Jailbait

How does a 65-year-old behavioral biologist explain being exposed as an Internet masher hot for 15-year-old girls?

Jailbait is the first installment in "Perversion in Paradise," a New Times Series

Sex has come a long way since it was about a man climbing on top of his wife once a week. For some reason, in South Florida, the physical act of love in all its forms multiplies and mutates like the flora and fauna of our subtropical climate. A world center of porn. A shrine to the human body. A patchwork of kinky suburban bedroom communities. If it's being done to human erogenous zones, it's being done here. And as your friends and neighbors explore new sexual horizons, they push against society's boundaries in fascinating ways. Over the next several weeks, New Times looks at the darker corners of sex in South Florida in an occasional series. This week, Staff Writer Sam Eifling interviews Jim Welles, a Pompano Beach man who was caught in an Internet sting after he arranged to meet what he thought was a 15-year-old girl. Overnight, Welles became the country's laughingstock. And, Eifling wonders — how does someone go on after he's been labeled the nation's most clueless sex pervert?


JIM WELLES HAS WRITTEN a movie script, but don't expect Hollywood studios to come knocking on his door anytime soon. For one thing, the characters in this urban police drama are mostly two-dimensional. The cops are so crooked, they couldn't walk a straight line. The reporters are cynical SOBs, saying things like, "If a story isn't completely accurate, that's secondary. If we ruin somebody's life, that's his problem." The script certainly doesn't have a happy ending.

But it deserves a read — for sheer novelty. The protagonist, a 50-year-old cyber-hedonist named Fred Wilson, is the only character with a little depth. He's a complex man with an eye for moral ambiguities. Of course, it's the Wilson character who hamstrings the script's production prospects. He gets arrested on his way to meet an underaged girl he befriended online and spends the next 50 or so pages trying to avoid a five-year prison term for soliciting a minor.

"The problem I have, of course," Welles says, "is people don't like the idea of trying to make a potential child predator an object of sympathy."

That is, Welles patterned the protagonist too closely after himself.


So dramatic writing isn't Welles' forte. He's an academician by trade, an Ivy-educated teacher by training, and a pianist by hobby, though to encounter him today, you might suspect that he runs a yacht charter. He favors collared tennis shirts, which complement his tall, broad-shouldered frame. His head is full of shiny teeth and topped by light hair combed even and high, like a pompadour of guitar strings. He looks damned good for 65.

His story is, after a decade or so of free-for-all chat on the Internet, a familiar one.

"We see it on TV all the time," Welles says. "There's a dirty old man, he's horny, he's on the Internet, he's looking to score with a girl who's underage. He's chatting with her, and he talks sex, he gets crude, he gets direct, and it turns out he's really talking to a cop. He goes to meet her — boom — he gets arrested."

In reality, things are a little more complicated than that, Welles insists. "Nobody ever asked me who introduced the topic of sex into the conversation. They just assumed I did."

The probable-cause affidavit, filed by a Lantana Police Department detective, Todd Dwyer, describes how the relationship unfolded. In October 2002, JWelles103 messaged him in a chatroom. Dwyer claimed to be Kelley, a girl of 15, about five-foot-three, maybe 118 pounds, into music and sports, with a little sexual experience but still a virgin. The old man offered to tutor her in tennis, biology, or singing.

In all, they corresponded about 20 times.

The transcripts contain some naughty stuff. He wrote that he could get off on her bod. He told her that an orgasm was the greatest thing in the world. He said she could sit on his lap. He explained that oral sex is when the guy's partner sucks him off. He told her to keep any sex with him secret.

He also invited her to come to the Hot Jazz Society. He advised her to go to college and meet a nice investment banker type. He gave her tips on geometry. She asked him for pornography, and he replied that he didn't have any.

"i know your used to women I hope u think im pretty and not just a kid," she wrote. "im very mature for my age."

