By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
He's a wood shop machinist at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, his oversized hands and muscular arms as brawny as the day in 1982 when he first entered a Texas prison, as powerful as the day he last choked a woman to death.
By some accounts, Coral Eugene Watts has murdered more than 50 women, roaming from Michigan to Canada, Indiana, Tennessee and, finally, Texas. He started young, at age 15 worming his way into a woman's apartment to attack her with his bare hands. In response to what he learned about his victims' behavior and police attempts to catch him, Watts, like a malevolent virus, evolved. He stabbed, he slashed, he strangled, he hanged and he drowned, each victim chosen at random, his only explanation, "She had evil eyes."
Though barely literate, Watts is profoundly street-smart. He's also bold, sometimes stalking his prey right under the noses of police, then slaying his victims without leaving a trace of physical evidence. Driven by an inexorable lust for blood, Watts sometimes attacked two women in one day. Only moments after he stabbed Anna Ledet, a 34-year-old Dallas woman attending medical school in Galveston, he attempted to slash another woman to death. She escaped because Watts' hands were slippery with Ledet's blood.
Though he never raped or robbed, Watts often took a personal token from his victims--a shirt, jewelry, pants or a purse--then burned them or threw them in a sewer. It wasn't enough to take a woman's life, Watts said. He had to "kill her spirit."
His lawyer in Houston, where Watts is known to have killed 10 women, began wearing a crucifix while she was around her client. "There's something evil in the man," Zinetta Burney told a reporter. "He never threatened me. He was always quiet and polite to me, but he scared me more than anyone I've ever dealt with."
Since he was a teen, with the help of his parents, psychiatrists, attorneys and judges, Watts learned to manipulate the system. And at every turn, he's been phenomenally lucky, as if some prince of evil is watching over him, guiding his deeds and blinding those who would bring him to justice. One dawn in 1982, Watts was digging a grave in a vacant Houston lot for a victim he'd just drowned in a water-filled flower pot when a couple appeared and seemed to look right at him. Somehow, they walked by without seeing the corpse on the ground or asking Watts what the hell he was doing.
Watts' luck held even after he got caught. Though one of the most prolific serial killers in history, Watts has never been convicted of murder. In 1982, after his arrest in Houston while fleeing from the place where he attacked two young women, a lack of evidence--and desperation to get Watts off the streets through any means--led the Harris County district attorney to offer the killer an unusual deal. Watts agreed to plead guilty to "burglary with intent to commit murder" in return for a sentence of 60 years. Granted immunity, Watts then confessed to 13 murders, five attempted murders and one assault. He offered to confess to 22 murders in Michigan as well as crimes in several other states, but authorities in those jurisdictions refused to grant him immunity. He responded by clamming up.
The Houston deal was controversial, but the families of Watts' victims were confident that the state would keep him locked away until his prime killing years were past--that he'd serve at least two-thirds of his sentence before being paroled, making him at least 70 when released.
Their confidence was misplaced.
When the victims' families gathered last summer for a 20th memorial of Watts' conviction, the ripple effects of his vicious crimes were still vivid as grieving parents, spouses and siblings spoke of lost loved ones. Dallas resident Laura Allen, mother of the murdered Anna Ledet, mentioned the need to forgive. But Joe Tilley of Arlington, whose daughter Linda was Watts' first Texas victim, seemed to sum up the feelings of just about everyone else:
"Forgiveness cannot be bestowed when forgiveness is not sought," said the white-haired Tilley, gripping the lectern. "This is a confrontation with pure evil, with principalities and the powers of the air."
And evil is trying to break out. From the moment he stepped behind those penitentiary walls at 28, Watts has worked diligently to gain his freedom. At the memorial, the families were shocked to learn that Watts, still in his prime, will be released soon after serving only one-third of his sentence. The price for his crimes: He will have served less than two years for each woman he's confessed to slaying.
Thanks to a statute on the books when he was convicted, a series of lucky breaks and inaction by Governor Rick Perry's office, Watts is scheduled for release on May 9, 2006. If he gets out, Texas will become the first state ever to legally release a known serial killer from prison.
For the past 21 years, Watts, now 49, has anticipated that day. He's maintained such a low profile, refusing all media requests for interviews--he declined to speak to the Dallas Observer--that despite his atrocious record, Watts' name has never taken its place in the creepy pantheon of celebrity occupied by serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy (33 victims), Ted Bundy (confessed to 40 murders) and Jeffrey Dahmer (13 victims).