Tag Archives: Stefanie Watson

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.

Tagged , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , ,

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.

Tagged , ,

Laurel Regional Hospital… Closing?

For the past few days, I’ve been excited about the very real prospect of seeing a fitting, lasting tribute to Stefanie Watson at Laurel Regional Hospital. The former emergency room night admissions clerk who was murdered in 1982 was originally honored by having the lobby’s family room officially dedicated in her memory; but sadly, that seems to have fallen by the wayside in the subsequent decades as the hospital expanded under new management. (That’s not the least of which has fallen, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

After my Laurel Historical Society program on the cold case being solved, I wrote to Laurel Mayor Craig Moe and City Council Member Fred Smalls about an idea I had to rectify this. Rather than another lobby plaque which may once again be misplaced with future expansion, I proposed that the street behind the hospital—the as-of-yet-unnamed road that leads to the emergency room; the very road that Stefanie used to drive to and from her work shift—be officially named “Stefanie Watson Way”.

STEFANIE-WATSON-WAY-1 STEFANIE-WATSON-WAY-2

I added that the street name dedication ceremony would also be an excellent opportunity to commend the Laurel and Prince George’s County Police Departments for having the foresight to preserve the evidence that ultimately solved her murder 31 years later. Moreover, it would bring great closure to Stefanie’s family and the community, as the original tribute was also made at the beginning of what would become an agonizing 30-year cold case.

That case has now been solved, and I can think of no better way to reinstate the lost tribute to a much-loved hospital employee who brought so much comfort and kindness to emergency room patients and families in her short time here. I think it would also be a tremendously positive story for the hospital itself—which, let’s face it, needs all the positive press it can get. (It’s currently a 2-out-of-5-star facility on Google Reviews, and most of the stories you hear from patients are literally the stuff of nightmares.)

That being said, I was thrilled when I received replies from both Mayor Moe and Mr. Smalls this week—and they’re in favor of the street naming idea!

Mr. Smalls has sent my request to Laurel Regional Hospital President John Spearman and Dimensions Healthcare Chairman Judge Phil Nichols for review.

Well, imagine my surprise when I saw this headline today:

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.25.23 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.25.39 PM

Um, what?

Evidently, that was the reaction of Laurel’s city leaders, as well. This “decision” was apparently made unilaterally by Dimensions Healthcare without any notice to the community at large. That includes Mayor Moe, who responded with this assessment:

 Laurel Mayor Critical Of Plan To Close Laurel Regional Hospital

Today the City of Laurel government along with residents and businesses of the Laurel-Beltsville area learned of a decision to close the full service Laurel Regional Hospital. This decision was made in closed door sessions with no community involvement and without discussions with local elected officials. It was based on a consultant’s report that contained no evaluation of the potential to sell the hospital and the campus.

As the Mayor of the City of Laurel, I am deeply concerned about the tremendous impact on the safety and well-being of the residents of northern Prince George’s County and surrounding areas, and I am also troubled by the loss of many jobs for Prince George’s County/Laurel residents that would follow this closure. I believe this action is a direct result of poor leadership and management on the part of Dimensions Healthcare System.

Dimensions Healthcare System is a not-for-profit hospital system that was formed in 1982 to serve the residents of Prince George’s County and surrounding areas. Throughout its history, Dimensions has been plagued by financial and operational issues that the leadership failed to address. The decision to close this full service hospital is yet another failure of Dimensions executives to operate their facilities in an efficient manner. I question why the Dimensions leadership failed to provide the public with full disclosure of the information contained in the consultant’s scope of work. Why was the local Laurel Regional Hospital Board of Directors kept out of the discussions regarding the future of the Hospital? Was the closing of the full service Laurel Regional Hospital part of the justification of need for the new regional medical center?

