TAMPA — John Andrew Welden apologized, quoted the Bible and asked for mercy from the judge who sentenced him to 13 years and eight months in federal prison for tricking his girlfriend into taking an abortion pill just before she lost her 6-week-old embryo.
The former girlfriend, Remee Jo Lee, urged U.S. District Judge Richard Al Lazzara to show “the same amount of mercy that he showed me during my pregnancy.”
Welden, 29, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Those who spoke at his sentencing hearing described him in starkly different terms, as if he is two different people.
Welden’s friends and family talked of a loving, loyal, devout and selfless young man who dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps and one day going to medical school, a person who in his darkest hours looked after his loved ones before himself.
The private security guards hired to make sure he didn’t flee while out on bail wrote letters on his behalf. One addressed the court about the character Welden has shown since his arrest last year and the late-night Bible studies he had with his father.
He did something terrible, his supporters agreed, but they also said it was a single mistake in an otherwise clean life. If shown mercy, they said, Welden still could go contribute to making the world a better place.
“Andrew is a caring person,” Stephen Welden said of his son, who goes by his middle name. “It’s what he does; it’s who he is.”
Lee’s family said they also once had a high opinion of Welden, who came to their house nearly every day for almost a year. But now they see him a something different - a callous, calculating pothead who killed his own child so his other girlfriend wouldn’t find out.
“He had me fooled 100 percent,” said James Edward Lee, the victim’s father.
“This was not a mistake,” said her mother, Rosa Lee. “He made a plan and followed through with it.”
Remee Lee said she, too, used to think Welden was caring and compassionate.
“That fairy tale morphed into my own personal inferno when he decided to murder our child,” she said, weeping so hard she was frequently hard to understand.
Everything about Welden, she told Lazzara, was a lie. He lied when he told her he loved her and would look out for her. He lied when he told her she had an infection and needed to take an antibiotic prescribed by his father.
Welden admitted he forged a prescription for the abortion drug, Cytotec, and then took Lee to his father’s office, where she got an ultrasound. The next day, he tampered with a prescription bottle and scraped identifying marks off the pills to make them look like amoxicillin, a common antibiotic.
He gave Lee the pills and told her to take them. As she drove to work that day, he called to make sure she had taken the drug.
At every point, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Muldrow said, Welden could have changed his mind. But he pushed forward.
Lee took a single pill. Within hours, she was cramping and bleeding. The next morning, she went to the emergency room, where she learned her unborn baby no longer had a heartbeat.
Lee said she bled for a month. “This wasn’t just a case to me,” she told the judge. “This was the death of my child.”
She was going to name the baby Memphis Remington Lee; she planned to announce her pregnancy on Easter, she said. “Instead, I was in the hospital.”
Lee clutched framed pictures of the sonogram images, saying that’s all she has of her child, who she said was 8.3 milligrams long. “I know he wouldn’t want me to be upset because he’s with his father, his heavenly father.”
She read a letter she said Welden sent her during their relationship in which he told her she had changed his life and was the best thing that ever happened to him. “I will be here on any path you take,” the letter concluded. “Love, Muffin.”
Lee glared at Welden when he addressed the court, standing in the courtroom gallery when he walked forward, fixing her gaze on him as he told Lazzara he has “the most humble and remorseful heart” and wanted to express “sincere contrition.”
“I’ve caused everyone a huge amount of emotional pain,” he said. “What I’ve done will stay with me every day for the rest of my life.”
Welden said he knows what he did was “inexcusable, and I deserve punishment.” But he said he is “overwhelmed with the crushing fear today ... that the person I am and hope to be will vanish forever” as the result of spending a long time behind bars. “I’m scared of what awaits me in prison, honestly.”
Lazzara said the case is tragic for both sides.
“I don’t believe Mr. Welden’s an evil person, but he committed an evil act,” the judge said, “and he’s going to pay the consequences.”
Lee, the judge said, had an absolute, constitutional right to decide whether to take that baby to term. “You, Mr. Welden, deprived her of that in the most cowardly of ways I can think.”
The judge imposed the sentence jointly recommended by the prosecution and defense as part of plea negotiations, emphasizing he is “not a rubber stamp.” Lazzara said he’s satisfied the evidence in the case supports the recommended sentence.
In part, the judge said, there’s a “need to deter anyone who might even think committing such an evil act.”
Lazzara also granted a request that he recommend Welden serve his sentence at a prison camp, and he ordered $28,000 in restitution to Lee. Welden also must serve three years of probation after he is released.
The defense asked that Welden be allowed to remain free until federal prison officials determine where he will serve his sentence.
But Lazzara granted a prosecution request that Welden be ordered to turn himself in sooner. Lazzara gave Welden until 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to report to U.S. Marshals.
“There comes a time,” the judge said, “when justice exacts its due, and that time has come for Mr. Welden.”