TAMPA — With his family and victim watching, John Andrew Welden admitted in court Monday that he intentionally tricked his pregnant girlfriend into taking a drug he hoped would cause a miscarriage.
Gone were the arguments about whether the drug Welden, 28, was accused of giving Remee Jo Lee was responsible for the death of her unborn fetus. Instead, Welden accepted responsibility for giving Lee the prescription medication Cytotec, which the prosecution has called an abortion drug.
Gone, too, was the possibility of a mandatory life sentence on an unusual murder charge under the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” as the prosecution allowed Welden to plead guilty to the lesser offenses of tampering with a consumer product and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
It all disappeared Monday when Welden agreed to waive his right to a trial and admit he forged his physician father’s signature on a Cytotec prescription and then switched the label to make it look like an antibiotic, giving it to Lee and telling her his father said she had an infection. Lee, who was about six or seven weeks pregnant, lost the baby within a couple of days.
Under a plea agreement, the defense and prosecution are jointly recommending a sentence of 13 years and eight months in federal prison, but U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara could impose up to 15 years. The sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 5.
“Nobody wants to go to prison for 13 years and 8 months,” Welden’s lawyer, Todd Foster, told reporters after the hearing. “The possibility of a mandatory life in prison sentence with no discretion to the judge obviously is a big factor” in why Welden accepted the plea agreement.
The plea agreement requires Welden to cooperate with prosecutors, but says he won’t get any additional sentence reduction because of that cooperation.
Lee, who was in court, didn’t speak to reporters but stood with her parents and next to her lawyer, Gil Sanchez, as he addressed the media after the hearing. “Nothing ... is ever going to bring back Remee’s child,” Sanchez said.
Lee, he added, will decide “in the following days” whether to pursue a civil lawsuit against Welden.
“This has been an extremely difficult time” for the Lee family, Sanchez said.
That was echoed by Foster, who told reporters, “Oviously, it is tragic all around from every angle.” Moreover, Foster said, “I’m certain he’s remorseful.”
Foster said there were “many discussions” between the sides that led to the negotiated plea. “We have a very professional prosecutor here who looked at the evidence and was amenable to discussing things back and forth,” he said, “and we had a fair and full exchange.”
Although Welden’s defense had disputed that the drug could have caused the miscarriage, he acknowledged in the plea agreement that was his intent.
Welden didn’t speak to reporters after the court hearing. As a condition of his being free while his case is pending, his parents are paying for two private security guards to watch him around the clock. The security detail rushed him out of the courthouse past a gaggle of news reporters into a waiting black Hummer.
Foster also is hoping to reduce the security Welden is required to have, which the attorney said is “costing a lot.” That requirement for two armed guards, a $250,000 secured bond, a GPS monitor and that Welden be locked in his bedroom at night was created, in part, because Welden was facing a possible mandatory life sentence.
Late Monday, Foster filed a motion, already agreed to by prosecutors, asking that the security agreement be modified so Welden would only have to be watched by one armed guard and that visitors be allowed into the house without requiring that Welden be locked in his room at the time.
Foster told Lazzara during the plea hearing he expects the sentencing hearing to take about two hours. He said later he hasn’t decided yet what evidence he will present, although he does expect family members and character witnesses to address the court.