We understand that the plan of Dimensions Healthcare leaders is to re-open the facility as a limited service facility. Until the Dimensions Healthcare System is replaced I believe this poor substitute will fail as well. Turning this hospital into a limited service facility will also adversely affect the already stressed ambulance service in the region. Ambulances will be required to go out of service for significantly longer periods of time to transport patients to other facilities.

I support the Prince George’s Regional Medical Center plans but not at the expense of closing the full service Laurel Regional Hospital. The Laurel-Beltsville area and Prince George’s County residents deserve better. I call upon all affected residents, employees and businesses to contact County Executive Rushern Baker, County Councilmember Mary Lehman and Dimensions Healthcare Board of Directors to express dissatisfaction with this tragic decision and request that the hospital be sold to another hospital management organization, either for profit or not-for-profit, or even look into bringing  more specialized healthcare to the current hospital.

I look forward to future discussions about OUR regional hospital.

Craig A. Moe

Laurel Mayor

Needless to say, it was like a punch to the gut. I expected to encounter some red tape in my quest for “Stefanie Watson Way” to become the newest street in Laurel; I did not expect the very hospital itself to suddenly announce its intent to cease operations (no pun intended).

Granted, this is all very new information, (much like the recent and ongoing snafu with Laurel’s historic Main Street train station) but from what I’m hearing, the hospital as a whole isn’t planning to completely disappear—but it is proposing to drastically downsize and essentially change to an outpatient only facility. According to the Laurel Leader, the Dimensions board voted to replace the hospital with a new, $24 million ambulatory care center by 2018:

“The change is an effort to curb the multi-million dollar losses Laurel Regional has seen in recent years, and will result in limited hospital services as well as considerable job loss in Laurel as the new facility will only provide 30 inpatient beds.”

“The move is part of a state trend to move health care out of inpatient hospitals and into outpatient facilities, Dimensions said. The new Laurel facility would continue to provide emergency services, outpatient surgery and diagnostic services currently offered by Laurel Regional. The county has plans to create a Prince George’s Regional Medical Center, which would provide the full-service medical support no longer found in Laurel.”

Nope. That doesn’t make any sense to me, either.

Admittedly, I don’t know the first thing about hospital administration, health care, or any of that stuff. But I do know this: you don’t close a functioning hospital in a growing town for any reason. What they’re proposing sounds like a glamorized urgent care center, which Laurel doesn’t need. What it does need, evidently, is a complete hospital overhaul to weed out the people who’ve steadily ruined this once proud facility.

Stefanie Watson moved to Laurel in 1981 in order to work at what was then called the Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital. The hospital, which had just opened in 1978, was a much different place back then—before Dimensions Healthcare would take over, and change the name to Laurel Regional. In hindsight, that was probably the first clue that things weren’t going to get any “greater”.

Ballpoint pen, circa 1980s.  (Lost Laurel collection)

Ballpoint pen, circa 1980s.
(Lost Laurel collection)

Obviously, the first priority is to ensure that Laurel’s hospital retains its complete functionality. Not only that, but it must improve its quality of care across the board. Its mismanagement cannot be allowed to continue to the point where it’s only serving patients in an ambulatory, outpatient manner. Remember—urgent care centers are terrific in a pinch, when you want to avoid the emergency room; (heck, there’s a brand new one at the new Towne Centre at Laurel) but they’re no substitute for a real, bona fide hospital if, God forbid, you should ever need one.

Regardless of what happens with the hospital itself, it would be a shame if the consideration for “Stefanie Watson Way” now gets overlooked in the wake of this larger dilemma. Let’s name that street after Stefanie Watson already, and keep it there throughout whatever changes come. Let her name serve as a constant reminder of the way Laurel’s hospital should be run.

As the September 30, 1982 Laurel Leader reported—at the time of her original memorial:

“The memorial, said a staff physician who worked closely with the murdered woman, was fitting, for she considered her job as an admitting clerk as more than filling out insurance forms. Watson never failed to take the time to console families of the sick and injured, bringing them coffee while she worked throughout the night shift and giving them a chance to talk about their anxiety and grief.”

