Man indicted in brutal slaying
The ex-boyfriend of a mother of two is charged with first-degree murder in her 2004 beating death.
By CHRIS TISCH
Published January 21, 2006
SAFETY HARBOR - Two years ago this month, a masked man hid in Niccole Halpin's Safety Harbor house, then attacked her when she arrived with her two young sons.
The assailant beat Halpin unconscious. The attack was witnessed by the boys, ages 7 and 9. One of them was sprayed with his mother's blood.
Halpin, 32, died in a hospital four days later.
The case was unsolved for two years, though detectives came to suspect Halpin's ex-boyfriend, Daniel P. Welch. Halpin had told friends Welch was harassing her after their breakup.
This week, a grand jury indicted Welch on a first-degree murder charge in Halpin's death. Welch, 37, was booked into the Pinellas County Jail, where he will await trial.
The evidence in the case is circumstantial. The key piece is a recording from a 911 call made during the attack in which a man can be heard saying: "Niccole. Calm down."
Several people, including one of Welch's relatives, have said the voice is his.
"That's a very important piece of the investigation," said Pinellas sheriff's Detective Ed Judy, the lead investigator. "It's a good piece of the puzzle."
Halpin's family members said they were pleased.
"Nothing can bring Nikki back, but now someone is being held accountable for it," said Halpin's mother, Laurie Gomm. "We knew he was guilty, and the police knew he was guilty, and now a grand jury believes he was guilty."
But Welch's attorney, Roger Futerman, said his client is innocent.
"I believe that Daniel Welch will be vindicated because I don't believe he committed the crime he's been charged with," Futerman said.
On Jan. 8, 2004, Halpin had dinner with her then-boyfriend, Chris Catuogno, and her sons, 9-year-old Max and 7-year-old Drew.
When she arrived home, she began to suspect someone was inside the house and dialed Catuogno at home.
He picked up the phone, then heard Halpin scream and run through the house. Catuogno kept the line open as he dialed 911 on his cell phone.
Halpin ran into her bedroom, where Drew was playing a video game. Drew saw the masked attacker strike his mother with something that looked like a bat. He was spattered with her blood.
He hid until the attacker left. The boys hid in a bathtub until deputies arrived minutes later.
Over the next two years, Judy and other detectives poured more than 1,000 hours into the case, interviewing 150 people and writing 260 reports.
Judy learned early on that Halpin had once dated Welch, but ended the relationship after he proposed marriage. Halpin told friends Welch pestered her. She considered a retraining order.
Friends said he obsessed over her after the split.
Judy also learned Welch had a key to Halpin's home. There were no signs of forced entry the night of the attack.
Welch couldn't provide an alibi for the time of the attack. Then his statements began to shift. Then he got a lawyer and refused to talk.
About a month after the murder, a sheriff's office assistant began transcribing audio recordings of Welch's initial interviews with detectives. Then she was asked to transcribe the 911 call placed by Catuogno, Halpin's boyfriend.
The 911 center recording captured Catuogno talking to 911 on his cell phone. In the background, one can hear the sounds of the attack coming over his house phone.
The transcriber recognized a male voice in the background. She was certain it was Welch.
Once the recording was cleaned up, several of Welch's friends and relatives agreed it was his voice.
Judy said the transcriber's recognition of the voice was invaluable.
"We had no idea it was there," he said. "We weren't even looking for it."
Detectives also began to suspect Welch was selling prescription drugs. They began an investigation that resulted in his arrest in January 2005. He was convicted in October and sentenced to 31/2 years in state prison.
This week, prosecutors took the evidence from the murder to a grand jury, which indicted Welch.
On Friday, detectives picked up Welch at a prison north of Gainesville and drove him to the Pinellas County Jail. Judy said Welch cried during the ride, but denied he was the killer.
Halpin's sons, now 11 and 9, live with their father, Don Halpin, from whom Niccole Halpin was divorced. Don Halpin said his sons, who suffer from nightmares, will be comforted that Welch has been charged.
"They want the person that did this to face consequences," he said.
[Last modified January 21, 2006, 01:33:17]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]