Bernard Charles Welch, 40-year-old alleged superthief, escaped convict and accused killer of Dr. Michael Halberstram, sold more than $45,000 worth of allegedly stolen coins, antiques, silver and jewelry during the last three years to consignment shops in Duluth, Minn., and Minneapolis, two store owners said yesterday.
In addition, police also disclosed they have discovered a small furnace in the basement of Welch's Great Falls, Va., home where a Montgomery County police detective said the suspected burglar melted down valuable gold and silver items, which were cast into ingots and then sold to medal dealers in Minnesota and California.
As the story of Welch, a smooth-talking former plumber whose latest alias was "Norman Hamilton," continued to unfold yesterday, his saga took on the elements of a crime novel: how he operated between Washington and Duluth, passing himself off as a stockbroker and real estate manager; how he managed to elude scores of police who became obsessed with catching him; how he fooled his friends, his neighbors, even his common-law wife; how he became preoccupied with the fear of being burglarized and installed expensive security systems in his elaborate Duluth and Great Falls homes.
And finally, how he was caught, telling investigators who fingerprinted him for identification in a hospital last Saturday, "You're going to be surprised."
"He was very good at it," one Minneapolis antiques dealer said. "He sure as hell fooled me."
Yesterday a disheveled Welch appeared in D.C. Superior Court and was arraigned on a charge of murder and ordered held without bond in the Friday night killing of Halberstam, a nationally known cardiologist and author.
Welch limped into court wearing a rumpled white hospital gown and stood throughout the 15-minute hearing.
Judge Robert A. Shuker said a formal hearing will be held tomorrow on the government's request that Welch be held without bond pending his trial, which must take place in 60 days if he is not released.
Court records show that Welch, a divorcee with 5 children -- two from a former wife and three from his common-law wife Linda Susan Hamilton -- refused to disclose his source of income, saying he had been unemployed for the last 10 years. Linda Susan Hamilton, records show, described Welch as a "self-employed investor."
During the winter months, Welch lived at the Great Falls address; in the summer he traveled with Hamilton and their three children to their home in Duluth.
There, coin and antique dealers said, Welch used the name "Norman Hamilton" to sell them property that Washington-area police now say they believe was stolen here.
"He said he was an estate buyer," Duluth coin dealer Stan Sunde said in a telephone interview.
At first, Sunde said, Linda Susan Hamilton came into his shop to sell coins, mostly silver dollars. That was three or four years ago, he said. The Hamiltons only appeared at this shop during the summer months.
"He was a big customer. I'd say he sold more than $50,000 worth of coins each summer," he said. Sunde also went fishing with "Norm Hamilton" a few times, visited the Hamiltons at their $108,000 Duluth home with the indoor swimming pool and grew to like the young couple.
"We never caught much when we went fishing on Lake Superior. He [Welch] always got seasick," Sunde said.
An antique dealer in Minneapolis, who asked not to be identified, said "Norm Hamilton" first came into his shop several summers ago, selling jewelry, silver, gold and antiques.
"The major pieces he [melted down]," said the dealer, recalling that "Norm Hamilton had said he worked with a refinery somewhere.
"We're just now trying to go through the books and figure out what pieces we did buy from him. We're really shocked by this. He was educated, well-spoken and reserved. But he always had money on his mind. He liked money, no doubt about that. And he was as smooth as silk."
The dealer estimated that Welch sold more than $300,000 worth of goods to the dealer's gallery.
The antique dealer said he visited Welch at his Great Falls home and "they took us to Mount Vernon and out to a fancy restaurant. The house was furnished more modern than antiques. He didn't have any junk in it."
Stewart Seiler, a Duluth jewelry store owner who lived next to Welch and occasionally socialized with the couple, said the man he knew as Norman Hamilton "was the kookiest guy I ever knew."
Seiler said Welch never went to work, puttered in his back yard most of the time and "had a burglar alarm system second to none. It went off all the time and irritated the neighbors."
Seiler's wife Robin said Welch "bragged a lot about his money. He had no faith in the Duluth economy and he considered it a second-rate city and said when his children grew up, he would leave Duluth permanently."
Welch and Linda Susan Hamilton purchased the Duluth house in 1978, paying mostly in cash. The large, split-level ranch style home is located in one of the area's more expensive suburban neighborhoods.
As of late yesterday, Duluth police had not searched the home. Two D.C. police officers were enroute to the Minnesota city last night to continue their investigation.
On Saturday, Fairfax poice seized 51 cardboard cartons stuffed with antiques, jewelry and silver from the basement of Welch's Great Falls home. One police source estimated the value of the items at $2 million.
This weekend, after Fairfax police have tagged the allegedly stolen property, burglary victims will be invited to examine the objects to see if any of them might be their property. As of late yesterday, police said they had linked one item to a recent burglary in McLean and issued a burglary warrant for Welch.
That Welch was even arrested Friday night was a fluke. Law enforcement authorities from 10 jurisdictions had assembled a task force of 20 to 30 detectives who met once a week over the last three years to compare notes on burglaries in which similar items were stolen. But only because the critically wounded Halberstam struck his alleged assailant with his car enroute to the hospital where he died were police able to arrest a suspect who had haunted them for five years.
"If the doctor hadn't hit him he would have gotten away, and we wouldn't have caught him for several years," said Montgomery County Detective James King. He was one of the principal investigators in a concerted area-wide five-year search for a man that police dubbed the Standard Time Burglar, or Standard Time Rapist because the burglaries, four of which involved rapes, were committed only in the winter months between 6 and 10 p.m. "At our meetings we thought if he were ever caught it would be a fluke, a stroke of luck, and we feared there would be a shoot-out."
The rangy, 37-year-old King has worked on the case full time during the winter months for the last three years, in part because of his expertise in antiques, silver and artwork, the principal items stolen in as many as 500 burglaries in Montgomery County alone in the last five years.
Using as many as 10 aliases, Welch kept his double life secret from Linda Hamilton, King said, telling her that all their possessions and assets had to be put in her name to keep his former wife in Minnesota from claiming them. t
Chasing him, King said, was like "chasing a ghost."