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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
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.