After more than a year of living on the streets of Denver, time was running out for Michael Allen Wells. The 29-year-old drifter may have sensed something bad heading his way when he called his mother in a state of near-panic, jabbering about a dead girl and two "bad guys."
"Mikey said, 'I got away from those bad guys, Mom,'" recalls Linda McHenry, Wells's mother. "He was talking a mile a minute."
A few days later, on the morning of October 4, 1994, Wells called his mother again at her home in Carlisle, Ohio--collect, as usual. The call came from a pay phone in Pocatello, Idaho. Wells said that he'd hopped a freight from Denver and that someone was buying him a bus ticket to California. It was the last conversation McHenry would ever have with her son; although he'd checked in regularly with her throughout his wandering, troubled life, he never called again.
Three years later, McHenry is absolutely certain that Wells is dead--a victim of foul play, as the police put it. And she thinks she knows who killed him. But despite police inquiries in several states and McHenry's own relentless quest to find out what happened to her son, his body has never been found, and the mystery of his disappearance remains unsolved.
Officially, the death of Mike Wells can't even be classified as a homicide. Unofficially, it's been a matter of supreme indifference to most of the law enforcement agencies McHenry has contacted for help. The frustrating case is a graphic study in how terribly anonymous--and cheap--life on the street can be.
McHenry has made three trips west in the past three years in search of leads in her son's case, dipping deep into her savings as an assembly-line worker. She's consulted psychics, posted fliers with Mikey's picture in homeless shelters, tracked down the phone booths he called from, visited seedy gin mills frequented by hobos, and even searched lonely arroyos on Indian reservations for her son's body. Her most discouraging encounters, however, have been with police detectives who've been reluctant to pursue the case, even though a strong suspect surfaced only weeks after Wells disappeared.
McHenry recalls one Idaho investigator who simply refused to do anything. "He flat told me to my face he wasn't going to do nothing and there was nothing I could do to him," she says. "But one of these days I'm going to knock on the right door, and someone's going to open that door and help me."
Life dealt Wells a bum hand from an early age. While still in his teens, he suffered a head injury in a bicycling accident that left him "kind of slow," McHenry says. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and developed a drinking problem. Unable to hold any job for long, in 1993 he decided to leave Ohio and go in search of his father, a truck driver McHenry had divorced decades before who'd moved to Colorado. McHenry and Wells's two sisters were unable to talk him out of the plan.
Quiet and sweet-tempered, Wells learned to ride the rails and mix with society's dregs. By the time he reached Colorado, his father had already left, but Wells liked Denver and decided to stay on, working for day-labor agencies and making the rounds of the shelters. Yet by the fall of 1994, he was eager to clear out of the Mile High City, possibly because of the "bad guys" he told his mother about in a September 30 phone call.
According to McHenry, Wells gave her an agitated, semi-coherent account of hopping a train bound for Nevada with a girl named Sherry. Somehow the girl fell off the train, was struck by an oncoming train on another track and was killed. Wells and the men he was traveling with ("They're really bad guys, Mom," he told McHenry) were taken off the train, escorted to the nearest town, questioned and released, he said.
"I remember his exact words," McHenry insists. "All three of them had to sign a statement about what happened to that girl, and then the police told them to get out because they were all homeless."
McHenry was ill when Wells called and didn't press him for details about the location of the incident. None of the railroads operating routes between Colorado and Nevada at that time have any record of an accidental death such as the one Wells described. McHenry doesn't know what to make of the call, but she says she's sure of one thing--Mikey said that one of the bad guys he was traveling with was a man named Clemens.
A few days later Wells reached Pocatello and spent two nights in a shelter there. Then he dropped off the map. Two months after his disappearance, police in Provo, Utah, arrested a man on charges of beating and kicking his fiancee and smashing the jaw of a friend who tried to stop him. The man said he was Michael Allen Wells, and he had a Social Security number and an Ohio birth certificate to prove it.
There was only one problem. The man wasn't Wells. A fingerprint check pegged him as Michael Todd Clemens, a 32-year-old Maryland native with a string of aliases and a long history of assault, theft and drug charges in several states.