She was “…always caring and concerned for all the people she met… ingenious and never cynical, even when patients or their families seemed undeserving of her patience and thoughtfulness.”

Contacts for both the hospital and street naming issue:

RUSHERN L. BAKER III, County Executive
Office of County Executive
County Administration Building, Room 5032
14741 Governor Oden Bowie Drive,
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772 – 3070
e-mail: countyexecutive@co.pg.md.us

MARY A. LEHMAN, Prince George’s County Council, District 1
County Administration Building, 2nd floor
14741 Governor Oden Bowie Drive
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772 – 3070
e-mail: malehman@co.pg.md.us

DIMENSIONS HEALTHCARE SYSTEM
Board of Directors
Prince George’s County Hospital Center
3001 Hospital Drive
Cheverly, Maryland  20785

Additional sources:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/laurel/ph-ll-laurel-regional-replaced-by-outpatient-facility-20150731-story.html

http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Laurel-Regional-Hospital-Downsizing-to-Become-Ambulance-Care-Center-320317391.html

Tagged , ,

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.

IMG_1539

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 3.04.57 PM

(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.”

IMG_3191

IMG_3194

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.

stefanie-winking

(Family photo)

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Stefanie Watson Program Tonight

IMG_3914

(Photo: Laurel Leader, 7/1/82; Laurel Historical Society archives)

Laurel’s 4th of July Celebration in 1982 fell on July 3rd that year, which happened to be Stefanie Watson‘s final birthday—she’d go missing less than 3 weeks later. This banner, coincidentally, also faced her apartment on 8th Street.

Her tragic story is filled with some bizarre and amazing coincidences—join me tonight as I’ll share some fascinating information about one of Laurel’s most notorious cold cases, including some recent revelations that have never been published.

This free program is sponsored by the Laurel Historical Society, and is tonight, July 9 at 7 p.m. at the Laurel Police Department’s Partnership Activity Center, 811 Fifth Street.

More information:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/laurel/ph-ll-stefanie-watson-program-20150706-story.html

STEFANIE-WATSON-TALK-JULY9-FINAL

rest-of-the-story-logo-high-res

Tagged , , , ,

The Rest of the Story: Stefanie Watson

It’s still over a month away, but I hope you’ll mark your calendar and join me for a special presentation on July 9th. I’m honored to be part of the Laurel Historical Society’s summer program called “The Rest of the Story | A Series Based on Ripped From the Headlines: Laurel in the News”. It’s a companion series to the current exhibit at the Laurel Museum, which highlights some of the biggest stories that have ever graced the pages of the Laurel Leader (among other publications).

I’ve been asked to give a talk on a subject that’s particularly important to me—the Stefanie Watson cold case.

STEFANIE-WATSON-TALK-JULY9-FINAL

I first wrote about the brutal 1982 murder of Stefanie Watson here in 2012, to mark the 30th anniversary of her death and to hypothesize a theory. I was a 9-year-old kid at the time of her disappearance; and while I’d never met her, the sheer horror of the crime—and the fact that virtually nothing had been written about it in the media in the three decades since—had always stuck with me. I decided to write something in the context of Lost Laurel to mark the occasion, never imagining that it would not only have a hand in reigniting the investigation, but that a DNA match would finally lead to her killer’s arrest after all these years.

It was a unique chance for me to reminisce about the people and places of Laurel in 1982, while exploring territory that was entirely new to me: discussing an unsolved murder with the Chief of Police in my hometown… retracing Stefanie Watson’s last known footsteps… comparing notes with Prince George’s County homicide detectives… becoming friends with Stefanie’s family, and ultimately getting that amazing call from her cousin that an arrest had been made.

I’m putting together this presentation to tell the full story in person. It’ll be hosted by the Laurel Historical Society, and for the first time, will be held at the Laurel Police Department‘s spacious Partnership Activity Center—which many of you will remember was originally the First Baptist Church of Laurel.

