Coral Eugene Watts may be the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. He's already admitted to killing more than a dozen women, but authorities believe the actual number may be closer to 100.
Watts is scheduled to be released from prison in less than two years, after serving just 24 years of a 60-year sentence. How can that be?
It turns out Texas authorities made a deal with the devil back in 1982. They agreed to a plea bargain they thought would keep Watts behind bars for the rest of his life. But, as correspondent Steve Kroft reports, the deal has come back to haunt them, and Watts may become the first serial killer ever to be set free.
For the past 22 years, Watts has been locked up in the Texas prison system – all but forgotten.
"What's amazing to me is everybody in America has heard of a Ted Bundy, a John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer. But when you mention the name of Coral Eugene Watts, 99.99 percent of the public has no clue who you're talking about," says Andy Kahan, who is hoping to change that.
As director of the Crime Victims Office for the Mayor of Houston, he's trying to find some way to keep Watts from being released.
"I guarantee you, if he is released, women are gonna turn up murdered," says Kahan. "There's no ifs, ands, or buts. This was a man that by his own admission stated that 'I'm gonna kill again if they ever release me.' You do not rehabilitate a serial killer."
Watts has been in trouble since he was 15, when he attacked a woman on his paper route. He's been in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and in college, he was the No. 1 suspect after a young woman was stabbed 33 times. Police, however, had no evidence linking Watts to the murder. He was also a suspect in a series of slayings in the Detroit area, but once again there was not enough evidence to arrest him.
Watts' ability to elude authorities followed him to Ann Arbor, Mich. It was 1980, when three young women were brutally murdered by someone the police and newspapers dubbed the "Sunday Morning Slasher."
Paul Bunten, now the police chief in Saline, Mich., was the lead investigator in the case and says Watts quickly became the prime suspect.
"He knew that I suspected him of three homicides, even to the point where I demonstrated," says Bunten. "I said, 'Coral, I know exactly how you did it. And I stood up and I put my arm around his neck. And I said, 'You did it just like this.'"
By then, Bunten had put Watts under 24-hour police surveillance. When Watts decided to skip town, Bunten tracked him to Houston and sent police there an urgent warning.
"We put this very large packet of information including fingerprints, photographs, photographs of his car, highlights of our reports," says Bunten. "And I called Houston homicide and talked with the detective down there, and told him, 'I'm mailing this down. This is guy is a predator. You need to watch him.'"
When Watts showed up in Houston in 1981, it was the perfect hunting ground for a serial killer. Houston was the murder capital of the United States that year, with more than 700 homicides. Police were underpaid, understaffed and overwhelmed. So when Watts began killing young women, no one suspected that it might be the work of one man.
Watts would later confess to stalking and killing 12 Texas women. The first victim, Linda Tilley, was drowned. Elizabeth Montgomery was stabbed, and two hours later, so was Susan Wolf. Ellen Tamm was hanged, Margaret Fossi was asphyxiated, Elena Semander was strangled and left in a trash dumpster.
Emily LaQua was just 14. Anna Ledet was a medical student. And Yolanda Gracia, Carrie Jefferson and Suzanne Searles were all killed as they returned home.
Watts killed at random. There were no patterns, no motives, no eyewitnesses, and no evidence.
"If we had the goods on Coral Eugene Watts, we wouldn't be talking today. That's how good this guy was," says Kahan.
But Watts' luck ran out on May 23, 1982. He spotted a woman leaving a Houston nightclub and followed her home. Michelle Maday was killed on her 20th birthday, and her body was dumped into a bathtub. Then, Watts moved on to another apartment complex, where he would confront his last two victims.
"He came in and grabbed me and started choking me. And he told me if I screamed, he would kill me," says Melinda Aguilar, who had just turned 19.
Watts tied up Aguilar, and her roommate, and began filling the bathtub with water. "He was excited and hyper and clappin' and just making noises like he was excited, that this was gonna be fun," recalls Aguilar, who had no doubt that Watts was going to kill her. "He clapped and jumped at one time … and that's when I knew that I had to do something."
As Watts tried to drown her roommate in the bathtub, Aguilar managed to escape, throwing herself off the second floor balcony. Neighbors called police, the roommate was saved, and Watts, a 28-year-old bus mechanic, was arrested as he tried to flee.
But on the day Watts was set to go to trial, a deal was struck with the Houston district attorney. In exchange for a guilty plea to "burglary with the intent to commit murder" and a 60-year prison sentence, Watts offered to confess to 12 unsolved homicides if he was given immunity for them.
In the eyes of the district attorney, it was a good deal. It got a mass murderer off the streets for a long time and resolved a dozen open cases.
Det. Tom Ladd, who was brought in to take Watts' confession, says there is no evidence linking him to the crimes he confessed to.
It took Watts more than a week to describe how he had stalked and killed each of his victims -- and he led investigators to three shallow graves.