"I hope you're pretty too and my interest in you is very adult," he replied. "I got that impression from speaking with you."

"u mean we could do adult stuff like get off on each other like you said."

"I sure hope so," he wrote. "I'd like to, but you have to be comfortable with it."

"thats why we have to go slow and talk more," Kelley wrote.

He sent her an e-mail on Halloween that read in part: "I'm getting scareder and scareder as the moment of decision nears. I hope you will understand and not be crushed if I don't bring you back here. If it were just you and me, I'm sure I would, but it's you, me and the state of Florida looming in the background."

A female detective posed as Kelley on the phone to confirm a meeting at a Denny's. They would bring music books to start the conversation, see whether they got along; then if there were sparks, they'd go from there.

The detective arrested Welles at 5:30 p.m. November 1, 2002, without incident. He had no prior arrests, no record, no porn on his hard drive. Welles contends today that the paper trail that law enforcement submitted into the state's records omits conversations that would make him seem less of a ghoul. He was only following "her" lead, not that the sort of earnest folks you find on juries can be counted upon to make such distinctions.

"My case is a bit complex," Welles says. "I'm not totally innocent, I'm not blameless, I made a mistake, I did something wrong. But I see it as immoral; I see it as breaking a taboo."

But illegal? Probably not, Welles contends. He offers long, flailing explanations. It's not illegal to meet a young teenager for food, a discussion of shared interests, and a friendly powwow, even if you haven't ruled out the possibility of sex later. By online standards, their conversations were tame, Welles says. "She said, 'I'll bring my music book — you bring yours,'" he protests. "She did not say, 'I'm on the pill, but bring rubbers. '" And by the admittedly base standards of supposed predators, his deeds were almost quaint.

As humiliating as his arrest was, though, the crusher was the way it became an international story, reverberating through newspaper news briefs, Internet curiosity collections, and standup comedy routines, including Jay Leno's late-night monologue. You see, Welles wasn't just an ordinary schmo with an interest in teenaged girls; he was the author of two respected books on stupid behavior, The Story of Stupidity and Understanding Stupidity.

As one wire service story, which was picked up around the world, noted: "Incredibly, he even used his real name while writing in one damning message to his teenage friend: 'You just have to remember — bottom line, I'll be committing a crime. '" How stupid was that? Welles became the punch line of a thousand bad jokes.


But Welles is just one of hundreds of men caught in similar stings in recent years. Just this week, the nation was shocked when Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian J. Doyle was arrested and accused of 23 felony charges involving online chats with an undercover Florida cop who posed as a 14-year-old girl. Two years ago, local television news programs around the nation discovered that setting traps for men who troll the Internet for youngsters made for big ratings.

Hooking up with an Internet vigilante group called Perverted Justice, TV crews in Kansas City, Portland, Phoenix, and other cities lured chatters like Welles to rented houses where, instead of willing young sex partners, they found accusing TV reporters wielding microphones.

NBC's Dateline is the latest, and probably most aggressive, of the TV programs to get in on the act, enjoying big audiences for operations like the one in Washington, D.C., last year that snagged a rabbi looking to have sex with a young boy. Now producing its fourth set of stings with Perverted Justice, the news show is finding itself defending the practice to other journalists, who are increasingly raising questions about the ethics of TV reporters and vigilantes joining up to set such snares.

One of the early criticisms of Perverted Justice, for example, was that it had no relationship with law enforcement. Its operators posed as underaged chatters, talked dirty with men for an hour or so, then suddenly made the big reveal — aha! You've been exposed! Perverted Justice encouraged its readers to bombard the victim with e-mails and phone calls as a kind of punishment, but otherwise, there was no legal consequence to the stings. Founder and director Xavier Von Erck says that arrests of men exposed by the website's stings began in 2004 and that 49 convictions in 25 states have occurred because of Perverted Justice operations.