(Photo: Sgt. Don Winstead, Laurel Police Department. Courtesy of policestationpictures.wordpress.com)

(Photo: Sgt. Don Winstead, Laurel Police Department. Courtesy of policestationpictures.wordpress.com)

If any of Stefanie’s former co-workers at the Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital (or anyone else—friends or neighbors—who knew her personally) are interested in attending and possibly sharing your memories of her, that would be wonderful. Likewise, any current or retired police, fire, and rescue personnel who may have had some connection to the case—we would love to hear from you.

This summer will mark 33 years since Stefanie Watson’s murder. It will also mark the beginning of John Ernest Walsh’s trial for this crime that has haunted Laurel now for more than three decades.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Stefanie Watson: Reigniting One of Laurel’s Most Notorious Cold Cases

PRESENTED BY RICHARD FRIEND

Thursday, July 9, 2015
7PM
Laurel Police Department | Partnership Activity Center
811 Fifth Street, Laurel, MD

rest-of-the-story-logo-high-res

Tagged , , , ,

Stefanie Watson Case: Indictment

Somewhere, I’d like to think that Stefanie Watson is looking down on us, smiling at the latest news—news that I first heard today from her cousin, Christy, who has been waiting 32 years for justice.

Two years have already passed since I first wrote about her murder, marking the 30th anniversary of a Laurel cold case that had somehow received next to no press throughout the decades. Then, last summer, the breakthrough finally came: Prince George’s County cold case detectives took the initiative to send DNA from the seat of Stefanie’s 1981 Chevette for analysis (the complete, blood-soaked chair had been kept in evidence all this time). Blood on the back unequivocally matched that of an inmate—John Ernest Walsh—who’s been incarcerated since 1989.

Walsh, who had been incomprehensibly released from Jessup’s now-defunct Patuxent Institution—despite having served only 8 years of a 72-year sentence for an unrelated kidnapping, rape, and attempted murder—committed this horrific crime during his brief period of freedom, before violating his parole in 1989 and returning to jail. He’s been a guest of Eastern Correctional Institution for the past 25 years; but until last summer, the thought of ever facing charges in Stefanie Watson’s murder had probably never crossed his mind.

Last June, Prince George’s County Police announced that a warrant was filed against Walsh. And today, after taking nearly 15 months to bolster their case, they announced the official indictment.

We’re also finally getting a chance to see what Walsh looked like around the time of his fateful encounter with Stefanie.

john-ernest-walsh-1970s-mugs

Nope. Not much improvement.

So, the next step will be the actual trial—where John Ernest Walsh will finally answer for the murder of Stefanie Watson during that unforgettable summer of 1982.

Laurel hasn’t forgotten Stefanie, and never will. Those of us who lived there in the days following her disappearance; in the weeks after young Todd McEvers made that grisly discovery in the woods at the dead end of Larchdale Road; and in the three decades it’s taken to find the man responsible for her death. We’re finally ready to see justice, and hopefully get even more answers.

stefanie-winking

(Family photo)

 

 

Tagged , , , ,

Stefanie Watson: Case Closed

Sometimes, the truth really does turn out to be stranger than fiction. And as the other old truism goes, life really does often imitate art.

Although, sadly, there wasn’t actually anything fictional or artful about the 1982 murder of Stefanie Watson. It was all too real, and all too disturbing; and for three decades, not only was the crime unsolved, it was as cold a case as one could ever imagine—virtually nothing had been written about it for nearly 30 years. Growing up, I’d always felt it should have been a national news story—it certainly had all the elements of a Hollywood whodunit or a New York Times bestseller.

