Tag Archives: Laurel Leader

Stefanie Watson Program: Recapping a Special Night

This past Thursday night, July 9th, I had the honor of giving a special presentation on the Stefanie Watson cold case, describing Lost Laurel‘s role in helping to reignite the investigation into the 30-year-old crime—which finally yielded an arrest. Nearly 33 years after her murder, the case is slated to go to trial next month.

The program was part of “The Rest of the Story: a series based on “Ripped from the Headlines, Laurel in the News”—the current exhibit at the Laurel Museum, which focuses on local and national stories and how they were covered locally. The Stefanie Watson case is one of the stories. The exhibit runs through December 21, 2015, and visitors to the exhibit can browse the Laurel Leader from 1897-2008.

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Presented by the Laurel Historical Society and hosted by the Laurel Police Department at their beautiful Partnership Activity Center, a good turnout braved some heavy rains to hear the program—including Mayor Craig Moe and Chief of Police Rich McLaughlin. My thanks again to all who came out, especially in that weather.

The highlight for me was one special surprise attendee—Christy Torres, who made the drive from Pennsylvania. Chris is the cousin and best friend of Stefanie Watson; the same cousin who had the unfathomable task of reporting her missing back in 1982, when she failed to show up for their planned trip to Ocean City.

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(Photo: Donnie Conty)

Rich & Christy

(Photo: Lindsey Baker)

I’d spoken to Chris at length on the phone and by email, but hadn’t met her until Thursday night. After the presentation, she said, “I have something for you,” and pulled out a beautiful, hand-carved wooden box. “This belonged to Stefanie.”

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It’s an incredible gift that I will truly never forget, and it will always occupy a special place on my desk. Despite having never known her, Stefanie’s memory was never far from my mind, all these years. I’m happy that it will be even closer now.

For those who weren’t able to attend, the entire program was filmed, complete with a question and answer session. You can watch directly on the link above, or view it here on YouTube. I’ll also be focusing my next episode of Lost Laurel for Laurel TV on this story, where you’ll be able to see the aerial photos, maps, etc. that were used in the program in more detail.

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(Family photo)

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Racing… to close Laurel Railroad Station?

There’s a rather unlikely story in the local news this week—a head-scratcher, really. It concerns two of Laurel’s historic landmarks, and how they’re supposedly at odds all of a sudden. I’m speaking of Laurel Park Racecourse and the Laurel Railroad Station.

I’ll get right into it: Laurel Park, which after decades of hard times is finally seeking to turn the corner with an ambitious plan to build “a transit-oriented development with retail and residential space near the racetrack,” has requested the state Department of Transportation open a commuter train stop in Laurel closer to the track.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Because that would just be too easy, state Department of Transportation officials have said that it is unlikely the state will consider a “dual stop” at both the Laurel MARC station and the racetrack. A train platform is already at the racetrack, mind you, but is listed as a flag stop (where trains will only stop when there’s a specific request) on the MARC Camden line schedule.

So, here comes the head-scratcher: the idea being proposed is that the DoT would close the Laurel Station—which is on the National Register of Historic Places—in favor of building a new stop at the racetrack, a mere 2,500 feet away. Where, again, there is already a train platform in place. I’m not sure there’s a more polite way to put this, so I’ll just ask: Are you f***ing kidding me?

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a huge supporter of both places. More than anything, I’d love to see a resurgence of horse racing in Laurel, and have Laurel Park once again become the premier venue that it can be. But certainly not at the expense of endangering what might be the town’s most recognizable landmark—a landmark that, frankly, has been more functional than the track itself in recent years.

Granted, I can’t see anyone in their right mind coming out and proposing that the old train station be demolished—to my knowledge, nothing like that has been discussed. But what would happen if/when the historic station ceases to be an active stop on the MARC line? We already know how vulnerable the city’s old buildings tend to be, especially when they’re vacant.

Lest anyone forget, Laurel came dangerously close to losing the station to fire in January 1992. John Mewshaw recently shared these photos with me—sobering reminders, all:

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

Photo: John Mewshaw, 1992

With the expectation that cooler, more rational heads will ultimately prevail in this, let’s look at some more reasonable options.

First, there’s the basic issue of supply and demand. If enough people genuinely start taking the train to the races again, as they did back in the early-to-mid-20th century, there’s no reason why the Department of Transportation shouldn’t reinstate Laurel Park as an active stop on the MARC line. But even then, closing the town’s historic station wouldn’t make sense, logistically, especially as it relates to everyday commuters with no interest in visiting the race track.

The current station sits in the heart of Laurel at the base of Main Street and provides easy access. From a marketing standpoint, its historic qualities also benefit the commuter rail industry—the classic, Queen Anne styling of the station literally makes you want to take the train… in a way that a new, more modern facility probably wouldn’t.

And marketing is something that Laurel Park obviously needs to do a better job of, too, if it hopes to reinvigorate the track to the point of needing an exclusive train stop to accommodate the masses. For the record, I’m not a fan of their newest logo:

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As a graphic designer myself, I have serious doubts that it was created by a professional. It’s poorly executed for a number of reasons, but I digress. Their logo problems aren’t the main concern here.

But what they should be focusing on—instead of this new train station folly—are unique ways to maximize their exposure (regardless of that hideous logo). And ironically, the old train station is a perfect opportunity for them. I’m just going to offer this up, so Laurel Park Powers That Be, do with it as you please:

Imagine seeing a row of shuttle buses lined up as you get off the train… buses that are whimsically adorned with thoroughbred horse artwork (or, to go even further, imagine the entire bus being decorated to look like a race horse itself…) A row of buses, each designed as an individual race horse, complete with saddle cloth number…

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Much like the old train station invites you to ride the rails, wouldn’t that pique your interest in going to the race track? And imagine the exposure the buses themselves would get just being spotted going back and forth on Route 1—especially when two or three at a time are “racing” there. (Not to encourage gambling, but you could even place bets on which “horse bus” arrives first…)

Keep in mind, I did this in about half an hour. Imagine what could be done with proper time and exploration. (And I’d be more than happy to design it for you, Laurel Park. I assure you, it’d be cheaper than a new train station, too.)

And from a practical standpoint, (e.g. the number of people actually going to the race track from the train station) wouldn’t shuttle buses also just make more sense? At least until Laurel Park starts generating the types of crowds that might require more drastic measures?

For the record, I do hope those crowds eventually return, but only after the race track (and the city) has solid plans in place to accommodate them. First, they need a plan to actually draw them. To paraphrase the Field of Dreams mantra, “Build it, and they will come.”

Source:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/laurel/ph-ll-marc-station-moves-20150616-story.html
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Lost Laurel TV: Halloween

The second episode of Lost Laurel on Laurel TV is now on YouTube! It’s a special Halloween episode, which Laurel TV has been airing locally every day this week at 4PM on their network.

Some of the highlights:

  • We get to meet Rich Blankenship, who operates Laurel’s House of Horror in the old Cinema at Laurel Shopping Center, and learn the history behind the movie theater and its recently-replaced marquee.
  • We touch on some of the ghosts of buildings past, including Fyffe’s Service Center.
  • Learn about the allegedly haunted Bay ‘n Surf restaurant, and the bizarre murder that may have inspired the spooky stories.
  • A tragedy at the 1980 Laurel Centre Mall Halloween Costume Contest, in which yours truly may or may not have inadvertently scared beloved Congresswoman Gladys Noon Spellman to death.
  • Laurel Leader “History Matters” columnist Kevin Leonard gives us the complete history of the notoriously creepy Laurel Sanitarium.
  • Was/is the Avondale Mill site haunted?
  • The spectre of the Ninth Street Bridge, and James Ladenburg‘s amazing miniature replica of it.

This was a fun episode to produce, and it’s wonderful to see some effects enhancements starting to come into play now that we’re getting the hang of things.

Now that there are two shows, one of the recurring themes you might pick up on throughout the series is the opening title graphic. For each episode, I’ve designed a “newspaper” front page in the style of the Laurel Leader from when I grew up in the 80s. It sets the stage for whatever the theme will be, and makes for a functional way of cataloging the episodes.

LOST-LAUREL-TV-INTRO-SCREEN-GRAPHIC title-graphic-main-street-6-final

Laurel Leader sample 1987

It’s one more way to have fun with this project, and as I get further into it, look for some even “older” front page newspaper treatments to emerge. 😉

We’re already planning next month’s episode, which will actually be a two-part series covering the building of Laurel Shopping Center—and there are lots of great stories and photos to be included in that one.

