A body found in the Spokane River on Thursday has been identified as a Coeur d’Alene tribal member missing since a phone call with his girlfriend ended abruptly in March.
An autopsy by the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office determined Leighton L. Welch, 35, drowned, the Spokane Police Department confirmed Friday. His body was pulled from the river close to the Stevens County line and near the Nine Mile boat launch, police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe said.
Welch’s girlfriend, Michonda Weaver, said she was talking to him via cellphone on March 28 when he described a steep cliff and said he’d been spooked by a pit bull in the area. The phone went dead after a crash and a scream, Weaver said.
Spokane police detectives said Welch’s cellphone was last used near 330 S. Oak St. that day. A search warrant for his phone records, filed in Spokane County Superior Court, said Weaver told detectives that Welch, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, was intoxicated when he left the home.
Welch was the father of an infant and toddler and had also cared for another young boy for several years.
Weaver said Friday that she recently learned she is pregnant with his third child.
He had felony convictions for domestic violence assault and cocaine possession, but staff at Cub House drug rehabilitation, 615 S. Thor St., said he completed a residential program about a year ago and has been a model graduate.
Weaver described Welch as a loving father who was excited to watch his children grow up after getting through his past troubles.
“He loved his kids,” Weaver said. “He would have done anything for them.”
Welch was studying social work at Spokane Falls Community College. He was to enroll at Eastern Washington University in the fall and planned to be a drug and alcohol counselor, Weaver said. He spoke at drug rehab centers in Spokane and helped lead an Alcoholics Anonymous group, Weaver said.
Weaver spent hours searching for Welch. Her sister traveled from Moses Lake to help. They posted fliers throughout the city, contacted old friends and visited drug neighborhoods fearing Welch may have relapsed.
But Weaver suspected something tragic happened to Welch because of how her last phone call with him ended. The only cliffs in the area of South Oak Street in Browne’s Addition are near the river.
She found a caretaker for her children when she heard Thursday that a body had been found in the river, fearing the worst. She said she wants to stay strong for her children, but doesn’t know how she’s going to tell them what happened to their father.
“We all pretty much knew that if he did fall, that he was in the river,” Weaver said. “But to know for sure that it did really happen is a lot worse.”
Police don’t suspect foul play in Welch’s death, DeRuwe said, but it’s unclear where he entered the river.