Last summer, in the midst of curating Lost Laurel, I realized that the 30th anniversary of Stefanie’s death was approaching. I wanted to not only mark the occasion, but somehow generate interest and possibly even rejuvenate the investigation into her murder. In the process, I developed what I thought to be a compelling theory—albeit an unlikely one. I became convinced that Stefanie’s killer(s) were the notorious drifters, Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole—the latter having been the murderer of young Adam Walsh, son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh, almost exactly one year earlier in 1981. Erratic travelers active primarily in the south, both had connections to Prince George’s County, the opportunity, and certainly the will and the means to commit such a crime. They’d been free at the time of Stefanie’s disappearance, confirmed having traveled through Maryland in the summer of 1982, and owned a car at that time matching the description of the one seen that fateful night on Larchdale Road, dumping partial skeletal remains—Stefanie’s only remains ever recovered, to this day.

The question I posed was simple: could there really have been anyone else even capable of such a horrific crime, not to mention the numerous coincidences? As it turns out, there really was. And in yet another incredible coincidence, his name is John Walsh. But we’ll get to him in a moment.

Learning the news

In addition to bringing the case back to the public consciousness among Laurelites last summer, one of the unexpected blessings has been making contact with the family of Stefanie Watson. I was only 9 years old when she died, and had never met her. But as I explained in the original post, I’ve never forgotten the summer of 1982, and the feeling of dread standing for hours near the missing person flyer taped to the large window at the entrance to Zayre. Stefanie Watson’s face—still strikingly pretty through that faded Xerox photocopy—was the first and last face I saw each day at Zayre, as I manned my post outside—a shy kid trying to sell Olympic Sales Club products to approaching customers. For long, lonely stretches at times, it was just me and that flyer; just me and Stefanie Watson.

stefanie-missing-poster

Before I published the article, I had considered trying to contact Stefanie’s family for information. But the fear of opening old wounds for them was great, and being neither a journalist or investigator, I just didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Instead, I spoke to Laurel Chief of Police Rich McLaughlin first, and he directed me to Prince George’s County Homicide’s cold case division. There, I spoke to Sgt. Rick Fulginiti. I explained to them that in writing the piece, I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything that would impede their investigation, or upset Stefanie’s family, should they happen to come across it. Both men encouraged me to write it.

Surprisingly, Stefanie’s family did come across it. I first received an email from her cousin, Leanne last October, and it was such a relief to hear that they were grateful for what I’d written. I learned that Leanne’s older sister, Chris, had been Stefanie’s best friend. Chris was, in fact, the one who had the unthinkable task of reporting her missing.

Leanne and I corresponded a bit, and the blog posting continued to get its share of comments over the next several months. Then, on Friday, June 21st, I got an email from Leanne that I never could’ve expected. She was letting me know that there had been an arrest in Stefanie’s murder, and that the DNA matched an inmate named John Walsh. “No kidding,” she added.

And then, on Sunday, June 23rd, I got a call from Sgt. Fulginiti, confirming this stunning news. “I’ve spoken to Stefanie’s family, and I wanted to call you next,” he said; and in what was a tremendous honor, he told me that the Lost Laurel article had indeed helped breathe new life into the cold case. He let me know that he would be issuing a press conference in the following days, formally announcing that charges have been filed against John Ernest Walsh, a 68-year-old inmate who has been incarcerated on an unrelated charge since 1989. Preserved DNA from the back of the driver’s seat of Stefanie’s blood-soaked 1981 Chevette unequivocally matched that of Walsh. Stefanie, it’s clear, put up an incredible fight in that small car—as a significant amount of that blood evidently belonged to Walsh, whom Sgt. Fulginiti reports still bears distinct scars.

The press conference came on Tuesday, June 25th, and a lot of local minds were thoroughly blown—including my own.

For the remainder of the week—and for the first time since this unspeakable crime occurred back in the summer of 1982, there was no shortage of news coverage. The Laurel Leader, rightfully, was one of the first to break the story. Fox5 aired a report, as did WJLA 7, and plenty of others. (Just Google it).

