A Nightmare in Laurel

When I decided to write a piece about the Stefanie Watson cold case back in 2012 to mark the 30th anniversary of this incredibly brutal, yet remarkably obscure crime, I didn’t expect much to come of it. I certainly didn’t expect P.G. County Homicide detectives to solve the case the following year; I didn’t expect the killer to still be alive to answer for the crime; I didn’t expect to meet and become friends with Stefanie’s family and other key participants in those events from 1982, and sit with them at the killer’s sentencing; and I definitely didn’t expect to play a part in bringing about an episode of On the Case with Paula Zahn, focusing on this tragic, but fascinating story.

But all of those things have indeed happened, and I’m excited to see the episode premiere Sunday night, 9/25 at 10p.m. on Investigation Discovery.

I’m getting chills from the preview alone.

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For Windy… and her family

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Over on the Laurel History Boys’ site, I’ve written about the recent, tragic death of Windy Floyd—a waitress and friend at the Tastee Diner, who was the unlikely victim of a murder-suicide on August 12th.

The boys and I started a GoFundMe page to help raise funds for Windy’s children and grandchildren, who are faced with the monumental task of picking up the pieces in the weeks to come.

The Diner has been raising money for the cause by going the more traditional route—the reliable old collection jar. And today, they gave us the proceeds they’ve collected to date: $516 cash, donated in bills of all denominations from customers and employees alike!

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It’s been deposited into the GoFundMe campaign, bringing the total raised (as of this writing) to $1,761 in just 11 days. That’s pretty amazing; but we’re hoping this is only the beginning. All proceeds will go to Windy’s oldest daughter, Lacey Petersen, to use and distribute as she sees fit.

The local community is proving to be both generous and creative in its support. Next Sunday morning, September 11th, Laurel resident (and Diner regular) Mary Piergalline will be setting up a small table outside the Diner to sell handmade jewelry—the likes of which Windy herself would’ve loved. Proceeds from the sale will go to this benefit.

You can help Windy’s family cope a little bit better by pitching in, even if it’s just a small amount. It all adds up, and you can even donate anonymously if you’d like. You can also help tremendously simply by sharing the link and spreading the word.

https://www.gofundme.com/windyfloydmemorial

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A Murder Mystery Set in (Lost) Laurel

Over the years, I’ve read a few novels that actually mention Laurel, Maryland at some point in the story; and it’s always an unexpected pleasure to see my hometown appear within the pages—pages from the likes of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, Tom Clancy’s The Cardinal of the Kremlin, and Dick Francis’ Rat Race.

But it never occurred to me that I might someday read a novel set completely in Laurel—particularly the Laurel of the mid-1980s, which will always be one of my most favorite times. That’s exactly what I got in Teddy Durgin‘s new book, The Totally Gnarly, Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor.

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Photos courtesy of Teddy Durgin

Teddy’s story almost instantly transports you back to Laurel Centre Mall in 1986. That being the Laurel Centre Mall I still recall fondly walking to and from open lunch during my freshman year at Laurel High that very same year.

Without revealing any spoilers, the darkly-humorous plot centers around high school friends (and mall summer employees) Sam, Chip, and Buddy, who inadvertently find themselves mixed up in the murder investigation of their far more popular classmate—cheerleader Muffy McGregor.

There are a number of twists and turns, most occurring right there at the mall and Laurel Shopping Center; and it’s quite a trip to read along in a setting which is so personally familiar.

Many times, I found myself imagining that I was back in 1986; that this was a novel I’d bought at Crown Books, then walked next door through the elevated connector to JC Penney and the mall, and was sitting in the Circle Eatery—reading while enjoying a slice of pizza from Italian Delight and a tasty beverage from Orange Julius.

As I’ve already shared with Teddy, photos from that era will have extra meaning to me now that I’ve read his book. Photos like this one from John Floyd, which shows the Harmony Hut in late 1981. In the story, this is where Chip works.

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Photo: John Floyd II

The Totally Gnarly, Way Bogus Murder of Muffy McGregor is a fun read made all the more special by its memorable setting. Hopefully, Teddy has plans to bring these enjoyable characters back for additional adventures in vintage Laurel!

For more on Teddy Durgin and his first novel, check out the Laurel Leader‘s recent article. And be sure to support this hometown author by picking up the book on Amazon.com!