Curiously, Provo police weren't particularly interested in how a violent felon like Clemens had managed to obtain Wells's identification. It wasn't until several months later, when Ohio investigators informed them that Wells was a missing person, that the Provo cops decided to ask Clemens about Wells. By then Clemens had been extradited to California for violating parole, served three months in prison, and wound up back in jail in Provo on a disorderly-conduct complaint.
Clemens told the police that he'd met Wells in Denver in early 1994 and bummed around with him for a few months, hopping trains and hanging out with other street types down near the Cherry Creek bike path. The two men were roughly the same height and weight, with similar coloring, and Clemens claimed he paid Wells twenty dollars for a copy of his birth certificate so he could duck the outstanding fugitive warrants against him. He also suggested that another Denver acquaintance, Wayne Smith, also known as "Tattoo," was probably still in touch with Wells.
McHenry doesn't buy Clemens's story. She says her son would have needed his ID in order to be admitted to the shelters and wouldn't have parted with it so cheaply. She also believes that Clemens had contact with her son long after the two supposedly parted company, including the disastrous train ride to Nevada and the fatal trip to Pocatello.
"My son never harmed anybody," she says. "He never had a felony or nothing like that against him. That's why this guy killed him, I think. He got in and out of jail five times under my son's name."
Investigators have discovered that Clemens was using Wells's identity in Utah and California months before Wells disappeared. But there's also evidence that suggests Clemens may have had more contact with Wells in his final days than he admits. The woman Clemens was charged with assaulting (and who later married him, despite her claims to police that she feared for her life around him) told Provo police officers that she'd thought her fiance was Wells--until she received a collect phone call from a Michael Wells, asking to speak to Clemens. The call came in October, around the time that Wells disappeared.
Clemens denied being in Pocatello with Wells. But after an Idaho newspaper ran a story on the case accompanied by Wells's picture, a waitress at a Pocatello bar remembered serving Wells on what may have been his last night alive. Bags packed, Wells played scratch tickets and waited nervously for hours for a friend, the waitress recalled; the man who showed up to meet him, the man he left with, resembled Michael Clemens.
"My feeling is that Clemens knows where Michael is," says Lieutenant Detective John Perry of the Carlisle [Ohio] Police Department, who's been working the Wells case for nearly three years. "But without a body, there isn't a lot we can do."
Clemens, who's used several aliases in recent years, couldn't be reached for comment. He recently completed another California prison term and is back on parole. McHenry believes he may have returned to Utah. "I don't know where he is at right now," she says. "I'm not allowed to know what city he lives in."
While praising Perry, McHenry says other investigators haven't done all they could in the case. The Denver Police Department, for example, hasn't tried to locate Wayne Smith to ask him what he might know about Wells and Clemens. (There are several Wayne Smiths with arrest records in the Denver area, but none with a known alias of "Tattoo.") The Pocatello police have never bothered to question Clemens.
"We did the best we could," says Gerald Kurz, a special agent with the Idaho Criminal Investigation Bureau who worked the case on his own time for several months. Kurz points out that, absent the discovery of his body, Wells is still considered a missing person, not a homicide victim. "It's not against the law to be a missing person. We hate to tell [his mother] that, but it's true."
McHenry knows her son is dead. What torments her is that he seems to have lived his final months without leaving a trace. Despite all the months he spent in Denver, her own search has turned up no associates, no friends, almost no one who seems to remember him--other than Michael Clemens. And her attempts to get police and the media involved have met with only limited success, in part because of the kind of life her son led. At one point the television program Unsolved Mysteries was making inquiries into the case, but then the producers changed their minds.
"They said it wouldn't be an interesting story, that nobody wanted to hear about a homeless person," McHenry says. "I think that's really sad. Even though my son was homeless, that doesn't make it right for someone to kill him."
McHenry isn't about to give up. She relates a story from a tabloid newspaper about a woman who spent nine years hounding talk shows and cops in her search for the man who raped and murdered her daughter. The campaign eventually led to a tip, an arrest and a conviction.
"I'm going to be like that woman," McHenry vows. "I'm going to write her and see if she will help me. I'm going to open that door, if it takes me ten or twenty years.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.