Special thanks to Tyler Baldwin for her hard work and patience, and for also fixing and re-uploading the earlier Main Street episode, which is available here:

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Endangered Main Street: Laurel Theatre / Petrucci’s

The old red building at 312 Main Street has sat empty and derelict for a few years now, and according to the City of Laurel—its new owners—it’s too far gone to be salvaged.

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(Photos: Richard Friend)

(Photos: Richard Friend)

After no other buyers came forward, The city bought the building for $250,000 and plans to demolish it and resell the property. According to multiple sources, the interior has a festering mold problem that’s at least as problematic as its many structural issues, and would require in excess of $2 million to save it. And given its recent history, there’s little hope of resurrecting it. The multiple comedy clubs that inhabited it since the Petrucci family sold its popular Dinner Theatre in 1992 never lived up to expectations, despite drawing some high-profile names in the early years—including Dave Chappelle and Richard Jeni.

Before I get into that, though, let’s take a look at the deeper history of this Main Street landmark.

Laurel Theatre, 1938

A postcard image from 1938. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

To date, these are the earliest photos I’ve come across. The Leader article mentioned that it had been built in 1935, but the 1934 film named on the marquee (You Belong to Me) disproves that:

(Laurel Historical Society archives)

(Laurel Historical Society archives)

In fact, according to the Laurel, Maryland Centennial Souvenir Historical Booklet, the Laurel Theatre opened on October 16, 1929 under Sidney B. Lust, and was built by C. Ernest Nichols. The first film shown was Noah’s Ark. It briefly closed in 1948 to undergo a renovation, at which point it reopened with The Mating of Millie. (Box Office magazine, September 4, 1948).

This 1962 Laurel Leader photo literally shows ’em lined up around the block. (Notice, too, that there was a High’s Dairy where Pal Jack’s Pizza would soon be!)

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I’ve collected a few later (but still pretty darn early) programs from the theater, as has the Laurel Historical Society and collectors Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes. Here are a few:

1934 lobby card. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1934 lobby card. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

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Program from 1939. (Lost Laurel collection)

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Program from 1941. (Lost Laurel collection)

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1942 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1942 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

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Programs from 1959–61. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

Here, too, is an assortment of Laurel Leader newspaper ads through the years:

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And a poster:

Poster for The Omega Man, 1971. (Lost Laurel collection)

Poster for The Omega Man, 1971. (Lost Laurel collection)

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The theater was Laurel’s first and only movie house until the summer of 1966, when both Wineland’s Laurel Drive-In and Laurel Cinema opened at Laurel Shopping Center. The newer venues (and a minor fire in 1975) took their toll; and in 1976, the iconic Main Street theater called it quits.

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(Photo: Robert Marton)

(Photo: Robert Marton)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

(Photo: Ralph Bull)

“Closed Forever” was a bold statement, and one that fortunately ended up not being entirely accurate.

That same year, Carlo Petrucci—who’d already bought the adjacent Pal Jack’s Pizza at 310 Main Street back in 1970—purchased the building. The sale was noted in the April 26, 1976 issue of Box Office magazine:

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The Petrucci family made a valiant attempt to keep the theater going, and did reopen it with the blockbuster Jaws. They announced it with this personalized ad in the Laurel Leader:

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But the family had more ambitious plans for the building, and in the spring of 1977 came the arrival of Petrucci’s restaurant.

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In less than a year, Petrucci’s was already experimenting with the idea of a full-fledged dinner theater—a concept never before tried in the area. And by the early 1980s, Petrucci’s Dinner Theatre was one of the indisputable highlights of Main Street.

(Laurel Leader ad)

(Laurel Leader ad)

Laurel Leader ad, July 27, 1978. (Lost Laurel colletion)

Laurel Leader ad, July 27, 1978. (Lost Laurel colletion)

1984 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

1984 program. (Peter and Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes collection)

Circa 1989. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

Circa 1989. (Laurel Historical Society archives)

But even for the successful Petrucci family, the good times only lasted for about 15 years. Shortly after closing, this quote appeared in the July 25, 1992 Washington Post:

“We realized that to stay open through the summer would have been an exercise in futility,” explains David Petrucci, the sole member of this family-owned operation who has not yet given up on the business.

Thus began the series of hybrid comedy clubs, including Art’s, the Comedy Connection, the Laurel Cinema Cafe, and most recently, The Jokes on Us (aptly named, perhaps).

A 1996 Comedy Connection window display. (Lost Laurel collection)

A 1996 Comedy Connection window display. (Lost Laurel collection)

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Comedy Connection payment folder, c.1990s. (Lost Laurel collection)

There’s a stunning series of photos on Flickr that show the interior of the building in 2011. While the photographer has given it a different name, this is definitely the interior of 312 Main Street. (It may have been an urban exploration shoot—at any rate, the shots are eerily fantastic).

(Photos: Flickr user tmdtheue)

(Photos: Flickr user tmdtheue)

So that brings us to today, where the old building stands—but likely for not much longer.

There’s already been some discussion on the Lost Laurel Facebook page, as well as other local social media sites about the future of the old theater. Complicating the matter is the fact that it sits right in the heart of the city’s own designated “Arts District”—which took another blow in 2012 with the closing of the Laurel Art Center (another building that remains vacant as of this writing).

Many have called upon the Laurel Historical Society to intervene and protect the building, and discussions are underway about possible options other than the inevitable empty lot if it is indeed demolished.

I’ve mentioned that it’s not at all uncommon in cases like this to salvage the façade of the building—just the recognizable front of it—restore it and incorporate that into a brand new, mixed-use building that pays homage to the past. But truth be told, the façade of the old Laurel Theatre was never particularly remarkable, unfortunately, despite its great sentimental value. This would also place significant limits on whatever is constructed behind it.

I have a better idea, albeit probably a farfetched one. Imagine for a moment that it was possible to completely rebuild the Laurel Theatre, just as it was when it first opened in 1929. Now, imagine if it was possible for the city to do it without incurring any cost to itself. (I told you it was farfetched, but bear with me…)

I see this as a chance for the city of Laurel to up their game and create something truly special; and if done properly, I think there’s actually a very good chance that people would help. Lots of people—and not just from Laurel.

They could create an online fundraiser via Kickstarter and/or Indiegogo, where they present the opportunity to not only save the town’s original theater, but to create a genuine, functional showpiece in the heart of the Arts District: a completely rebuilt Laurel Theatre in the 1929 style, but with modern amenities—which could also serve as a type of cultural center for any number of events. Frankly, I can’t think of a more effective way to revitalize Main Street as a whole.

Since it wouldn’t be a privately owned venture, something like this could also likely qualify for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, or similar organizations.

Clearly, the city doesn’t have $2 million to spend on remodeling the theater—even if they wanted to. The $250,000 purchase was an investment toward something—anything–other than the decaying structure that’s been sitting dormant all this time. But if they at least explored the possibility that a national/international fundraiser (plus grants) could actually yield a significant amount of money to do something really special, that’s worth talking about.

Just for comparison’s sake, let’s look at a more famous (or should I say, infamous) theater: Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.

When you visit Ford’s Theatre today, you probably assume it’s maintained its original appearance all these years, right? Not at all. With the exception of its outside walls, the entire theater is a complete reconstruction.

After the 1865 assassination of President Lincoln, the building understandably closed as a functioning theater. The government purchased it from John T. Ford, and promptly converted it into a three-story office building for the War Department, primarily. In 1893, the unthinkable happened: another tragedy. Load-bearing beams in the basement gave way under the excess weight, causing sections of all three floors above to completely collapse. In what must have been a horrific moment, 22 government employees were killed and at least another 65 were seriously injured.

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(Photo: NPS)

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(Photo: NPS)

The building languished until the 1930s, when it was briefly used as a warehouse for the Department of the Interior before being turned over to the National Park Service as “The Lincoln Museum”—where only the first floor was open to the public. Then, in the 1950s, Congress approved a bill that would fund a complete restoration of Ford’s Theatre to its 1865 appearance. And in 1968, the famous theater opened once again as a historic landmark. These dramatic photos (found on the blog, BoothieBarn) show just how gutted it actually was.

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Granted, I’m not suggesting that the old Laurel Theatre is on par with a national treasure; but I wanted to show that it’s entirely possible to gut the interior of a historic building—or level it completely, if need be—and rebuild it to its original specifications. That’s something that should indeed be considered by the city of Laurel before deciding to sell the property—particularly if they can receive funds to do so.

On the much smaller end of the spectrum, take a look at some of the “save our theater” campaigns that actually are on Kickstarter at the moment. I recently pitched in for one near me in Fairfax, VA. The University Mall Theatres is in dire need of new seats, and has raised over $111,000 in a matter of days with their grassroots campaign. That’s a private business, too—the city of Laurel stands to qualify for considerably more if it goes the non-profit route. And as far as non-profit models go, there’s none better than Silver Spring’s AFI Silver Theatre.

