By Chad Nance
“Esau skates on mirrors anymore…
He meets his pale reflection at the door.
Yet sometimes at night I dream
He’s still that hairy man,
Shadowboxing the Apocalypse
And wandering the land.
Shadowboxing the Apocalypse
And wandering the land.”
– John Barlow
Joshua Wetlzer returned home to Syracuse, New York following his wanderings across America listening to the music of String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, and the Grateful Dead. The occasion was a grim one. His little brother, Jared, had been killed in a car accident as he drove home from his high school graduation. Martha Weltzer remembered that Josh had given a thoughtful, moving eulogy for his little brother. “I don’t know how he got up there and did that, you know. But it was tremendous and Josh kept it all together.”
Later that evening Martha looked into Josh’s room and saw the evidence of the previous night when Josh wrote his brother’s eulogy. “There were crumpled up Kleenexes all over the room. He really worked hard on that and it meant a lot to him.” Talking to people who knew Josh it becomes apparent that the death of his brother weighed heavy on his heart and began a sometimes troubled, often joyful journey over his final years that culminated in John “Pazuzu” Lawson’s back yard on Knob Hill Drive in Clemmons.
Josh’s dad was in the United States Navy when Josh was born in 1977. Dad retired and the family lived in his mother’s home town, Syracuse. Josh played football, did moderately well in school, and dearly loved his little brother who was four years younger. “They fought like brothers fight.” Josh’s Mom said, “But if something happened Josh would be right there to defend him.” Josh grew into a tall man with a shock of brown hair, a thick beard, and a gregarious smile. He had lots of friend in high school and carried the ability to meet and get along with a varied selection of humanity into his adulthood. His love of animals would also be a constant in his life. “I remember he tried to take our dog back with him once when he left to go to Olympia, Washington.” his mother said. Josh had loaded the van, then snuck back around the house to try to get in, snatch the dog, and then escape to the road once more.
Josh loved to travel. Anyone who has ever spent time going to music festivals or following live music knows that while the music is the backbeat and reason for the trip- it is the journey that truly matters. Miles of highway and country from one end of America to another- A free-floating community of people who share a love of music, one another, and an almost universal assumption that most human beings are fundamentally decent, and almost any problem can be solved with the right energy, focus, and resolve to take it easy when absolutely necessary. This was his life in 1999 when he met Stacey Carter. A pretty young woman from North Carolina with stunning blue eyes and a profound love of horses that borders on the spiritual. He was living in Olympia Washington working at a Cheesecake Factory. “We were really into this band called Honey Bee Groove back then.” Stacey said.
Josh was living in a house with several other dudes, and threw a massive party that Honey Bee Groove played. Hundreds came from all over and the result of the jam was Josh and his roommates losing their lease. It was worth it, though. “We had the best day, and I just fell in love with Josh.” Stacey said, the sweetness of the memory evident on her face.
The young couple hit the road, themselves, in a blue van that had shag carpet, but no stereo or air-conditioning. They sold food in the parking lots of shows like other lot kids, slept in the van, and generally had the best time of their lives. Who needs air-conditioning when you’re in love. Stacey and Josh made friends all over the country and nurtured a dream of returning to North Carolina to make their own homestead. To that end Josh went to Kentucky to learn the farrier trade (shoeing and caring for the hooves of horses). Josh was skilled with his hands and showed a special connection to horses that enable him to keep the animals comfortable while he plied his trade. Stacey had grown up showing horses and working with the animals with her parents and both of them had a deep and abiding love for them.
This led the couple to take out a loan from a bank on a piece of property and house in Davie County. It was the early 2000’s and banks were loaning money, packaging loans in complex financial instruments, then gambling them casino style at the exchanges. They weren’t exactly particular about the peculiarities of the loans or whether they would be paid back. Stacey said that the bank loaned them money for the property and additional funds with which to build a new fence and horse barn that would allow the couple to begin their own farm and farriers. The problem was after the banks had taken their cuts, no more funds were available for the upgrades needed to get their business off of the ground. This young couple who had just started the journey toward their modest dream ran hard into the economic realities for Generation X in the 20th Century.
Stacey took a full time job while Josh began to refuse to shoe horses, choosing rather to use a method of trimming. Josh firmly believed that trimming was best for the horses and, most importantly to Josh, humane. Economic pressures started to bear down on them after the birth of their son in 2004. Stacey was working hard to try to keep them afloat, Josh had taken a principled stand that was making them no money, and the wolf was at the door wanting cash for the mortgage. By all accounts a doting father, Josh had begun to allow various friends to live at their house, to drift in and out. Like many men and faced with limited jobs prospects coupled with huge responsibilities, Josh began to contemplate selling weed to get by until they could get the farm off of the ground. Stacey made her own decision… to leave with their son in 2005 because the environment in the house wasn‘t good for a toddler.
