Tragedy on the tracks: Mystery surrounds death of Kimberly Welch

Two weeks after 18-year-old Kimberly Welch was killed by a train on the tracks just east of Charlottesville city limits, details about the teen's tumultuous life on the streets are emerging as her friends and family grieve the loss of the young woman, an aspiring musician who dreamed of moving to California and whose family was trying to bring her home.

"She was very much loved," says Kimberly's father, Richard Welch, a construction worker who recalls his daughter's passion for music and their frequent father/daughter trips to King's Dominion or to Massanutten Resort for skiing before she graduated from Orange County High School in June.

"She was my buddy," he says. "We did so many things together."

Welch says Kimberly had rebelled in her middle teen years– she'd been caught both shoplifting and smoking pot, which led to school suspension and a brief stint in the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center– and he attributes some of his daughter's acting out to the stress of his divorce two years ago from Kimberly's mother, Veronica Embrey, with whom he shared custody.

"We were hoping she would choose a good career path," says Embrey, describing her ongoing efforts to get Kimberly on the right path, including seeking counseling for depression as well as meeting with her guidance counselor to discuss college plans.

A frequent church-goer, Embrey says Kimberly shared her deep Christian faith, and they would regularly attend Sunday services together.

"Kimberly loved God," Embrey says.

But the rebellion continued.

Concerned about his daughter's future, Welch encouraged Kimberly to follow in her older brother's footsteps and enlist in the military. While she successfully completed the necessary paperwork to enter the Navy and had passed the entry test, her father says, she didn't meet the requirement that she lose 10 pounds– and instead gained 20. So instead of heading off to boot camp as her parents had hoped, in late summer she suddenly– and against her parents wishes– moved to Charlottesville without a job or a place to live, lured, both parents agree, by a desire to fit in with "the wrong crowd."

Life on the streets may have been harder than the young woman expected, says her father. He and Embrey succeeded several times in convincing their daughter to move back home, but she'd stay only for a short time. Invariably, he says, she'd say she was going out for the evening and then would– without warning– return to the streets.

"She'd be gone for two weeks and we'd have no way of reaching her," he says.

In between her visits home, she would call her father frequently and, he says, from constantly changing phone numbers, which made it impossible for him to reliably call her. During her calls to him, he says, she'd describe people around her who were not treating her well.

"I believe she was the victim of bullying," says Welch, who, along with Embrey, is increasingly desperate to understand exactly how his daughter died and what occurred in the hours beforehand.

While police continue to investigate, witness accounts suggest Kimberly was distraught and perhaps incapacitated in some way soon before her death.

As previously reported in the Hook, a Woolen Mills area resident reported hearing angry and incoherent shouting about God and fire near her yard at around 8pm on Monday night, February 11. Soon after, a woman knocked on her door.

"She said her name was Kimberly," said that resident, Emily Bolden. "She said she'd been attacked." Bolden offered to call police, but the woman at the door asked her not to, then left the property.

Less than an hour later, Kimberly Welch was dead.

An autopsy report is still pending and police will not comment on the investigation, but if Kimberly had been the victim of some sort of violence that night, it would not be the first time.

In December, her father says, his daughter called him to pick her up from UVA hospital. She told him she'd been beaten by a group of four people in a park. Her injuries were not serious– "she was just bruised," he recalls– but charges were filed against at least one person relating to the alleged December 6 incident, a man friends say Kimberly had dated.

That man, Joshua Joseph Neil, was due in court on the assault charge on January 28 and failed to appear. He again failed to appear on February 8 and a warrant has been issued for his arrest. According to court records, Neil– who goes by the nickname "Dice," according to Kimberly's friend Mike Pesca– already has one assault conviction on his record stemming from a June 2012  attack. The Hook was unable to locate contact information for Neil.

Richard Welch fears his daughter's erratic behavior the night of her death was a direct result of another attack by someone who may have wished his daughter harm, and he doesn't question Bolden's account that she didn't want police called.

"I think she wanted to call me," he says. "That's what she always did when she was in trouble."

Friends who spent time with Kimberly in the days and weeks leading up to her death, however, say her behavior had become increasingly erratic long before that night and included frequent talk of suicide.

