don't give a shit about certain neighbourhoods. I've noticed that Chicago gets very agitated and holds police press conference when guns are fired in places they are not supposed to be like say the Magnificent Mile. Forty shooting victims a weekend in the south or west and there is barely a peep or at best a press conference where the police blames the community.
posted by srboisvert at 12:38 PM on May 7, 2014 [19 favorites]

Since I've been following this case, I thought I'd post his obituary for those interested. He was clearly not the only talented writer in his family, assuming this was written by family as obituaries often are.

Poet, song-writer and taxi cab dispatcher-was murdered in his Silver Spring Maryland home February 20, 2014. He was 65 years old. A playful contrarian, Welsh was generous, curious and big hearted. His company and conversation will be sorely missed by friends and family.

The second of nine children, Philip was born in Columbus Ohio on August 8, 1948 to Philip Flahavin Welsh, an attorney, and Marilyn Kirby Welsh, a homemaker and force of nature. From Ohio the family moved to Pendleton Indiana and from there to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area in the early 1950s, where Welsh senior worked first for the Department of Justice and then the Association of American Railroads. There, the younger Philip would grow up, attending Catholic elementary and high schools. Big, strong and naturally athletic, Philip excelled in baseball, holding down third base with a powerful throwing arm. He loved riding horses, and in the few occasions he found himself in a boxing ring, he maintained a notably cool head.

Despite obvious intelligence, Philip-a voracious reader-proved an indifferent student. As the family mushroomed from to two children to nine, Philip struggled with mixed emotions over the steady stream of new arrivals. Philip was sent to St. John;s Military Academy in hopes he would find focus and discipline. Welsh-whose first name means lover of horses-had hoped to join the school's mounted cavalry program. Neither expectation would be realized. A year later, Philip transferred to the Thomas More prep school in New Hampshire, far more hospitable to free-thinkers. While there, Philip made the decision to get along better with his brothers and sisters. To a remarkable degree, his behavior changed overnight as did Philip's relations with his brothers and sisters.

Demographically, Philip was the classic baby boomer who came of age during the cultural and political tumult of the 1960s. The spirit of the times certainly accentuated Philip's innate inclination to resist the bit of social expectation. But in true, contrarian spirit, Philip also kept his distance from the drug culture and the anti-war movement. Even so, he did oppose the Vietnam war, seeking conscientious objector's status in dealing with the Selective Service. He also participated in at least one of the major demonstrations that brought the nation's capitol to a stand-still. In that he was arrested and jailed. But when a guard failed to close the jail cell all the way, Philip and his fellow detainees escaped.

Philip attended Washington University in St. Louis for one year. Higher education, however, was not for him. Instead, he and a college friend hit the road, hitch-hiking across the United States and enjoyed untold adventures. Eventually, Philip landed in Saucalito California, where he lived and worked for a while. Shortly before the first man walked on the moon, Philip returned to Washington, DC. He spent hours listening to music in his family's living room, feet propped up the stereo console, a cigarette burning in one hand and a can of Coke always nearby. With Philip at the turntable, every new album by the Beatles or the Loving Spoonful was a special event. His musical explorations never ceased, and throughout his life, he was quick to share recording gems with musically curious co-workers.

Philip was a great lover words; he read always and delighted in how people actually spoke. As a story-teller, he enjoyed an unhurried authority. Truth, as he told it, was not necessarily stranger than fiction, but typically a lot more interesting. His sense of humor was essentially kind. Perhaps Philip's greatest talent lay as a listener. When he leaned in, people opened up. He was generous with ears and heart. In another lifetime, Philip might have made an excellent priest. But like many Catholics, Philip's appetite for organized religion was effectively extinguished by his own Catholic school experience.

In 1971, Philip began working for the Barwood Cab Company, first as a driver and then as a dispatcher. Aside from a hiatus after his parents' deaths-when he tried his hand at fiction writing-Philip worked for Barwood until his demise. There, he was dependability personified. For Philip, the job was more than a paycheck. He relished the camaraderie, the personalities, and the controlled chaos that are part of any large cab operation.

While Philip was never satisfied with his fiction, he would become one of the great unpublished travel writers of his generation. His dispatches from the road burst with effortless detail and great dialog. In later years, he wrote great volumes of poetry. Most of his poems had the flavor of a blues song about them. Smart, funny and poignant, they often seemed simpler than they actually were. He wrote a lot of death and dying and of things he saw while riding the bus to work. But mostly, he wrote of long necked women who made him swoon. Philip collaborated with his youngest brother Josh and his nephew Rupert Sandes to produce two CDs-under the band name Meatyard. Justifiably proud of the results, Philip made sure his co-workers got copies.

