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William Virgil

Other Kentucky Cases
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On April 13, 1987, the body of 54-year-old Retha Welch was found in the bathtub of her apartment in Newport, Kentucky. Clad in a nightgown, she had been sexually assaulted, stabbed multiple times and hit in the head with a vase that shattered.

Among the suspects police developed was 35-year-old William Virgil who had previously had an “on again, off again” sexual relationship with Welch. At the time of her death, Welch was also seeing James Becker.

Welch was a staff nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital across the river in Cincinnati, Ohio and also had a prison ministry. Police determined that several items were missing from her apartment, including a recently purchased video cassette recorder, jewelry, credit cards and antique dinner plates. None of the stolen items were ever recovered. Welch’s burgundy-purple Cadillac also was gone.

Becker told police that he last saw Welch on April 9, 1987 when he and Welch watched movies on her new VCR. He said they had an argument when she said she intended to allow a black man named “Rick” to stay overnight in her apartment. Becker told police that earlier that day, he saw Welch talking to a black man in the hallway outside her apartment.

Police questioned Virgil, who at times went by the nickname of “Rick.” At first, Virgil did not acknowledge that he and Welch had a sexual relationship. He ultimately admitted that he had been to Welch’s apartment in the past and that they had a romantic relationship. Virgil had been in the hospital where Welch worked and was released on April 9, 1987—four days before her body was found.

Blood was found on Virgil’s sweatshirt and his shoes. On April 23, 1987, he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Virgil went to trial in Campbell County Circuit Court in October 1988. Becker testified to seeing a black man outside Welch’s apartment on April 9—the same day that Virgil was released from the hospital.

Becker told the jury that he saw television news reports of Virgil’s arrest and that he was subsequently shown a photographic lineup. He said he identified Virgil’s photograph as the man he saw in the hallway, although he was not 100 percent sure.

Becker admitted that he was angry enough to kill Welch for speaking to the man in the hallway and for allowing the man to stay overnight. He testified that he left several telephone messages for her over the next few days and when he saw in the newspaper that she had been found murdered, he went to police.

Newport police Sgt. Mark Brandt testified that Virgil gave conflicting accounts of his relationship with Welch, but finally admitted they had a sexual relationship. Brandt was questioned about the failure to investigate other possible suspects, including Isaac Grubbs, a white man who had been shot and killed by police on April 11, 1987—two days before Welch’s body was found. Police had said that Grubbs was trespassing when he attacked the officers with a knife. Police also had learned that on that same day, Grubbs had telephoned Welch and threatened to kill her.

Newport police officer Norm Wagner testified that he took over the case after Brandt retired. Wagner had audiotaped an interview with Virgil during which Virgil said the last time he was in Welch’s apartment was in February 1987. Wagner admitted that police had six other potential suspects, but none was investigated. He also told the jury that although Virgil had repeatedly asked to take a polygraph examination, no such exams were administered.

Wagner told the jury that a neighbor of Welch reported seeing a man driving Welch’s Cadillac on April 11. The Cadillac had been found abandoned near a courthouse in Covington, Kentucky, about a mile from Welch’s apartment. There were no fingerprints on the car and it appeared to have been wiped down. Wagner said a witness reported a man who fit Grubbs’ description was seen wiping the car with a rag.

Virgil’s ex-girlfriend, Sue Daniels, testified that in February 1987, Virgil asked her to help murder Welch but she declined. She also said that Virgil asked her to marry him so she would be unable to testify against him.

Daniels admitted that not long before her testimony, she had been in a car accident and seriously injured her skull. She also admitted she was a convicted felon with prior hospitalizations for mental health problems and suffered from memory loss due to extensive drinking. She denied she was “out to get” Virgil, but did concede she had once shot at him with a gun, but missed. In return for her testimony, she said the prosecution had intervened to prevent her probation from being revoked.

Joe Womack, a convicted felon, testified that he had shared a cell with Virgil for 24 hours in August 1987, prior to the trial. Womack told the jury that he and Virgil sat on the same bunk and smoked marijuana cigarettes that Womack had smuggled into the cell. Womack testified that Virgil admitted to committing the murder and revealed numerous details about the crime.

