State Briefs

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Whittier prison bill now includes beds in Bethel

JUNEAU - A bill calling for a private prison to be built in Whittier now also calls for expanding a public prison in Bethel. The measure passed the House Finance Committee on Tuesday.

The change could broaden support for the bill, although the administration and some legislators still don't like it.

The bill's chief backer, Rep. John Harris, a Valdez Republican, said he added the 96-bed expansion at Bethel because that seemed to be the highest priority for the state Department of Corrections.

"I believe this is a much stronger bill than the initial Whittier bill by itself," Harris said.

The new version also calls for 1,000 private prison beds in Whittier, instead of 1,200 as initially proposed. Harris said 1,200 may be more than needed, particularly if 96 beds are added in Bethel.

Margot Knuth of the Department of Corrections said the department still has problems with the bill, partly because it requires construction to start on the Whittier prison before the Bethel expansion is authorized.

If the Whittier prison fails to materialize - as have two other private prison proposals the Legislature backed in previous years - the Bethel jail won't be expanded. "I think it's inappropriate to tie the projects to each other," Knuth said.

Previous proposals to build private prisons in Delta Junction and in Kenai died in the face of community opposition. Whittier Mayor Ben Butler has said his community is solidly behind the proposal.

Trial begins for woman charged in son's death

ANCHORAGE - The trial of a Wasilla woman charged with setting fire to her home and killing her son began Tuesday in Palmer.

Suzette Welton, 38, is charged with murder, attempted murder and arson for allegedly setting fire to her home in September 2000. Prosecutors say the former child-care worker drugged her children and intentionally set fire to the two-story duplex Sept. 15, 2000, in hopes of cashing in on $100,000 life insurance policies she had taken out on each of her sons.

Samuel Welton, 14, died in the fire. His brother Jeremiah, 16, narrowly escaped by jumping from a bedroom window.

In opening statements, Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak described Welton as a calculating killer who, faced with overwhelming debts, deliberately plotted to murder her children for the money. "The trap this woman set almost gave the boys no chance of survival," Kalytiak said.

But Welton's attorneys described a fiercely protective mother who has been wrongly accused. She loves her children, and fought for custody of them after divorcing her husband in 1999, said public defender George Davenport. "No amount of money could ever replace those children," he said.

A much more likely explanation for the blaze is that one of Welton's sons either accidentally or deliberately started the fire, Davenport said.

Bonham of World Plus pleads no contest in securities case

ANCHORAGE - The Fairbanks woman who bilked investors of millions of dollars in the World Plus ponzi scheme pleaded no contest to charges of filing misleading securities statements.

In exchange for RaeJean Bonham's no contest plea Tuesday, the state dropped a perjury count, said Brian Clark, assistant attorney general for special prosecutions.

Bonham, who began serving a five-year federal prison sentence in 1999, will be sentenced July 31. Filing false or misleading reports with state securities regulators is a felony that requires a mandatory minimum of one year in prison and up to $5,000 in fines.

Bonham billed World Plus as a brokerage that bought frequent-flier mileage and repackaged them into discount airline tickets that sold for a fat profit. A judge later determined it paid off old investors with funds from new investors.

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