That means that the vast majority of the more than 700 men "caught" in Perverted Justice stings haven't been punished at all. Instead, they've been labeled predators and perverts, with much of their private information archived at the website, along with the things they typed in chatrooms when they thought they were conversing with young boys and girls. Critics contend, however, that such work should be done by law enforcement agencies, which tend to rely on more than simply what is said in chatrooms.

And spurred by the outcry resulting from the TV stings, police agencies are increasingly going after Internet predators as well.


At the Lantana Police Department, Capt. Andy Rundle, queried about cases like Welles', thinks for a second and asks: "Is that the idiot guy?"

Although Welles dismisses his crimes as mere moral lapses, law enforcement authorities have much more clear-cut ideas about the seriousness of virtual sexual contacts between adults and adolescents and about the damage done by sexual predators. Most of the men snared in online sex stings need little enticing, Rundle says.

"We have people fly in from other states to come here and have sex with 12-year-olds," he says. "If they're going to put up thousands of dollars, get a hotel, rent cars, they've been successful before. Here you have these criminals who are coming into your own home and preying on your children."

But there's blame to be spread around, Rundle adds. "How many parents let their children go on the computer, out of sight, out of mind? There's some twisted individuals out there. I'm jaded on this. I see all the bad stuff."

Clueless parents. Concerned cops. Eager vigilantes. Ratings-hungry TV stations. Kids and computers. Men with a taste for young sex partners. It's a combination that promises many more public outings of men through sting operations in the coming years, many more pillars of the community caught in the glare of TV cameras.

Even a guy like Jim Welles, an author of scholarly books about stupid people.

But what happens after the TV cameras are turned off or after, in this case, police and prosecutors lose interest?

After Welles' case worked its way through the court system for more than a year, his case was dropped after he agreed to sign a letter admitting guilt, to get counseling, and to do community service. He won't even have to register as a sex offender.


Somehow, after becoming the country's laughingstock, Welles plowed ahead.

In the days after his arrest, he was furious with himself, inconsolable. "When I first got it, I went boom, suicidal, depressed, had to take pills to go to sleep," he says. "It was the most traumatic thing in my life. I was devastated, terribly down on myself. It was just a monumentally horrific experience, the worst experience of my life."

The first people to call him were his brother, Chris, and one of his closest friends, country music lyricist Hugh Prestwood (Randy Travis' "Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart," Collin Raye's "On the Verge"), who asked him what the hell the cops down in Florida were doing. Other acquaintances, people he scarcely knew, sent their support. Some avoided him altogether, which made his transgression all the more acidic.

The jokes in the aftermath of the arrest were predictable. But imagine if you had spent thousands of hours contemplating the great blunders of history, then were condemned to grind one of your own into yourself like a cheese grater.

"He has very high, perhaps unrealistically high, expectations of how people should behave," Prestwood says from Long Island. "Based on the relationships I've seen him in, he expects perfection from people, which makes it tough."

Welles claims that the consequences of his arrest were so harrowing, he needed no further punishment. He'd learned his lesson, and being forced to attend court-mandated therapy sessions really drove it home, he says.

Here was a room with guys who had, you know, real problems. Like the guy whose idea of fun was to hide in his car or behind some bushes and masturbate as young girls walked past. "He did it about a thousand times before he got caught," Welles recalls. "So now he's in the wringer, he's in group, he said to us, 'I still feel this compulsion.' I think this guy's just absolutely nuts. Now if he gets caught, he goes to prison for ten years or something. It can't possibly be worth it." Another man confessed to molesting a 3-month-old. "He was changing her diapers," Welles says. "That's as depraved as it gets."

Welles clearly didn't think that he belonged in the group. But a court-appointed psychiatrist found that Welles posed a high risk of reoffending, Welles recounts with a scoff. Maybe it was hard for Welles to accept, but there was that matter of a prior history. Though he wasn't arrested, Welles admits that, 18 years earlier, he had exposed himself through a window to a neighbor girl.

