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).
Watts has given clear warning of what he plans to do when he gets out. On a stifling hot day in August 1982, the killer sat in a squad car with Houston homicide Detective Tom Ladd as they drove to an unmarked grave where one victim was buried. He'd deliberately chosen Ladd to hear his confessions.
"Aren't you glad it's over--that you got it off your conscience?" Ladd asked him.
"You know," Watts said quietly, as if chatting with an old friend, "if I ever get out, I'm going to do it again."
Retracing Watts' life, with access to psychiatric records, internal police reports and transcripts and audiotapes of his confessions, it's clear that he was telling the truth. And it's clear that, in 2006, Coral Eugene Watts will be very hard to stop.
Genesis of Evil
The first mistake people make when discussing Coral Eugene Watts is to see his choice of victims as haphazard, his behavior as inexplicable, says Dr. Harley Stock, a forensic psychologist who has evaluated about 800 criminals convicted of murder and sex crimes. In 1980, Stock, while living in Michigan, became involved in the search for a killer dubbed the "Sunday Morning Slasher," who was eventually identified as Watts.
"Watts has a fantasy in his mind of the victim that is brewing there," says Stock, now in private practice in Florida. Though Watts didn't rape his victims, Stock believes the attacks were sexually motivated. "Then he goes out and seeks someone who matches that fantasy. He killed within a certain age range, within a certain look. Maybe they were the kind of women he wanted but could never get."
Though he's known to have killed two black women and one Hispanic woman, Watts' victims were almost exclusively attractive young white women, often with long hair. They were never obese and rarely older than 40.
"These events seem to be spontaneous and unprovoked, but they are very well-planned," says Stock, who has interviewed Watts in prison. "When he goes after someone, he gets as much enjoyment in stalking the victim as he does in killing the person. He enjoys the physical sensation of having the power over life and death." But Watts' varied methods of killing make him an anomaly in the world of serial killers. "He was looking for new ways to make people squirm before they died," Stock says. "He was looking for new ways to get enjoyment, and he wanted to thwart the police."
His race also makes him an oddity. "A black serial killer is very rare, less than 1 percent," Stock says. "In young black males, the incidence of violent crimes is very high, but not serial killings. It's essentially a white male crime."
Though diagnosed by one psychiatrist as a paranoid schizophrenic, Stock dismisses that out of hand. "The hallmark of schizophrenia is disorganized thinking," Stock says. "Watts was too bold, too smart, too self-assured. These killings were very well-executed, logical and coherent."
The likelihood of Watts' rehabilitation "approaches zero," Stock says. "It's a lifelong behavior that will not change. Even among the 800 murderers I've seen, what stood out with this guy was his total, absolute disregard for human life."
The craving started early. As he reached puberty, it invaded his dreams. He began nurturing it, stroking it, taking immense pleasure in it. His urge to kill a woman first erupted in the murder of a family acquaintance, or so he later told Houston police. He said he didn't remember the slaying until mourners told him she was dead.
He was born Carl Eugene Watts at Fort Hood, Texas, on November 7, 1953, to Richard and Dorothy Watts. Dorothy was 18; Richard was a private in the Army a few years her senior. Three days after his birth, the couple left Texas for Coalwood, West Virginia, where both grew up. The son knew little of his father; Richard and Dorothy divorced in 1955 when Carl and his sister Sharon were toddlers. At some point, Carl started using the name Coral--the way he pronounced his name in his soft Southern drawl. A "mama's boy," he also spent a lot of time with his grandmother, who would later tell Houston Chronicle reporter Evan Moore that as a child Watts loved to hunt and skin rabbits.
A few years later, Dorothy Watts moved to Detroit, with Coral remaining behind with his grandmother for a while. In 1962, Dorothy married Norman Ceaser, a mechanic. They had two more children.
As a teen-ager in the '60s, Watts seemed promising: an athlete and Golden Gloves boxer, soft-spoken and polite. But a childhood bout with meningitis had forced him to repeat third grade; from then on, he struggled in school. His mother blamed his poor memory and learning problems on the meningitis-induced high fever. But Watts could remember certain things extremely well.
He first came to the attention of police as a 15-year-old paperboy, when the cravings broke through into daylight. On June 25, 1969, Watts attacked Joan Gave, 26, while delivering papers in her Detroit apartment building. At 7:30 a.m., Watts, large and muscular for his age, knocked on the woman's door. When Gave answered, Watts tried to throttle her. She screamed and Watts ran, though he later returned and finished delivering his papers. Arrested four days later, Watts said with a shrug, "I just felt like beating someone up."
In September 1969, at his lawyer's advice, Watts checked into the Lafayette Mental Clinic in Detroit. Watts denied he was there for any particular reason and seemed unconcerned about his predicament. Evaluated by Dr. Gary M. Ainsworth, Watts said he'd become sexually active at 14 but appeared to have little interest in girls, equating sex with "wicked behavior."
Watts' parents seemed perplexed. "The patient's mother appeared wearing a wig and a rather tight sweater," Ainsworth reported, "and stated that she could offer no reason why her son would act the way he did and furthermore that he has never given them indication of this kind of behavior before."
But quiet Coral was a bully. Dorothy Ceaser mentioned that her 11-year-old daughter was "spoiled." Both mother and son complained that the girl cried all the time. "However," Ainsworth wrote, "it is apparent that what they mean by this is that this sibling cries only when the patient provokes her."
The psychiatrist's conclusion: "Coral is an impulsive individual who has a passive-aggressive orientation to life. There is no evidence of psychosis in the examination, although there [is] some confusion in thinking when the situation becomes overly complex."
