Friday, December 17, 2010

Full Circle

by Donna Pendergast

“Oh, my God, it was him,” I thought to myself as a cold shiver ran down my spine one afternoon at work in 2002.

The memories all flooded back in a rush. “Oh, my God, it was him.”

The time was the school year starting in the fall of 1980. The place was the University of Michigan campus located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The climate was one of tension and fear.

I was a senior at the university and lived at South Quad, one of the largest dormitories on campus. I was a resident advisor (RA) on the fifth floor of the dorm and got free room and board for acting as an advisor/mentor to all the students on my assigned hallway. Every one of them was an incoming freshman that fall semester. Their names, for the most part, have now long since faded from memory, but I’m sure that there is one memory we all still retain and that is the memory of being in fear. A killer who would be dubbed the “Sunday Morning Slasher” was killing women on and near campus and the campus was in a state of high alert.

As a Resident Advisor it was my job, amongst other things, to make sure that the girls on my hallway took safety seriously. That year the job was easy. There was a shadow over the campus, four women had been killed and everyone was scared.

We all went about our normal campus activities but there were signs of tension everywhere. I kept a sign up sheet outside my dorm to pair women up for night time excursions to the library and other campus events. The men in the dorm were volunteering to escort women to and from nighttime activities. Another volunteer service was posting a phone number all around campus that women could call for a free ride if they got caught out after dark. If you were a female and you lived in Ann Arbor that year, plain and simple, you didn’t walk alone at night. A killer of women was out there and although then nameless he was very real to everyone on campus.

I foolishly risked a nighttime walk only once that year and I still remember that walk like it was yesterday. Caught late at night at an athlete’s party that had degenerated into a rowdy free for all, I wanted to go home and my friends wanted to stay. They stayed behind and I left risking a mile long walk home at 2:00 am. I remember the fear and jitters as I looked over my shoulder every two steps as I walked home through a desolate area of campus on that dark night. I was lucky, I made it back to the dorm safely. I never knew how lucky until many years later.

Fast forward some twenty two years later. The former Resident Advisor is now a prosecutor working in the Wayne County, Michigan, Prosecutors office. I was the Principal Trial Lawyer and a supervisor in the Homicide Unit the day I got a fateful call that was about to bring all those long suppressed frightening memories rushing back in a flash.

A reporter from Texas called the prosecutors office wondering what the state of Michigan was doing about Coral Eugene Watts. Coral Eugene who? I thought as I began the research to find out what I could about this serial murderer who was allegedly going to be released from prison in Texas. What I was about to find out was far more frightening and horrific than any of us had ever dreamed of back in the school year of 1980 - 1981.

Some twenty two years later the Sunday Morning Slasher now had a name to me, Coral Eugene Watts, (pictured right) and what I was about to learn about Coral Eugene Watts was far scarier than the plot of any grade B horror movie. Coral Eugene Watts had been the nameless, faceless killer of my senior year. It had been him lurking in the campus shadows and he was a diabolical killing machine.

As it turns out, unbeknown to most of the students on campus, the Ann Arbor police had focused on Coral Eugene Watts at some point during that frightening school year after watching him follow a lone women walking on campus late one night. In fact, the subsequent dogged police surveillance of Watts caused him to leave Ann Arbor and head for Texas in March of 1981.

The Sunday Morning Slasher had left the University of Michigan campus but he wasn’t done with coeds and he wasn’t done killing. The trail that he left behind in Michigan was a bloody one. To this day we don’t know how many women were killed in Michigan but we know that there were many. After later being apprehended he admitted to one murder in Michigan but the police consider him to be the suspect in dozens more including the four women murdered in Ann Arbor. The trail that he was about to leave in Texas would become bloodier yet.

The police now believe that Coral Eugene Watts may have been the most prolific serial murderer in the history of the United States. This post would be pages and pages long if I were to attempt in any way to give you a taste of the monster that was Coral Eugene Watts. Suffice to say that his trail of murder and destruction almost defies comprehension.