"She was going through a lot of hard times, lashing out toward a lot of people," says Chad "C.J." Church, one of two men with whom Kimberly had been staying the two nights before she died.

Church's tent was pitched in the woods along the tracks and near the Rivanna river, and he says he had told Kimberly she could not stay with him and friend Brandon Zipperle again that Monday night.

"She was talking about suicide," says Church, who was worried she would harm herself and says he'd told Kimberly she should go home to her parents.

The morning of her death, says Church's tentmate, 18-year-old Zipperle, Welch's state of mind seemed especially precarious.

"She went down to the water, took off her clothes, and refused to come out," says Zipperle, who heard her yelling the same sort of statements that frightened Emily Bolden later that evening. "Randomly, she'd yell out, 'I hate God,'" he recalls.

Zipperle says he eventually coaxed her out of the cold water, then they walked to town and, with Kimberly seeming calmer, went their separate ways. "I told her to be safe," he says, noting that he worried that Kimberly's behavior could have been a result of her failing to eat enough.

According to Zipperle and Church, Kimberly had lost weight precipitously– as much as 60 pounds– in the two months before her death, something Zipperle says he realized when he accompanied her to a doctor's appointment to have an ankle injury she'd sustained checked.

"They were astonished at how much weight she had lost," he says. "They told me to get her to eat."

Kimberly's mother, however, denies the weight loss was that significant and says she'd recently purchased clothes for her daughter and would have noticed if she'd dropped multiple sizes.

"I would never have let her go hungry," says Embrey.

Although it's not clear whether she availed herself of it, food was available to Kimberly that Monday, and according to friend and former boyfriend Pesca, she was at the Salvation Army Soup kitchen on Ridge Street at around 6:30pm, where he says he witnessed an argument between Kimberly, Zipperle, and Church over the men's decision to kick her out of the tent. (Both Church and Zipperle deny seeing Kimberly at the Salvation Army that night.)

After that alleged argument, Pesca says, he next saw Kimberly at On Our Own, a nonprofit on Fourth Street that offers support and assistance to the homeless.

Her behavior at that time– approximately 6:45pm– was "normal," he says, recalling that she asked him if she could accompany him to a party he'd told her he was attending. "I said no, you don't know anybody," he says. "She said, 'Okay, I'll go up to the campsite.'"

Pesca says Bolden's description of Kimberly's bizarre behavior so soon after he'd seen her surprises him, and he wonders if she was under the influence of a drug. While Pesca says Kimberly was not a frequent user of drugs other than marijuana, he had seen her use an amphetamine known as "Crystal MDA" at least once, and notes that there's speculation among their peers that her erratic behavior that night could have been caused by Triple C– an over-the-counter cough medicine containing dextromethorphan, a substance that, when taken in high doses, causes hallucinations and dissociation.

Church, Pesca and, Zipperle all say they'd heard Kimberly threaten suicide, but didn't believe she'd ever act on it.

"You could tell she wasn't serious, she was doing it for attention," says Zipperle. "Someone would have had to give her something. She never wanted to go through with suicide."

That's a sentiment shared by Roshell Hill, who befriended Kimberly in late summer when they had both recently arrived to town and ended up sharing a six-person tent in Quarry Park with four other people in the fall before Hill left town in November.

"She's not like that to be screaming and yelling and going to people's houses," says Hill, who stayed in touch with Kimberly through phone and online. When Welch would get depressed, says Hill, she expressed her feelings on Facebook.

"I can't see her jumping in front of a train," she says, noting also that the stretch of tracks on which Kimberly was struck was far beyond areas they typically frequented– and required crossing a treacherous trestle over Moore's Creek, something Hill believes her friend wouldn't have wanted to do.

And yet, somehow, Kimberly was there, unable or unwilling to avoid the westbound freight train bearing down on her. Was it a terrible accident, a suicide, or something more sinister?

****
As the investigation continues, Welch's friends and family are remembering brighter times with Kimberly, even as they struggle to make sense of the mysterious and tragic circumstances of her death.

"She was creative and had a quirky sense of humor," says Pesca. He and Kimberly decided to end their romantic relationship in favor of preserving the close friendship they shared. "I didn't want to lose that," says Pesca, who describes her as someone who'd listen to others and give good advice.

"She was very supportive and uplifting," says Pesca.