Ainsworth's final report was startling and prescient: "This patient is a paranoid young man who is struggling for control of strong homicidal impulses. His behavior controls are faulty, and there is a high potential for violent acting out. This individual is considered dangerous."
The prescription: regular outpatient treatment.
Released November 7, 1969, the day he turned 16, Watts had discovered an amazing truth: He could take refuge in the mental health system whenever his bizarre behavior got out of hand. Whenever, that is, he got caught. And one of the most confounding things about Watts is that he was caught many times.
"Is Charles Here?"
Wearing a miniskirt and platform shoes, Gloria Steele, 19, lay sprawled on her back in the apartment, eyes open and lifeless. As police in Kalamazoo, Michigan, examined the crime scene on October 30, 1974, friends sat on the couch crying hysterically. African-American and the mother of a 3-year-old girl, Steele had been stabbed 33 times in the chest, an attack so ferocious that a piece of steel had lodged in her spine. There had been no robbery or sexual assault, and no witnesses. But Watts, now 20, would quickly become a suspect.
In the five years since his first arrest in 1969, Watts had returned for outpatient treatment to the Lafayette clinic fewer than 10 times. He had stayed out of trouble with police during his high school years, though he often used drugs--mostly marijuana, speed and pills. Watts had few friends and felt uncomfortable talking to people, ending up in the principal's office several times because of conflicts with girls. A star player for his high school football team, Watts had trouble with academics. He finally graduated at 19 with his mother's tutoring.
By this time, Dorothy Ceaser was teaching art and wood carving in the Detroit Public Schools. To outsiders, Coral seemed close to his mother, though he later told a psychiatrist that his mother "beat him, hollered at him, didn't act as if she liked him and several times struck him with a switch about the face. He also did not have a good relationship with his stepfather, who he states was quite mean when not drunk." (Questioned by a reporter, Watts' stepbrother would later deny any abuse took place. Dorothy and Norman Ceaser declined to be interviewed for this story.)
In 1973, Watts enrolled in Lane College, a black school in Jackson, Tennessee, on a football scholarship. A football injury during his first semester cut his tenure short. Back in Detroit, Watts worked about six months until he was accepted at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo under a special program that provided scholarships and mentoring for black students who didn't otherwise qualify for admission.
In June 1974, Watts moved into a WMU dorm room with two other men and signed up for 12 hours. But academics didn't seem to interest him. Moody and frustrated, he made no effort to stay in contact with his tutor. Instead of going to classes, he played pingpong, watched TV and stoked his rage.
A few months before enrolling at WMU, Watts had visited the Lafayette clinic, indicating that his problems were "the same as before." A psychological evaluation of Watts done at that time concluded: "This individual is struggling with conflicts in the area of sexuality and sexual identity. Homosexual concerns may be present. Rejection and denial are being unsuccessfully employed, and more primitive thoughts and fantasies threaten to break through." A note made at the clinic indicated Watts had a "strong impulse to beat up women."
At WMU there were plenty of targets. But no one at the Detroit clinic contacted police, and everything Watts told doctors was confidential.
Like a shark, Watts began trolling campus apartment complexes. On October 25, 1974, Lenore Knizacky, 23, reported that a black man had rapped on her door in the morning and asked, "Is Charles in?" Told that no one by that name lived there, the man asked to leave a note, but when he stepped inside he grabbed Knizacky and tried to strangle her. At one point, he put his hand on her crotch, but he gave up and left when Knizacky screamed and fought.
Five days later, Steele was murdered. A woman who lived in Steele's complex told detectives that she'd walked down her stairs and passed a black man walking up that same day. While she watched, the man knocked on her door. She yelled to ask what he wanted. "I'm looking for Charles," the man said.
"Why are you here?" she asked.
"I don't know," the man said, and walked away.
About two weeks later, Diane K. Williams, 23, called police to report a similar attack. She'd seen a young black man at the complex several times; each time he was "looking for Charles." At noon on November 12, 1974, the man had knocked on her door and asked the same question. He pushed his way in and began punching and choking her. He ran away when Williams kicked the phone from its receiver.
Williams had seen his car, and a check of eight possible vehicles traced to one owned by Watts. Police assembled a lineup, and both Knizacky and Williams picked out Watts. Arrested in December 1974, Watts, now 21, was charged with two counts of assault and battery. That day, Watts met with a court investigator on the Knizacky assault charge and admitted he'd assaulted at least 15 females. But he refused to talk about Steele's murder and demanded an attorney.
Lawyer Ronald Plaszcak talked with Watts and immediately told detectives his client wanted to commit himself to the Kalamazoo State Hospital for voluntary treatment. "Watts," Plaszcak said, "should not be allowed back on the streets." At the state mental hospital, Watts adjusted to a pleasant schedule of playing pool and basketball. In his initial report, Dr. James Katilius wrote: "[Watts] has no special preoccupations. He doesn't believe in God. Has never heard any voices. No delusions. He doesn't believe in ESP. No suspiciousness. Nobody is against him. No gross psychotic symptoms noticed and all mental faculties are intact."
Katilius discovered that Watts had last been seen at the Lafayette clinic a month before his arrest. "At the clinic," Katilius wrote, "[Watts] stated that he had beaten a number of women this fall, and he thinks he's killed one or two of them by choking." The psychiatrist concluded that though the patient wasn't psychotic, "he is impulsive and unable to learn from previous experience. He blames others for his criminal acts." Diagnosis: anti-social personality.
