The end of a nightmare
By CHRIS TISCH
Published May 19, 2007
The two young boys saw and heard their mother beaten to death. They hid in a bathtub until deputies arrived. They have suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and nightmares ever since.
No one wanted to see them testify at a trial.
So the man accused of killing their mother was allowed to take a deal Friday in which he will spend 25 years - and not his whole life - in prison.
Daniel P. Welch, 39, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder for the Jan. 8, 2004, killing of Niccole Halpin, 32.
Prosecutors said Welch, Halpin's ex-boyfriend, attacked her in her Safety Harbor home. The assault occurred in front of Halpin's young sons, who hid in a bathtub while their mother was beaten with a bat.
The boys, then 7 and 9, could not identify the attacker because he was wearing dark clothes and a ski mask. Detectives came to suspect that Welch was the killer because he had pestered her after their breakup, prompting her to consider a restraining order.
Halpin's family members said Friday that they would have preferred a life sentence for Welch, but none of them wanted the boys, now 10 and 12, to suffer the rigors of a trial. A psychologist had said it could damage them.
"I think Niccole would be very satisfied that her sons didn't have to testify, " said her ex-husband, Don Halpin, who is raising the boys. "I think she would be very happy."
Still, the atrociousness of the crime was not lost on Judge Linda Allan. She refused to grant Welch's request that he remain in the Pinellas County Jail for three weeks while his grandfather is in the hospital.
"I don't believe he's a person who demonstrates himself worthy of any empathy, " Allan said after hearing victim impact statements from Halpin's family.
"You beat her and beat her right in front of her kids, " Halpin's mother, Laurie Gomm, said to Welch in her statement. "How could you?"
Welch answered questions from Allan but otherwise made no statement. When asked by Allan whether he was guilty of the crime, he said yes.
But Welch's mother and his lawyer said after the hearing that Welch has maintained he is innocent.
Assistant public defender Dwight Wolfe said Welch pleaded guilty because he knew prosecutors had a strong case against him. Wolfe said Welch also didn't want the boys to have to testify.
"He has great affection for them, " Wolfe said.
Halpin's family members said they don't buy it. They think the strength of the case gave him no choice.
The case actually was unsolved for two years, though detectives had their eye on Welch from the beginning.
The key piece of evidence came from an unlikely place.
On the night of the attack, Halpin had been out to dinner with her new boyfriend, Chris Catuogno, and her sons, Drew and Max. When Halpin and her sons returned home, she realized someone else was in the house and called Catuogno.
He heard someone attack her during their conversation. Keeping that line open, he dialed 911 on his cell phone.
About a month after the murder, a Pinellas sheriff's assistant was transcribing the 911 call when she heard a male voice in the background that no one had noticed before.
"Niccole. Calm down, " her killer said.
Several people - including Welch's sister - listened to the recording and said it was Welch's voice.
Welch also could not account for where he was at the time of the murder. He also unintentionally revealed to the detectives that he knew details of the crime that were not made public.
Prosecutors and Halpin's family praised the Sheriff's Office, particularly Detective Ed Judy, the lead investigator.
"He really worked the case hard, " prosecutor Kendall Davidson said. "If he wouldn't have pursued it with the passion he did, it may never have been solved."
Welch is already serving prison time for an unrelated charge of dealing prescription drugs. His 25-year term will begin when that sentence ends in January 2009.