I first met Russell Welch at a cheap motel on the outskirts of Mena, Arkansas, in the summer of 1994. It was a searing hot day and I had left the door open for some air and I heard a car slowly drive across the gravel and stop. I looked up and Russell’s gaunt shadow crossed the doorway.
He was no one’s idea of an Arkansas State Police investigator. Lean, with long brown hair and a handlebar mustache, soft-spoken, his face ravaged by anthrax that almost killed him in 1991, Russell had found himself on a case he never wanted and in the middle of a storm. The case was the investigation of drug smuggler Barry Seal and his activities at remote Mena Airfield in western Arkansas. The storm was Seal’s connections, real and imagined, to a network of government officials and their enablers, including the then-president of the United States, Bill Clinton.
Wall Street Journal editor Robert L. Bartley had sent me to Mena to figure out what was going on. CBS had been there before me. A legion of journalists and con men and grifters and government investigators would follow.
The Mena story is part of the cultural conspiracy landscape now. You can read about Judicial Watch’s latest investigation here, and find more background on the case here. Or you can watch the movie starring Tom Cruise. Or the other movie starring Dennis Hopper.
Russell believed that the conspiracy mischief that engulfed Mena was mainly due to Terry Reed’s book, “Compromised: Clinton, Bush, and the CIA.” It spins a vast, largely fictional tale about a drugs-for-money-for-guns conspiracy involving Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, infamous CIA operatives, Arkansas associates of the Clintons, Oliver North, Seal, Reed himself, Reagan Administration figures, the FBI, the Justice Department, members of Congress, criminals, Contras, cocaine cowboys, and a partridge in a pear tree.
But as Bartley recognized, most conspiracy theories contain a grain of truth, maybe even a few grains of truth. So he sent me down to Arkansas to look for it.
Russell Welch was not fooled. “From the very beginning, I have said that Reed was making stuff up,” Russell wrote me last year. “He was lying about Mena.” Russell had the details and the evidence on Reed.
Russell was the best kind of investigator—one who hates lies and is stubborn about the truth. He played by the book. It got him into trouble.
As the Arkansas State Police investigator based in Mena and tasked with monitoring Mena Airfield, Russell was assigned the Seal case around 1985, about the time one of Seal’s confederates was killed in a nearby plane crash. He quickly discovered that Seal had set up shop in Mena and was using the remote airfield as part of a smuggling network running cocaine from Colombia.
He also discovered that the Drug Enforcement Agency was already on to Seal. Seal had flipped and was cooperating with federal authorities.
Separately at Mena, and unconnected to Seal, other federal entities were running training exercises in the Ouachita Mountains and servicing aircraft used on clandestine missions at Mena Airfield. Judicial Watch disclosed last year that two of the federal entities were the CIA and the Defense Department.
“I did not want to investigate the Seal [case],” Russell wrote me. “I knew it was out of my league and the DEA should do the investigation.” But he was ordered to open a criminal investigation into Seal’s drug smuggling and money laundering.
“I started the criminal investigation,” Russell wrote. “I conducted it like any other investigation. I found that Seal had been [secretly] indicted in two different jurisdictions in Florida. He became a snitch for DEA Group 7 in Miami. His [immunity] period started in March of 1984. I knew that I had to keep my investigation focused on events prior to that. Anything that Seal…did after that date could have been part of a legitimate [DEA] investigation.”
Partnering with an IRS investigator, Bill Duncan, Russell compiled significant evidence of Seal’s drug smuggling and money laundering. “I did everything by the book,” Russell wrote. “When I finished the bulk of my investigation, there were no conspiracy theories floating around, yet. That started with Terry Reed.”
But the case developed by Russell and Bill Duncan went nowhere, killed by federal stonewalling and foot-dragging. A sinister conspiracy? Or something more mundane, like turf wars over witnesses and evidence? It was never entirely clear. But Russell and Bill persisted, and their careers suffered.
In 1986, Seal was murdered in Baton Rouge by Colombian gunmen. Later that year, a C-130 linked to Seal was shot down over Nicaragua with a load of guns for the Contra rebels, dragging a Mena interface into the Iran-Contra affair. In 1994, “Compromised” began to circulate, dragging the Clinton White House into the conspiracy.
Russell retired in 1996, but he never escaped the story. He was pursued by journalists, detectives, TV and documentary producers, authors promising book deals, conspiracy theorists, mooks, kooks, and menacers. For the most part, he kept silent, but he continued to work the case, taking notes, compiling evidence, documenting lies and discrepancies. He died in October, with his wife and his two sons at his side . He was 72. Let the record reflect that in addition to being a devoted husband and father and grandfather, Russell Franklin Welch loved to read and play the guitar, held a Master’s Degree in English, and served with distinction as an Army medic in the Vietnam War.
“The biggest regret in my life is not quitting law enforcement and spending more time with my children,” Russell wrote. “Seeing the hurt in their eyes, so many times, as I had to stop playing with them and go to work, was unbearable. Telling them that I would not be able to watch them at certain school functions, because I had to go to work, broke my heart. It still breaks my heart, and I think about it every day. While I was working on the Seal case, I was, also, conducting other investigations: murder, rape, robbery, and so on. I was busy all the time.”
That first day with Russell in Mena in the summer of 1994, we sat in the plastic chairs outside my motel room and talked a while. That case of anthrax that nearly killed him? The doctors never could figure out where it came from. One doctor had blurted out it was an infection caused by “military grade” anthrax, but Russell was cautious, not assigning blame, and later tests were inconclusive. Anthrax certainly caught the attention of Bartley at Journal, who brought it up with me many times over the years. And Russell had enemies. The Seal case. Murder, rape, robbery, and so on.
Later that day, we drove up into the Ouachita Mountains to take a look at one of Seal’s landing strips cut into the deep woods. I brought a metal detector, hoping to find some sort of journalistic treasure. Russell brought an AR-15 assault rifle. It crossed my mind that he could just shoot me and bury me in the mountains and be done with the troublesome Yankee. This was mysterious Mena, after all, and I was far from home. But you’ve got to know who to trust.
“Here,” Russell said, handing me the AR-15 and taking a camera from the trunk of the car, “let’s take a picture.”
I had a copy of that picture for years. So did Russell. That too is evidence.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: email@example.com
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