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Bones of a career: Local criminologist helps victims with grief

🕐 11 min read

My Friend Fresno

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Ashley Wellman, a criminologist and an instructor in the Department of Criminal Justice at TCU, says she has always had a love of true crime and, while she’s actually a really bubbly person, she’s fascinated with macabre dark stuff.

One day she was at a Walgreens and found a posable skeleton she thought she could use in her work. But when she started to take the skeleton to her office, her daughter Reagan stopped her.

Credit: Ashley Wellman

“She said, ‘You can’t take him. That’s Fresno. He’s my best friend,’ ” Wellman said. “I started laughing. I said, ‘That’s weird and not appropriate probably for a 2-year-old.’ Then, my husband, Buddy, said, ‘Let her play with him. Who cares?’ ”

And so Fresno became a member of the family, dancing with Reagan, reading with her and taking naps and baths together.

None of them knew how significant Fresno would become just two years later.

Wellman was just 20 years old when she graduated from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville Summa Cum Laude with a BS in Communication Arts, Public Relations. After working in the field, she went back to school at the University of Florida for a masters at age 24 and a Ph.D. Criminology, Law and Society at 27. That was in 2011.

She was a research consultant at the Alachua County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit 2008-2011; Assistant Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, The Citadel, 2011-2013; and Assistant Professor and Associate Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Missouri, 2013-2018.

Ashely Wellman and Fresno. Credit: FWBP/Amber Shumake Ashley Wellman

An encounter with the mother of a cold case daughter changed her academic focus.

The woman felt no one was listening and showed up at the sheriff’s department one day and one of the officers told Wellman to visit with her.

The woman told her that she didn’t really expect to learn anything new about her daughter’s case; she just wanted to be assured that people felt that her daughter mattered and that she had not been forgotten.

“Just an ounce of humanity is all this mom needed to have some grief progress in her life. We talked for about four hours. Then, I went home that night to research everything I could about the families affected by cold case murders.” Wellman said.

There wasn’t much,

“My whole vision changed of what my academic career was going to be. I started advocating for families to have better relations with police and better case management and how law enforcement can partner with them and what kinds of mental and, honestly, traditional medicine that these families need, how to best grieve as a family after a cold case murder. That all just became my passion,” she said.

Only about half of the violent crimes and a third of the property crimes that occur in the United States each year are reported to police. And most of the crimes that are reported don’t result in the arrest, charging and prosecution of a suspect, according to government statistics in a report from the Pew Research Center in 2017.

Wellman’s family left Missouri for Fort Worth, she to teach at TCU and he to look for academic administrative work in the area.

And her life fell apart.

In August two years ago, the family had gone to the Museum of Science and History and her husband complained about being winded after climbing some stairs.

“Then we sat out back and talked about all of our dreams for Fort Worth. We watched Reagan play. We’re like, ‘I can’t believe we’re here in Fort Worth.’ ”

Buddy Wellman thought maybe he had a cold but declined to go to an urgent care center. Since they were between jobs, there was no insurance in force yet. The next day he was feeling better.

But when Ashley Wellman went upstairs to take a nap, she heard glass break. He had fallen in the hallway.

“Reagan said he had pushed her off of his lap and run into the bathroom. He just collapsed,” she said. He was resuscitated four times in the emergency department and then pronounced dead at 4:30 p.m. that day. He died of a pulmonary embolism.

He was 44. She was 34. Reagan, 4.

“There was zero way we would have known that. He thought he had a cold,” she said.

He had worked in higher education administration roles where she was teaching and had put out feelers in Fort Worth to Texas Wesleyan, TCU and others.

“He got a couple of callbacks a day after he passed away,” she said. “God bless him. God bless him.”

She felt lost and did not know what to do.

Wellman had spent her career to that point studying the victims or homicide and rape and cold case files and the survivors who have to deal with stress that is only understandable to those who have walked through that particular valley of the shadow of death.

She remembered what she had told those families.

“It was things like you have to be honest with your children and tell them the truth. I had to tell Reagan your dad died. He didn’t go to sleep,” she said.

“I was all by myself. I was just starting my job at TCU. I didn’t really have anybody here. A lot of my time was just sitting in that condo. It was dark and depressing and scary,” she said.

A friend had seen a picture on her desk of Reagan dancing at age 2 with Fresno.

“That is the most bizarre and beautiful picture I’ve ever seen in my life because she should be afraid of that skeleton,” he told her.

Society says Reagan should be scared of the skeleton, but to her it’s beautiful and Fresno’s loving. It’s a beautiful part of her life, Wellman said.

Her friend told her that in a moment of bereavement, she should turn to creativity and write.

“Write a story about Fresno and then let me read it,” he said.

The result is The Girl Who Dances with Skeletons: My Friend Fresno.

But that may be only a start.

