West Virginia Town Reels as Respected Man Is Accused of Bank Robbery : Crime: Noted businessman apparently despaired over his debts. Arrested while fleeing one robbery, he confessed to an earlier one.

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In the summer of 1993, in the 46th year of his seemingly charmed life, Michael Welshans added a new title to his list of accomplishments.

For more than two decades, Welshans was the paragon of small-town success--a noted businessman, a certified public accountant, a bank examiner, the president of the Downtown Merchants Assn., United Way and Rotary Clubs, a Chamber of Commerce member, a confidant to mayors and city councilmen, a Little League coach, and Santa Claus to the town's children.

Now comes this--accused bank robber.

The afternoon of Aug. 16, a 6-foot-1 man wearing a suit and tie, white golf hat and sunglasses used a BB gun to rob the Bank of Baltimore in Damascus, Md., about an hour's drive from Martinsburg. He took a teller hostage, but released her unharmed a short distance away. Then he fled in his blue BMW with $14,482, but ran the car into a ditch after a brief chase.

As police questioned the man, they said, he confessed to an earlier robbery July 20 at the Bank of Baltimore in Gaithersburg, Md., in which he made off with $46,957.

They identified the man as Michael Welshans.

The next day, recalled Tony Senecal, a businessman and the former mayor of Martinsburg, "I went to the box and got the paper. There was Mike's picture, and I read the headline. My stomach did a roll. I just physically felt queasy."

It's not that people didn't know Welshans already was in some trouble.

In May, he had received a six-month prison sentence for state tax violations. Mounting financial problems had plunged him into debts totaling more than $100,000 in back taxes, loans and fees for city services, according to authorities, those close to him and court records.

Still, nobody can understand why he might do such a thing, especially since he had filed an appeal seeking probation in lieu of the prison time, which the magistrate who sentenced him, a friend, was confident would be approved.

But instead of condemnation and ridicule in this community of 15,000, there has been sympathy and understanding.

"I was stunned," said Berkeley County Magistrate Joan Bragg, who has known Welshans for 20 years and sentenced him for the tax violations. "But that still doesn't change my feelings about Mike. I like Mike."

"He's a Christian man, his wife and him, his son," said Chuck Eisenhower, a customer at the Spring House restaurant on the city's main street who once lived in a property Welshans owned.

"You go uptown here and say, 'Mr. Welshans, will you give us a donation for this function?' He was Johnny-on-the-spot," Eisenhower said. "These homeless guys, they go up to him and say, 'Hey Mike, got a buck or two?' He'd reach into his pocket and give them money."

"It's a shame he got caught," said Nancy McGirt, a waitress at the Blue White restaurant. "Desperation brings people to do stuff like that. Being a single parent, if I were to get sick, I wouldn't know what to do. I can understand how somebody could get so caught up in bills and just feel desperate and take a chance. I would do it if I had the nerve."

Even the detective who interviewed Welshans and filed the charges against him feels sympathetic.

"He's not what you'd call your run-of-the-mill robber," said David Hutchison of the Montgomery County Police in Rockville, Md.

Hutchison said Welshans used a BB gun because he didn't want to harm anyone. "If push came to shove," the detective said, "he knew he couldn't hurt anybody."

A federal grand jury in Baltimore has indicted Welshans on two counts of bank robbery and two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison on each count.

He pleaded not guilty to the charges at his arraignment in Baltimore earlier this month, and was ordered held without bail until his Nov. 1 trial.

Welshans refused to talk to a reporter who visited him in his jail cell four days after his arrest.

His attorney, too, had little to say. "I'm just as floored as everyone else," said Richard L. Douglas.

Welshans had pleaded no contest to four counts of failing to pay state sales taxes and state incomes taxes he withheld from employees of two of his businesses--Welshans & Co. Certified Public Accountants and Martinsburg Pottery.

Authorities now are investigating allegations that he embezzled money from his clients intended for their state and federal tax payments.

Hutchison said Welshans told him he used the $46,957 from the first robbery "for deposits in his business to make payroll and other business needs."

"He had overextended himself in the real estate market, retail market," the detective said. "The climate of the economy decelerated his investments. He was trying to hold onto everything that he had. He told me (that) he was under a lot of pressure and that he made some very poor choices on how to handle his business dealings.

"Rather than sell and regroup, he tried to hold on. A lot of it was due to the recession. I don't think he wanted to do the Chapter 11 or Chapter 7 (bankruptcies). He thought the economy would improve and no one would be the wiser."

Bill Agee, president of the congregation of St. John's Lutheran Church, said both Welshans and his wife attended church and Sunday school regularly and participated in other church activities.

Welshans recently had been appointed to a committee auditing the finances of the church, Agee said.

"It's one of those unbelievable things, I suppose, that happens from time to time in life," said Mearle Spickler, a member of the congregation.

But if the revelation stunned the town, it devastated Welshans' wife, Candace, a schoolteacher, and their 11-year old son.

When a reporter arrived at Welshans' cathedral-shaped home in the green countryside, shaded by trees with an American flag flying proudly outside, Candace Welshans' father stood vigil.

"She's just not in shape to talk," he said, looking forlorn. Then, he politely turned the visitor away.

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