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Coral Watts

Born at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1953, Coral Watts grew up on the move, attending public schools in Texas, West Virginia, and Michigan before finishing high school— after a fashion—in Inkster, a Detroit suburb. Despite a tested IQ of 75, he was admitted to Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo and was enrolled there when he started acting out his violent fantasies against women in October 1974.

His first two victims managed to survive when Watts came knocking on the doors of their apartments, starting on October 25. Watts choked them both unconscious, leaving them for dead with not attempt at rape or robbery, but he was disappointed when the press reported both of them were still alive. He found knives more efficient, claiming his first fatality on October 30 when 19-year-old Gloria Steele was stabbed 33 times and discarded near campus.

Identified as a suspect in the nonfatal assaults, Watts had himself committed to a state hospital on the advice of his attorney, refusing to answer any questions about the Steele murder case. Fourteen months after the fact, he struck a bargain with Kalamazoo prosecutors, pleading guilty to one assault in return for dismissal of another similar charge, accepting a one-year sentence in the county jail. Upon release, he moved to Ann Arbor, marrying long enough to father a child, but his deepseated hatred of women made the relationship untenable, and he was divorced in May 1980.

Meanwhile, Watts was hunting. When his marriage started showing signs of strain, he spent some time with relatives in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe Farms, jogging by night to keep himself in shape. On October 31, 1979, he invaded the home of 35-year-old Jeanne Clyne, slashing her to death—again without attempting rape or robbery—before he fled. Eyewitnesses described an African-American man jogging near the scene, but homicide detectives had no way of linking their case with a five-year-old series of crimes against women in Kalamazoo.

Back in Ann Arbor, Watts entered criminal history as the “Sunday Morning Slasher,” claiming at least three victims in motiveless, random attacks committed between 3:00 and 5:00 A.M. on peaceful Sunday mornings. In April 1980, 18-year-old Shirley Small was hacked to death in her apartment, followed by 20-yearold Glenda Richmond in July and 29-year-old Rebecca Huff in September. Canadian authorities believe Watts may have crossed the border into Windsor that October, assaulting 20-year-old Sandra Dalpe outside her apartment, leaving her near death with multiple stab wounds to the face and throat.

By that time, Watts had fallen under scrutiny from local homicide investigators. A task force was organized in July 1980 to probe the Sunday slashings, and Watts was placed under sporadic surveillance, a November court order permitting officers to plant a homing device in his car. Despite pursuit by squad cars and a helicopter, though, Watts managed to commit at least one murder while police were on his trail. Fired from his job as a diesel mechanic in March 1981, he moved south to Houston, leaving the murder investigation at loose ends. Michigan authorities alerted their Texas counterparts, but Watts was accustomed to living under surveillance. He found a new mechanic’s job and started visiting a local church, sometimes living with relatives, other times out of his car.

And the murders continued.

On March 27, 1981, Edith Ledet, a 34-year-old medical student, was stabbed to death while jogging in Houston. Six months later, on September 12, 25-yearold Elizabeth Montgomery was attacked while walking her dog at midnight, staggering into her nearby apartment before she collapsed. Two hours later, 21-year-old Susan Wolfe was knifed to death outside her apartment, nearby, presumed to be a victim of the same assailant.

The new year brought no respite from horrors in Houston. In January, 27-year-old Phyllis Tamm was found on the campus of Rice University, hanged with an article of her own clothing; another Rice student, 25- year-old Margaret Fossi, was killed that same month, found in the trunk of her car, her larynx crushed by a powerful blow that produced death by asphyxiation. On February 7, Elena Semander, a 20-year-old coed, was found strangled and partially nude in a trash bin, not far from a tavern where she had spent the evening.