“It just hit me. I can do my own small business. What if Fresno wasn’t this passive thing? What if it was an active endeavor I went on to share this message with a bigger scale than what I was really planning to do?,” Wellman said.

So she did the paperwork and started a small business called Rea of Sunshine LLC, named for Reagan. She was determined to create a “world of Fresno” and share it with whoever will listen.

She’s a writer, publisher, distributor and marketer.

The long term goal is that Fresno will be a vehicle to take into elementary schools and teach children about their own self-worth, about what makes them special because they’re unique. And about the unique things that make them beautiful.

“When we embrace people who are different, that’s when the magic happens. We’re better together because we each bring something different to the table,” Wellman said.

Reagan is always going to be different from other kids in her class because she lost her father at 4 and watched him pass away.

“She has her own trauma and own issues of being a daughter who’s being raised without her father,” Wellman said.

“For me, it was important to say people need to not only understand her, but they need to accept her for who she is. That’s what Fresno’s whole message is. Yes, Fresno looks scary, but if people got to know him, they would understand that he’s really special and that he makes the greatest friend because he brings such unique things to the friendship.”

She teamed with Zac Kinkade, the nephew of famed artist Thomas Kinkade, who attended the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Art before university.

“He’s a gorgeous artist in and of his own right. He’s magical. I partnered with him. He said, ‘Ashley, I’m not an illustrator.’ I said, ‘I know, Zac. You’re an artist. That’s exactly what I want to illustrate this book. I want it to be art,’ ” she said.

The first thing he sent her was Fresno on a plain background. He was so kind and approachable and like this unique little character jumping off the page.

For Kinkade, it was a treat.

“My work is typically landscape painting, so I enjoyed the opportunity to try something radically different and illustrate my first children’s book,” he said.

“I think this story touches upon a lot of relatable subject matters for both kids and parents, like finding self-confidence, making friends, getting out of your comfort zone and ultimately loving yourself.

“Fresno will resonate with children I think because he’s essentially a shy kid who, through the help of caring friends, learns to value himself and break out of his shell,” Kinkade said.

Wellman was in the 2020 class of the Fort Worth Business’ Press Forty Under Forty recognition.

“Ashley has made a significant impact on many various groups through her scholarship, advocacy, role as an instructor, and public speaker,” said nominator Tracy Matheson, founder of Project Beloved: The Molly Jane Mission.

Matheson’s daughter, Molly Matheson, was raped and murdered in her Texas Christian University-area garage apartment in April 2017.

“Trust me when I say it is not easy for someone to commit their life to advocacy and trauma focused work. It takes a special person to be committed to working with and advocating vulnerable populations, grieving families, and survivors of abuse,” Matheson said.

Wellman’s work on the survivors of unsolved homicide was the first comprehensive study of families impacted by cold case murders, and she is now cited by scholars and contacted by survivor organizations for her expertise in the area of violent crime grief and healing.

“Fresno started as this idea that it was going to be a casual side thing that I did. I’m a professor. That’s always been my life. That’s the way I provide for my family,” Wellman said in a recent interview.

But it has become a labor of love. There are little plush dolls of Fresno. The book will be available soon.

“With it, we have puzzles. We’re creating a coloring book. We’re really just going to make it into its own little world,” she said. “

The Girl Who Dances with Skeletons: My Friend Fresno was just the first book. We have a second one about Fresno Finding His Heart and then Fresno’s First Christmas.”

She visualizes the Fresno line as something that might be part of an elementary curriculum or a back to school curriculum that encourages children to follow their instinctual drive to be open to other kids.

“It’s celebrating too what makes you different, because I think sometimes especially as kids get older that self-worth gets lessened and diminished, but each of us is super special.

“You’re just going to learn what is it that makes you tick and what is it that you bring to the table that other people may not and then how does that make you fit into the bigger group?  I would love to see it in schools or work with parent’s groups to teach acceptance and diversity and inclusion and those types of messages,” Wellman said.

She uses the lessons from Fresno in her own life.

“Creative writing started as kind of this way to survive the death of my husband, but then, it became this way to heal with Reagan because Reagan got to be actively involved in the fact that she’s a children’s book character,” Wellman said.

“Her best friend is this magical being that we’re working into this world. It was just fun. For a few minutes, I could just pretend that there was something other than a widow and a mother with a grieving child and someone who had just lost her best friend.”

Reagan is all in.

“She’s like my little CFO,” Wellman said.

They’ll be in a store and she’ll tell people her mother wrote a book about her and Fresno. She tells people to buy the book – they’ll like, their little kids will like it Go to

“I am always going to be an educator. I’m always going to be someone who’s advocating for people because that’s been my job and my heart,” Wellman said. “But why not let Fresno be the way I do that instead of just being forced into a singular definition of success? That’s where we’re at now and using Fresno to thrive instead of just a way to survive.”

Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

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