For two years, victims' families have been lobbying Texas Governor Rick Perry to stop Watts, 50, from becoming the first serial killer ever to be released from prison. Detectives believe Watts may have killed as many as 100 women during the 1970s and 1980s.
The Detroit native had been a suspect in a string of random killings in Michigan during the '70s, but he left so little evidence that police were never able to charge him with a serious crime. In 1980, Watts came under intense scrutiny in Ann Arbor as the so-called "Sunday Morning Slasher." Aware that he was under surveillance, Watts fled in 1981 to Texas.
About a year later, Houston police arrested Watts. He got caught after his intended victim jumped off a balcony to escape while he prepared to drown her roommate. Police would later discover he'd killed another woman that morning. (See the Dallas Observer cover story "Evil Eyes," by Glenna Whitley, June 13, 2003.)
Watts, then 28, cut a deal with authorities after his arrest. In August 1982, he pleaded guilty to aggravated burglary with intent to commit murder and confessed to 13 murders and five attempted murders, leading police to places in Texas where he'd dumped or buried three missing women.
In return, Watts got immunity from prosecution for those crimes and a 60-year prison sentence. The plea bargain was controversial, but prosecutors said they had no evidence linking Watts to any of the murders before his confessions. Besides, Watts wouldn't see freedom until he was an old man.
But thanks to a quirk in Texas law and a label of "model prisoner" by prison authorities, Watts is scheduled to walk free after serving less than half of his sentence. For years he's been earning "good time" at the highest possible rate, and his current release date is April 8, 2006.
Grassroots efforts by victims' family members to keep Watts in prison--and Watts' own statement that he would kill again if he ever got out--prompted Michigan authorities to re-examine several unsolved homicides in hopes that new information or technology could solve the crimes. (Watts had told Houston detectives he was prepared to confess to an additional 22 murders in Michigan in return for immunity; Michigan authorities declined his offer.)
Watts explained to Houston detectives that he chose his victims because they had "evil eyes," which didn't help investigators in Michigan. But Watts' confessions did provide several new details about the ways he killed and disposed of his victims, broadening the number of cases Michigan authorities needed to examine.
Watts revealed that he often drove for hours late at night searching for targets. Though most of his victims were 18-32, he attacked one 14-year-old and is believed to have assaulted one 62-year-old. Watts admitted that he not only stabbed--his preferred method, authorities believed--but he also hanged, strangled and drowned some victims. Watts left some women where they dropped but hid others in dumpsters, culverts and shallow graves. Some of his crimes had ritualistic overtones; Watts often took small tokens from them to keep or burn later "to kill the spirit."
Houston Detective Tom Ladd says that Watts began to clam up after realizing he'd tipped off Michigan investigators to crimes that hadn't previously been tied to him.
For the last year, a 12-person task force headed by Michigan Assistant Attorney General Donna Pendergast has been investigating more than 100 murders in Michigan and Ontario dating as far back as 1974. Though Watts is not known to have raped any of his victims, authorities have been locating and submitting evidence to forensic labs for months to see if there are any matches to Watts' DNA.
The breakthrough came out of the blue.
In mid-January, Michigan Attorney General Michael Cox appeared on MSNBC's The Abrams Report to plead with viewers who might have knowledge of crimes committed by Watts in the '70s and early '80s to come forward.
Old film footage of Watt's 1982 arrest in Houston caught the eye of a 45-year-old man in Westland, Michigan. Remembering a horrific day in 1979, the witness, who authorities identify only as "Joe," phoned Cox's office. He told investigators that on December 1, 1979, he'd peered out of his bedroom window in Ferndale--a suburb of Detroit not far from Watts' home--at about 9:30 p.m. In the nearby alley, connected to a dry-cleaner's drive-through lane, "Joe" saw a woman struggling as a man slashed at her with a large knife. As the wounded woman collapsed on the snow-covered ground, "Joe" turned to his wife and told her to call police.
It was too late to save Helen Mae Dutcher, 36, dead of a dozen stab wounds to her neck and back. The next day, "Joe" described the killer to a police sketch artist, but authorities were unable to identify a suspect.
Three years later, "Joe" contacted police again. This time, he'd seen Watts on television after his arrest in Houston and recognized him as the man who murdered Dutcher. But after Watts was sentenced in Texas, Oakland County authorities didn't pursue the Dutcher investigation, assuming Watts would leave his cell only in a pine box.
When "Joe" saw The Abrams Report--which has a minuscule audience--he called authorities a third time. On March 4, Thomas Furtaw, an assistant attorney general in Michigan's criminal division, filed a first-degree murder complaint against Watts for Dutcher's murder. (Authorities did not release any more information about the victim other than to say several of her siblings still live in Michigan.) Furtaw said that proceedings to extradite Watts to Michigan would begin immediately.
"I just hope they can do what they think they can do," says Joe Tilley of Arlington; his daughter Linda became Watts' first known victim in Texas on September 5, 1981. "It's going to save the state of Texas from a huge embarrassment."
The Dutcher case illustrates how much luck plays a role in solving old crimes. The task force had apparently never contacted "Joe" before his call in mid-January, even though he'd given statements to police right after the crime. "That's the strange irony," says Andy Kahan, crime victims' coordinator for Houston. "It wasn't even one of the cold cases they were looking at, and it was incredible that he was watching the show. It makes me firmly believe there was divine intervention."
The next best hope for the victims' families is the case of Gloria Steele, believed by many investigators to be Watts' first homicide victim. She was stabbed 33 times in her apartment near Western Michigan University, where Watts was a student, on October 30, 1974. Last week, Dan Weston, head of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, submitted his cold case squad's investigation of Steele's murder to the county attorney, who may announce whether he will file charges against Watts this week.
"We don't have any big revelation like someone saying they saw him do it," Weston says. "If I could say we had an exact match on DNA, I'd be screaming it."
Investigations are continuing in other Michigan cases. Saline police Chief Paul Bunten, who headed the Ann Arbor team focusing on the "Sunday Morning Slasher" in 1979, says it's unlikely those crimes will be solved. "But all you need is one," Bunten says. "In Michigan, it's mandatory life without parole if you are convicted of murder."