American Monsters Volume 5

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Coral Eugene Watts

The Sunday Morning Slasher

“She had evil eyes. I was trying to release her spirit.”- Coral Watts

In May 1982, Lori Lister, 21, arrived at her apartment in Houston, after visiting her boyfriend. As she parked her car and walked towards the front door of her building, she was probably unaware that she was being followed. But a man was tracking her, and as she slotted her key into the front door, he came up quickly behind her and put his hands on her neck. Lori’s screams were quickly cut off as the man increased pressure on her throat. She felt the light fading, she was sure that she was going to die.

Fortunately for Lori, her muffled cries had been heard by a neighbor, who was on the phone to the police ever as the attacker dragged Lori inside. As the man eased Lori to the floor, he encountered her roommate, 18-year-old Melinda Aguilar. He threatened to slash Melinda’s throat if she screamed, then choked her into submission. Fearing for her life, Melinda decided to play dead. It worked. The attacker lowered her to the carpet then began binding the girls’ hands with coat hangers. That completed, he did a peculiar thing. He was so excited to have control over the two women that he jumped up and down clapping his hands like some fairy tale ogre. He then walked to the bathroom and began filling the tub.

Melinda waited until he was out of sight, then staggered to her feet and crossed the room onto the second floor balcony. She clambered over the railing and dropped to the ground, screaming for all she was worth, hoping it wasn't too late to save her friend’s life. Moments later, a police car screeched to a halt outside the building. Hearing the sirens, the intruder tried to flee but the police officers cut off his escape and apprehended him in the courtyard. Meanwhile, the neighbor who had called the police rushed to Lori and Melissa’s apartment. He was just in time to pull Lori from the tub, where the intruder had been trying to drown her.

Investigators soon identified the attacker as Coral Eugene Watts. Asked why he had tried to kill the women, Watts said they had “evil eyes” and he was trying to “release their spirits.” He also told officers that he had done it before – at least 80 times.

Carl Eugene Watts was born on November 7, 1953 in Killeen, Texas. His father, Richard, was a soldier, based at Fort Hood at the time of Carl’s birth. His mother, Dorothy Mae, was a teacher. Just days after Carl was born, the couple moved back to their hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia and a year later their second child, Sharon, was born.

Richard and Dorothy Mae had been childhood sweethearts, but their marriage was an unhappy one that eventually ended in divorce in 1955. Following the breakup, Dorothy Mae moved with her two children to Inkster, Michigan, where she found work as a high school art teacher. But the family would regularly return to Coalwood to visit family, and Carl loved the southern town so much that he later changed his name to Coral - a southern pronunciation of his name.

In 1962, Coral's mother re-married, a situation that greatly distressed the boy, partly because he didn’t like his new stepfather and partly because he hated having a competitor for his mother’s affections.

Around this time another life-changing event occurred in his life. He developed meningitis, his temperature running so high that doctor’s feared it might have caused brain damage. Coral recovered, though, but it seemed that the doctor’s assessment had been right. There were changes to his behavior, subtle at first, but plain to see for all who knew him.

The first sign was in his academic performance. Coral had missed a year of school due to his illness, and was held back a grade when he returned. But the formerly bright child had difficulty concentrating and his grades began to slip, leaving his mother to wonder how badly his illness had affected him.

Then there were the dreams, violent dramas in while he tussled with the evil spirits of women and killed them. More worrying was his assessment of these nightmares. They didn’t frighten him, the young boy declared - in fact, he enjoyed them.

If his parents took this as a warning sign as to the state of his mental health they appear to have taken no action until, inevitably, his fantasies manifested in reality. In 1968, when Coral was 15, he knocked on the door of a 26-year-old woman named Joan Gave. When Mrs. Gave answered the door, Coral forced her back into her apartment, pushed her to the floor and started beating her. When he was done, he continued his newspaper delivery route as if nothing had happened.

