Danger on the Home Front
Michelle Maday, victim
On Sunday, May 23, 1982, Michele Maday, 20, heard a knock at her Houston apartment door. When she opened it, a suspicious-looking man stood before her. Suddenly, the stranger attacked, beat and choked her into unconsciousness. While she lay on the floor, the man went to her bathroom, filled her tub with water, and then drowned her before running away.
The stranger later said that he felt no emotions about taking the life of an innocent woman. His only fear was being caught.
Lori Lister, 21, left her boyfriend’s home and drove back to her Houston apartment. She parked her car and walked towards the front door of her apartment building. She was probably not aware that she was being followed.
As Lori got out her key and approached the stairs to her apartment, a man with a red, hooded sweatshirt suddenly came up behind her and strangled her into semi-unconsciousness. According to Bill Hewitt, Bob Stewart, and Gabrielle Cosgriff’s 2002 People Weekly article, at that moment Lori “prayed not for her life, but simply that her body would be recovered.” She was certain she was going to die.
Lori told Bill O’Reilly in an August 2002 Fox News’ interview that she managed to let out a small scream. The neighbors overheard the muffled cry and immediately called the police. In the meantime, the man pulled Lori up the stairs to her apartment where he confronted her roommate Melinda Aguilar, 18.
The attacker threatened to slash Melinda’s throat if she screamed. He then choked her until her body went limp. The man had no idea that she was just pretending to be unconscious.
He took some hangers and wrapped Melinda’s hands behind her back and placed her on the bed. Then he wrapped Lori’s hands and feet with hangers. Hewitt, Stewart and Cosgriff claimed the man was so ecstatic that he had control over the two women that he jumped up and down clapping his hands.
While Melinda was in the bedroom, the intruder went to the bathroom and filled the tub with water. Melinda waited for an opportune moment and then jumped off the bedroom’s second-story balcony. She screamed for help, hoping that it wasn’t too late to save her friend.
Moments later, police arrived. The intruder, who heard the sirens, tried to escape but police apprehended him in the apartment complex courtyard. The neighbor who initially alerted police ran to Lori’s apartment and found her head submerged in the tub. Luckily, she just managed to escape death.
Investigators identified the attacker as Carl “Coral” Eugene Watts, 29, a Houston mechanic. When they asked him why he tried to kill the women, he told them that they had “evil eyes” and he wanted to “release their spirits.” During further questioning, detectives were shocked to hear that Coral claimed responsibility for up to 80 murders.
Coral Eugene Watts, mugshot
Before he left for prison, Coral made a chilling statement. According to Joel Kurth in the Detroit News, Coral told investigators, “if they ever let me out, I’ll kill again.” They had no doubt he would keep his promise. Coral had long since lost control over his violent impulses and realized that he needed to kill to be happy.
Coalwood WV welcome sign
In the early 1950s, Coalwood, W.Va., resident Richard Watts married his young sweetheart, Dorothy Mae Young. Shortly after the wedding, the couple moved to Killeen, Texas, where Richard was stationed at Fort Hood Army Base. On November 7, 1953, the couple proudly welcomed the birth of their first-born child, Carl Eugene Watts. Just days after his birth they moved back to their hometown in West Virginia and a year later their second child, Sharon, was born.
The Wattses had an unhappy relationship that eventually led to a divorce in 1955. Following the breakup, Dorothy Mae moved with her two children to Inkster, Mich., where she found a job as a high school art teacher. Dorothy Mae, Carl and Sharon often returned to Coalwood to visit family members. According to a 1991 Houston Chronicle article by Evan Moore, Carl learned to hunt and skin rabbits in the rural area surrounding his grandmother’s house, an activity he greatly enjoyed. His affection for the southern town later led Carl to change his name to Coral, a southern pronunciation of his name.
In 1962, Coral’s mother married an Inkster mechanic and the couple had two more children. Coral had difficulty adjusting to the new situation because he didn’t like his new stepfather. He may have feared he would lose his mother’s attention.
