Suspect lived in silent spotlight
By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2001
GULFPORT -- In the days after the fatal carjacking outside McDonald's, Christopher Wehland ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant with his family.
He trimmed a friend's tree branches.
He helped hang some drywall.
All the while, investigators were circling, questioning Wehland's brother, ex-girlfriend and neighbors and connecting pieces of crime scenes to him.
On Thursday, Pinellas sheriff's deputies on surveillance watched Wehland swim at a friend's house in St. Petersburg, then arrested and charged the shirtless 21-year-old with the first-degree murder of McDonald's customer Deborah Fleischner.
Wehland's mother spoke out in disbelief Friday. The composite picture, put together from witness descriptions, looks nothing like her son, she said. It shows an earring; her son's ear is not pierced, she said.
"I believe in my son, and he said he didn't do it, and I believe that," said Diana Wehland, 46, who lives in St. Petersburg. "He's not a gun person. He's been against guns. I believe in my son until he tells me otherwise."
Wehland, a former St. Petersburg High School football player who moved out of his parents' home and dropped out of school, has not answered detectives' questions.
"I want a lawyer," he told officers after his arrest in St. Petersburg.
Prosecutors and detectives said Friday their case is solid.
They have a partial print of Wehland's left index finger taken from the car of Fleischner, 50, shot to death in a scuffle outside McDonald's. They can place Wehland at or near vehicles abandoned in Clearwater and St. Petersburg after two carjackings. And they have eyewitnesses who picked Wehland out of a group of photographs.
"You can't beat the fingerprint," said Gulfport detective Austin V. Farrell.
Investigators have not recovered the gun used in the May 10 shooting of Fleischner, of South Pasadena. Charges also are pending against Wehland in a May 7 carjacking in Pinellas Park and an armed robbery in St. Petersburg the same day.
But while authorities think they have their man, friends and relatives are at a loss to explain how and why the restaurant worker would be involved in a killing.
"He won't even go hunting," said his brother, Michael Wehland, 17, a deli clerk at Publix.
Kevin "Steaks" Wormuth, 22, has known Wehland since he was 16. Wehland is the kind of guy who does not talk back, he said.
"I've never seen him stand up to his dad," said Wormuth, who was with Wehland when he was arrested.
Wehland's criminal record does not include any indications of violence, though his mother said he has a temper.
He has been arrested on charges of possession of marijuana, driving under the influence and violating probation. He has a tattoo of a pot leaf on his right arm.
"My boys have been raised to speak up for what you believe in, and that violence doesn't get you anywhere," Mrs. Wehland said.
Recently, Wehland was having financial problems. His ex-girlfriend left him with $1,200 in bills, friends said. His driver's license was suspended, forcing him to ride a bus or bicycle. And he was recently fired from a temporary service because supervisors learned of his marijuana arrest from 1998.
Investigators wonder whether Wehland snapped.
Facing eviction from Bellaire Gardens Apartments in Clearwater, he moved in with his brother at Villa Roble Apartments in Gulfport, seven blocks from McDonald's, the day before the fatal carjacking.
Based on witness statements, a man resembling Wehland approached Fleischner in the parking lot of McDonald's at 5111 Gulfport Blvd. She was sitting behind the wheel of her car.
The man told her he would shoot her if she did not give him the silver Hyundai Accent. From the driver's seat, she fought him. He fired two shots inside the car, missing her. They struggled over a blue gym bag.
The man grabbed her ankles and pulled her out of the car, then he climbed behind the steering wheel. But Fleischner went at him again. He fired again, this time hitting her in the chest.
He sped off and abandoned her Hyundai in Clearwater. The car was found about 300 feet from Wehland's old apartment.
During the next two weeks, Gulfport police say they questioned Wehland's brother and friends without leading on that they suspected Wehland in the carjacking.
Then Thursday morning, investigators got the match of a fingerprint they needed to make an arrest.
"Boom!" said Gulfport police Sgt. Craig Warner. "It just blows the case wide open."
- Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.
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