Gave immediately called the police, and they were waiting for Coral when he returned home. Brought before a judge, he was ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment at the Lafayette Clinic in Detroit. Here, psychiatrists diagnosed him with strong homicidal tendencies and flagged him as a danger to others. Nonetheless, the boy was released just a few months later, on his 16th birthday. He was ordered to undergo outpatient treatment, which amounted to 9 subsequent consultations.

Coral returned to school, where his academic performance remained poor. He excelled though, at sports, particularly football and boxing, which allowed him to release his pent-up aggression.

With extensive tutoring by his mother, he graduated high school at age 19, and despite his low grade point average, he won a football scholarship to Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. However, he remained at school only a few months before returning home. He said it was due to a leg injury that prevented him from playing football. More likely, he just couldn’t bear to be away from his mother.

He found work as an apprentice mechanic in Detroit, remaining at that trade for a year before enrolling at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Soon after, there were a rash of attacks in the area around the campus - one of them fatal.

On October 25, 1974, Lenore Knizacky, 23, heard a knock at her front door. When she answered it, there was a young black man standing there. He said he was looking for someone named Charles, but before she could answer he grabbed her by the throat and forced her into the apartment. He began strangling her, but she managed to fight him off, forcing him to flee.

Five days later, on October 30, 19-year old, Gloria Steele opened her door to a man who said he was looking for Charles. The man forced his way in and attacked Gloria with a knife, stabbing her 33 times.

The man tried the same ruse with another student on November 12. Fortunately, she was able to escape and as the man fled the scene and jumped into his vehicle, she noted down his license plate number. Police followed up. The car belonged to Coral Eugene Watts. Watts was soon in custody on two charges of battery and he readily admitted the charges, even adding that he’d attacked at least a dozen more women. He baulked though when confronted with the murder of Gloria Steele, insisting that he hadn’t killed anyone.

He was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation at Kalamazoo State Hospital as a precursor to his court hearing. Psychiatrists there found that Watts was emotionally detached and lacked remorse for his actions. They diagnosed him with an antisocial personality disorder, but insisted that he was well aware of the difference between right and wrong and therefore competent to stand trial.

Watts would spend six months under observation during which time he suffered from depression and made a half-hearted attempt at suicide. When his case eventually came to trial in the summer of 1975, he was sentenced to a year in jail on the battery charges. Unfortunately, he was never charged with the murder of Gloria Steele because prosecutors lacked the evidence to convict him. If they had, an awful lot of lives might have been saved.

After Watts was released in 1976, he found work as a mechanic and returned to live with his mother. Those who knew him described him as a “mama’s boy” because he didn't like being away from her. The other women in his life just didn’t measure up. Shortly after his release from prison, Watts began seeing a woman named Delores. The couple had a child together, but split soon after. Watts then started dating another woman who he married in 1979. The marriage lasted just six months before Valeria walked out, mainly due to Coral’s bizarre behavior.

Years later, Valeria would describe some of these behaviors to investigators. She said he suffered violent nightmares, would throw garbage on the floor, would slash at houseplants with a knife and melt candles into the furniture. She also said that, immediately after they had sex, Watts would leave the house for several hours.

He never explained where he went, but it is likely that he was out stalking victims. Several women were attacked and murdered during this period, in attacks bearing Watts’ signature.

One of them was Detroit News reporter Jeanne Clyne, 44, who was attacked as she walked home from a doctor's appointment on Halloween Day, 1979. She died from 11 stab wounds, inflicted on a busy suburban road, in broad daylight.

Then, on April 20, high school student Shirley Small was killed by two knife wounds to the heart, outside her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Another Ann Arbor woman perished in a similar attack. Glenda Richmond, 26, was stabbed 28 times, outside the diner that she managed. And an even more frenzied attack occurred on September 14. University of Michigan graduate student Rebecca Huff, 20, suffered at least 50 knife wounds.

In the wake of the Rebecca Huff murder, a task force was formed to investigate the recent spate of homicides in the area. Under the leadership of Detective Paul Bunten, the task force soon identified Watts as a suspect and brought him in on a warrant to provide a blood sample. Bunten had hoped that he might coax a confession out of Watts, but Watts wasn’t talking. Neither did the blood sample connect him to any crime.