After leaving Michigan, Watts surfaced in the Houston, Texas, area where he would begin a killing spree that would end only after he was apprehended in May of 1982. Between September of 1981 and May of 1982 Watts killed at least twelve women and probably many more than that. On the day of his apprehension Watts had already killed a 21 year old woman as she was returning home from her birthday celebration. A short time later he was in the process of killing two young women in their apartment when one of them dove off a second floor balcony to escape him. This caused Watts to flee right into the arms of police who were responding to calls about commotion in the apartment.

After Watts was apprehended the District Attorney in Houston and the police department made a plea bargain with him in an effort to resolve a number of open missing persons and murder cases that they couldn’t prove but believed were tied to Watts. After receiving full immunity Watts confessed to twelve Texas murders in great detail. He later led police to all the murder locations and to several undiscovered bodies as well.

Pursuant to the terms of the plea agreement Coral Eugene Watts pled guilty to Aggravated Burglary in the case of the two roommates. He was sentenced to sixty years in prison by a reluctant judge, the Honorable Douglas Shaver. The judge went along with the plea bargain because he understood the prosecution and police dilemma. Without Watts’ confession the crimes would have never been solved, but Watts wouldn’t give a statement without immunity for the murders. The sixty year sentence was a reassurance to everyone that Watts would spend the rest of his life in prison. Judge Shaver said at sentencing that it was his suggestion to the Department of Corrections that he be made to serve each and every minute of the sixty years that he had been sentenced to.

It wasn’t a perfect result but a monster was off the streets and everyone could breathe a sigh of relief –or could they?

Fast forward to September of 2002. Watts is scheduled for release from the Texas Department of Corrections in May 2006 because of the quintessential “technicality” one always hears about when they find out about a criminal getting off after committing a crime. This technicality is too complex to go in depth about in this post, suffice to say that it was based on a legal nuance that no one had ever anticipated or prepared for.

By the time I hear about the case, the state of Texas had exhausted all of it’s options to keep Watts in prison. Texas was looking to Michigan to review old cases where Watts was a suspect to see if anything was overlooked and whether there might be a viable Michigan case still out there.

After learning what I could about the monster that was Coral Eugene Watts, I called the Michigan State Police. An informal task force was formed to comb through almost two hundred old Michigan cases that were possibly tied to Watts. This informal task force contained myself from the Wayne County Prosecutors office and others. I was a participant because the bulk of cases suspected to be tied to Watts were from the Detroit area, which is within the jurisdiction of Wayne County. The Michigan State police and the Michigan Attorney General’s office were also a part of the task force, as were law enforcement members from various localities where murders suspected to be tied to Watts were located.

The task force effort was a frustrating one. We knew that Watts had committed a number of murders but we did not have sufficient proof to charge him on any of the cases. Lt. Bill Hanger of the Michigan State Police continued to comb through the cases but the clock was ticking towards May 2006 and nothing was screaming out on any of the cases other than the ticking clock. I began to dread the calls from Andy Kahan, the head of the Crime Victim’s Assistance Unit for the Mayors office in Houston because I had no good news to tell him.

I changed jobs from the Wayne County Prosecutors office to the Michigan Attorney General’s office in August of 2003, but I couldn’t escape Coral Eugene Watts or Andy Kahan. I took over the job of the lawyer handling the Michigan Attorney General’s end of the Watts' case so it was still mine just in a different forum.


A fortuitous break was about to occur much to everyone’s surprise.

On January 15, 2004, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox went on national TV on The Abrams Report to talk about Coral Eugene Watts and the ticking clock. The phone number to the Michigan Attorney General’s office Criminal Division was running across the bottom of the screen asking for persons to call if they had any information.