Watts' parents again trudged in for interviews. Wrote a social worker: "[Mrs. Ceaser] denies any knowledge of his history of assaultive tendencies and incidents, and that seems unlikely as Coral has at least a six-year history of assaulting women."
While hospitalized, Watts half-heartedly attempted suicide by hanging himself with a cord from a laundry bag, but he didn't even lose consciousness. He was released from the hospital a couple of months later and got a job cleaning a church.
In preparation for Watts' trial on the assault charges, a judge ordered an official evaluation at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Ann Arbor. So in June 1975, Watts was examined yet again, this time by Dr. Elissa Benedek. "The defendant remembers [the assaults on Knizacky and Williams]," Benedek wrote, "and says he has been involved in incidents of beating up girls since at least the age of 15...After these types of incidents, he has no special feelings except he generally feels good."
Benedek described Watts' attitude during the interview as depressed, but when it was over, he became "quite cheerful and happy." Benedek also found that Watts was not suffering from mental illness and was competent to stand trial. However, Benedek wrote, "this patient is clearly quite dangerous, and his potential for recidivistic behavior is great."
While in the hospital, Watts told one psychiatrist that he wanted to "get help." But "the only specifics he has related in terms of the helping process have been in relation to his legal entanglements," the doctor noted. "He has made reference to having assaulted many women over a long period of time, and when asked by myself if this was disturbing to him, he stated that the 'getting caught' aspect of it was bothersome to him."
Asked if he was concerned about the plight of the victims, Watts bluntly stated "no."
Watts pleaded no contest to one assault charge and received a year in jail. Because of a lack of evidence, he was never charged in Steele's murder. He had wriggled his way out of serious trouble again.
Released in mid-1976, Watts returned to Detroit, living with his mother. But the doctor who said Watts didn't learn from his mistakes was wrong. The lesson he took from Kalamazoo: Never let his victims see his face.
The Ann Arbor newspaper dubbed the killer the "Sunday Morning Slasher." For Detective Paul Bunten, three young women stabbed to death within six months in this quiet university town 45 miles west of Detroit constituted a major crime wave.
Now chief of police in nearby Saline, Bunten spent 30 years with the force in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan. But the Watts investigation, which consumed Bunten's life for two years, haunts him still.
The first to die in Ann Arbor was Shirley Small, a 17-year-old high school student. On April 20, 1980, after walking home from a party, Small bled to death on the sidewalk in front of the townhouse she shared with her sister. She'd been repeatedly slashed with a scalpel-like instrument. Three months later, Glenda Richmond, the 26-year-old night manager of a diner, was found dead near her front door, stabbed 28 times in the left breast area, possibly with a screwdriver. And Rebecca Greer Huff, 20, a University of Michigan graduate student, was walking to her door in September 1980 when she was stabbed 54 times with a screwdriver-type weapon.
All were white females killed at about 4 a.m. on a Sunday in apartment complexes with excellent lighting. None had been raped or robbed. There were no eyewitnesses. And no evidence.
The Ann Arbor police chief announced the formation of a task force to find the killer. In Detroit, police Sergeant James Arthurs read about the murders, and something rang a bell. In 1969, he had dealt with Watts after his "paperboy" attacks; Arthurs later assisted Kalamazoo police during the Steele investigation by executing a search warrant at Dorothy Ceaser's Detroit home. The similarities--female victims with "overkill" stab wounds, no robbery, no sexual assault--prompted Arthurs to call Ann Arbor police with his suspicion that Watts might be the Sunday Morning Slasher. Watts' name went on the list as a possible suspect. But with tips coming in over a hotline, the list was long.
In the six years since his brief stint in Kalamazoo, Watts had gotten a job as a mechanic at a Detroit trucking company where his stepfather worked, and fathered a child with a girlfriend from childhood. Then in 1978, he met Valeria Goodwill at a Detroit disco. They married in August 1979. But Watts hadn't stopped his attacks; he'd merely changed tactics. He'd gone from daytime rapping on apartment doors to midnight stealth.
Investigating Arthurs' tip, Bunten learned Watts had been arrested in October 1979 in Southfield, a Detroit suburb, when police, answering a late-night report of a prowler, had nabbed Watts after a short chase. The prowling charge was dismissed; Watts paid a fine for driving infractions. That episode connected Watts to a series of attacks in Southfield from June to October in 1978, when five women were assaulted at night by a man who had slipped inside their homes. Each woke to find a man on top of her. In some cases, he had his hands on their genitals. None of the women could describe her attacker in detail, but he matched Watts' general description.
During the next year, homicides later linked to Watts showed an escalation in boldness and ferocity. A series of women were attacked from behind between midnight and 6 a.m. while walking from their car to their front door:
October 8, 1979: Peggy Pochmara, 22, strangled, Detroit.
October 31, 1979: Jeanne Clyne, 44, stabbed, Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.
March 11, 1980: Hazel Connof, 23, strangled, Detroit.
March 31, 1980: Denise Dunmore, 23, strangled, Detroit.
May 31, 1980: Linda Monteiro, 27, strangled, Detroit.
Monteiro's murder occurred a month after the first Ann Arbor attack. Then Bunten discovered the Canada connection. On July 31, 1980, Irene Kondratowiz, 22, of Windsor, Ontario, was walking home at 3:40 a.m. when a man grabbed her from behind and slashed her throat. She lived but couldn't identify her attacker. U.S. Customs recorded that Watts' car crossed from Windsor into Detroit at 4:16 a.m. The same thing happened to Sandra Dalpe, 20, of Windsor, a few months later. Stabbed from behind and left for dead, Dalpe lived but didn't see her attacker. Four hours later, Watts' car was recorded leaving Windsor for Detroit.