The Silver Theatre in 1938 and 2003 (http://silverspringhistory.homestead.com/theatre.html)

The Silver Theatre in 1938 and 2003 (http://silverspringhistory.homestead.com/theatre.html)

It, too, was dangerously close to meeting the wrecking ball when both citizens and politicians stepped in and capitalized on the opportunity to create something remarkable. The non-profit theater and cultural center now hosts films, film festivals, musical events, and much more. It’s also available for private rentals, further increasing its revenue.

The dedication plaque that hangs in the lobby of the AFI Silver says it all—and could easily be applied to Laurel if you think about the similarities:

THROUGH THE TIRELESS EFFORTS OF
THE SILVER SPRING COMMUNITY, INCLUDING
ITS ELECTED OFFICIALS AND APPOINTED LEADERS,
THE PAST HAS BEEN PRESERVED FOR THE BENEFIT
OF THE FUTURE. AS A CORNERSTONE OF
A REVITALIZED DOWNTOWN, THE AFI SILVER
IS A CENTER OF CULTURAL AND EDUCATIONAL
EXPLORATION, UNITING THOSE WHO VISIT
THROUGH THE POWER OF THE MOVING IMAGE
 
APRIL 4, 2003
 
DOUGLAS M. DUNCAN
MONTGOMERY COUNTY EXECUTIVE
 
JEAN PICKER FIRSTENBERG
DIRECTOR AND CEO, AFI

***

So, the city of Laurel now owns the building at 312 Main Street, and has a very big decision to make in the coming weeks. Much like the doomed Laurel Centre Mall, anything they do with it will likely be an improvement over the past decade. But I hope the city planners will at least take a very careful look at this opportunity before selling the property outright. The elusive key to revitalizing Main Street and creating a legitimate Arts District centerpiece may actually be sitting in their hands as we speak.

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Matchbook, c.1950s. (Lost Laurel collection)

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We’re In the News… and Then Some!

laurelleader.com front page

If you’ve been perusing the front page of the Laurel Leader‘s online edition this week, you’ve seen something extraordinary—a LOT of coverage of the new Lost & Found Laurel exhibit, which enjoyed a tremendously successful grand opening this past Sunday at the Laurel Museum!

Most importantly, the reviews are unanimously positive. An unprecedented 150+ attended the opening, and their enjoyment could be both seen, heard, and felt in the oldest house in Laurel. Jeff Dudley, who manages the Tastee Diner and writes the “Old Town Laurel” column for the Leader said it best:

“…it felt more like a family reunion than a museum event.”

Here’s a selection of articles that have come out so far:

Digging the Past at “Lost & Found Laurel” (by Patti Restivo, Laurel Leader)

For Richard Friend, Finding Lost Laurel is “Labor of Love” (by Patti Restivo, Laurel Leader)

Exhibit Proves You Don’t Know What You’ve Lost, ’til It’s Found (Editorial, Laurel Leader)

Lost & Found Laurel—Pictures (Photo gallery by Nate Pesce, Laurel Leader)

Lost & Found Laurel Opens Sunday at Laurel Museum (by Melanie Dzwonchyk, Laurel Leader)

And this comes on the heels of last week’s media coverage leading up to the grand opening:

Collectors Find Plenty of Laurel Memories (“History Matters” by Kevin Leonard, Laurel Leader)

Laurel History Memorabilia—Pictures (Photo gallery, Laurel Leader)

Amateur Historian Inspires Laurel Museum Exhibit (by Emilie Eastman, The Gazette)

The Museum is open Wednesdays and Fridays from 10AM–2PM and Sundays from 1PM–4PM, and the exhibit runs until December 21st. And even if you’ve seen it once, you’ll want to go back—plenty of “new” pieces will be rotated in throughout the year.

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SUNDAY! SUNDAY!! SUNDAAAYYY!!!

If you were around during the era of small racetracks that regularly hosted local races, demolition derbies, and monster truck events, you undoubtedly remember the radio announcer’s rallying cry of “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” For Lost Laurel, tomorrow—Sunday, February 9th—is every bit as exciting. And then some.

The Lost & Found Laurel exhibit has its grand opening tomorrow at the Laurel Museum from 1:00–4:00.

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The museum, located in what is believed to be the oldest house in Laurel (dating to at least the 1840s, with some estimates going back to 1802) is at the corner of 9th & Main Streets. Admission is free.

Even before it was the Laurel Museum, the oldest house in Laurel was a landmark. (Ceramic tile courtesy of Peter & Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes).

Both the Laurel Leader and The Gazette have been spreading the word this week, and the Leader will be covering the grand opening, as well! Here are a few of the media links to date:

Collectors Find Plenty of Laurel Memories  |  Laurel Leader “History Matters” column by Kevin Leonard

Amateur Historian Inspires Laurel Museum Exhibit  |  Gazette feature by Emilie Eastman

Laurel Museum Opens “Lost & Found Laurel” Exhibit Sunday  |  Laurel Leader web feature by Melanie Dzwonchyk

Laurel History Memorabilia  |  (Laurel Leader photo gallery)

Lost & Found Laurel Opens February 9  |  Eventful.com

While I did have the chance to get a few sneak peeks along the way, I’ll be experiencing the opening for the first time along with everyone else. When I was at the Museum last weekend, the exhibit panels had been printed but not yet installed, and many of the displays were only just beginning to take shape.

Laurel Museum pre-opening

I won’t even attempt to list the full variety of things you’ll discover, but yes—that is the original Hershey’s Ice Cream sign that hung from Keller’s/Knapp’s Laurel News Agency for decades. Beside it (partially hidden behind the glass showcase with the fleet of Lost Laurel toy trucks) is the cash register from Cook’s Laurel Hardware. Both of these treasures have been in the Laurel Historical Society’s archives since the businesses closed.

***

I also have an update on the Lost Laurel book, as we’re all anxiously awaiting the printed shipment.

James River Bridge cargo ship 2/7/14

The cargo ship carrying the books arrived in New York yesterday, and I was told to allow an additional 7–10 days for customs clearance and delivery; so I’m expecting to have the books in hand the week of February 17th, at which point I’ll begin mailing out the pre-ordered copies.

You can still pre-order copies right here, and I’ll also have copies available for sale at my “(Re)Collecting Laurel” presentation and book signing event on March 13th—a fun talk that I’m looking forward to as part of the Laurel Historical Society Speakers Bureau!

But remember, you can also win one of the very first copies of the book at the grand opening tomorrow! I donated the two advance copies I’d received (one paperback and one hard cover edition) to the Museum for this purpose, so be sure to come out and take a chance! I look forward to seeing many of you there and hearing what you think about the exhibit!

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Laurel’s Safeway(s)

While I was growing up at Steward Manor during the late 1970s and early 80s, grocery shopping was never really a problem. In just a matter of minutes, if my mom and I were so inclined, we could walk to and from Safeway—which, at the time, was just around the corner from us on Bowie Road. In fact, during the one year that we lived at 2 Woodland Court, it was literally just across the railroad tracks. For more extensive shopping, of course, my dad would drive us there (or more likely, to one of the bigger and/or cheaper stores in the area: Giant, Pantry Pride, or Basics). But on any given day, my mom might have decided to bake a cake or something; and needing only a few select items, she and I would take a quick walk over to Safeway.

Until this past weekend, I hadn’t been able to find a single photo of the Safeway that I so vividly remember from childhood—before it relocated to a new and larger space at Laurel Lakes in 1985 (where it remains today).

For me, the old Safeway was the real Safeway; and when it left, it was like losing an old friend. To this day, I occasionally have dreams in which I’m back in that store—perusing the Cragmont soda aisle and noting the vintage cash registers at the checkout counter, amongst orderly stacks of weekly magazines featuring the likes of Diff’rent Strokes and President Reagan on their covers.

So in the course of my research, when I turned the page in the April 21, 1966 issue of the Laurel News Leader and came to this photo—I smiled at an old friend.

There it was, just as I remembered it. But even newer, because it had just opened. From this angle, (taken from the adjacent shopping center, which had also just opened) you can even see that awesome roller track/conveyor belt thing, which transported your groceries from the checkout counter, outside, around a hairpin curve, and to your awaiting vehicle beneath that covered driveway. (This, of course, was the only downside to walking over to Safeway with my mom—I didn’t get to use that thing nearly as often as I would have liked, but I digress).

Admittedly, I suspected that I might actually find a photo of the store; in an earlier newspaper, I had come across this bold announcement, which included a stock illustration of a similar Safeway store (but without the aforementioned awesome roller track/conveyor belt thing).