Call it divine intervention or whatever you will, Joseph Foy, a witness to a crime committed in Ferndale, Michigan, in 1979, was flipping through the channels and saw the footage of Watts being shown on The Abrams Report. Foy had come forward in 1981 identifying Watts after seeing footage on TV when Watts was apprehended in Texas. The case hadn’t been pursued in Michigan because Watts was expected to be locked up for the rest of his life in Texas. I, of course, didn’t know any of this at that time The Abrams Report aired.

The morning after the broadcast I went to work and found a pink message slip waiting. It said “Joseph Foy, saw one of Watts’ murders," along with a phone number.

“Sure you did," I instantly thought, having been frustrated over the case for so long.

I looked at my secretary and said one word “Wacko?"

She replied, "I don’t think so."

Before I returned the call to Joseph Foy, Lt. Hanger called to talk to me about the previous night’s broadcast on national TV. I mentioned the message that I had received and I can still hear the skepticism that I heard in Lt. Hangers voice when he said “Oh yeah?" I was skeptical as well, we had been frustrated at every turn for so long.

Later that day I returned Mr. Foy’s call. What I found on the other end was a lucid, coherent, well spoken individual who seemed to know what he was talking about. After that call I quickly called Lt. Hanger and spoke to him for the second time that day but this time things were different.

“I think we have our case” I told him.

We did indeed finally have our case. It wasn’t a perfect case, but it was a case and the gods were about to smile on us in a number of ways.

The original Ferndale Police Department file had been lost, but the Detroit Police Department had a full copy of the file from a task force effort on Watts, which occurred right after his arrest in Texas. The original composite sketch of the suspect which was drawn the day after the Ferndale murder, with Mr. Foy’s assistance, was in a box in the basement of the sketch artist who still worked for the county sheriff's department. What are the odds of that twenty two years later?

It wasn’t a great case. It was old and it was based on one witness, but it was a case. Complicated legal maneuvers later strengthened the case when the judge ruled that evidence of Watts’ murders in Texas could be admitted to show a pattern and scheme of behavior.

The trial was held in November 2004. The headline of the local paper on the first day of jury selection read as big and bold as if World War Three had just started. In large bold black type the headline screamed that Michigan was the last hope to keep this monster in prison. My first task of the day was a frantic call to the jail lockup area at the courthouse, which is manned by the county sheriff’s department. My plea to the deputy sheriff stationed at that post was to tape over the newspaper boxes in the courthouse to prevent potential jurors from seeing the headlines.

The trial was dramatic and stress filled. Many of the family members of victims from Watts' Texas murders attended the trial because this had become their trial as well. They were finally getting a chance to see Watts put away on a murder charge. The trial was broadcast live on Court TV and there were 32 other media agencies in attendance in a make shift media center set up at the courthouse. The pressure during the trial was enormous, the stakes were just so high. Suffice to say for the purpose of this post, I didn’t sleep much for a few weeks.

When we got word that the jury had a verdict my heart was beating so hard that I thought it was going to beat out of my chest. The words “Guilty of First Degree Murder” have never sounded so sweet.

In retrospect I often think about how strange it is that things all came together in the manner that they did. The fortuitous appearance of the Attorney General on national TV, the likelihood that Joseph Foy would be flipping through the channels at that very moment, and the way that we were able to reconstruct the file and locate the composite sketch in a basement box like we did.

However, nothing is as strange to me as the fact that the scared 22-year-old coed of my senior year in college ended up with the upper hand. How weird that I was the one who put the monster that was Coral Eugene Watts away for good. Who would have dreamed it back in the school year of 1980?

The hunter had become the hunted. All I can say is full circle.

Note: Coral Eugene Watts died of prostate cancer in a Michigan prison in September 2007.

Statements made in this post are my own and do not reflects the views, opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.


James Graham said...

I once heard an African American comedian claim that all serial killers were white. He got a good laugh out of his African American audience.

What may have been once true is no longer.

Anonymous said...

I understand the urge to make a bargain with a serial killer in order to get information but really this went way too far. It is cases like this that have caused people to lose faith in our justice system.