On November 1, 1980, Mary Angus, 30, of Windsor, got a good look at Watts' tactics. Angus was getting out of her car about 1:30 a.m. when a man in a hooded sweatshirt jogged past. As Angus walked to her front door, she noticed him stop to tie his shoe. He then turned to follow her. When Angus screamed and sprinted for her door, the man ran off. Shown a photo lineup, Angus immediately went to Watts' picture but said she couldn't be sure. That night, Watts' car crossed from Windsor to Detroit shortly after the assault.
Though the task force continued to work other tips, Watts had become Bunten's prime suspect.
Cat and Mouse
As lead investigator of the "Slasher" task force, Bunten had little time for sleep. "We had three dead young ladies," Bunten says. The fear that there would be more prompted Ann Arbor police to step up patrols. So on November 15, 1980, Bunten, in an unmarked car, was driving the deserted streets after midnight, alert for anything unusual.
At 4:50 a.m., he heard strange traffic on the police radio: Two officers described a man in a brown Grand Prix following a woman, who was slipping in and out of doorways trying to avoid him. The driver would watch as she turned a corner, then race ahead of her, park and wait for her to go by. This continued for 10 or 11 blocks.
Bunten immediately made the connection: Coral Watts drove a brown Grand Prix. Officers described the woman disappearing into her home and the driver craning his neck, jumping out of his car to find her. When the stalker spotted police, he leaped back in his car and drove off. After a short chase, he fled on foot and was caught. Police arrested Watts for driving with a suspended license and expired license tags.
Hours later, Bunten faced Watts across a table in an interrogation room. A search of Watts' car revealed two screwdrivers, a box containing wood filing tools and a dictionary with "Rebecca is a lover" etched on the cover. Detectives sent it out for fingerprint comparisons with the murdered Rebecca Huff, but came up empty.
Watts, now 27, had a short Afro and a trim moustache and goatee. He struck Bunten as middle-class, bright--and streetwise. "When I started talking to him, he knew it wasn't about the traffic stop," Bunten says. "He said he wanted a lawyer. He knows if I go on and talk to him, I'm violating his rights." A by-the-book cop, Bunten had to stop his questioning and watch while Watts went through the phone book, picked an attorney and dropped his dime.
Even though he knew he was under intense suspicion, Watts didn't miss a beat. Five days after the interrogation, a black male wearing a dress shirt, dark trousers and a light brown trench coat grabbed Rita Pardo, 60, in the laundry room of her apartment building in Windsor about 7 p.m. The attacker ran when she screamed. Customs records showed no crossing by Watts' car that night. But the next day, Ann Arbor police noted that Watts was wearing clothing that matched what Pardo had seen. Bunten met with the task force that morning, and detectives learned that Watts had confessed Steele's murder to his attorney and psychiatrist. They concluded there was the "distinct possibility" that Watts was involved in the murders identified by Bunten--and perhaps many more.
Ann Arbor, Detroit and state police began shadowing Watts. They spied as he went to work, to the grocery, to his girlfriend's house. What they observed seemed like a normal enough life, in the daylight hours, anyway. But at night, Watts drove, sometimes up to 300 miles before dawn--roaming, restless, random. His bizarre driving patterns prompted Bunten to get a warrant for a tracking device, which was secretly installed on the suspect's car.
But Watts, an expert stalker, seemed to have a sixth sense about being followed. "He knew we were watching him," Bunten says. "He never confronted our people, but he'd get out at a traffic light and yell at private citizens, thinking they were cops." Watts began to restrict his driving, rarely leaving his neighborhood. And he committed no crimes.
On January 29, 1981, the day the tracking authorization ended, Bunten and another detective went to the Ceasers' home with a warrant to obtain a blood sample from Watts to compare with the blood found on his shoes after the earlier arrest. As his mother glared, Bunten took Watts into custody.
That day, during a five-hour interview, Watts refused to answer Bunten's questions but admitted that he was troubled, "possibly emotionally ill." Bunten believes he got close to breaking Watts once, when the detective rose from the table and walked behind Watts to demonstrate that he knew exactly how he made his attacks.
"You grabbed them like this," Bunten said, putting his arms around Watts, "then you pulled their heads back like this, and you reached over with your right arm and stabbed them like this!"
In his first display of emotion, Watts burst into tears and begged to see his mother. Hoping Watts was about to confess, Bunten agreed.
It was a mistake. Watts clammed up.
The blood tests on Watts' shoes failed to link him to a crime. Frustrated, Bunten tracked down Valeria Goodwill, the black Detroit woman who Watts had married in 1979. Goodwill didn't believe that Watts was capable of murder, but his behavior had disturbed her. At night he often flailed about in his sleep, sometimes falling to the floor as if wrestling with inner demons. After deciding he was an atheist, he'd refused to let her have a Christmas tree. He prohibited her from wearing makeup and tried to flush her wig down the toilet. And when he lost his job, Watts stayed home all day, obsessively rearranging the furniture.
Strangest of all, after they had sex, Watts would immediately get up and leave the house, often for hours, Goodwill said. "He would just get in the car and go. He'd be gone hours and hours," she told Bunten. Sometimes Watts would return with his clothes disheveled and torn. After she twice bailed him out of jail for prowling, Goodwill filed for divorce; it was final in May 1980.