Laurel Leader, January 27, 1966.

So, a question I’d often wondered about was finally answered. The Safeway on Bowie Road first opened its doors in January 1966. The adjacent shopping center, which included Market Tire, Arundel Furniture, and Chicken Roost, among others—also another story for another time—opened in April.

But the photo also raised an interesting question, because conspicuously absent in all this was my other beloved store—Dart Drug. I had always assumed that Dart Drug was the original tenant beside Safeway; that they had been built together. Evidently, that wasn’t the case at all.

As I continued through the 1966 newspapers, I spotted the following ad in an August issue—which references the mysterious “Super S” store noted in the photo caption above.

Safeway Super S? I’d never heard of or seen such a thing, but there it was, in the proverbial black and white.

It also immediately struck me as rather ironic that Safeway had actually occupied this entire, massive structure—yet would ultimately move to Laurel Lakes nearly 20 years later in need of more space. What happened there? What exactly was Super S, and how (and when) did it eventually become the Dart Drug that we all knew and loved?

The Super S story turns out to be a super-short one, actually. By April 1967—a mere eight months after its grand opening, ribbon-cutting ceremony with then-Mayor Merrill Harrison, the store was closed.

Laurel Leader, April 20, 1967

Super S, according to the fantastic vintage retail blog, Pleasant Family Shopping, was an early (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt by the supermarket to parlay its brand into an ancillary store; one which offered the types of non-food items you wouldn’t find in the Safeway proper: small appliances, sporting goods, toys, outdoor accessories, and more. Basically, like what Dart Drug would become. In retrospect, it’s a bold idea that, frankly, seems ahead of its time. Who knows.. with a little tweaking of the Super S business model here and there, Safeway could’ve very easily hit the jackpot. (Not that they haven’t been successful enough on their own, but again I digress).

It’s not yet clear if the old Super S building hosted any interim tenants, (my guess is no) but in February 1969, Dart Drug officially took up residence. It would remain there until the company went bankrupt nearly 20 years later.

Laurel Leader, February 6, 1969.

 

Here’s another view of the Safeway Shopping Center (as it came to be known) from across Route 1, in what was at that time the Food Fair parking lot. Food Fair, of course, would eventually become Frank’s Hardware, which in turn would eventually become Frank’s Nursery and Crafts—but that’s yet another story or two, as well.


Coincidentally, just a few miles west along Route 198, another Safeway opened in mid-February 1966. With a Peoples Drug at the opposite end of the Burtonsville Shopping Center, I guess the builders wisely saw no need for a Super S.

Last, but not least, I’d heard many a story about Laurel’s original Safeway—a location just off Main Street that, like its successor, was eventually deemed too small. That store was located on C Street, in the little building that would actually become City Hall and the Laurel Police Headquarters in 1972. Apparently, it continued to briefly do business even after the larger, new store opened on Bowie Road. In fact, according to this amusing snippet from September 1969, customers were still showing up even after it had closed.

Laurel Leader, September 25, 1969.

I can relate. They, too, must’ve felt like they’d lost an old friend.

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Anticipating Laurel Malls, Past and Present

Photo: Brian Krista

By now, you’ve probably heard that there was a ceremonial groundbreaking for the long-awaited, still-cryptic Town Centre at Laurel project Tuesday morning. It took place along the southeast corner of the Laurel Mall site, near one of the many parking decks that had long sat closed—even before the mall itself closed.

Besides the ceremonial shoveling of dirt, (by a number of “official” folks who, quite probably, have never actually used a shovel—but I digress…) the large, orange and blue “Laurel Mall” sign at the corner of Route 1 and Cherry Lane—erected sometime after 1991, when Laurel Centre changed its name and continued its downward spiral—was also ceremonially lowered to the pavement; as if to emphasize that, this time, it’s really going to happen. After years of talk, rumors, deals, and nixed plans by a seemingly endless list of owners, developer Greenberg Gibbons seems finally poised to reinvent the space in a positive way.

The only–er, main problem seems to be the continued lack of high-end prospective tenants—something the developers have been maddeningly coy about since the project was first announced in March 2011. As of this writing, only Burlington Coat Factory, (the lone-surviving tenant of Laurel Mall) Harris Teeter, and Regal Cinemas are the proposed anchor stores. Proposed—meaning that even they’re not finalized yet.

A public announcement last week about the “invitation-only” groundbreaking event also didn’t exactly ingratiate the developers with, well, those of us who weren’t invited. In their defense, however, until those decrepit parking decks are actually brought down, I’m sure the prospect of having even one person get injured on the property is enough to give their legal department a nervous breakdown. I was told that as the project progresses, there will indeed be public events.

While I do believe that Town Centre at Laurel has the potential to be a very well-designed and positive change for the community, the contrast between the anticipation of this major development and its predecessors is enormous. Granted, the developers of Laurel Shopping Center and Laurel Centre Mall didn’t have the years of mismanagement and failed promises to deal with. But the communication they shared with the public from the very beginning played a key role in generating the interest and excitement that’s still palpable in the old newspapers that covered their grand openings. Not to mention, nearly all of the stores were leased before construction even began.

As we look back at its predecessors, let’s hope that the grand opening of Town Centre at Laurel—whenever it may be, and with whomever actually occupies it—turns out to be even half as exciting.

1979

1956

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Stefanie Watson: What Really Happened 30 Years Ago?

Let me preface by saying that this post is quite a bit different than the others, and comes with the proverbial “viewer discretion advised” warning.

While it doesn’t focus on a lost business or restaurant per se, it’s a tragic story still quite relevant to Laurel’s retail history. For me, at least—because the “Missing Person” flyers I saw at Zayre, the mall, restaurants, gas stations, drug stores, and nearly everywhere else in Laurel as a child thirty years ago this week have certainly stayed with me. And a large part of what has fascinated me about this incredibly disturbing case—which remains open to this day—is how very little has actually been written about it in the thirty years since.

Like most Laurel children in 1982, I first heard about the Stefanie Watson case in brief, sanitized tidbits from my parents. It was scary stuff, to be sure—even for adults. Rumors and speculation abounded in the days and weeks after 27-year-old Stefanie Watson mysteriously vanished on July 22, 1982.

The general “facts” as I knew them at the time were stark… and terribly grim: she had worked at the Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital; her car was found near Laurel Centre mall several days later, saturated with blood; and even more chilling, her head was discovered over a month later in the woods at the end of Larchdale Road. That’s all I knew then, and that’s really all I’d known ever since, until I began to revisit the crime myself earlier this year.

I imagine the details of Stefanie’s name and face have faded from some memories over the past three decades, but I’m positive that anyone—like me—who lived in Laurel at the time of her murder has never truly forgotten.

I was too young to read the newspapers or listen to the news reports, but word spread fast throughout Laurel in the wake of Stefanie’s disappearance. School was out for the summer at the time of her apparent abduction, but with the grisly skeletal discovery on September 3rd, I can remember Deerfield Run Elementary being on high alert. Letters were sent home to parents, advising caution—particularly for those who walked to school. Her murder came on the heels of the high-profile abduction and decapitation of young Adam Walsh just one year earlier. Deerfield Run administrators had sent letters home to parents then, as well.

I didn’t know it at the time, but one of the last places Stefanie Watson had been seen alive on July 22nd was at the Town Center Shopping Center, just a short walk away from my school on Rt. 197 and Contee Road.

That summer, I saw the missing person flyer often. I can still envision it taped to the front entrance window of Zayre, where I frequently stood for hours, hawking the wares of the fabled Olympic Sales Club—from whom I hoped to win the equally fabled prizes or cash.

That was one of my first “jobs”, selling these Olympic greeting cards and gifts. After canvassing every building in Steward Manor, I ventured over to Zayre to catch people as they entered.

It was during the frequent lulls of approaching Zayre customers (i.e., unknowing prospective Olympic Sales Club customers) that I couldn’t help staring at the Stefanie Watson flyer; I’d read it again and again, trying to grasp what could have possibly happened to the pretty lady whose photo seemed to watch over me protectively as I timidly repeated my sales pitch to strangers—any of whom, I feared, could’ve been the person responsible for her disappearance. I walked to Zayre from Steward Manor nearly every day that August to make my sales, and Stefanie Watson’s smiling face was always the first and last thing I saw there.

I soon learned that my uncle, Art, had worked with Stefanie at the hospital and knew her casually. Between my youthful innocence and his probable shock over losing a colleague in such a traumatic way, Art didn’t really say much about the matter. Not that I could blame him. He simply remembered her as being very nice, really friendly, and well-liked; and he was working that Thursday night—part of the cleaning crew—when she failed to show up. “It was also supposed to be her last night at work,” he said. “She was getting ready to move to Texas.”