An incurable romantic, Philip loved women and they loved him. But he loved his solitude even more. As a result, Philip lived alone, the quintessential Irish uncle. Among his many nephews and nieces, Philip was beloved as an eager co-conspirator in various schemes of innocent mischief. At an early age, Philip declared he would not live in fear of all life's many "what-ifs." In keeping with this, he made a point to not lock his doors, often leaving them wide open. Philip was determined to live life on his terms and he did just that. For a time, there was a shared delusion among the Welsh brothers that the truth was whatever any three of them happened to hear. So defined, the truth made for great conversational fodder. With Philip's abrupt departure from Planet Earth, the truth got a lot harder to tell.

Philip was preceded in death by his parents, Philip Flahavin Welsh and Marilyn Kirby Welsh. He is survived by his eight siblings, their spouses, and 12 nephews and nieces. A celebration of Philip's life will take place Saturday, April 19 at 11 a.m. at the Unitarian Church of Silver Spring, 10309 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring, Maryland 20903. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Shepherd's Table homeless meals program at 8210 Dixon Avenue, Silver Spring Maryland 20910 or the 826 program for young writers at 3233 14th St., NW, Washington, DC 20010.
posted by juniperesque at 1:12 PM on May 7, 2014 [36 favorites]

I have been researching a lot of old crimes, and, especially if there was no public outcry or the person wasn't especially public, it's a bit disappointing how often the police just let it drop, or insisted it was suicide.

Reminds me of this bit:
On 'Cold Case Files' they solve old murders and it's really interesting. What I learned from it is that it was really easy to get away with murder before they knew about DNA...

What was a murder investigation like in 1935? One cop would just walk in and be like, 'Detective, we found a pool of the killer's blood in that hallway!' He would just be like, 'Hmmm, gross. Mop it up. Now then, back to my hunch....'

'I'll tell you what we'll do: we'll draw chalk around where the body is; that way we'll know where it was.'

-- John Mulaney
posted by ceribus peribus at 3:23 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Retired taxi dispatcher and unpublished travel writer is one a hell of a cover story.
posted by humanfont at 5:06 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Reading about this man brought a smile to my face. The article and obituary paint such a picture of him. It sounds like he had a beautiful soul. May he rest in peace.
posted by sevenofspades at 7:12 PM on May 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

he got so dissatisfied with writing his ideal crime story that he unconsciously engineered a more enduring one.

you should not be concerned about spoiling the shawshank redemption, a movie that is right now playing on at least one basic cable channel.
posted by Quart at 7:54 PM on May 7, 2014

Unsolved murders are on the rise these days.

Well, again that all depends on whether you're looking at the rate of unsolved homicides or just at the absolute numbers.

There are fewer murders overall than in previous decades, including fewer unsolved murders. But the rate at which murders get solved has been going down.

The homicide clearance rate was over 90% in the 1960s and is in the high-to-mid 80%'s now, depending on jurisdiction, but the 10% of unsolved homicides in the 60s is still bigger than the ~15% or whatever percent of homicides today. (Because the overall homicide rate has gone down more than the unsolved-homicide rate has gone up.)

So we're definitely safer, and there are fewer uncaught murderers on the loose running around today. But if you're a homicide detective, your job is apparently harder than a similar detective's in the 60s and you're less likely on average to be able to close a particular case that lands on your desk, though the odds overall are still in your favor vs. the perpetrator's.

Overall you'd never want to trade the current situation for the situation in 1960, unless I suppose you're a detective with a very narrow-minded focus on case-closing percentages. But it suggests that we need to get better at solving crimes and that perhaps traditional approaches aren't working very well anymore.

The idea that murders are now ghettoized and that it's the ones in the "wrong sort" of neighborhoods that don't get solved ... the stats certainly don't rule that out. It seems pretty plausible. In a few articles I read while looking up the homicide-clearance statistics, police blamed the lack of witness cooperation for low clearance rates, and that's pretty obviously a side-effect of the War On Drugs.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:06 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

In a few articles I read while looking up the homicide-clearance statistics, police blamed the lack of witness cooperation for low clearance rates, and that's pretty obviously a side-effect of the War On Drugs.

In the Chicago case it might also having something to do with CPD torturing false confessions in capital cases as well. Why talk to a cop when they can decide to use the full power of the state to crush you and get away with scot-free even when they are caught (and it costs Illinois taxpayers half a billion dollars in court settlements)?

It's not necessarily Wire style anti-snitch culture. It might be a reasonable risk assessment of the hazards of any contact with Chicago's law enforcement culture.

The homicide clearance rate was over 90% in the 1960s and is in the high-to-mid 80%'s now, depending on jurisdiction, but the 10% of unsolved homicides in the 60s is still bigger than the ~15% or whatever percent of homicides today. (Because the overall homicide rate has gone down more than the unsolved-homicide rate has gone up.)

CPD's true murder clearance rate is in the mid-teens. (they also often close cases without charges because hey why not? nobody cares).
posted by srboisvert at 2:03 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

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