But Welles doesn't see himself as a sex offender with a long-term problem. His chances of getting involved with a minor before his arrest were zero, he says, and that's still the case now.

In the days and weeks and months and years since he first posted bail, Welles would consider his case at all hours. Discussing this one morning, he walks into his bedroom — remarkable only in its austerity, all white walls and green bedspread — and retrieves a three-ring binder packed with one-and-a-half-spaced typed pages of notes to himself, containing his thoughts on his predicament. In four plastic snap-top cases, he has marshaled hundreds of index cards, each one representing a burst of insight or inspiration that Welles typed to himself, often in the dark morning hours when sleep was impossible. During what he describes as the most harrowing, traumatic months of his life, Welles coped in the way that a student might prepare a dissertation.

Asked for a look at the cards, Welles obliges, apologizing for their disorder. "I never thought anyone else would read them," he says. One representative card, dated August 17 of last year, reads: "I was pushing for a meeting. I was not pushing for sex. I would say, 'I'm looking forward to meeting you.' I never said, 'I'm looking forward to having sex with you.' [Detective Dwyer] was of a mind that meeting = sex. For me, meeting was an opportunity to decide whether to have sex or not..."


Welles' one-bedroom condominium looks down 100 feet below to the sand of Pompano Beach and beyond, to the north, the pier jutting into the Atlantic. His living room is clean and orderly, with one abstract painting on the wall, white tile throughout, a couple of rugs, a metronome on the windowsill above the piano, binoculars hanging by the patio door. On his coffee table one recent weekday morning is a book by gadfly polymath Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle, a contemplation of the genetic sources of human evil. In the margins, Welles has scribbled his own notes and critiques.

Of the 65 years Welles has lived, his favorite was his sophomore year of high school, when he was 15 years old. "Everything clicked; everything worked," he says. He batted .500 on his Babe Ruth baseball team. He discovered biology, the first class he could really get into, and with the help of his mother, a physician, he glided through it with aplomb. Music, always a diversion, was becoming a love. His father, a New York textiles merchant who had paid his own way through Princeton in the 1920s with his jazz trumpet, got him hooked early on a cornet player named Bix Beiderbecke, an early jazz giant. Welles dabbled in violin and trumpet before sticking to piano, playing in the same stride style as luminary Art Tatum, a niche that today makes him feel as though he belongs in a museum, outdated.

Welles never fit in cleanly. People would tell him that he was a jerk, that he wouldn't amount to much, and perhaps as a result, he harbored a temper that has manifested itself variously over the years. There was the time as a young man he slammed a guy against a brick wall for shoving him on the way out a door. Another time, in a short stint teaching high school, Welles grabbed the last of a line of boys racing down a stairway and held him in a chokehold all the way to the principal's office.

"I'm much more mellow now," he says.

Welles received a bachelor's degree in biology from Princeton in 1963, then a master's in education from Harvard and another master's, in biology, from the University of the Pacific before earning a PhD in biology from Tulane in 1973.

Welles' field is self-deception. Other biologists were happy to reduce a human quality to DNA and turn it over to the chemists, but ever since age 5, when he pondered the oxymoronic curiosity of a teacher screaming at his class to be quiet, he says, he has held a fascination with why people do the things they do.

For a time, he taught high school, which he says was like playing warden. Despite two years in the Peace Corps teaching college-level biology in Malaysia and loving it, he never got a real bite at teaching college stateside, which he rues deeply. By his admission, he did a great job choosing his parents, who left him enough money that he hasn't needed to work. The odd piano-playing gig has been merely for fun; the books and journal articles he has written have been purely intellectual exercises.

In Understanding Stupidity, Welles describes the history of stupidity, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Renaissance to Communism and Watergate. One of his basic propositions holds that people act stupidly because they cling to accepted patterns of behavior and scorn the unusual or new.