When Stefanie’s 1981 Chevette was discovered in the Middletown Apartments parking lot the Monday after her disappearance, my Steward Manor friends and I knew about it before our parents did. Some of the “big kids” had been at the mall and witnessed the flurry of police activity across 4th Street. Some ventured close enough to see the blood—and they eagerly told us what they’d seen. They were convinced, as would soon be the police, that Stefanie wasn’t going to be found alive.

(Laurel Leader)

The gruesome drama seemed to be unfolding in three acts over the course of that summer: Stefanie’s disappearance and the grisly discovery of her car were acts one and two, respectively. The third and final act came on September 3rd, when police recovered partial skeletal remains—which they delicately conceded was only the head of the victim. That shocking find was made in the wooded area at the dead end of Larchdale Road—a location that would once again haunt me some four years later during yet another childhood summer job. I was a paperboy briefly for The Washington Post, and my pickup point was outside James H. Harrison Elementary—on Larchdale Road—at midnight. Few experiences before or since have unnerved me as much as sitting there alone in the dead of night under that fluorescent din, hurriedly stuffing newspapers into plastic bags less than 100 yards from where Stefanie Watson—her head, at least—had been found. Yes, Stefanie Watson crossed my mind quite often that year.

But then the years began to pass. Decades passed, in fact. As far as I knew, nothing else had ever come of the Stefanie Watson case. No one was ever charged with her murder; and worse, the rest of her body was never recovered. At some point during my research for Lost Laurel, the spectre of Stefanie Watson’s murder once again creeped into my mind.

Still curious after all this time, I began to search online for anything related to her case—news articles, updates, blog postings—anything. I was surprised to find only one single website that even mentioned Stefanie Watson—and despite best intentions, it had misspelled her name and stated the facts incorrectly.

A footnote buried deep within an online memorial page for Maryland homicide victims. Sadly, that was all that seemed to be left of Stefanie Watson. I found it hard to fathom that such a shocking crime could go so long without at least some kind of press coverage, especially when you stop to consider the almost Hollywood-like circumstances of her murder. On paper, the case reads like a James Ellroy novel: a beautiful, young blond woman fails to show up for her last night at work before leaving town… After going missing for nearly a week, her bloodstained car is found; and several weeks later, only a partial skull is recovered. There are no apparent suspects, no arrests, and the crime quickly falls into the cold case files. To put it even more bluntly, a woman is decapitated—in a peaceful, middle-class DC/Baltimore suburb, and this crime goes virtually unmentioned all this time? Are you kidding me? This should’ve been on CNN and on magazine covers across the country. Books should’ve been written about this.

Knowing that the 30th anniversary of Stefanie’s murder was approaching, I finally started looking into it in earnest myself.

I began by speaking to friends and acquaintances who remembered the events of 1982 at least as well as I do. Online, I was only able to find brief articles in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun‘s archives, but a treasure trove came via the Laurel Leader on microfilm. There, on the analog monochrome screen at the Laurel Library, was the full weekly saga from July to September 1982. I was about to discover the Stefanie Watson case all over again—reading the details as they emerged that harrowing summer thirty years ago.

1. Who Was Stefanie Watson?

Before we get too far into this, let’s start by shedding some light on just who Stefanie was. Clearly more than just a face on a missing persons flyer, she was someone’s daughter, sister, friend, and colleague. She had also briefly been someone’s wife. By all accounts, she was a kind and gentle young woman. Her uncle, Wilhelm Mabius, remembered her as being “reserved, yet lighthearted and happy-go-lucky.”

She was born Stefanie Wilbert in Harrisburg, PA in 1955, and was 27 years old at the time of her disappearance. A graduate of Central Dauphin East High School in Harrisburg, Stefanie had also attended Harrisburg Community College. She came to the Washington, DC area to attend Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) in Takoma Park in September 1981, and settled in Laurel after her brief marriage to W. Wayne Watson ended in separation. (Mr. Watson was quickly and definitively ruled out as a suspect).

Stefanie’s 1973 high school yearbook; the year she graduated.

Stefanie’s senior yearbook photo, 1973.

Stefanie’s first name was commonly misspelled, as her previous yearbook photo (1972) attests.

Stefanie held a number of jobs, working as a clerical typist and in a dentist office prior to becoming a night admitting clerk in the busy emergency room at Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital—a job that she rightly considered much more than simply filling out insurance forms. Colleagues recalled that she never failed to console families of the sick and injured, bringing them coffee and allowing them the chance to talk about their anxiety and grief. One staff doctor noted the countless cases of “gratuitous and senseless violence” that the emergency room saw on any given night shift; and that Stefanie Watson was always “caring and concerned for all the people she met… ingenuous and never cynical,” even when patients or their families seemed undeserving of her patience and thoughtfulness.

In Laurel—the town experiencing a renaissance of sorts in 1981, with the recent opening of Laurel Centre Mall, the newly-restored Main Street, and the advent of the annual Main Street Festival—Stefanie found a place to heal the wounds of her broken relationship. She lived alone with a large dog at 304 8th Street, Apt. 1.—a short drive from her job at the hospital.

Stefanie’s apartment building today.

While Stefanie had worked there for nearly a year when she went missing, few of her hospital coworkers had gotten to know her particularly well. Still, it was these colleagues who created the missing person flyers, and with the cooperation and approval of Laurel Police, distributed them to practically every local business in sight. As they did so, a surprising number of people actually recognized Stefanie’s photo from her job at the hospital, and immediately recalled her kindness at times of their own personal crises.

Stefanie’s coworkers had given her a going-away party at the hospital on Wednesday, July 21st—the night before her disappearance. She had made the difficult decision to move to Fort Worth, Texas, where she was to begin working at the Medical Plaza Hospital on August 3rd. Stefanie’s relatives said that her decision to leave Maryland was made because she wanted to be closer to her brother and sister’s families, both of whom lived in Texas. She was also looking forward to getting to know her five young nieces and nephews, the youngest having been just six months old at the time.

Stefanie was planning to leave for Texas on Monday, July 26th. Instead, that would turn out to be the day that her blood-stained car would be found on Fourth Street.

2. Last Sightings

According to police reports, Stefanie was seen multiple times on Thursday, July 22nd—more than the Washington Post‘s report of her having last been spotted alive at the hospital that afternoon, when she picked up her paycheck.

(Washington Post. July 27, 1982, p.B2)

(Washington Post. July 31, 1982, p. B2)

In fact, the Laurel Leader later reported two additional key sightings as confirmed by police: one by a hospital coworker who saw Stefanie at a bank at Town Center Shopping Center on Route 197 and Contee Road that afternoon (perhaps depositing the paycheck she’d picked up earlier at either the Citizens National Bank or John Hanson Savings and Loan that were in the shopping center at that time); and the other, more crucial sighting—detectives established that she was actually last seen at 9:00 PM, leaving her apartment.

Whatever happened to Stefanie occurred that night, after 9:00 and before she was due to report to her final night shift at the hospital.

3. Murdered.

After six long weeks of speculation and angst, the worst fears of Stefanie Watson’s relatives, friends, and all of Laurel were confirmed. On Friday, September 3rd, police discovered “partial skeletal remains” in the wooded area at the dead end of Larchdale Road.

Initial reports stated only that it was a citizen who made the grisly discovery, and on Tuesday, September 7th,  the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office confirmed that the remains were indeed those of Stefanie Watson. Positive identification was made with dental records, according to then Laurel Police Lt. Archie Cook, who had headed the investigation to that point. He tactfully declined to elaborate on the physical condition of the remains, only to say that various television reports—likely about the partial skeletal remains being only the head—were unconfirmed.

(Washington Post. September 8, 1982, p. A26)

The discovery on Larchdale Road marked a transitional phase for the investigation, as Prince George’s County Police essentially took over the case. The crime scene was determined to be in an area of Laurel under county police jurisdiction. Sgt. Sherman Baxa of the Prince George’s County Homicide Unit credited Laurel Police for “Collect(ing) a tremendous amount of data”, and for cooperating with the P.G. County detectives as they assumed the reins of the investigation.

Sgt. Baxa later released some compelling information about the citizen who’d found the partial remains. He’d witnessed a man actually throwing them into the woods.