Strange behavior, sure enough, but Bunten still had no evidence against Watts. He had to think up some new tactics. With surveillance ended, Bunten arranged to "bump" into Watts on a regular basis. As Watts would enter a grocery store, Bunten would be leaving. "Every time he turned around," Bunten says, "I was standing there saying, 'I want to talk to you, Coral.'"
On March 10, 1981, Bunten was at the courthouse when he saw Watts talking on a pay phone. "Hi, Coral," Bunten said, "you want to come talk to me?'" Watts dropped the phone and ran off. A few days later, Watts had disappeared: Without telling even his mother, he had left the state.
He would resurface 1,400 miles south in Texas. And again, Watts had learned from his mistakes. This time, he became a phantom with no clear address. Most important, Watts had learned to vary his methods of murder. Though his favorite killing day was early Sunday morning, few other patterns could be discerned.
The bodies started showing up in September 1981, but nobody noticed. Houston was the national homicide capital in the early '80s, notching 701 murders in 1981 alone. The police department was temporarily without a chief and severely undermanned, making Houston, with a vast freeway system and 600 square miles, a perfect killing ground.
But Bunten was still on Watts' tail. Tipped that the suspected killer was heading to Houston, on April 8, 1981, Bunten contacted the city's homicide squad and sent over a case history on Watts. Houston police would come under fire for doing little about Watts' presence, but it's clear that Watts worked hard to foil their attempts to keep track of him. A confidential memo written in September 1982 by a Houston detective outlines what happened next.
Homicide Detective Doug Bostock verified that Watts began working at a Houston trucking company in March and was living in a cheap motel on Houston's raw East Side. But Bostock couldn't pin down Watts' address. Already aware that Houston police were asking questions about him, Watts would move more than a half-dozen times in as many months, using a friend's address on job applications.
After Bostock visited his place of work, Watts quit his job and told friends he was moving to Dallas. The detective contacted Dallas police and sent them Bunten's packet. But during the summer of 1980, Watts wasn't living in either Houston or Dallas. Watts was working for Welltech Inc., an oil company based in Columbus, about 40 miles west of Houston. On his days off, usually Friday and Saturday, he'd drive to Houston.
In late August, Watts signed a deal to work for Houston's Metro transit system. And the old urges returned. In the dawn hours of September 5, 1981, as Watts drove aimlessly around the city, he saw a young woman climb into her car and leave an apartment complex. Watts followed her 160 miles to Austin. In a twist of fate, he lost her and spotted Linda Tilley of Arlington, a University of Texas senior arriving at her new apartment.
Seized from behind, Tilley fought Watts so fiercely that the two tumbled into the apartment swimming pool. Watts' powerful arms pushed her head under water until the flailing ended. Tilley's drowning was ruled accidental; Watts' first Texas homicide had fooled the medical examiner.
Five days later, Bostock received a tip from another officer that Watts had attended church services at the Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church in East Houston. Though Watts told a psychiatrist he didn't believe in God, he evidently found something he liked at the white-steepled church on MLK Drive. Founded in the '60s, it is a radical, Detroit-based sect that venerates the "Black Madonna." It is probably where Watts met Sheila Williams, soon to be his girlfriend.
Tilley's murder had ended Watts' hiatus from killing, which apparently lasted nine months. Though still living near Columbus, Watts spent the hours after his night shift ended cruising Houston's freeways, often drunk on his favorite Tennessee whiskey, searching for victims.
On September 12, 1981, just before midnight, Watts spotted Elizabeth Montgomery, 25, walking her dogs. Minutes later, she stumbled home and collapsed into her boyfriend's arms, dead of one stab wound to the chest. Two hours later, Watts saw Susan Wolf, 21, leaving a shopping center in the same area. He followed Wolf home, slashed her repeatedly with a large knife, left her dead on the sidewalk and drove west to his apartment near Columbus.
Two slayings in one night; audacious for sure, but again Watts got lucky. Two witnesses who glimpsed the hooded killer said he looked white. Police found no link to Watts.
Finally, Detective Bostock caught a break. In November 1981, an informant reported that Watts had been seen wearing a Metro uniform and driving a used van with dealer tags. Bostock confirmed that Watts worked the 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift at Metro, but a surveillance team sent to the address on his job application turned up nothing.
Bostock didn't give up. He set up surveillance of Watts at the bus barn, but the suspect shook the tails when he hit the freeway. Finally, Bostock arranged to have a tracking device put on Watts' vehicle. That led police to Watts' new home: the dumpy Idylwood apartments on Houston's East Side. Throughout November and December, Bostock followed Watts when he could, but he saw no sign that Watts was committing attacks on women.
It wasn't until January--when Bostock might have been lulled into thinking those Michigan cops had overactive imaginations--that Watts really started up again, with a vengeance.
Melinda Aguilar had her hand on the doorknob when it jerked open. Staring at her was a black man wearing a red sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. All she could see was the whites of his eyes. Oh, my God, she thought. My dad told me this was going to happen.
At age 18, Aguilar had upset her parents when she moved in with roommate Lori Lister, 22, in a second-story apartment on Houston's West Side. "In my family," says the petite Aguilar, "you don't move out until you get married."
Though it happened more than 20 years ago, telling the story still brings pain. Aguilar's expressive eyes brim with tears at one point; for years she struggled with panic attacks. But she remembers those who didn't survive their encounter with Watts. That he soon will be released from prison is Aguilar's worst nightmare.