Kentucky State Police crime lab analyst John Wintek testified that Virgil’s fingerprint was found on a lamp in Welch’s home. Wintek said a fingerprint was found on a drinking glass that did not belong to Welch, Virgil or Becker. He said he had received only a palm print, but not fingerprints, of Grubb, so could not compare the print on the glass to Grubb’s prints. Wintek said he found a palm print in blood on an envelope in Welch’s apartment, but could not link it to anyone.

Barbara Wheeler, another crime lab analyst, testified she was able to narrow down a cigarette found in Welch’s toilet to two brands (Welch did not smoke), one of which was Kool.

Lucy Davis, a forensic serologist, testified that she conducted blood type tests on vaginal and rectal swabs, saliva, pubic hair combings and hair from Welch’s head. She said she found human blood on Virgil’s tennis shoe and sweatshirt, but the samples were too small to make any identification. Likewise, the semen found in the victim and on her nightgown was insufficient to test. Davis said hair similar to Welch and Becker was found in the apartment.

An autopsy showed that Welch had been stabbed more than 25 times and hit repeatedly over the head. Dr. Lee Lehmnan, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy, concluded that the knife that Grubb was holding when he was fatally shot by police was not the murder weapon. Grubbs’ knife was not tested for blood or hair.

The defense called Karen Walling, who operated a pay fishing lake with her husband in Southgate, Kentucky, about two miles from Newport. She testified that Grubbs was there on April 11, and she dialed a number for him on the office telephone. She said she heard him threatening a woman. She recalled that he had a hunting knife and that he purchased Kool cigarettes. After seeing a news report of Grubbs’ death, she looked up the number Grubbs dialed on April 11 and discovered it was Welch’s number.

A man who lived in the apartment below Welch’s testified he heard footsteps in her apartment on April 9 and on April 11. He said he saw a man wearing a hood driving Welch’s car on April 11, but could not tell if the person was white or black.

Karen Oglesby, a friend of Virgil’s, testified that Virgil came to her home on April 9 after he was released from the hospital and that he left on April 10, though she did see him on April 11 at a bar.

Two other witnesses testified that they had heard Womack—the jailhouse informant—claim that he would say whatever needed to be said to get paroled.

Virgil did not testify. On October 21, 1988, the jury convicted Virgil of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison.

Virgil’s appeals were denied—including a post-conviction petition showing that Womack and Virgil were never assigned to the same cell. The trial court said that evidence could have been used to impeach Womack’s testimony, but that such impeachment would not have changed the guilty verdict.

In 2010, the Kentucky Innocence Project filed a motion for DNA testing in Virgil’s case. In August 2011, the motion was denied. In May 2013, the Kentucky Court of Appeals overturned that decision and ordered that the testing be allowed.

The vaginal and rectal swabs had been consumed during testing years earlier, but microscope slides, prepared from the swabs, were found. The DNA tests found a mixture of at least three male partial DNA profiles—none of which matched Virgil. Blood was found on a knife at the scene, but tests could not link it to anyone. Blood found on Virgil’s tennis shoes and sweatshirt was tested and Welch was excluded. The tests, however, did identify Virgil’s semen on Welch’s clothing.

In December 2015, Campbell County Circuit Court Judge Fred Stine vacated Virgil’s conviction and ordered a new trial based on the DNA test results. Virgil was released from prison on bond on December 24, 2015, pending a retrial.

Attorney Elliott Slosar filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Virgil seeking damages from police involved in the case. In 2016, as Slosar prepared for the retrial, Womack recanted his testimony that Virgil admitted committing the murder. Womack told Virgil’s attorneys that the police threatened to charge him with Welch’s murder unless he implicated Virgil.

Womack said that the police promised to get him released on parole for his efforts and gave him money so he could be more “comfortable” while in custody. They also provided him with cheat sheets consisting of information from the police reports to study so he would testify without making mistakes.

None of the information was disclosed to the prosecution or Virgil’s defense lawyers at his trial.

On January 6, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charge.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/26/2017
State:Kentucky
County:Campbell
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1987
Convicted:1988
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:70 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:35
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*