Baxa stated that the wooded area at the end of Larchdale Road had been used as a “dumping ground” for debris for some time, but the witness who found the remains had “observed an individual throwing something in the woods.” He said that the witness became curious, later walked over to the wooded area, and subsequently made the startling discovery. The witness was never publicly identified for obvious safety reasons, but it’s presumed that he was a resident of the nearby Larchdale Woods apartments (now known as “Parke Laurel”). Whether he happened to be walking by, in his car, or looking out a window wasn’t released; and while he couldn’t positively identify “the individual” he’d seen dumping “debris” in the wooded area, he’d provided police with even more critical information: he’d seen the car the suspect emerged from… and he’d seen a second man inside.

(Laurel Leader. September 16, 1982)

4. Meanwhile, thirty years later…

Let’s cut back to the present day, since it was only this year that I learned details I hadn’t previously known. As a child, I wasn’t even aware that a witness had seen the car, or that police had released a composite sketch of the man wanted for questioning—a man who never did turn up.

But going back to my initial curiosity, and first asking old friends about what they recalled from the case, it was something that one of the “big kids” (a term we still use for those in the neighborhood who were a few years older than my little clique) said that I found particularly compelling. Mark Nelson, who lived upstairs in my building at Steward Manor in the 1980s, recently told me, “I’d heard somebody say that the guy who killed Stefanie Watson was the same guy who killed Adam Walsh.”

The notion that the same man who’d murdered little Adam Walsh the previous year—all the way down in Hollywood, Florida—sounded like a long shot at best… Until I started looking more closely at just who that man actually was. And when comparing these new bits of information to those old Laurel Leader articles, I actually got chills.

Adam Walsh, 1981.

On July 27, 1981—almost exactly one year before Stefanie Watson’s murder—6-year-old Adam Walsh was with his mother at the Sears store in their local Hollywood Mall. Like any young boy in 1981, Adam was fascinated by an Atari video game display being played by a small group of older kids. Reve Walsh innocently left her son to briefly watch the gamers play while she inquired about a lamp just a few aisles away. In the seven minutes she was gone, a Sears security guard responded to bickering amongst the kids by making them all exit the store—including little Adam, who instinctively followed the guard’s orders (and the other children) and exited the nearest door. In that precise moment, Ottis Toole was in the parking lot, just looking for someone like Adam. And unfortunately, he found him.

Ottis Toole mugshot, 1983.

Adam was allegedly lured into the stranger’s borrowed Cadillac with promises of toys and candy. Toole, a deviant drifter already convicted of a slew of bizarre and brutal crimes, confessed to abducting the boy with the intent of simply “keeping him” as his own. But when Adam began to cry and panic while driving north along Interstate 95, Toole punched the boy into unconsciousness. Changing plans, he drove the car onto a deserted service road, where he claimed to have strangled Adam to death before decapitating him with a machete he kept under the front seat. On August 10, 1981, a pair of fishermen discovered Adam’s head in a Vero Beach, Florida canal. The rest of his remains have never been recovered, leading credence to Toole’s claim that he incinerated the boy’s body in an old refrigerator.

Despite Toole’s initial confession as early as 1983, Hollywood police bungled the investigation—inexplicably losing Toole’s impounded car… and the machete. It wasn’t until nearly 25 years later, after an independent investigation by Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews at the behest of John and Reve Walsh, that police finally, officially closed the case—naming Ottis Toole as the murderer. While researching evidence files, Matthews had discovered rolls of film—photos taken by crime scene investigators and evidence technicians—that had never even been developed. These photos, when processed, turned out to include chilling, detailed images of the missing Cadillac. One set of photos was particularly damning, as it documented a large presence of blood on the floorboard of the driver’s seat and the carpet behind it—where Toole claimed to have callously tossed Adam’s head before discarding it in the canal. “Traced in the blue glow of Luminol was the outline of a familiar young boy’s face, a negative pressed into floorboard carpeting, eye sockets blackened blank cavities, mouth twisted in an oval of pain,” an excerpt from Matthews’ book reads. After an exhaustive review of the “new” evidence, Hollywood Police formally charged Ottis Toole with the crime in December 2008, and apologized to the Walsh family for the long, painful journey they had endured to that point.

But there’s much more to the Ottis Toole story than just the murder of Adam Walsh. Especially when it comes to his relationship with the even more notorious serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas.

Henry Lee Lucas first met Ottis Toole in line at a soup kitchen in Jacksonville, Florida in 1976. But before joining up with his frequent traveling partner, lover, and confidant, Lucas—a diagnosed psychopath—had already killed before. His first murder, in 1960, was that of his own mother.

Henry Lee Lucas

Lucas was released from prison in 1970 due to overcrowding, but by 1971 he landed in a Michigan penitentiary for the attempted kidnapping of a teenaged girl and for violating his parole by carrying a gun. From there, he was released in August 1975, and took a bus to Perryville, Maryland, where he had a half-sister named Almeda Kiser. He spent the next few years as a hopeless drifter, occasionally working odd construction and mechanical jobs, but unable to work steadily. In 1975, he briefly settled in Port Deposit, Maryland—marrying a woman named Betty Crawford. But within two years, Betty accused Lucas of molesting her two daughters, and he left for Florida—setting the stage for what many believe to be one of the longest serial killing sprees in the annals of American crime.

(Washington Post. October 27, 1983, p. A6)

Beginning in 1978, Lucas and Toole embarked on a series of cross-country murder sprees. Lucas would later claim that during this period he had killed hundreds of people, with Toole assisting him in “108 murders,” by his estimation. Lucas stated that his preferred victims were young white females; Toole preferred men. Their methods of operation included everything from stabbing, shooting, strangulation, and beating to mutilations—with Lucas having been known to decapitate victims and carry body parts with him across state lines on different occasions.

Lucas and Toole went their separate ways on multiple occasions—most notably when the bisexual Henry would “run off” with Toole’s own teenaged niece, Becky Powell—whose murder he would eventually be charged with as well. It was during one of these rare solo periods in 1981 when Ottis Toole murdered young Adam Walsh. Lucas, coincidentally was imprisoned in Pikesville, Maryland between July and October 1981; and as soon as he was released on October 7th, he traveled to Jacksonville, Florida to reteam with Ottis Toole.

Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas, photo booth print c.1982.

When traveling together, Henry and Ottis were virtually untraceable, making erratic treks from coast to coast. Lucas, on record, later confirmed to Texas prosecutors that in September 1982 alone, the pair had been through Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma… and Maryland.

Criminal profilers in various states found themselves stumped at the lack of motive and pattern in some particularly brutal crimes, as was certainly the case with the Stefanie Watson murder. Serial killers, it was commonly believed, usually work alone. The utter randomness of these crimes was virtually unprecedented, especially when they occurred in small communities.

Lucas was arrested in Texas on June 11, 1983, initially for unlawful firearm possession. He was later charged with killing 82-year-old Kate Rich, with whom he briefly stayed as a boarder, as well as the earlier stabbing death of Ottis Toole’s niece, Becky Powell. While in custody, Henry Lee began to confess to numerous other murders, as well—frequently detailing victims and crime scenes that only the killer(s) would have known. Unfortunately, he also confessed to scores of murders that he couldn’t have committed. Enjoying the extra attention warranted someone who boasts of having killed hundreds—even thousands—of people, Lucas seemingly began copping to any and all unsolved cases presented to him. He would then recant confessions just as frequently, further baffling prosecutors.

In November 1983, the “Lucas Task Force” was created in Williamson County, Texas, for the purpose of coordinating with police agencies across the country. So vast and wide were Henry’s claims, that Texas authorities gave out-of-state detectives the opportunity to interview Lucas for their own cases. One of those agencies, I’ve learned, was Prince George’s County Homicide.

Meanwhile, Ottis Toole was finally behind bars himself. Initially arrested for arson, (Toole was also an admitted pyromanic—or “powerful maniac”, as he believed was the correct term) it was a jailhouse tip from Henry Lee Lucas that shined a more sinister light on his onetime partner. In April 1984, Toole was convicted and sentenced to death in Jacksonville for the murder of 64-year-old George Sonnenberg—whom Toole had barricaded into his own home before setting the house on fire—a crime he’d committed back in January 1982. He was also found guilty of the February 1983 strangulation murder of 19-year-old Silvia Rogers, a Tallahassee, Florida resident, and received a second death sentence. On appeal, however, both sentences were commuted to life in prison.

Back in Texas, the Lucas Task Force investigation was well under way throughout 1984, when it began to receive criticism for becoming “a veritable clearinghouse of unsolved murder.” In fact, Police officially “cleared” 213 previously unsolved murders via Lucas’ confessions. Speaking out of the proverbial other side of his mouth, however, Lucas claimed that he confessed only because doing so improved his prison living conditions—and because he received preferential treatment rarely offered to convicts. It was at this time that Vic Feazell, an ambitious young District Attorney in Waco, Texas, launched a large scale investigation into the veracity of Lucas’ confessions. The result was the “Lucas Report”, an extensive timeline documenting the confirmed travel movements of Henry Lee Lucas (and Ottis Toole) that conclusively disproved many of Lucas’ confessions. In a typical instance, the report showed Lucas cashing checks in Florida while at the same time confessing to a murder in Texas.