John Ernest Walsh, we learned, had been arrested in 1969—when he was only 24 years old—for the kidnapping, rape, and attempted murder of a woman in Prince George’s County whose throat and wrists he cut before literally leaving her for dead in the woods. Against all odds, she survived; and Walsh was sentenced to 72 years in prison. But unfortunately for society, this was just the beginning of his story.
John Ernest Walsh (Photo: Prince George's County Police)

John Ernest Walsh (Photo: Prince George’s County Police)

Walsh was deemed a psychiatric patient, naturally, and was handpicked by the Patuxent Institution in Jessup “for rehabilitation”. After serving only 8 years, he was deemed “rehabilitated”—at least enough to be allowed out on work release. That was in 1978. Two years later, in 1980, he was paroled outright. You read that correctly—this man kidnapped, raped, and cut a woman’s throat, then ended up really only serving 8 years of a seventy-two year sentence. And so it came to be that on July 22, 1982, John Ernest Walsh—the “rehabilitated” kidnapper/rapist/attempted murderer—crossed paths with Stefanie Watson. The exact circumstances of just how their paths crossed may only be known to Walsh himself, and so far, he claims he “doesn’t remember”.

Having had his parole revoked in 1989 for failing a drug test, Walsh has had the last 24 years to think about it in Eastern Correctional Institution, where he is Inmate #113067. That may bring some solace to the family and friends of Stefanie Watson, but it raises even more questions—not the least of which is, how many other people did this man kill during his years of “rehabilitated” freedom, between 1978 and 1989? And what about the Patuxent Institution itself? Surely, there is a record somewhere that bears the signature of a fatally misguided psychiatrist who literally released this monster on the public. The individual (or group) who made that decision is, in my opinion, just as responsible for Stefanie Watson’s death as John Ernest Walsh is, and should rightfully pay for it.

Shifting focus

Watching the press conference and news coverage last week was surreal for a number of reasons. Honestly, it still hasn’t sunken in yet that the case has actually been solved; and that the killer has been sitting in prison for the past 24 years thinking he’d otherwise gotten away with it. In fact, in January 2000, he actually tried to petition the U.S. Court of Appeals to return him to the cushier confines of Patuxent, feeling that he’d been unfairly sent to a more “punitive” environment. Again, fortunately for society, that was overruled.

That being said, I’ve written all I care to write about this man. I trust that he’ll be in court soon to face the charge of first degree murder, and when he does, he’ll return to the spotlight of our local news. My wish, however, is that the spotlight returns to the rightful person—Stefanie Watson.
With the news of the arrest came another pleasant surprise—the first fairly clear color photo of Stefanie I’d ever seen.
Stefanie Watson (Photo: Prince George's County Police)

Stefanie Watson (Photo: Prince George’s County Police)

It was her driver’s license photo, used by police during the investigation. Granted, few people are particularly fond of their driver’s license photos, but this one came into focus on television screens and computer monitors like a breath of fresh air. For nearly 31 years, Stefanie Watson had been a fading name and a grainy, black and white image on a photocopied missing person flyer. Suddenly, there she was again—this time in full color. It gave me a wonderful idea for my follow-up story, which I wanted to focus primarily on Stefanie herself, rather than the man who killed her.

I immediately contacted her cousin, Leanne again, and inquired about writing a piece that really showed who Stefanie was as a person: the music she listened to, the shows she watched, etc. Leanne had her older sister, Chris, give me a call—and for nearly an hour and a half, I was treated to a first person account of growing up with Stefanie—not only as her cousin, but as her best friend.

Invaluable help came from even more of Stefanie’s family. Her niece, Kate—who had only been three months old at the time of her aunt’s disappearance—shared a treasure trove of photos of Stefanie through the years:

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie's sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Family photo courtesy of Kate Adams.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Stefanie (left) with older sister Margaret. (Family photo courtesy of Kate Adams).

Stefanie (left) with older sister, Peg.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate).

Stefanie's senior high school photo, 1973.  (Family photo courtesy of Stefanie's sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.).