Embrey recalls her daughter's "big sense of compassion" and her love of nature.

"We used to go to parks together, and she would collect different things in nature," she says, recalling her daughter's gifts of interesting rocks she'd collect.

Overwhelmed with grief, Embrey struggles with the fact that even the counseling and medical attention she'd sought for her daughter couldn't convince her to come home and change her life path.

"She was so well loved," says Embrey, who hopes that other families may benefit from hearing Kimberly's story.

"I don't want any parent to ever have to go through this again," she says.

Kimberly's father, Welch, says he'd been preparing to buy another season's pass to King's Dominion and was hoping this was the year that his daughter would turn her life around.

"I'm going to miss her dearly," he says. "I was hoping to walk her down the aisle one day to a nice young man. My hopes and dreams are lost."






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21 comments

Sad. Sounds like onset of mental illness, drugs, or maybe a bit of both.

Also sounds like her erratic and destructive behavior was enabled by the homeless/parasitic lifestyle that our dear city enables in so many ways. Damn shame.

To me it sounds like she could have been helped by the woman whose door she knocked on saying she had been attacked, The same woman who heard her screaming about fire being the only way to go. Still can't get over the fact that this girl knocked on someone's door and said they had been attacked. Look at her face and how young she is how could someone not CALL THE POLICE is way beyond me. Yea the girl requested that the police not be called but that advice is lost on anyone with a rational mind state. You show up at my yard screaming about god and how fire is the only way to go. Then knock on my door saying you have been attacked. Sheet can I getta whoop whoop? This young woman would be alive today if the police had been called by the woman who made the choice to do nothing. Ya know people forget that the cops are here to help not just lock up the bad guys. Protect and serve and such...

No, it doesn't make sense to blame the Woolen Mills resident who was minding her own business at home. In the same situation, you might have thought to call the police, but you might have assumed it was a prank or just kids being stupid. It sounds like this girl was mentally ill; it's too bad she wasn't able to receive help in time, but mental illness can be incredibly challenging to treat--and for loved ones to deal with--so pointing fingers at any one person (especially a complete stranger) doesn't move any closer toward solving the systemic problem our country has with addressing mental health.

No blame just facts here. She was minding her own business then someone came onto her property screaming about fire and god. Then the girl knocked on her door and said she had been attacked. She made a choice to do nothing after a young girl knocked on her door and said she had been attacked. Now that girl is dead. Yes it is too bad she did not receive help in time. Everyone was too busy minding their own business. Not pointing fingers or blaming anyone here just stating the facts. You can't help if you do nothing, calling the police would have helped her and she would still be alive today.

Ambivalent on this. The Woolen Mills babe who failed to call the cops...not sure what her mindset was. I mean, you are passive enough to ignore a young lady screaming for help at your back door, but active enough to blab to the press about it after the fact. I wouldn't demonize her; hopefully she has a conscience and is working through her problems. Curious indeed.

Homeless...this is what you reap when you're a little city that totally caters to the down-and-out with no intention of getting to the root cause of homelessness and curing the ill. If my five-year-old keeps asking for cupcakes and all I do is feed him those but never work to discourage his excessive consumption of sweets, he will get sick, fat and have rotten teeth. But, alas, this is the Lib way...our "Great Society" at work.

Divorce...don't minimize its effect on kids. For some reason we have gotten to the point in our society where parents get divorced, cry a bit, go to therapy, watch reruns of Friends, and think all is well with the world. Divorce messes up kids, it is unnatural. I always look at these couples and think: "Okay, the girl was 16 years old and you two decided to get divorced. You couldn't tough it out for five more years until she is 21"? I am not naive...there could be some really ugly circumstances in the marriage. However, the fact remains: divorce f's up the children. Didn't the kid who murdered his family in Stony Point write some nasty things about his father, who had recently divorced from the mother?

I hope The Hook bird dogs Albie's finest on this story, to ascertain if Kimberly had been assaulted. It is a tragedy for all involved: the girl, the family, the train engineer, the Woolen Mills resident, and the local stance on the homeless.