Vic Feazell and Henry Lee Lucas (Photo: vicfeazell.com)

But ironically, it’s Feazell’s timeline that may actually implicate Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole in one of the few murders that they didn’t confess to—the Stefanie Watson murder.

Feazell’s timeline shows no record of Lucas’ whereabouts during July 1982—the time when Stefanie Watson was killed. It does, however, document several of Lucas’ travels throughout Maryland.

The report includes grim information about Lucas’ methods, which clearly match the Stefanie Watson murder profile.

Take a closer look at that first page—the timeline of travel movements. Did you notice anything else particularly interesting in regard to Stefanie Watson? Remember the vehicle the witness reported having seen on Larchdale Road that night? It was described as “a 1975 to 1978 Ford LTD, medium to dark green body with a green vinyl roof.” According to multiple entries in Vic Feazell’s notes, Lucas purchased a 1973 Ford LTD on January 9, 1982:

One note mentions it having been a brown car. Whether it was or not, it’s fairly easy to imagine a brown 1973 Ford LTD being mistaken for green in the darkness on Larchdale Road.

And the 1973 model did offer the darker vinyl top, a distinctive feature that the witness pointed out. What do you think? Could a 1973 Ford LTD be mistaken for a 1975-78 model?

With all these things considered, let me go ahead and spell this out completely. What are the odds that the two men seen driving the Ford LTD that night were NOT Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole?

Could it really just be some amazing coincidence, and that two other guys—one of whom eerily fits the description of the 6’1, 195 lb. Ottis Toole—just happened to be driving an equally similar Ford LTD, and tossed a severed head out into a wooded area? The unique and horrific profile of this murder matches that of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, who were known to have been traveling together through Maryland at that time, in that vehicle. It can’t be a coincidence.

What initially sounded implausible at best now strikes me as the almost certain answer to the question that has haunted Laurelites for the past three decades: who killed Stefanie Watson?


Back in March, I contacted Laurel Police in hopes of finally learning the basics of this case, and separating the facts from the many rumors I’d heard as a child. Most importantly, I wanted to find out if in fact the case was still open—and hadn’t been quietly solved at some point over the last several years. I explained that I was writing a piece for Lost Laurel on the approaching 30th anniversary of the murder, in the context of the countless Laurel businesses—most now gone—that had spread the word about this horrific crime.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Chief of Police Richard McLaughlin, who confirmed that the case was indeed still open to the best of his knowledge; he also confirmed that Prince George’s County assumed control of the case when the partial remains were discovered.

I wasn’t surprised to learn from Chief McLaughlin that all of the original investigators have since retired, but I was surprised (and flattered) to find out that he was familiar with Lost Laurel! He was also kind enough to not only encourage me to follow up with Prince George’s County Homicide’s Cold Case Unit, he even told me what to say when I called. (I had explained that “investigative journalism” isn’t something I do regularly; and despite the seriousness of all this, I actually had to pinch myself to realize that I wasn’t in an episode of Law and Order or The First 48. Having the chance to talk to the Chief of Police of one’s hometown about said town’s most notorious unsolved crime can tend to make one geek out. But I digress.)

Over the next week, I spoke to Sgt. Rick Fulginiti and Det. David Morissette, both of Prince George’s County Homicide. As I did with Chief McLaughlin, I introduced the project and carefully pointed out that I was only nine years old at the time of the murder I was inquiring about, less I suddenly become a suspect myself. Sgt. Fulginiti confirmed that the case was indeed still open, and active. And when Det. Morissette began explaining just a few of the general points that their Cold Case Unit has been investigating, I immediately got the sense that I hadn’t uncovered anything that Prince George’s County detectives didn’t already know. (Go figure). In fact, the very first name Det. Morissette mentioned was that of Henry Lee Lucas.

He confirmed that in 1984, Prince George’s County had indeed sent a team of investigators to Texas to participate in the Lucas Task Force questioning. While their suspicions have always lied with Lucas, they simply weren’t able to conclusively connect him to the crime. Apparently, their visit occurred during a rare moment when Lucas wasn’t in a confessing mood.

Nonetheless, Det. Morissette had some interesting new news to report, and it could be big: his office has “several new items for DNA testing,” and “has been in recent contact” with Stefanie’s family.

Wanting to make sure I wouldn’t only be spreading more rumors and misinformation about this tragedy, I essentially sought an off-the-record endorsement for the conclusion that I’d surprisingly come to on my own. Det. Morissette simply encouraged me to write this piece exactly as I’d planned, adding that it could even jog some long-suppressed memories, or prompt someone to finally come forward with details that they just weren’t ready to share over the past three decades.

So what comes next? Nothing will bring Stefanie back, obviously; and is any of this relevant—particularly since Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole won’t be here to face any charges that might be brought?

Ottis Toole died of liver failure on September 15, 1996. He was 49. Fortunately for society, he had been wasting away in a Florida prison since April 1983—a mere seven months after that witness on Larchdale Road spotted someone who looked awfully like him discarding something in the woods. He was buried in the Florida State Prison Cemetery when no one—relatives or otherwise—would claim his body.

Henry Lee Lucas, likewise, enjoyed only brief freedom after Stefanie Watson’s murder. Locked away in a Texas prison since June 1983, he died of heart failure at age 64 on March 12, 2001.

Stefanie’s complete remains have never been recovered. She has yet to receive a proper burial, or a permanent resting place. There was a memorial service for her, however, shortly after the identification was made. According to Pastor Arthur Mayer, almost 100 people filled the small Seventh Day Adventist Church in Laurel that September afternoon. And there would’ve been more. Originally scheduled for 7:00 PM, Stefanie’s family decided at the last moment to change the time to early afternoon, so her co-workers from the hospital night shift could attend. For many, including the press, news of the change in time came too late.

The hospital also honored Stefanie’s memory with a brief, but moving service attended by almost 60 members of the medical staff, plus friends and family. In a fitting tribute to the young woman who’d comforted so many worried patients there, the family room of the Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital’s emergency room was officially dedicated to Stefanie Watson.

On September 11th, (a day that would have its own nefarious connection to Laurel 19 years later) the Washington Post ran an obituary column:

If police were to posthumously charge Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole with this murder, perhaps it could bring some long-overdue measure of closure to Stefanie’s family, the way it did for John and Reve Walsh. It could also hopefully bring the memory of the real Stefanie Watson back to the public eye, reminding us that hers was a life worth remembering, rather than just the brutality with which it ended. Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, if indeed guilty, should finally be identified and held responsible for this horrific crime; and then they should be forgotten.

***

There are a number of people I need to thank for being able to share this story: Laurel Chief of Police Richard McLaughlin, for his time and encouragement; Sgt. Rick Fulginiti and Det. David Morissette of Prince George’s County Homicide, for also taking the time and making the effort to review and share a case that predates their own careers. Most importantly, the writers and editors of the Laurel Leader who originally documented this terrible event between July and September 1982—most notably Karen Yengich, Gill Chamblin, and photographer Doug Kapustin. I’m sure there were more, but unfortunately, not all stories were afforded a byline. Last but not least, the Laurel Library, for continuing to house the only known complete microfilm archive of the Laurel Leader, despite obvious space restrictions. A city’s history is literally recorded in its newspapers—please don’t ever let that archive disappear.

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A Neighbor’s in Need: UPDATE

John Floyd II outside the Laurel Art Center in April, where he also went to photograph the closing of another Laurel icon.

Last month, I wrote about the plight of John Floyd II, the kind and gregarious Laurel native who’s contributed so many wonderful photos, artifacts, and historical data to share with Lost Laurel.

John, who has lived frugally in the same home for some 46 years—the home of his late stepdad, Harry Fyffe (of Laurel’s legendary Fyffe’s Service Center)—recently saw his home sold at the annual Prince George’s County Tax Auction in May, after falling behind on his 2011 property tax bill. Earning only approximately $10,000 last year from his eBay sales—his sole means of income—and having been saddled with numerous veterinary bills, he simply didn’t have the money. And the county’s tax laws are harsh, to say the least—there’s no partial payment or installment plan; it’s literally all or nothing. John was given until June 30th to come up with over $3,000 he owed. If he missed that deadline, the debt would balloon to over $7,000 when the 2012 tax bill is added on, along with the usual host of penalties and additional fees—and that imposing total would be due no later than July 31st. After that point, John’s redemption window would be slammed shut, and the new tax lien owners would be free to initiate foreclosure and eviction proceedings.

