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Ventura County

Ventura Man Receives 55 Years to Life for Strangling Woman

Courts: Tommy Welch blames his childhood, but judge expands term under three-strikes law.

January 05, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A mentally disturbed Ventura man who strangled his girlfriend after she tried to leave him was sentenced Friday to 55 years to life in prison.

Speaking in a soft voice, Tommy Welch, 47, apologized for his crime. Then he blamed his actions on mental illness, an abusive father and an adolescence spent as a ward of the state.

Welch asked the family of Marsha Rockvam, 45, to try to understand. He strangled Rockvam in a hotel room in August 1997 after she ended their five-month relationship.

"I am just truly sorry," Welch said. "I know I'm not right in the head. That's no excuse for what I did, I guess."

Ventura County Superior Court Judge James P. Cloninger told Welch that a troubled childhood explains how he developed into the man he is today: a two-time felon with a history of mental illness.

"But that doesn't excuse an adult man from what he does," the judge said.

Welch was convicted of second-degree murder in November 2001. Although the charge is normally punishable by 15 years to life, Cloninger tripled the sentence under the state's three-strikes law and added 10 years under a separate statute.

Welch was convicted in 1978 of kidnapping a man at gunpoint and in 1992 of burglary.

During the sentencing hearing, Rockvam's parents and three adult children described the anguish they have suffered for the past four years, first coming to grips with her slaying and then enduring years of court delays.

After admitting to Rockvam's slaying during a police interview, Welch was twice sent to a state mental institution because doctors determined he was not competent to stand trial.

The case came before a jury last year after doctors concluded that Welch could understand the charges against him.

At one point during the trial, Welch screamed at his lawyers and refused to go to court, prompting the judge to call a weeklong recess so a separate jury could rule on Welch's competency. That jury determined that Welch was competent and the murder trial resumed.

For Rockvam's family, the latest blow came when Welch took the stand in his own defense and told jurors that he accidentally killed Rockvam while they were engaged in erotic asphyxiation--being choked during sex.

In a Dec. 13 letter to the judge, Welch admitted that the sex story was a fabrication.

Defense attorney James Farley apologized to Rockvam's family, adding that he first learned the sex story was untrue when he read Welch's letter.

Colleen Krueger, Rockvam's mother, told the judge that Welch's false testimony disgusted and hurt her family.

"I can only ask your honor to please, please sentence him to prison for the maximum time allowed," Krueger said.

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