That Sunday, May 23, 1982, Aguilar had woken up at 6 a.m. Lister had spent the night at her boyfriend's place. Aguilar, still wearing her nightie, heard keys jingle and reached for the door to find Watts, who seemed shocked. He grabbed the 5-foot-tall Aguilar by her long black hair. "If you scream, I'll kill you," he said, pressing a knife to her throat. He put an arm around her neck and squeezed.
While Watts gripped her, Aguilar let her body sag and pretended to pass out. He dragged her to the bedroom and dumped her across the bed. As Aguilar played unconscious, she heard him go outside and begin dragging something up the stairs: tha-thump, tha-thump.
Hearing moaning, Aguilar risked a peek to see her roommate lying on the living-room floor. When Lister arrived home, she'd been attacked from behind and choked unconscious. Watts returned to the bedroom and grabbed some wire hangers. He quickly bound Aguilar's hands behind her back with the wire, then left the room to tie Lister's hands and feet the same way. He came back at one point to check on Aguilar, and jumped and gave an excited little clap. She thought, "He's enjoying this."
Leaving the bedroom door open a crack, Watts started running water in the bathtub. As he dragged Lister into the bathroom, Aguilar knew she had one chance. Quietly, she closed and locked the bedroom door, hands still bound, then struggled to open the sliding door to the balcony. She slipped outside only to confront a chest-high railing, too high to get her leg over. Sucking in a deep breath, Aguilar plunged headfirst over the rail. She landed on her knees and ran screaming toward a couple on their front porch.
A neighbor who'd called police after hearing muffled screams ran upstairs and pulled Lister, already blue, from the bathtub. The woman survived. If not for Aguilar's courage, she and Lister would have been Watts' second and third murders of the morning. He'd already murdered Michele Maday, whose nude body was found in her bathtub in a nearby apartment complex.
Watts ran from the apartment, but Houston patrol officer Don Schmidt tackled him. "He looked scared to death to be arrested," Schmidt says. "I thought I was going to have to kill him." But Watts remained true to form: He refused to talk to Schmidt or Bostock, who handled his interrogation.
A Houston task force, which had formed early in May to look at 40 unsolved homicides of females in the previous two years, began re-examining each case with Watts in mind. On the large chart, they could see Watts' M.O. in a few cases--overkill stabbings--but had no evidence linking him to any. The virus had mutated.
Admitted by court order to Rusk State Hospital in June 1982 to determine if there were grounds for an insanity defense, Watts, then 28, appeared "sullen and unconcerned." A psychiatrist named J.A. Hunter found him to be "without psychosis."
Watts' girlfriend, Sheila Williams, had hired attorney Don Caggins, who taught law at her paralegal school. Caggins brought in his partner, criminal defense attorney Zinetta Burney. "I thought I'd find a young black man who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and got arrested," Burney would tell a reporter. "When I got there, when I started talking to him and he started telling the things he'd done, I thought he was lying or crazy." (Burney did not return phone calls from the Dallas Observer.) Caggins declined to talk about Watts in depth, but he now refuses to represent anyone accused of murder.
The attorneys hired Dr. Jerome Sherman to evaluate their client. During the examination, Watts broke down and wept "while discussing the demise and subsequent elusive search for an uncle who was supposedly killed by his wife" when Watts was a child. Sherman's diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia. Even so, state District Judge Douglas Shaver ruled Watts competent to stand trial.
On the morning of August 9, 1982, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Ira Jones waited for a jury panel to arrive for Watts' trial on three felony counts in the Lister and Aguilar attacks. Detectives had failed to find any evidence against him in other cases. That morning, knowing Watts had two children, Jones says he gambled. "Coral, you've got a daughter," Jones said. "If your daughter was missing, wouldn't you want to know what happened to her?"
"Yes," Watts said.
"If you had a daughter who was dead," Jones continued, "wouldn't you want to bury her?"
"Sure," said Watts politely, in his usual amiable tone.
Suddenly, a monstrous realization flashed in Jones' mind: He's hiding bodies.
"Could you get up and lead me to a body right now?" Jones asked.
A pause, while Watts considered.
"Yes," he said.
A few days later, Jones and Watts stood by a shallow grave. They'd reached an agreement: Watts would confess to his Houston slayings in return for immunity from prosecution for murder. He'd plead guilty to one count of burglary with intent to commit murder and serve 60 years in prison, the maximum available, which was considered equal to a life sentence.
That afternoon, diggers uncovered the body of Suzanne Searles, 25, who Watts throttled and drowned in a flower pot on April 25, 1982. As they stood at the gravesite in a vacant lot not far from her apartment and the sickening smell of decaying flesh wafted from the earth, Watts turned to Jones.
"I want a hamburger, fries and a Coke," Watts said. "And if you don't get me a hamburger, I won't take you to any more graves."
Over the next few weeks, Watts sat at one end of a long conference table chewing his fingers, mumbling in a low monotone and recounting the sickening details of his crimes.
Watts had insisted that his confessions be handled by homicide Detective Tom Ladd, a big, blond bear of a man whose brother Jim is also a Houston homicide detective. Tom Ladd had played Watts' "baby sitter" when Bostock and his partner had tried to get Watts to talk after his arrest. "They'd play good cop, bad cop," Ladd says. "Coral knew the techniques; he'd just shrug and say, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' Then they'd leave and I'd watch him. Coral and I always got along, because I wasn't trying to get him to confess."
The sessions, attended by Tom and Jim Ladd, Watts' attorneys and two other detectives, began each day with Tom Ladd asking Watts a vague but leading question. The first day began this way: "Do you remember a woman walking her dogs?"