Not wishing to see that happen to anyone—let alone a dear friend whose photos inspired this very blog—I asked readers to join me in donating whatever they could to help John meet these deadlines and save his childhood home—and you did.

In only a few short days, I’m very happy to report that John had received just over $1,000 in donations, renewing his hopes of getting through this harrowing ordeal! In addition to the PayPal contributions and checks, folks even offered to drop off food and toys for the many cats John takes care of. Others helped by purchasing goods from his eBay store and referring friends. And although our little benefit didn’t raise the total amount, it was certainly an overwhelming outpouring of generosity from people who cared enough to help.

Fortunately, another generous soul was willing to loan John the remaining $2,400 he needed, and drove him to Upper Marlboro to make the payment just a day before the amount would have more than doubled. The immediate crisis averted, John can rest a little bit easier knowing that his home is once again safe—for now. But the experience has understandably rattled this genial chap who’s so hesitant to ask for or accept charity, and he’s already stressing about his next daunting challenge: repaying the loan by the end of the year, as well as the new property tax bill, which will be arriving any day now. More than anything, John wants to avoid a repeat performance.

And speaking of performances, if you read the original story, you’ll remember that John is a wonderfully talented musician who has played with countless ensembles over the years. Unfortunately, that career effectively ended with the demise of his last vehicle nearly a decade ago. This past May, he marched for the first time in years with the West Laurel Rag Tag Band in the Main Street Festival. I caught up with him this past Saturday, as he once again carried the giant antique Sousaphone in the 4th of July parade on what was easily the hottest one in years. Like everyone in this storied local band that made its first appearance back in 1983, the heat couldn’t temper John’s patriotic and civic spirits. If tough financial times couldn’t do it, neither could this heatwave!

John Floyd (back left carrying the Sousaphone) marches with the West Laurel Rag Tag Band past the now-closed Laurel Mall during the city’s 4th of July Parade. (Photos: Richard Friend)

John marching with the band on another hot day earlier this year during the Main Street Festival.

The 4th Street parade route is a familiar one for John; not just because he lives only a block away, but because he’s marched it since his Laurel High School band days in the early 1970s. That’s him as a young lad in the front, holding the trombone. Bandmaster Harvey Beavers is at left in, as John called it, “his ice cream suit”.

1975 LHS Homecoming Parade. (Kodak 110 Instamatic print by Phyllis R. Fyffe, Royal Blue Ltd. archives)

John at the 1973 LHS Homecoming, with Drum Major Jackie Jones. (Kodak 126 Instamatic print by Phyllis R. Fyffe, Royal Blue Ltd. archives)

John, Jackie, and Mr. B (sans ice cream suit) at the 2009 4th of July Parade. (Photo: Joe Stevick, Royal Blue Ltd. archives)

While we’re still on the topic of parades…

Thanks to John, this year I had the pleasure of meeting band director Bill Stevick and his wonderfully talented family after the big event, at their annual post-parade picnic! Believe it or not, 2013 will mark the 30th anniversary of the West Laurel Rag Tag Band. It’s membership has ebbed and flowed over these three decades, but the band has literally played on—consistently delighting Laurel twice a year: at the Main Street Festival and the 4th of July Parade. I hear there’s talk of possibly retiring the band after next year’s landmark anniversary, but let’s hope that’s not true! The folks who make up the Rag Tag Band are the heart of these homegrown events; and in many ways, the very heart of Laurel. Make sure you see them next year, and encourage them to keep this great tradition going!

West Laurel Ragtag Band Director Bill Stevick and me at the post-parade picnic. (Photos: John Floyd II)

Getting back to the topic at hand, I’ve got a number of Lost Laurel goodies to mail out to everyone who so generously donated to John Floyd’s cause. I’m in the process of sorting through the receipts that John has forwarded to me, and determining who gets what. (I volunteered an auction of sorts for those who were the first to donate specific milestone amounts, and you guys are cleaning me out!) 🙂 I may have to contact several of you in order to get a mailing address; but if you donated $25 or more, please feel free to already go ahead and email me that information (richard_friend@mac.com), or send it via direct message on the Lost Laurel Facebook page. There are some vintage Laurel posters and framed Marian Quinn prints going to some, but everyone who donated $25 or more will get a reproduction of the classic 1981 Delaney’s Irish Pizza Pub menu. I’ve just had a supply printed, and they’re ready to go!

I want to point out, however, that the fundraiser is by no means over. We’ve helped solve John’s immediate problem, but his financial situation is still extremely fragile, and I fear it will be for at least the coming year. On top of everything else, John’s computer is now on the fritz. It’s nearly 10 years old, and it’s the very lifeline to his modest income. And there’s yet another concern—his home is without air conditioning. John has lived without it for years without complaint, but as he’s wont to do, he’s more concerned about the ill effects this extraordinary heat is having on his cats. Counting every penny, (and knowing that he ultimately needs them both) he’s trying to decide which appliance he needs to save toward first.

Those of you who’ve already sent donations, I thank you again from the proverbial bottom of my heart. I hope you realize what a genuinely good deed you’ve done, and how your contribution didn’t merely go to some faceless charitable organization, (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but to a real human being—a good man who’s lived right here in Laurel for some 50 years; a man who’s fought fires with the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, marches in our civic parades, and who knows and appreciates the town’s history—and residents—like few others.

If you’re able to spare even a bit, I assure you it’s going to a very good cause. I’ve got a bunch more Delaney’s menus available for anyone who donates $25 or more, but please remember that you don’t have to give in the double or triple digits to really help John out! Instead of buying that cup of coffee from Starbucks today, or downloading that new song or iPhone app, please consider sending even a dollar or two to John Floyd—literally every bit helps. There’s no deadline or minimum donation to worry about, and it only takes a minute to send funds securely direct to John’s PayPal account.

If I haven’t already made it abundantly clear, John is a one-of-a-kind friend who enjoys sharing his vast knowledge and resources of all things Laurel—the depth of which continues to surprise even me. His most recent gift to Lost Laurel is one that I never thought I’d see again, and is proving to be an unprecedented aide in documenting Laurel’s retail history in the 1980s—nearly two dozen Laurel telephone directories dating back to 1986! These include ads and listings for the mall and all of the shopping centers, making it easier to determine when various stores arrived in Laurel… and, of course, when they left.

Not only are these books a treasure trove of dates and locations, they hold rare ads for places that didn’t typically run ads in the Laurel Leader—or anywhere else. Places like Pipeline Surf Shop, which from 1989–90, shared space with the legendary Bikes Plus at 308 Compton Ave.

Yes, I realize it’s a bit odd to get excited about inheriting a shelf of obsolete phone books. But from a historian’s perspective, I assure you it’s quite awesome. The library doesn’t even have these anymore. Moreover, they’ll provide me with an ample supply of blog and Facebook updates in the weeks, months, and years to come.

Lastly—and this is important as it undoubtedly affects countless others in John’s situation—here’s a link to a WTOP article from earlier this week that details exactly what John is going through with this property tax ordeal. It’s a frightening concept that many homeowners probably aren’t even aware of—especially when one considers that people are literally losing their homes over as much as $400. Here’s an excerpt:

• If the taxes aren’t paid, the government auctions the lien to investors. Past investors include JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and people who respond to Internet get-rich schemes, the report said. Homes typically are sold at steep discounts.

• For a limited time, the homeowner may buy back the home by paying to the investors the purchase price of the lien, plus interest, fees and other costs. That’s possible because investors haven’t bought the home itself _ they have purchased the tax lien, which gives them the right to seize the home later.

• If the owner fails to pay all the costs, investors can sell the home at a big profit compared with the cost of buying the tax lien.

The report said state governments should make it easier for homeowners to retake their homes after tax lien sales. It said they should limit the interest and penalties investors can charge and increase court oversight.

It also called on local governments to let people pay back taxes or fees to investors on an installment plan, and to increase notice to homeowners and make sure they understand their rights.

Tax lien sales differ from most foreclosures, which happen when people fall behind on mortgage payments. In many states, homes sold because of tax debts can be sold for only the amount of back taxes owed.

That means a $200,000 home might fetch only $1,200, the report said. In the process, homeowners can lose thousands of dollars in home equity that they have built up by making monthly payments.

Kudos to WTOP for shining a light on this, and hopefully enough voices will be heard to convince local governments to at least start making it easier for people—honest people like John who’ve fallen on tough times—to bring their payments up to date without the unnecessary threat of actually losing their homes.

Many thanks again to you all—please keep the good will coming, and let’s make sure our friend John is securely back on his feet once and for all!

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