But publishing scholarly examinations of Western civilization doesn't naturally lead to a full social life. He's never been good at small talk or wooing women, he says. Welles calls himself a terrible pickup artist.

There was only one person he wanted to marry, he explains: his high school sweetheart. They began dating when he was a senior and she a couple of years behind. It closed when she was a senior in college. He wanted to marry. She didn't. And he let it break him for 30 years.

"There was no bitterness, no fight or anything," he says. "I was just so emotionally devastated, I don't think I let myself get that close to anybody again, which was a terrible mistake. It was, you know, dumb. But that's what I did. I never married.

"The first time you fall in love," he continues, "it's so total, you're sort of innocent. Then when that doesn't work, the next time you fall in love, you don't go 100 percent. You fall in love 90 percent. But there's something back there going, 'Gee, I don't know. I'm going to reach out to this person, and I hope it works, but I might get kicked in the teeth again. '"

Turning to the Internet, he says, seemed like a decent alternative to hitting the bars. It was there he might find "Ms. Wonderful." And he found that he liked chatting with younger girls.

"I set the bar too low" at age 15, he says. "Eighteen is low enough. It was just a turn-on. Make me think that I was still young. Nobody wants to get old."

Chatting up underaged girls, Welles says, was merely a moment of stupid self-indulgence that he wishes he could take back, the way he wishes he could undo a mistake that led him down a path of solitary loneliness.

"It's too bad. It's sort of a wasted life. I feel bad about my life. I'm not very happy with myself. God, if I could live my life over again — I never understood these people who say, 'I have no regrets.' I've got nothing but regrets.

"I wish I could rewind my life and do it over again, but I can't. All I can do is go on from here."


So if Jim Welles made only a rather trivial error by "setting the bar too low," which resulted in becoming, however briefly, a national laughingstock, why on Earth does he want to become the subject of yet another news story?

It was Welles who contacted New Times (and not the other way around), hoping that this newspaper would write about what really has him steamed after his four-year ordeal: that his original attorney couldn't keep his mouth shut.

After Welles' arrest, a Palm Beach Post reporter called his attorney, William Wallshein, asking if the Jim Welles picked up by police was the same Jim Welles who had written the books on stupidity. After confirming this fact with Welles himself — who swears that he urged Wallshein to keep quiet about it — Wallshein, Welles says, confirmed his identity for the reporter.

An avalanche of media attention ensued. Welles is still hopping mad, and he complained about Wallshein to the Florida Bar Association ethics committee. But the bar concluded that Welles' claims were not substantiated enough to warrant action.

"When there's no support either way, unfortunately it becomes a he-said, she-said situation," says Adria Quintela, who oversees these complaints in the bar's Fort Lauderdale office. "We can't choose sides and say, yes, we're going to believe you, lawyer, or you, complainant."

If Welles were writing his own story, he would write that his lawyer's gaffe was unforgivable and that the conduct of police in his arrest was unconscionable.

But when he was initially asked how he manages to go on (meaning go on with his life after all the publicity), Welles must have thought New Times was inquiring about his love life.

He's more cautious in his chatroom behavior now, he said. He doesn't need to "go after" the 17-year-olds anymore.

But was he still chatting with underaged girls? Yes, he said.

"But I'm very careful."


When he's not writing letters urging the bar to take action against his former attorney, Welles spends days in his condo, alone, with his books, his piano, and his miraculous view of the ocean, and he puts the world right in that screenplay of his, which is still going through revisions. In turning the situation over in his head, he still tinkers with the script.

In the script, at least, everyone gets what's coming to him. The cops' malice backfires. The TV reporter learns to loathe the lurid sensationalism of crime coverage. And even after the protagonist, Foster, is absolved of his crime, an upstairs neighbor visits his condo, screams "Pervert!," and shoots him in the chest with a .38, leaving him to bleed to death on the foyer tile.

Presumably, Foster finally attains what, for the potential child predator, is unattainable: peace of mind.

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