D.C. police yesterday charged a prison escapee believed by law enforcement officials to be involved in numerous silver and jewelry thefts throughout the Washington area with homicide in the shooting death Friday of Dr. Michael Halberstam.
Clearing up confusion created earlier in the day when they erroneously identified the suspect as a neighbor, police said late yesterday that Bernard C. Welch, 40, of Great Falls, Va., was the alleged burglar who shot Halberstam, a noted cardiologist and author.
The shooting occurred after Halberstam and his wife Elliott returned to their home on Battery Place in the Potomac Palisades section of Northwest Washington Friday night and discovered a man in the house. The man fired five shots, police said, two of which struck Halberstam in the chest.
The 48-year-old physician rushed to his car and drove himself toward Sibley Memorial Hospital nearby. On the way, when he saw the alleged burglar fleeing, Halberstam swerved his car and struck the man, police said. When Halberstam resumed the trip to the hospital, the car then hit a tree, and Halberstam slumped over in the front seat.
Halberstam's wife, who was also in the car, flagged a passing motorist who hurried to the hospital to get help. A security van from the hosptial came to pick up Halberstam, police said. He was alive when he arrived at the hospital, but he died on the operating table at 10:17 p.m.
Dr. Norman Odyniec, one of the surgeons who operated on Halberstam, said excessive bleeding brought on by the stress of driving his car to the hospital contributed to Halberstam's death.
"Mike was a man of strong will and great fortitude," Odyniec said. "Certainly, [he] would have been emotionally capable of such a thing, even if, physically, it was impossible."
Odyniec said Halberstam's ability to drive the car with two bullets, apparently from a .32 caliber handgun, in his chest could have stemmed from a surge of adrenaline similar to that felt by soldiers after they have been shot or by mothers who have been able to lift automobiles off children.
"Michael is a tough s.o.b.," Dr. Charles Walters Thompson, a medical associate of Halberstam, said yesterday, blinking back tears at his home in Cabin John, where Halberstam's wife was staying. "I just cannot believe this has happened."
Welch, who lived in a large brick suburban rambler at 411 Chesapeake Dr. in Great Falls, was arrested about midway between the hospital and the Halberstam home shortly after the shooting. He was treated for minor internal injuries at D.C. General Hospital and is now being held in D.C. Jail, pending arraignment on Monday.
Halberstam's death, apparently at the hands of a gun-wielding burglar, ironically follows a commentary he had given two weeks ago on Cable News Network.
"I'm not one of those doctors who's always warning his patients not to take chances . . . But I want to take my own chances, not someone else's. That's why I'm in favor of handgun control," he said Nov. 21.
"I don't wanna be the guy shot when I honk at the guy next to me and he reaches in his glove compartment and starts blasting away. I don't want my son shot when some punk holds up a filling station where he works, panics and starts shooting," Halberstam said.
The physician's brother, Pultizer Prize-wining author David Halberstam, said yesterday that his brother's feelings about the need for gun control were understandable.
"The question [of gun control] never came up -- it never had to come up -- in a family like ours," David Halberstam said. "Our father was a fisherman, we were both fishermen. Father fought in World War II, and we never had guns in the home.
"Anyone in a hospital as much as Michael was would know the full extent of Saturday night specials, the damage they can cause. It just wasn't something we had to discuss."
Yesterday outside Michael Halberstam's spacious three-story town house on Battery Place NW, a quiet cul de sac off MacArthur Boulevard, a steady stream of neighbors and friends passed by, shocked and dismayed that the upsurge in crime in Washington had struck their tranquil neighborhood.
It is a close-knit community, wary of strangers where earlier this year a single mugging and a single burglary led neighborhood leaders to summon 2nd District police to a community meeting to discuss what one resident referred to as a "crime wave."
"I feel awful," said Cecilia Aylor, who has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years. Her house is one block from Halberstam's. "You like to read about these things happening elsewhere, but what disturbs me is that this sort of thing is apparently coming to a neighborhood like this."
According to D.C. Deputy Police Chief Alphonso Gibson, head of the criminal investigations division, the shooting occurred around 8:45 p.m.
A truck driver who was returning home on MacArthur Boulevard shortly after the shooting said yesterday that when he was flagged down for help, the physician was already slumped over in the front seat.
"She said, 'he's been shot,'" the truck driver, who asked that his name not be used, said yesterday. "I looked in the car and he was hunched over the front seat. He was sitting directly in front of the steering wheel."
The truck driver said as he and a woman doctor stopped earlier by the wife tried to pull Halberstam from the car, they were joined by Halberstam's wife and another doctor from the hospital. "We pulled him out of the car and the doctor ripped off his tie and shirt and began checking for a pulse," the driver said. "He was still alive. He seemed like he was trying to talk to the doctor. His shirt was covered with blood."
Thompson, Halberstam's associate, said Halberstam's wife called him from the hospital. "I said, Jesus Christ, we'll be right down. After I hung up the phone, perhaps because I'm accustomed to emergencies, I called Vincent Iovine [professor emeritus of surgery at George Washington University Hospital] and told him to get a chest surgeon to Sibley Hospital."
Thompson and his wife headed for the hospital. "When we got there, there was a young doctor on hand who really deserves all the credit for acting quickly," Thompson said. "He is Dr. Jay Ocuin, a nephrologist who tried to save him. He saw Mrs. Halberstam all bloody and rushing down the hall, and said, 'My god, I know her.'
"He ran out of the emergency room and got a wagon and brought Mike in. When I got there, he had blood all over him. This fellow knew exactly what to do. I didn't do anything. I stood there and watched them open his chest."
"He was one of my students, my protege, my dear friend," said Thompson. "I'm 65, you know, and he was about 48. I felt like he was my son. We talked every day . . . . I want to tell you that I have never known a guy who was more brilliant."
"He was a wonderful man, so kind," Martha Lucas, Halberstam's housekeeper for more than eight years, said yesterday.
Lucas was vacuuming in the dining room of the home, which is furnished in an eclectic mixture antique and contemporary, numerous plants, paintings, art books, oriental rugs, musical instruments and family photographs. The couple's two dogs -- a large white poodle named Jake and a mutt named Irish -- slept underneath the dining room table and in an entrance way.
Lucas said Halberstam's wife had asked her to come over and "straighten up" the house.
Halberstam, a cardiologist here for 18 years, was the son of a doctor who had died of heart trouble.He was the author of three books and frequently contributed reviews and articles to newspapers and magazines. For a time, he wrote a syndicated medical column that appeared in more than 150 newspapers, according to Thompson.