What was he like? "Very congenial. He didn't act like a killer until you started listening to what he's telling you or following his directions to his crime scenes," says Ladd. "[He had an] excellent memory. Very, very intelligent. He never got the facts of one murder mixed up with the facts of another murder. He never missed."
So why did he do it? "We'd ask him. We said, 'Well, why'd you kill this girl or that girl?' And he goes, 'They have evil in their eyes,'" says Ladd, even though almost all of his victims were picked out at night. "We said 'Coral, you couldn't see her eyes.' And he said 'Yeah. She's got evil in her eyes.'"
How did he operate? "He'd get in that car of his, and he'd drive around," says Ladd. "Sometimes, he'd drive all night long. And then he'd see a female, and whatever it was about that female, which we still to this day don't know, why he picked one girl, and passed up 20 others."
Once he picked his victim, Watts killed quickly. None of the victims were sexually assaulted. Most were killed just steps from their front doors. "One girl, he just walked up and she turned and he stabbed her one time in the heart and turned around and ran away," says Ladd. "Probably didn't spend 15 seconds there even at the scene, and then an hour and a half later, he killed another one."
At one point, Watts said he was willing to confess to 22 murders in Michigan, and a call went out to detectives like Bunten in Ann Arbor.
"The next day, we sat down with our prosecuting attorney and we all agreed that you don't give immunity to somebody who's committed murder. There's just no way you can do that," says Bunten.
Even to clear up cases? "Just because we couldn't prove it doesn't mean we don't know who did it," says Bunten.
Did he ever give any indication as to why he had committed these murders? "He says, 'I'll take that to my grave with me,'" says Bunten. "He's driven to do this. What drives him, I have no idea."
But Bunten said he did manage to have one last conversation with Watts in a Texas penitentiary: "I said, 'Coral, I haven't got enough fingers and toes to count the number of people you've killed, have I? And he looked around the room and said, 'There's not enough fingers and toes in this room.'"
There were four people in the room, which would mean 80 victims. Does Bunten believe he is capable of killing that many people?
"Don't know. I asked him if he confessed to everything down in Texas, and he said, 'No,'" says Bunten. "I said, 'Why didn't you?' He made the statement to me that he doesn't want to go down in history as a mass murderer. And I said, 'You know what? That ship sailed.'"
At the time, it seemed a moot point, because everyone assumed Watts would die in prison an old man. But a series of court rulings changed that. As a first-time offender, Watts was granted time off for good behavior – three days off his sentence for every day served. So instead of serving a 60-year sentence, under Texas law, Watts would automatically be released after just 24 years.
"He'll have served less than two years for every Houston homicide victim that he murdered. That's incredible. It's never happened before in this country's history," says Kahan.
Because Watts had been given immunity back in 1982, there was nothing Texas could do to keep Watts in prison. But Michigan was another story.
As soon as authorities in Michigan found out that Watts might be released, they created a special task force, headed by Lt. Bill Hanger, to begin digging through every unsolved homicide that Watts might possibly be linked to. Hanger says there are "roughly 90 cases we still consider him a suspect on."
They've got a suspect, but now they're trying to find the crime. Usually it works the other way around.
"He said that he would confess to 22 or so Michigan cases if he was granted immunity," says Hanger. "So I know there's at least 22 out there."
Assistant Attorney Gen. Donna Pendergast says appeals were made to the public for information – and it took less than 24 hours to get the first lead.
"It's really miraculous, but out of all the hundreds of cases that the task force was looking at, a witness from one of them said 'Hey I know something' and he came forward," says Pendergast. "I got a note on my desk, 'Saw one of Coral Watts' murders.' And my first reaction, of course, was 'Sure, you did.'"
The eyewitness, Joseph Foy, was the same person who called police in 1979 to report the stabbing death of 35-year-old Helen Dutcher in an alley of a Detroit suburb. According to the police reports, it was dark. Foy didn't describe seeing the actual murder, and only saw the killers' face for a brief moment.
"They're looking for anything, any murder, any witness, any anything that they can pin on him," says Ron Kaplovitz, the court-appointed attorney for Watts.
He says his client may be a confessed serial killer, but he says there is not much physical evidence that he killed Dutcher: "It's hard to believe that a person who could see a person in an alley for a few minutes, a dark alley, 25 years ago, could come into a courtroom, point to that person and say 'That's the guy I saw in the alley 25 years ago.'"
But after two years of investigating, this is the best case the State of Michigan has been able to come up with. Prosecutors may be counting on Watts to convict himself with his own words.
The judge in the case has just ruled that the jury can be told about the murders Watts confessed to in Texas, and the jury will also be allowed to hear from his last victim, Melinda Aguilar.
Is she worried about him getting out? "Absolutely. He has admitted to killing again if he was to get out. And I believe he will," says Aguilar. "I can still remember when I had to identify him, just the way he looked at me was one of those looks like 'You just wait when I get out.' All I remember is his evil eyes."
Coral Watts is scheduled to go to trial for the murder in Michigan the first week in November, but the special task force is still looking for other homicides to charge him with, in the event that Watts is acquitted in this case.
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