R.I.P.: Salvatore Testa

Liberalace, good point on divorce. People will wave that off, just so they feel better.
This is very sad and I pray for Kimberly and everyone touched by this
Always on these comment boards the blame game starts. I know the phrase "sh*t happens" is not satisfactory, but it's often a better approach than seeking to blame someone, especially in the moment before the incident. If you really want to dissect this, there were 18 years in Kimberly's life during which some action or person could have saved her. But she chose to get into the path of an oncoming train, or take the drugs that clouded her judgement, or move out of home...credit where credit is due. If someone attacked her I hope they get caught and punished because that certainly contributed.
I don't know what I would have done if that was my daughter. Probably nothing one could do. I feel for the parents.

You can't untangle the problem of homelessness from the problem of mental illness. People with schizophrenia and psychosis often take to the streets and refuse to stay in shelters because of paranoia. Whether they should be institutionalized is another argument--and anyway, our government doesn't exactly relish spending money on social services like mental hospitals. (If you remember your history, you'll remember that in the 80s, many mental hospitals were closed in favor of less expensive "community" homes, which never got the funding or oversight they needed to work properly.) I don't get the sense that this girl was begging on the street or doing much more than getting a meal from the Salvation Army. Maybe if she'd gone to places like The Haven more, someone could have identified that she needed help and gotten it for her.

And if you think homelessness is bad here, try visiting Miami or someplace warm.

Should-a... Could-a.... Would-a...

This is just so sad. Every single day I am conscious of the fact that this could have been me, or anyone really. What distinguishes me from the folks I see every day on the bus, cold and struggling? How are any of us different? We made some (but not all) different choices and were lucky. I've done a lot of stupid stuff that could have ended me up in Kimberly's position but I escaped it. Some people don't. It's just really really f-ing sad.

@Really. This young lady had plenty of opportunities to make good choices and move forward. Yet for whatever reasons she did not. Too lay the blame on someone not calling the police to "save her," does nothing. Getting involved with these transients and their behavior may be something she chose to avoid, and with good reason...

@jimi...I use the age old test that if she was my daughter, would I want someone to call the police if she said she'd been attacked and was acting irrationally (which is behavior that can also be attributed to a head injury)? What would the Woolen Mills resident want someone to call if it were her daughter?

R.I.P.: Tony Conigliaro

Actually, that is the test I applied to the person in the house. Would I want my daughter to get involved with an indigent, troubled often mentally ill population with little regard for behavioral norms/rules or consequences.

Or would you want your daughter to pick up the phone and place a call to help her fellow man and save a womans life. Get involved with the mentally ill population? How about just pick up the phone and tell them you have a young woman on your property screaming and then she knocked on the door and said she was the victim of an attack. You buncha cowards all she had to do was pick up the phone. Too scared to even call the cops when she has someone trespassing on her property. Too scared to do the right thing and call the cops when someone says she has been attacked. Karma is a beeyotch. Remember that as you all cower in your own homes. Remember that next time you are having an off day and may need the help of someone you don't know. Would you want your daughter to turn a deaf ear to the woman knocking on her door saying she was attacked?

@really...While I may not be, say, as vociferous as you in my position, I do agree. This is where the rubber meets the road regarding the compassion of this area. While city pols trumpet the plight of the homeless and throw money at the problem, the real citizenry may not be any better than the callous, stereotypically-indifferent big city dwellers who walk the other way when someone is being mugged or, worse, raped.

This could be the only time in the resident's life that she is in a position to directly offer aid to someone in true peril. It does not happen every day, you know. And she chose to just sit it out.

@jimi hendrix...How did the woman know that the 18-year-old girl in hysterics at her back door was an indigent, troubled, mentally ill person who had little regards for rules or consequences? Was the resident Carnac? I live in the country. If someone did that at my door, my first thought (having grown up in the city) would be: "Is this a set up? I open my door and in come the two guys with guns to rob me?" So I close the door, lock it, get a good description of the hysterical girl, and immediately call 911.

Still wondering why the resident felt it necessary to spill her guts to The Hook but did not want to spend one minute on the phone with 911.

R.I.P.: Freddie deCordova

Let me get this straight. She did not take action when she had a 18 yo girl at her door saying she had been attacked. She did not call the police. However after the girl is found dead she involves herself by giving her name and story to the press. Well Done. So the truth is she did make a choice to get involved. She just also made the choice not to help a woman in need.