 

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Laurel Theatre / Petrucci’s: Demolition Pending

My next episode of Lost Laurel will focus on the long history of the derelict building at 312 Main Street, which originally housed the Laurel Theatre, and was the longtime home to Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre before a string of increasingly unsuccessful comedy clubs led to its demise. Here’s a preview:

Unfortunately, the City’s efforts to find a developer willing and able to salvage the critically-deteriorated building weren’t successful, and having recently had the opportunity to tour it myself, I completely see why.

A big thanks to SORTO Contracting, LLC (particularly Francisco Sorto, David Muir, Blaine Sutton, Harry Garlitz and Patrick Fink) for extending the invitation to see and document the building’s final days, and for sharing some truly fantastic finds that I’ll be including in the full episode. In addition to the building’s history, you’ll see for yourself just how far gone the structure actually was. (Yes, those were angry pigeons living inside… and I’m deathly afraid of birds.)

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The SORTO team was also kind enough to carefully remove and save the “Theatre” lettering from the façade for me—these are individually-cut wooden letters that are the only remaining vestiges of the Petrucci’s era (they originally spelled out the full name, “Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre” and matched the adjacent Pal Jack’s Pizza font.laurel-theatre-preview-pic5laurel-theatre-preview-pic6laurel-theatre-preview-pic7

The letters are badly deteriorated, and frankly, I’m amazed that they came down intact. I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I’m going to restore them.laurel-theatre-preview-pic8laurel-theatre-preview-pic9laurel-theatre-preview-pic10

Blaine Sutton and Patrick Fink of SORTO have also been sharing some of the unexpected treasures that only tend to resurface when walls start coming down. And in a movie theater that dates to 1929, that means some very old candy boxes and soda bottles, for starters! Here’s just a glimpse of what they’ve found:

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Photo courtesy of Blaine Sutton

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Photo courtesy of Patrick Fink

 

Patrick tells me that the pristine Pepsi bottle pre-dates 1951, at which point Pepsi stopped using the double-dot in their logo. It had been stuck in the plaster mortar in the ceiling below the balcony for at least 65 years.

I’ll have plenty more photos to share in the next blog update when the full video is ready. Those who don’t get Laurel TV will still be able to see the episode right here.

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Surprise Closing: Silver Diner

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Photo: Chris B. Daniel

Yesterday evening, I got a text from Rodney Pressley—one of my oldest friends from Laurel. He’d just gotten a most unexpected email from Silver Diner. It wasn’t a promotional coupon, or an announcement about an upcoming event:

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Courtesy of Rodney Pressley

They weren’t just announcing that the popular restaurant at 14550 Washington Boulevard was closing—they had already closed, effective immediately.

Rodney sent me the above screenshot, which I posted on the Lost Laurel Facebook page essentially as breaking news, because this information seemed to have come out of nowhere.

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It quickly became one of Lost Laurel’s most engaging posts—ever—with over 300 shares and over 44,000 people reached. (The page has even had more than 150 new likes in the past 24 hours). Clearly, the unexpected departure of the Silver Diner caught all of us off guard, even those who weren’t regular patrons.

A number of people commented that they’d actually just eaten at the restaurant the day before, and there had been absolutely no clue that they had planned to close. Silver Diner’s website (which had already erased the Laurel location from its website at the time of the email) eventually updated its FAQ page with a special notice about the Laurel restaurant’s closing. They also included a detailed PDF.

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In short, it seems that the restaurant had a 25-year lease on the property, which had just ended. The landowner(s) wanted considerably more money to renew the lease than Silver Diner was willing to pay.

One would think that there would have been some sort of communication with the employees and the community at large before the decision to close was made, though. Had there been, I’m guessing there would have been strong support for Silver Diner to remain open. After all, the restaurant seemed to have a full parking lot at all hours of the day and night—they weren’t hurting for business.

And from a historical perspective, (albeit recent history) this is actually a pretty big deal. The Silver Diner opened in late 1990, and was only the second restaurant in the chain’s history (behind Rockville). It even had an early review in the Washington Post.

Twenty-five years. Think about that for a second. In an age when we’ve sadly come to expect businesses to change every couple of years, this one ended up staying for a quarter of a century. While it honestly didn’t seem like it, the novelty of this polished chrome and neon facsimile of a classic diner had steadily become a classic itself. At the very least, it had become a fixture in the shadow of Laurel Lakes.