Annoyed by the police attention, Watts decided to leave town, relocating to Columbus, Texas, where he found work at an oil company. Columbus is just 70 miles from Houston. Soon Coral Watts took to cruising that city, looking for new victims.

But Paul Bunten wasn’t about to let Watts’ off the hook that easily. As soon as he heard about the move he contacted Houston PD, then sent them copies of his files on Watts, in the hope of preventing more murders. Yet, Houston police were unable to locate Watts, and didn’t connect him to any criminal activity until his arrest for the attack on Lori Lister and Melinda Aguilar in May 1982.

Under interrogation, Watts refused to talk until Harris County Assistant District Attorney Ira Jones made him an incredible deal. He offered Watts immunity on all murder charges, in exchange for a confession to his murders.

One of America’s most horrendous serial killers had just been given the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card, and unsurprisingly, Watts took the deal. On August 9, 1982, he confessed to 13 murders. He admitted the 1979 Detroit murder of Jeanne Clyne, but said he didn’t kill Glenda Richard, Shirley Small or Rebecca Huff (even though Huff’s address book was found in his car). As to the Houston victims, he confessed to drowning University of Texas student Linda Tilley, 22, in her apartment complex swimming pool in September 1981. He also admitted to stabbing 25-year-old Elizabeth Montgomery to death, one week later.

The same day he killed Susan Wolf, 21, stabbing her to death as she returned from the grocery store. In January 1982, he strangled 27-year-old Phyllis Tamm, while she was out jogging. Two days later, he murdered architecture student Margaret Fossi, 25. Her body was found in the trunk of her car at Rice University.

During that month, he attacked three other Houston women, slashing one across the throat, stabbing one with a knife and another with an ice pick. Miraculously, all three survived.

His next victims were not as lucky. Between February and May 1982, Watts confessed to killing Elena Semander, 20; Emily LaQua, 14; Anna Ledet, 34; Yolanda Gracia, 21; Carrie Jefferson, 32; Suzanne Searles, 25, and Michele Maday, 20.

He admitted to at least 80 more murders in Michigan and Canada, but refused to give any details, because his immunity deal only applied to the murders committed in Texas.

Eventually brought to trial for the attack on Lori Lister and Melinda Aguilar, Watts pled guilty to one count of burglary with intent to kill, the plea bargain he’d agreed. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison, parting with these chilling words, “You know, if they ever let me out, I'll kill again.”

And Watts may well have had the opportunity to make good on his threat. In 1989, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the judge had failed to inform Watts that, “the bathtub he attempted to drown Lori Lister in was construed as a lethal weapon.” Consequently, he was now considered a “nonviolent” inmate and would not be required to serve his full term. The man who had sworn that he would kill again if he ever got out, was due for mandatory parole on May 9, 2006.

As that date grew closer, authorities in Michigan and Texas were working hard to find old cases where evidence might have been overlooked, cases that would keep Coral Watts behind bars for life. They found one in the 1979 murder of Helen Mae Dutcher.

Dutcher had been attacked in an alleyway outside a Ferndale dry cleaners and had been stabbed 12 times in the neck and back. An eyewitness, Joseph Foy, had reported the murder, but the police hadn’t been able to catch the attacker, even though the composite drawn up from Foy’s description strongly resembled Watts.

In 2004, Foy saw a television program regarding the Watts case, and again contacted police. It was the break investigators had been waiting for, with an eyewitness to the murder, they brought charges against Watts.

Coral Watts was extradited to Michigan in April 2004. His trial began in November 2004 and ended on November 19 with a guilty verdict for first-degree murder. Because Michigan doesn’t have the death penalty Watts was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He died in prison on Friday September 21, 2007, of prostate cancer. He was 53 years old.

American Monsters Volume Five includes 11 more riveting stories of America's worst serial killers