Stefanie’s senior high school photo, 1973.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate).

Family photo courtesy of Kate Adams.

Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s sister, Peg, and niece, Kate.

Stefanie was only two years older than her cousin, Chris—an obvious factor in their closeness. Her sister, Margaret (known as Peg)—while undoubtedly close herself—was seven years older than Stefanie. But Stefanie and Chris were, by all accounts, inseparable best friends. Speaking to Chris on the phone all these years later, the joy in her voice was palpable, as were the memories. “Oh, she was a good time. Just a really good time,” she said—clearly smiling while recalling the days leading up to the summer of 1982. And in particular, Stefanie’s all-too brief time in Laurel. She arrived in September 1981, and Chris would frequently make the drive down from Pennsylvania to visit. Coincidentally, it was Stefanie who taught Chris to drive some years earlier, in what Chris remembered as an orange Buick Skylark.

“She had a wicked sense of humor,” Chris mused, “and she loved the beach.” To that point, Deborah Moore, an 18-year-old neighbor who lived in the building beside Stefanie’s in 1982, even remembers her sunbathing on the 8th Street Field right in front of her apartment. “She was fearless,” Chris reiterated. “She would walk her dog along those fields early in the morning and late at night.” Her dog, a striking red Siberian Husky, was named Kito. Chris sent me the following photos, which beautifully capture them both.

Stefanie with Kito.  (Family photo courtesy of Christy).

Stefanie with Kito.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s cousin, Christy).

Stefanie with Kito.  (Family photo courtesy of Christy).

Stefanie with Kito.
(Family photo courtesy of Stefanie’s cousin, Christy).

“That’s more Stefanie than most other pictures,” Leanne replied, fondly recalling her “cool cousin”:
“I look at her face, and still see the girl that I thought was so pretty, and had great clothes… I would sneak them out of her bag when she spent the night, wear them to school, and have them nicely folded and back in her bag before she and my sister got home from work. They were older than me—Chris is four years older and Stefanie was six years older. Chris always thought of me as her pesky little sister and would tell me to get lost, and Stefanie would tell her to stop being so mean.”

Chris also attested to Stefanie’s fashion sense, and how she was always “super-neat, and had to make sure everything was clean and pressed”.

I asked about Stefanie’s favorite foods, and with a laugh, Chris explained that Stefanie “could eat like a hog and never gain weight!” She added that they would often eat frequently and at odd times, undoubtedly due in part to Stefanie’s late work schedule at what was then called Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital. She would typically report to work at 11:30 PM, where she was the overnight admitting clerk in the busy emergency room. Chris thought about restaurants they frequented together in Laurel, and one name came instantly to mind. “Tippy’s Taco House,” she said, knowing that it’s still open at 315 Gorman Avenue, albeit under the name Toucan Taco since 1992. The girls would get their Tex-Mex fix, and Chris would even buy more for the trip home to Pennsylvania.

Chris and I talked about TV shows that Stefanie watched, too:

“I remember she loved Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I.Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, One Day at a Time, The Love Boat, Saturday Night Live—when Saturday Night Live was good, of course”.

Music was a big part of Stefanie’s life, and she and Chris frequented concerts—including several at Merriweather Post Pavilion in nearby Columbia. “We’d go to any concert,” she said. “It really didn’t matter who was playing—we just loved to go”. She cited a number of Stefanie’s favorite recording artists, and while the list paints a veritable time capsule of the era, it also attests to her diverse taste in music. Rod Stewart, I expected. Charlie Daniels, I did not. But Chris said they were both part of Stefanie’s playlist:

“The Bee Gees, Blondie, Rod Stewart, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Christopher Cross, Elton John, David Bowie… and how could I forget Todd Rundgren, and her all time favorite Dan Fogelberg—loved him. She was also a huge Steely Dan fan!”
With Christy’s help, I’ve put together a little playlist that Stefanie would approve of:

A few years earlier in Pennsylvania, she’d also had a dog named “Jackson”—because she also loved Jackson Browne.