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Photos: Bonnie Oskvarek

With the news of its closing, rumors and misinformation quickly began flying, as is often the case with social media. Some folks were confusing the Silver Diner with its elder counterpart—the legendary Tastee Diner at 118 Washington Boulevard—which is still very much open for business, and now in its 65th year. Others mistakenly thought the entire Silver Diner chain was going out of business, blaming its revamped menu, among other things.

Others were speculating that the restaurant had closed due to a fire—a fate all-too familiar for other longtime Laurel restaurants. (See also, “Bay ‘n Surf,” “Delaney’s Irish Pub,” and “Tag’s”…)

In fact, there had actually been a minor fire at the Silver Diner on closing day—but it had nothing to do with the chain’s decision to close the Laurel restaurant.

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Courtesy of Megan Wheatley Shurman

So, Laurel’s Silver Diner has closed its doors. There was no forewarning, and no chance for customers to stop in one last time to reminisce. And 25 years’ worth of memories is significant. I’ve heard from several people who had gone to the restaurant on their first dates; and one Lost Laurel reader commented that she’d met her future husband there—he’d been her waiter.

That being said, I suppose there’s never been a more perfect time to share these items from my collection. Frankly, I didn’t really expect to share them; I assumed, like everyone else, that the Silver Diner wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. These flyers, menus, and coffee cup date between 1990–92—the restaurant’s earliest days:

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This one’s a two-fer: local oldies radio station XTRA104 didn’t last very long into the 1990s.

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Note the two locations: it was just Rockville and Laurel at the time.

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For what it’s worth, Silver Diner’s website mentions that they are “looking at multiple opportunities in the Laurel and Columbia areas and (they) hope to return to the Laurel area soon.”

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Stefanie Watson Case: Walsh Sentenced

This morning began on an odd note. At 5:30 AM, I was awake before the sun came up—in order to make sure I could be at the Prince George’s County Court House before 9 AM. It was dark, it was raining… and yet, birds were chirping.

The birds must’ve known that the darkness and clouds weren’t going to linger much longer. It was almost poetic, like so many other things surrounding the Stefanie Watson cold case, which officially reached a milestone this morning. John Ernest Walsh entered a guilty plea and was finally sentenced for her murder.

I had the honor of joining Stefanie’s family at the court house for his sentencing—a recap of that incredible experience is below.

While there are still plenty of questions to be answered, this was a tremendous milestone. After nearly 34 years, the case is finally closed.

I’m grateful to see that Stefanie’s story is also finally getting the attention it deserves—newspapers across the country are already running the Associated Press story about today’s hearing, and now that the case has been adjudicated, Investigation Discovery has been in touch about producing an episode of On the Case with Paula Zahn. Stay tuned for that.

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Meet the Mayors!

Not that long ago, Kevin Leonard, Pete Lewnes and I were having lunch at the Tastee Diner, discussing potential people to interview for our new Laurel History Boys project. Half-jokingly, I said, “How cool would it be to get all of the living ex-mayors of Laurel together, and film them reminiscing?”

Lo and behold, in what will be our very first public program, we’re getting ready to do just that.

I’m thrilled that each of the living former Mayors of Laurel—along with current Mayor Craig A. Moe—will be participating in a fun, informal roundtable discussion, reminiscing on their time in office.

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Dani Duniho, who was Laurel’s first and only female mayor (from 1986-1990) was planning to join us via Skype from her home in Tuscon, Arizona. Unfortunately, she has some family commitments this weekend and won’t be able to join us live. However, Kevin spent a good deal of time with her on the phone, and she provided a wealth of anecdotes that he’ll be sharing. So she will still very much be part of the discussion.

Joining Mayor Moe at the table will be former mayors Robert DiPietro (1978-86), Joe Robison (1990-94), and Mike Leszcz (2001-02)—the latter being the only mayor in Laurel’s history to hold the office after the death of a sitting mayor, when he completed the second term of the late Frank Casula.

We’ve got some interesting questions for these guys, but the real fun will be seeing where the conversation goes when we turn them loose! Time permitting, the mayors will also be taking some questions from the audience.

This free event will be open to the public, and takes place tomorrow evening:

Saturday, December 12
5PM
Laurel Police Department Partnership Activity Center
811 Fifth Street

We’ll also be filming the discussion and posting it on laurelhistory.com, as well as sharing it with Laurel TV.

I designed a program brochure for the event, and Bob Mignon of Minuteman Press on Main Street graciously donated the printing. If you’re attending in person, you’ll get one!

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Also, a big thanks to Jeff Dudley—who wrote a wonderful piece on the Laurel History Boys in his Old Town Laurel column in this week’s Laurel Leader!

