Crime History, Dec. 5, 1980: Millionaire master burglar kills noted District of Columbia doctor

On this day, Dec. 5, in 1980, Dr. Michael Halberstam, noted cardiologist, writer and the brother of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam, was fatally shot after he and his wife surprised a burglar in their District of Columbia home.

Bernard C. Welch

Bernard C. Welch

Bernard C. Welch Jr., was a master burglar who had escaped from a New York prison six years earlier and was living in luxury in the Washington suburbs. He became rich by breaking into the homes of the well-heeled and stealing their fine silverware, antiques, rare coins and jewelry.

At about 8:45 p.m., Michael Helberstam and his wife Elliot returned to their home overlooking the Potomac River in the Palisades neighborhood in northwest Washington. Halberstam let out their two dogs so that his wife could walk them. She remained on the front porch.

There was a confrontation between the doctor and the intruder. Welch shot Halberstam, 48, twice in the chest and fled.

Halberstam got behind the wheel of his car, with his wife beside him, and drove for nearby Sibley Memorial Hospital.

But Halberstam saw the gunman running down the block, swerved his car and struck and injured Welch. Minutes later, Halberstam lost consciousness and his car struck a tree. He died on the operating table.

Afterward, police searched Welch’s expansive home in Great Falls and found millions of dollars worth of stolen property, more than 3,200 items. They also found two smelters where Welch had melted down stolen silver into ingots.

Police estimate that he stole about $20 million worth of valuables from 1965 to 1980. Even the Smith & Wesson revolver used to kill Halberstam had been stolen from the home of an FBI agent.

Welch was sentenced to 143 years in prison. In 1985, Welch again escaped from prison, this time from sixth-floor maximum-security area of a high-rise prison in downtown Chicago. He was captured several months later in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa. He died in prison at age 58.

David Halberstam, author of ‘The Best and the Brightest,” and regarded as a leading journalist during the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras, also died a violent death. He was killed in a car crash in California in 2007.

— Scott McCabe


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