It’s easy for us to use the term “playlist” today, and forget that it wouldn’t have been part of Stefanie’s lexicon 30+ years ago. Chris and I talked about this as well; how there were no cell phones, no internet, no MP3s—none of the modern conveniences that we take for granted today. Consider the things that Stefanie missed out on within just that first year alone: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Return of the Jedi. A Christmas Story. Friday Night Videos. Flashdance. Madonna. Then consider everything she missed over the next thirty years. It’s staggering.

Stefanie would have just celebrated her 58th birthday on July 3rd, and it’s hard to fathom that she’s now been gone longer than she was here. This is especially true for Laurel, where she was really only a resident for a total of 10 months. Even if the unspeakable crime hadn’t occurred, she was literally just days away from relocating to Fort Worth, Texas.

I’m 40 years old today. That’s 13 years older than Stefanie was at the time of her disappearance. It really is amazing how time flies by. And while the rest of us continue to get older and live our lives, Stefanie will always remain that beautiful and kind 27-year-old who loved the beach, her dog, and concerts. And she’ll forever be a part of Laurel. Personally, I like to think that had she lived, she would even be an active Lost Laurel follower on Facebook—reminiscing over photos and artifacts she’d recall from her time in our hometown.

(Lost Laurel collection).

Glass ashtray, circa 1980s.
(Lost Laurel collection).

Ballpoint pen, circa 1980s.  (Lost Laurel collection, courtesy of John Floyd II).

Ballpoint pen from Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital, circa 1980s.
(Lost Laurel collection, courtesy of John Floyd II).

T-shirt from Laurel’s 4th of July Celebration, 1982.
(Lost Laurel collection, courtesy of John Floyd II).

This banner from 1982 adorned the 8th Street Field fence directly across from Stefanie's apartment. (Laurel Historical Society collection).

This banner from the 1982 celebration adorned the 8th Street Field fence directly across from Stefanie’s apartment. Coincidentally, the day also marked Stefanie’s 27th birthday.
(Laurel Historical Society collection).

I never would’ve dreamed, as a little kid nearly 31 years ago, that I’d grow up and contribute a small part to finally catching the monster responsible for Stefanie Watson’s death. That has been a truly unexpected blessing, and it’s only through the diligence and cooperation of the Laurel Police Department, the Prince George’s County Police Department, and these amazing P.G. County cold case detectives that we’ve finally seen this case resolved.

Plenty of questions remain, but even after all this time, we may finally be about to learn the answers. The main question, however—who did it?—has finally been put to rest. Thirty years removed, the man responsible has been living a miserable existence behind bars; an existence that, as we speak, is only becoming increasingly more miserable. I’ll drink to that.

The coincidences that permeate this chapter in Laurel’s history continue to astound me: the sheer randomness of the crime; the timing of Stefanie’s last night at work and plans to relocate; and now the very name of the killer. As they say, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Nonetheless, it happened, and those of us who lived in Laurel during the summer of 1982 have never forgotten. Nor will we ever.

As Laurel celebrates another 4th of July, let’s remember Stefanie as more than just a victim. Her family has been kind enough to share photos and memories with us that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen, and it’s my hope that it paints a clearer picture of who this young woman was. There’s a line from an Elton John song—whom we now know was one of Stefanie’s favorites—that best sums up my feelings, and probably those of everyone else from my generation who grew up in Laurel:

“And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid.
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did”.

*****

My immeasurable thanks to Sgt. Rick Fulginiti and his team of cold case detectives at the Prince George’s County Police Department, for taking the time to not only talk to me about a haunting case that predates their careers, but for then going out and actually breaking it wide open once and for all. Thank you, DNA evidence! And most of all, thank you again to Stefanie’s incredibly strong family members: her sister, Peg; her niece, Kate; and her cousins Leanne and Chris—for helping us remember the Stefanie that you knew and loved.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,