In March 1982, Emily LaQua was reported missing from Brookshire, Texas, 40 miles north of Houston, but authorities drew no immediate connection with the spate of unsolved murders. On March 31, 20-year-old Mary Castillo was found, strangled and seminude, in a Houston ditch. Three nights later, 19-year-old Christine McDonald vanished while hitchhiking home from a party on the Rice campus. Suzanne Searles, 25, joined the missing list on April 5, her shoes and broken spectacles recovered from her car in the parking lot of her apartment complex. Carrie Mae Jefferson, age 32, vanished after working the night shift on April 15, and 26- year-old Yolanda Degracia was killed the following night, stabbed six times in her home. High school student Sheri Strait disappeared with her mother’s car on May 1, the car and her body recovered together on May 4. Two weeks later, Gloria Cavallis, a 32-year-old exotic dancer, was found dead in a trash dumpster, her body wrapped in cast-off curtains.

On the morning of May 23, 1982—a Sunday— Watts was caught while fleeing from the Houston apartment where he had assaulted tenants Lori Lister and Melinda Aguilar. Lister was half-drowned in the bathtub, while Aguilar escaped by leaping from the balcony and calling for help. Held in lieu of $50,000 bond, Watts was charged with two counts of attempted murder, plus burglary and aggravated assault. On the day of his arrest, another victim, 20-year-old Michelle Maday, was found strangled to death in the bathtub of her Houston apartment.

Psychiatrists declared Watts sane but noted his pathological hatred of women, whom he regarded as evil incarnate. The feelings dated back to childhood, Watts said, when a favorite uncle was allegedly killed by female relatives. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Watts was said to view the world around him “as pure fantasies which resolve to a large extent around the struggle against the ‘evil’ he sees everywhere.”

On August 9, 1982, with jury selection under way for his trial, Watts struck a controversial bargain with the prosecutor’s office. In return for his guilty plea on burglary charges and acceptance of a 60-year prison sentence—the equivalent of life imprisonment in Texas—Watts would clear the books on several unsolved Houston murders while escaping trial for homicide.

With the deal complete and Watts compelled to serve a minimum of 20 years before consideration for parole, he confessed to 10 Houston murders, including those of victims Wolfe, Jefferson, Montgomery, Fossi, Semander, Searles, Garcia, Tamm, Ledet, and Maday. He also threw in some surprises, including the nonfatal slashing of a Galveston 19-year-old, attacked on January 30, 1982, and the “accidental” death of 22-year-old Linda Tilley, found floating in an Austin, Texas, swimming pool on September 5, 1981. Other nonfatal assaults were also cleared in Austin, Galveston, and Seabrook, Texas.

Watts led authorities to the remains of victims Searles and Jefferson in Houston, directing other searchers to the body of Emily LaQua, near Brookshire, and he was still talking when Michigan weighed in with charges in the murder of Jeanne Clyne. Swapping testimony for immunity, Watts ran his score up to 13 confessed murders with the Clyne case, but detectives suggest that his actual body count includes a minimum of 22 victims. On September 3, 1982, Watts received his 60-year sentence, the judge declaring, “I hope they put you so deep in the penitentiary that they’ll have to pipe sunlight to you.”

Tough talk aside, Watts remained eligible for parole, and Texas residents were outraged in July 2002 when they learned that his release had been scheduled for May 2006. Ex-judge Doug Shaver, who sentenced Watts in 1982, told reporters, “It makes me kind of sick. It’s the most unforgettable case I ever had before me, and he’s the most dangerous person I’ve ever come face to face with. When he gets out, some woman is going to die.” Texas authorities denied Watts’s fifth parole bid in November 2002, repeating that the law required them to free him in 2006, at age 52. Relief came from Michigan, where prosecutors announced a new murder indictment in March 2004. The victim in that case, 36-year-old Helen Dutcher, was slain in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale on December 1, 1979. Police initially lacked evidence to charge Watts with the crime, so Dutcher’s murder was excluded from the list of homicides for which Watts had immunity. Extradited to Michigan in April 2004, Watts filed a not guilty plea at his arraignment on June 17. Michigan jurors convicted Watts of first-degree murder on November 17, 2004, in the December 1979 slaying of Helen Fuchter. He received a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment