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Another youth-basketball season opened at Jelleff Boys and Girls Club last month. Visitors to the venerable rec center now park on pavement that for the last two decades served as an outdoor court. According to staffers, the backboards and rims had to go to make room for cars. Near the rear of the lot, a sign for the departed court still hangs. The paint’s faded and running, and there’s some rust on the sheet metal, but “Dr. Michael Halberstam Court” remains readable.
Those who remember Halberstam hope his story doesn’t fade so easily.
On Dec. 5, 1980, Halberstam, a locally renowned cardiologist and a writer of national scope, was shot at his home on Battery Place NW by a burglar. Halberstam got into his car and ran over his assailant, then died. Police found the burglar, identified as Bernard C. Welch, a few blocks away, wounded and hiding in the bushes.
Halberstam was just 48 years old. His medical, literary, and charitable pursuits were hailed at his memorial services. Friends and family also pointed out that sports, and particularly basketball, had been a huge part of his life.
In a Washington Post article he authored in 1976, Halberstam wrote that an adult who doesn’t participate in athletics is “lacking in a fundamental experience of the human body,” and compared such a person to “a celibate” and “lifetime teetotaler.” The byline for the piece identified Halberstam as “a Washington physician who elbows his own children in pickup basketball.”
During a eulogy at Washington Hebrew Congregation attended by nearly 2,000 people, his younger brother, the writer David Halberstam, said that even into middle age Michael dreamed about becoming the “NBA’s Rookie of the Year.” Stephen Banker, a Harvard classmate of Michael Halberstam’s who rekindled their relationship during years of playing in a Northwest softball league together, talked at that same service about his friend’s love of hoops.
Banker says he still chuckles whenever he thinks about Halberstam’s basketball fetish.
“I remember several times when we were going to lunch or to a Bullets game at the Capital Centre or just driving around, and we’d pass a schoolyard and Michael would suddenly hit the brakes and jump out of the car,” Banker tells me. “He’d run back to the trunk, and pull out a basketball net and this little ladder, and he’d go down to the playground and climb up and put nets on the hoops. He kept a whole slew of nets in the car, just so he could do that. I asked him why, and he always said he wanted the kids to hear the swish of a basketball. Michael had a lot of odd charities, and that was one of them.”
For a couple reasons, Halberstam’s story was overshadowed in the weeks following his murder. First, just three days after Halberstam’s killing, John Lennon was murdered in New York.
“That knocked Mike off the front page,” says Banker.
And then Welch’s story began enthralling the press. The horrible act he’d committed became secondary to tales of the incredible lifestyle that Halberstam’s murderer had been living.
Halberstam’s last act before dying, it turned out, helped catch perhaps the most prolific burglar in U.S. history. Local law enforcement described Welch as a one-man crime wave and tied him to more than 3,300 robberies, most in the richest neighborhoods in the D.C. area. His full-time job was robbing, and he was good at it: Police had been chasing him for five years and dubbed him the “Standard Time Burglar” because he kept the same hours: All burglaries occurred between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. On the night Welch murdered Halberstam, police found goods he had stolen from four other houses in his Mercedes-Benz.
Welch had a poor upbringing in Rochester, N.Y. Though he grew up to thieve exclusively from the rich, Welch was no Robin Hood: He kept all the profits for himself. With his common-law wife and three small children, Welch lived the high life at a 14,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom compound on Chesapeake Drive in Great Falls, Va., complete with a lighted tennis court, heated swimming pool, and state-of-the-art security system. In his three-car garage, Welch, then 40 years old, also had a smelter. He’d bring his booty home and, when he wasn’t with the family on a Caribbean vacation or at his Minnesota lake house, spend his Sundays melting down the jewelry. He sold the gold and silver bricks to metal dealers around the world, and actually filed tax returns with the IRS in which he, using the alias Norm Hamilton, claimed a business income of more than $1 million for each of the two years preceding his capture.
Police said more than $4 million in stolen goods were found at the house after his arrest. From jail, Welch boasted that he had a stock portfolio worth nearly $2 million, at a time when Wall Street wasn’t everybody’s playground.
In the era of the antihero, Welch became a national celebrity from his jail cell. He hired two attorneysone to handle his criminal case, one to negotiate media deals. New York crime writer Paul Sann landed a book deal with Welch.
Life magazine ran an article in a January 1981 edition titled “The Ghost Burglar and the Good Doctor.” Life paid Welch $9,000 for photographs it used with the piece, some of which showed the murderer looking hip and handsome. The piece allowed the criminal to cast himself as the real victim of the Halberstam murder story.
“They say I destroyed [Halberstam’s] life,” Welch said, “but he destroyed mine.”
Welch’s burgeoning celebrity didn’t play well on Halberstam’s home turf. D.C. stores aligned with the Drug Fair chain teamed with a group of independent retailers in the city to pull Life magazine from their shelves to protest the tone of the Welch story.
Welch’s criminal attorney, Sol Z. Rosen, told the media that Steve McQueen would be good in the role of his client when Hollywood got around to putting the Bernard Welch story to celluloid. Rosen also called Welch the “coolest, most sophisticated individual I’ve ever met.”
All these years later, Rosen isn’t ready to reconsider his opinion of Welch.
“He really was the coolest,” Rosen tells me. “He just had street smarts. Had he had the opportunities that Halberstam had, he would have been a top corporate executive.”
In April 1981, at a trial that was as big in its day as the recent sniper cases, prosecutor Jay Stephens, who would go on to torment Marion Barry over the next decade, got Welch convicted of Halberstam’s murder and assorted robberies. He was sentenced to 143 years in prison. Welch had one more brush with celebrity. He had bragged to authorities around the time he was sentenced that he would escape from anywhere they put him. In May 1985, he backed up his boast and broke out of federal prison in Chicago. Police found Welch outside Pittsburgh in a small apartment in August, next to where he’d parked a stolen BMW. His unit was loaded with boxes and bags of jewelry and furs he’d stolen during his months on the lam.
Sann died before writing his Welch book, and Steve McQueen died without any feature film about Welch going into production. According to the Department of Justice, Welch died on June 21, 1997, at a federal hospital in Springfield, Mo., after a monthlong stay. He was 57 years old. No official cause is available for Welch’s death, which received essentially no media attention.
“I guess he’s just a figure of the past,” says Rosen.
Halberstam’s family sued Welch’s wife for the profits of his ill-gotten gains and won. The 1983 case, Halberstam v. Welch, is now frequently cited by legal experts as a guide used by U.S. courts trying to impose liability on those who abet international terrorism. Halberstam’s survivors established a memorial fund, which endowed three scholarships in his name at Harvard and the Michael Halberstam Court at Jelleff. The scholarships are still in place.Dave McKenna