Tom Welch, a former Gregg County sheriff who left office in 1979 for a prison cell, died Monday. He was 83.
Welch was found dead at his home in rural Gregg County by a person who worked for him, said Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano.
Circumstances of the death were unknown late Monday, but foul play was not suspected. Cerliano said the former sheriff, a rancher, had been in ill health.
Welch was elected sheriff in 1972 and re-elected in 1976. But he never finished his second term, resigning after being convicted on a multitude of charges that led investigators to dub him a “one-man crime wave.”
Welch and four others were convicted in December 1979 in federal court in Tyler on charges of official corruption and murder-conspiracy.
The corruption convictions centered on charges Welch and the others — County Commissioner Bill Satterwhite, Justice of the Peace Charles Cashell and former deputies Bill Roach and Jim Cochran — allowed and profited from illegal gambling in and around Longview.
Welch, Satterwhite and Cochran also were convicted on federal murder-conspiracy charges in connection with an aborted ambush in 1974 of three men at a county equipment barn. The targets were a police informant and two members of a theft ring he had infiltrated.
In his 1989 autobiography, former FBI agent Larry Wansley recalled his undercover role building the case against Welch and the others. Being given the job, Wansley was told the Gregg County sheriff was thought to be turning his back on such illegal activities as gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking and fencing stolen goods — so long as he received a cut of the profits. It was Wansley’s job to prove it.
Posing as a member of a Las Vegas crime outfit intent on setting up illegal gambling operations in East Texas, he said it wasn’t long before Welch sought him out, pointed out a potential location for a gambling joint, and insinuated himself into the operation.
During the 12-day trial, Welch denied personal knowledge of the gambling operations, which prosecutors showed saw gross wagers of $6 million annually, including $900,000 at the 1978 Gregg County Fair.
After Welch was convicted in 1979, Gregg County for the next 11 months had an appointed sheriff, until Sheriff Bobby Weaver, elected in 1980, took office. He served four terms, until being defeated in 2000 by Cerliano.
Monday night, Cerliano said that because no one else was in the house where Welch was found a death investigation would be conducted.
Welch was declared dead Monday afternoon by Justice of the Peace B.H. Jameson at his home in northern Gregg County.