Watts nodded and then described in detail his slaying of Elizabeth Montgomery, followed by the murder of Susan Wolf. As they continued, Ladd realized that Watts was confessing to crimes they never could have connected to him, including one another detective had insisted was a bizarre suicide.
Watts never seemed upset, though Tom Ladd frequently had to tell him, "Speak up, Coral." After discussing several murders, the Ladds would take Watts driving in the 100-plus-degree heat to the general area where a crime took place. "We didn't want some dickhead saying we were just trying to dump cases on this poor little black boy," Tom Ladd says. Watts would spot a landmark and then lead detectives exactly where each attack occurred. Tom Ladd was amazed at the accuracy of his memory.
"He came across as articulate and very smart," says Tom Ladd, who sat in the back seat with Watts while his brother drove. "He'd never get the details of one murder mixed up with another."
But when Tom Ladd pressed him to tell why he chose one victim over another, Watts surprised him. "She had evil eyes," Watts said. "I could see her eyes, and they were evil."
Over and over, he repeated it. Instead of his old explanation--that it made him feel good--Watts had learned to blame his victims.
Tom Ladd believed that Watts' need to kill was sexual, the moment of a woman's death his mental ejaculation. But some murders were more bizarre than others. As he discussed the murder of Carrie Mae Jefferson, the only black woman he is known to have killed in Houston, Watts described how hard she fought him and how he'd stabbed her twice on each side of her neck before burying her in a deep grave.
"Why did you stab her in the neck?" Ladd asked.
"For the blood," Watts said.
"You wanted her to bleed?" Ladd asked. "Why?"
"I'll tell you later," Watts said. But he never did. He would lead police to Jefferson's grave, however.
Watts confessed to 13 murders and five attempted murders in Harris and Galveston counties, including the murder of Tilley in Austin and Jeanne Clyne near Detroit, supplying details only the killer would have known. His assault on Patty Johnson, 19, on January 30, 1982, in Galveston, had led to the conviction and life sentence of a black ex-con misidentified by Johnson as the man who slashed her throat. After Watts' confession, the man was freed.
On September 3, 1982, Watts appeared in court to be sentenced under the terms of his plea bargain. To ensure that he would spend as much time in prison as possible, Judge Shaver entered a finding that the water in Lister's bathtub constituted a deadly weapon. The finding restricted the parole board in counting "good conduct time" toward Watts' parole eligibility. (Good time--days off an inmate's sentence earned by good behavior, working and attending classes--is used to maintain order.)
Shaver ordered a transcript of the hearing sent to the Texas Department of Corrections "to consider if and when anyone in the future, whether it be 20 years, 30 years from now or 40 years from now, if anyone is ever so foolish, in this court's opinion, to allow you to walk upon the streets again until you have completed the entire 60 years in the Texas Department of Corrections."
On the Inside
Torso stripped bare and coated with Jheri Curl hair gel, Watts struggled to slip through a small window while a makeshift dummy snoozed in his cell. His slither to freedom just a few months after his arrival at the Coffield Unit near Palestine failed when Watts got stuck.
Watts had arrived in prison affecting a "wild-eyed" look that seemed designed to keep other prisoners at bay. In September 1987, Watts tried a different tactic: a handwritten appeal of his sentence for "berglarey [sic] attempt murder," alleging that Houston police threatened to take away his daughter "and place her in a home," that his attorneys and the prosecutor promised he would not be sentenced to an "aggravated" crime and that "mandatory supervision would not be a part of his sentence."
Watts' appeal had no legal basis. The crime was not aggravated, according to the state's legal definition. And the "mandatory supervision" statute, passed in 1977 to alleviate overcrowding, requires the early release of a nonviolent inmate when his time served plus good time equals his sentence. Though the law was rescinded in 1987, inmates sentenced from 1977 to 1987 remain its beneficiary.
Even his lawyer contradicted him. In an affidavit, Zinetta Burney denied Watts was threatened or that his plea was involuntary.
But Watts again got lucky. Judge Shaver appointed attorney Charles Baird, now a prominent anti-death penalty activist, to handle his appeal. And the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had entered a relatively liberal phase, spearheaded by Justice Randy Duncan III.
The court generated controversy in October 1987 when it issued its determination (in ex parte Patterson) that criminals have a constitutional right to parole and good conduct time and therefore are entitled to notice at the time of their indictment that a "deadly weapon" finding might be made. (Previously, state law didn't require prior notice.) Watts' case was remanded for trial to determine whether Judge Shaver's deadly-weapon finding violated his rights, an issue Watts' appeal had never raised in the first place.
In 1989, the court issued an order deleting Shaver's "deadly weapon" finding. Now classified as a "nonviolent" felon, Watts was granted good time retroactively and began earning three days for every day he served.
Watts had beaten the system again.
His scheduled release date is May 9, 2006. It would have occurred earlier but for his failed escape attempt, which cost him four years, nine months and 86 days in good time. In the past 10 years, several Texas lawmakers have crafted bills trying to keep Watts in prison, but none has passed.
The countdown has begun.
Anguish and Forgiveness
Dallas appeals Judge James Allen, Anna Ledet's father, knew at the time of the plea bargain that Watts could be eligible for parole in as few as 12 years. But his widow, Laura Allen, says he agreed with the deal, counting on the Texas Prison and Parole Board to delay his release as long as possible.
Now a lay leader in her Episcopal church, Laura Allen wrote to Watts 12 years ago, telling her daughter's killer that she forgave him.
Allen was horrified, however, when she learned last year that Watts would be released in 2006. "I just want him to stay in prison," Allen says. "I think he's an excellent candidate for the death penalty. But that's not up to me."