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Pete will have a table set up displaying some of the vintage political pieces from his extensive collection, and we’ll also have some t-shirts, vintage posters, and Lost Laurel books for sale. (Perfect stocking stuffers!)

Come join us tomorrow night, and meet the Mayors of Laurel!

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Laurel TV Episode 7: The Stefanie Watson Cold Case

This has been a long time coming due to an increasingly busy schedule, but I’ve finally completed my latest episode of Lost Laurel for Laurel TV. It was by far the toughest one I’ve produced—but the most gratifying. It’s a full recap of the improbable journey helping to reignite the Stefanie Watson cold case back in 2012, and the unlikely arrest that was made the following year.

Todd McEvers, who was a 17-year-old Pallotti student back in 1982, was the lone witness who saw a man throwing something into the woods at the dead end of Larchdale Road. Moments later, he made the startling discovery—Stefanie’s partial skeletal remains. Three days after graduating, his family moved to Reno, Nevada—convinced that the killer knew exactly where they lived.

For the past 33 years, Todd had kept that harrowing tale to himself, speaking only to detectives. After the 2013 arrest of John Ernest Walsh, whose DNA was found in Stefanie’s bloodstained Chevette, Todd contacted me and shared his story. Now a high school teacher in Arizona, he graciously recorded an interview segment for this episode. Thank you again, Todd.

It’s a difficult subject, to be sure, and a dark chapter in Laurel’s history that I’m grateful to have helped bring some closure to. Walsh’s trial for first degree murder is now scheduled for March of next year, and I’m looking forward to proudly attending that beside Stefanie’s incredibly strong family.

Click here to watch in HD on YouTube.

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Coming Soon…

What do you get when you combine the creator of Lost Laurel, the “History Matters” columnist from the Laurel Leader, and the owner of the largest private collection of historical Laurel memorabilia? A trio of hyper-local history buffs eager to share the stories and images you don’t always discover in the newspapers and museums. Details coming soon about an exciting new joint project that will go BEYOND Lost Laurel… Stay tuned!

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Main Street Time Machine

The next time you’re traveling along Main Street, (preferably walking, rather than driving) do yourself a favor and stop in front of Minuteman Press at 335 Main Street. Even if you don’t have anything to be printed, just do some proverbial window shopping—you’ll be in for a historical treat.

A few months ago, owner Bob Mignon expanded his longtime corner business. You might’ve noticed the “Future Home of Minuteman Press” banner… ironically just steps away from what was then the current home.

(Photo: John Mewshaw)

(Photo: John Mewshaw)

Bob didn’t simply move into the larger space next door, he consolidated the building—much as a distant tenant from the early 1920s did, when it was the Ellis Market grocery store.

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Laurel News Leader ad, 1948

Laurel News Leader ad, 1948

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1953)

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1953)

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1954)

(Laurel News Leader ad, 1954)

Being a Laurel history buff himself, (and a tremendous supporter of the Laurel Historical Society) Bob had a unique vision for decorating the expanded storefront windows. He was interested in showcasing historic photos of the town, and worked with Beltsville’s Jay Williams Design Company to create a display that takes the viewer back nearly a century.

(Photo courtesy Greater Beltsville Business Association)

(Photo courtesy Greater Beltsville Business Association)

Included are larger than life images of the Harrison-Beard Building at Montgomery and 9th Streets, Laurel’s train station, (very much relevant, given the current controversy over a new Howard County stop threatening to take its place) St. Philip’s Church, and the electric trolley station at 6th & Main Streets (site of the current Oliver’s Old Towne Tavern—quite the historic little building in its own right.)

But the centerpiece of the design—literally—are the photos and narrative covering the door to the 337 entrance.

Last August, while Bob and Jay were still planning the display, an elderly woman and her family happened to be across the street from Minuteman Press, seemingly admiring the building. Bob went outside to say hello, and found himself meeting 90-year-old Shirley Ellis Siegel, who was visiting with her sons to reminisce about the house she grew up in during the 1920s.

This serendipitous meeting resulted in the photos now featured on the door, which the Ellis family happily shared. The large image showing the market’s interior is used perfectly—it’s as though you’re looking through the door into the building’s past.

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Kudos to Bob Mignon, Jay Williams, and the Ellis family for creating a fantastic visual tribute. It’s a wonderful new way to share the city’s history right there on its most historic street.

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