Josh tried to hold onto the home, but eventually lost it. Odd jobs, couch surfing, and live music were all a part of his life between 2005 and his disappearance in 2009. Josh’s heart and soul, however, were with his young son. To Stacey’s annoyance, Josh would sometimes show up unannounced to spend time with the boy. It wasn’t always cool, but Stacey admired and appreciated Josh’s love for his son. It was during this period that at least one man credits Josh with helping him kick a nasty heroin habit. This man would go on to help with the search for Josh that has been going on since 2009.
It was in late 2008 that Josh would be busted for possession of some psilocybin mushrooms. Not smack, not meth, not coke, no hillbilly heroin from America’s pharmaceutical industry, and certainly not benzos and totem-poles of Xanax found throughout the suburbs from sea to shining sea. Josh got busted with a gram or two of fungus. That fungus is considered a Schedule I drug in these United States and overnight Josh went from a guy struggling with the realities of under-employment to being a convicted felon. The Drug War claimed another casualty.
Stacey said that the felony really boxed Josh in. Besides costing him several job opportunities it also made him feel even farther behind and more rejected. In 2009 he had been working at a Renaissance fair with a vendor who displayed Camels. Josh was good with the camels and they wanted to hire him. Because of the conditions of his parole and the felony, however, Josh couldn’t go. Then he lost custody of his son.
Josh had always been a passionate person with serious, deeply held convictions and beliefs. “Josh saw through the bullshit. He saw the hypocrisy and injustice in the world and he really didn’t have a lot of faith in all of that anymore,” Stacey said, noting that Josh was taking it all hard. Life in the 21st Century was grinding the man down and the pain was showing. “He couldn’t stand how un-compassionate the rest of the world can be,” she stated.
Stacey compared Josh to the lead character of “Cool Hand Luke” who came home from Korea and ended up in a brutal back-woods prison that acted as an artistic stand-in for how society and prevailing culture can press down on a man until there is no air left to breathe and he becomes utterly broken. “Society did fail, Josh.” Stacey said. “He didn’t always play just by their rules, but he was a good person.”
Stacey last saw Josh in July of 2009 when he visited his son. Neither she nor his parents would file a missing persons report for almost six months. During that time Stacey felt that Josh may have just dropped off of the grid. That everything must have simply become too much and he’d hit the road or merely gone to ground for a while. Before the family reported Josh missing and shortly after Josh‘s disappearance, the Winston-Salem Police Department would find his car behind an apartment building in town. No one told Stacey or his family in New York. Had they known this one fact they would have filed a missing person’s report immediately.
In February of 2010 Josh’s family did file a missing person’s report. He hadn’t contacted his mother or his little boy over the holidays. To them that was a definite sign that something awful had happened. When Stacey did report Josh’s disappearance, she says that she told investigators that she believed John “Pazuzu” Lawson had killed Josh. That was a story that was floating around Winston-Salem at the time. A friend of Stacey’s phoned her in early 2010. She told Stacey that a co-worker of hers had been telling people that “Paz killed some guy named Josh.” Stacey got hold of the witness and took them to investigators. According to her, they got a warrant, searched the Knob Hill home and found nothing.
Last week the families of Tommy Dean Welch and Josh learned the terrible truth. Their loved ones had been found at Lawson’s Clemmons home. In Winston-Salem there appear to have been many people walking the streets with at least some working knowledge of John Lawson’s penchant for murder, and specifically that he may have murdered Josh. Investigators have still not revealed what initially led them to get the 2014 warrant and the search which proved to be more successful. Even as this is written, investigators are back at the Knob Hill house searching in the back yard.
“Sometimes you can feel hopeless.” Stacey said. “Sometimes you just want to take off and just don’t want to be found.” Stacey’s expression showed that she truly wishes that Josh had just done that. Just took off to rest and get his head together. “I’d like to see a legacy of social change come from this.” Stacey. “We’ve got to look at healing, not punishing.”
In the end a story his mother told about Josh reveals an important piece of the man. He was a kid and he wanted to scare his mother with a garter snake. Josh caught the snake and then carefully, quietly came up behind his mother. “I only knew he was there because everyone else was watching him,” she said. Josh raised the snake up into the air preparing to scare the woman who gave him life- and she turned on him. Josh’s mother informed him that she was NOT afraid of snakes. In a lesson that Josh would take with him and apply to both his fellow human beings and animals, Martha explained to her son that the snake was probably the only creature who was really scared in the whole scene. Josh let the snake go.
We as a whole failed Joshua Wetlzer, just like we do thousands of other people every day. It is much easier to simply blame evil and place our guilt, rage, and remorse into some personification of human wickedness like John Lawson. There will be no change if that is all that is done and serious soul searching and community conversations do not follow these horrible events.
Josh was like many of us. He saw the good and the terrible- the brightest lights and the darkest corners of man’s heart. Don’t remember him as a felon. Don’t remember him as a victim. Remember him as a father and a man who just did what most of us do everyday… the best he could.
“To lay me down
To lay me down
with my head
in sparkling clover
Let the world go by
all lost in dreaming
To lay me down
one last time
To lay me down…”
– Robert Hunter