The Tilleys extend no such forgiveness to Linda's killer and feel only bitterness toward Houston police and prosecutors. Carol Tilley says her daughter's murder destroyed her faith in God. "I used to be a liberal," says Carol, an interior decorator. "I used to be against the death penalty. I've had about as much as I can stand of the American Civil Liberties Union."
Lawrence Fossi, a former Dallas lawyer who now practices in Houston, has battled Watts' release since 1988. Fossi was studying law at Yale University when Watts murdered his wife of two years, Margaret, then finishing her studies at Rice University. Fossi has filed several lengthy amicus briefs challenging Watts' appeals. He's angry that at every turn, Watts has slithered through the cracks.
Now Fossi believes he has discovered a simple and legal way to keep Watts in prison for a few more years: changing Watts' prison classification to slow his accumulation of good time. State law requires prison authorities to classify each inmate according to his conviction, behavior and prior criminal history. At intake, Watts was classified as a Class I inmate, the highest possible rating, which assured him 20 days of good time for each 30 days served. On top of that, he has state-approved Class III trusty status, which earns him an additional 10 days for each 30 served.
"If this guy's criminal history isn't enough to keep him from getting the highest rate of good time," Fossi argues, "the rules are meaningless. You can retroactively change his classification and let him challenge it. Isn't that worth an attempt?"
That might be long enough for a 12-person task force in Michigan, formed last November, to re-examine cold cases in which Watts is a suspect. "Nothing had been done on those cases in the last 20 years," says Donna Pendergast, the Wayne County assistant district attorney who formed the task force. "I unequivocally believe that this guy could have killed as many as 100 women. I feel in my bones that you cannot murder this many women and not leave something behind."
In addition, investigators in Waller County, west of Houston, have reopened an investigation into the murder of Emily La Qua, 14, on March 31, 1982. Though Watts confessed to strangling La Qua and throwing her in a culvert, the Waller County prosecutor did not grant immunity. More than 30 items from the crime scene are being tested to see if anything matches Watts' DNA.
But the efforts of Fossi and other victims' families to get the prison bureaucracy or the office of Governor Rick Perry to take action have gone nowhere. Fossi lays the blame on Mary Ann Wiley, general counsel for prisons to the governor. Fossi says that state law allows the governor's office to take action, because the classification is set by the discretion of prison officials, not the courts.
At a meeting with Wiley last October, Fossi says Wiley got angry with him, insisting that Watts had no other convictions and his classification couldn't be changed. But Watts had been convicted for assault in Michigan, Fossi pointed out. And the statute doesn't say "prior criminal convictions," only "prior criminal history." Watts' confession to 13 murders certainly constitutes an extensive criminal history. Wiley did not return phone calls from the Observer; neither did Governor Perry's office.
"Mary Ann Wiley is Coral Watts' best friend," Fossi says bitterly. "If only he knew."
Bryan Collier, director of the parole division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, says that when Watts is released in 2006, he will be housed in a county jail--where and for how long, no one knows yet--and fitted with a GPS-equipped electronic monitor. Collier admits that a parolee might be able to get the monitor off, but its removal would quickly alert authorities. "We would probably escort him if he went anywhere," Collier says. "We would significantly restrict his movement and control his access to the community."
Prosecutor Jones doubts any guard could ever monitor Watts. "He's so highly elusive," Jones says, "he'll slip that person in 30 minutes."
Fossi points out that because Watts is not classified as a sex offender, he will eventually leave the jail setting for a residential environment, and authorities are not required to notify the neighbors.
Some day, Watts could be moving in next door to you.
Biding His Time
Watts' sister, Sharon Watts, who lives in Detroit, is troubled by the media attention on efforts to keep her brother in prison. "There are victims on both sides of the fence," she says. "His children are just as innocent as those other people. I feel for those families, but I feel for his family, for my mother. They should be able to live this down."
Sharon Watts, who has visited her brother in prison, says he's on medication now. "He views the world different," she says. "I personally don't think he has the energy to get out and do something."
Watts' old nemesis Paul Bunten was furious about the plea bargain. "I don't understand how you can forgive somebody for taking somebody's life," Bunten says. Because Washtenaw County, where Ann Arbor is located, wouldn't grant immunity, Bunten was rebuffed by Houston authorities when he arrived to talk to Watts in August 1982. He flew back to Michigan and waited.
Later that year, Bunten and Dr. Stock visited Watts in prison to talk about the Ann Arbor murders. Bunten wanted to know not just how he killed, but why. Stock and Bunten spent more than eight hours with Watts, who described how he'd committed the murders he'd confessed to but refused to talk about anything for which he hadn't received immunity.
Bunten asked Watts if he'd killed other women in Texas.
"Yes," Watts admitted.
"Why didn't you confess to those?" Bunten asked.
"They were making it into a circus," Watts complained. "There were cameras everywhere. I just got tired of it."
"Coral, I haven't got enough fingers and toes to count the women you've killed, do I?" Bunten said, pressing him harder.
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Watts looked at the three other people in the room--80 digits among them, including his own--and couldn't resist a boast. "There are not enough fingers and toes in this room to count the murders I've committed," Watts said. But he didn't mention the "evil eyes" rationale, refusing to tell Bunten why he killed. "I will take that with me to the grave."
"Doesn't it bother you to know you took these girls' lives?" Bunten asked.
"It used to, but it doesn't anymore," Watts said, without emotion, as though he were talking about squashing a tick.
The only evil eyes, it turned out, were Coral Eugene Watts' own.