I am thinking about the fact that the Woolen Mills resident had no way of knowing this girl's age, or anything else about her for sure. We know now that she died at age 18, but she could easily have been 17, or any other age, and really only met the technical chronological definition of "adult" by a short period of time. Would people feel differently had she turned out to be a minor?

I also echo the thought that no one expected the Woolen Mills resident to get personally involved in homelessless, treating an accident, etc. -- all the resident needed to do was to call the authorities and allow *them* to handle the situation, which is their job. We can all understand not wanting to get involved directly, and we don't know all the inside information, but it's so hard to understand how anyone could *not* let the authorities know about this situation. Especially when all it needed was a phone call, nothing more.

All of us, including that resident, can only hope we never find ourselves at the mercy of someone who turns away when such a simple action could save a life or make a profound difference. Perhaps the best result of this will be that in the future, even one person will make that effort and not judge or turn away.

Suggested reading about homeless young people: "From Homelessness to Hope."

It;s freakin sad. The saddest part is I see girls like her downtown everyday. Some just passin thru others stay awhile. Hindsight is 20/20. But I betcha if Ms. Bolden could do it over again she would call the policia. Had this happened on my property it would have been dealt with face to face but I'm a dude with guns so I understand other may not handle it the same.

Yeah,,,the girl was calmly knocking on the door asking for some help. Then walked into a train.Umm... no. She was a hot mess of yelling and pounding. Remember that lady killed a few years ago when she answered her door? Not saying what the homeowner did was right or wrong, but in the face of the screaming suicidal homeless..? I would address it, gun in hand, but understand if a single female was less willing.

And really, this young lady had many opportunities to change things for the better. Parents, military etc and she just kept going back for more. And yet so many here are dumping on someone else. Such traditional liberal guilt. Does anyone know what the person who did not call might have already experienced in the area with the homeless? Funny how you all attack like mad saying what you would have done, NOT having been there, so you can feel smug, superior and blameless.

Smug superior and blameless. Nah I just would have picked up the phone for two reasons. The main reason being that their is a young girl saying she was attacked. Funny how you all defend the non action of someone who could have made a difference who could have saved a life just by picking up the phone. SHE DID NOT HAVE TO PUT HERSELF AT RISK JUST PICK UP THE PHONE!!! I'm sure you all could have stood by and done nothing hey just minding my own business and when she is dead an hour later you prally sleep like a baby. Well I was just minding my own business. Dumping on someone else? Ohh you mean the coward who did nothing when she had a woman outside her door saying she had been attacked and did absolutely jack. Inexcusable totally utterly inhumane are we a third world country? Is this China? Help your fellow man and woman people! All she had to do was pick up the phone for her safety and the safety of the girl knocking and saying she was attacked. No excuse for not picking up the phone and placing a call in that situation anyone who says otherwise is a coward. Right the girl was upset so if she feared for her own safety call the police. This girl says she was attacked call the police. All signs point to call the cops. If the girl had bad experiences in the past with area homeless well that points to call the police too. No excuse for not calling the cops. Don't be a coward help your fellow man who knows you could save a life.

For the person who made that harsh comment about divorce maybe you should try to walk a mile in the mother's shoes and see what she had been through in the marraige and how she tried to save the marraige numerous times for the kids sakes and the kids sakes alone!! After you have been mistreated so many times there is only so much you can take!! YOU HAVE NO IDEA OF WHAT YOU SPEAK!! Her love for the kids is what made her hold on. Next to God those kids where her life!!! She is heartbroken right now!! That is awful that you added to her pain tonight!

The woman should ABSOLUTELY have called the police but it's ludicrous to surmise doing so would have saved Kim's life. The cops darn sure weren't going to drop everything and run out to the edge of town at 2 in the morning on a winter night to thrash through thick brush on unfavorable terrain in the pitch dark looking for one of a couple of hundred similar poor souls "actin' a foo'" on a given night in C'ville. Might as well be calling in about a bear tearing up a bird feeder. That said, track video captured Kim solo in the immediate time frame before being struck. She was a very smart and sweet young woman; did some domestic work for me last summer. A tragic waste of a life that could have eventually matured and thrived. No person or society is to blame. If you have 6.5 billion of anything, a lot of them aren't going to function well at any given point in time.