At age 8, Coral developed meningitis, which almost killed him. Moore suggested his fever ran so high that doctors feared it could have caused slight brain damage. Coral missed a year of school because of the illness. He would never be the same again.
When Coral returned to school in Inkster, he was held back one grade to make up what he missed. He had difficulty keeping up with the class and his grades began to slide. It wasn’t clear whether his poor performance was due to brain damage or the chronic sleep problems he developed after his illness.
Coral began having violent dreams that disturbed his sleeping pattern. He was restless when he slept because he would spend the night trying to fight off the evil spirits of women. In fact, he was trying to kill them. Moore claimed that Coral’s sleep-induced visions weren’t nightmares because “he enjoyed them.”
At age 15, Coral felt the urge to act out his dreams. One day he knocked on the apartment door of Joan Gave, 26, while delivering papers on his route. When Gave answered the door, the boy, who was unusually strong for his age, beat her up. He then continued his delivery route as if nothing happened.
After the incident, Gave immediately called police. The authorities apprehended Coral at his home. He was ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment at the Lafayette Clinic in Detroit.
During a psychiatric evaluation, Coral talked about his dreams. Hewitt, Stewart and Cosgriff wrote that when he was asked if the dreams disturbed him, Coral replied, “No, I feel better after I have one.” It was a surprising response that caused concern for Coral’s mental well-being.
According the Dallas Observer, the psychiatrist later reported that Coral was an “impulsive individual who has a passive-aggressive orientation to life” and who is “struggling for control of strong homicidal impulses.” He believed Coral was a danger to society.
He hoped that outpatient treatment would benefit the teenager. On his 16th birthday, Coral was released from the clinic. He went back to the clinic for psychiatric help approximately 9 times following his initial visit.
In the meantime, Coral returned to high school and even though his scholastic performance remained poor, he excelled in sports. Athletics was an acceptable means of releasing his pent-up aggression. He became a star football player and performed even better at boxing, earning the status of a Golden Gloves fighter.
With the help of his mother’s tutoring, Coral graduated from high school at age 19. Despite his low grade point average, he won a football scholarship to Lane College in Jacksonville, Tenn. Moore stated that after several months at college, Coral suffered minor leg injuries. He decided to leave school and return home to his mother.
After one year of working as a mechanic for a Detroit wheel company, Coral enrolled at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Hewitt, Stewart and Cosgriff reported that, “it didn’t take long before a rash of attacks began to plague the area around campus.” Several would end in murder.
Random Acts of Murder
On October 25, 1974, Lenore Knizacky, 23, heard someone at her door. Whitley claimed when Lenore answered it, a young black man stood before her asking for someone named Charles. Before she knew it, the man was strangling her. Lenore was able to fight off the man until he fled the apartment. Lenore called police, yet they were unable to apprehend the attacker.
Gloria Steele, victim
On October 30, Gloria Steele, 19 also received a knock on her apartment door in Kalamazoo. It was a man also looking for someone named Charles. When Steele let in the stranger, he attacked her with a knife. She was stabbed 33 times.
According to Whitley, the same man looking for Charles tried to attack another woman at her apartment on November 12. She luckily managed to fend him off. As the man sped away from the scene, the woman was able to catch a glimpse of his license plate. She informed police who learned that the car belonged to Coral Eugene Watts.
Coral was arrested that December for assault and battery after the two surviving women identified him in a police line-up. During questioning, Coral confessed to attacking at least a dozen more women, yet he never admitted to the murder of Gloria Steele. He was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation at Kalamazoo State Hospital before his court hearing.
Psychiatrists found that Coral lacked remorse for his actions and was impulsive, reckless and emotionally detached. However, they did not think he suffered from any kind of psychosis and believed that he was able to distinguish right from wrong. They eventually diagnosed him with anti-social personality disorder.
During Coral’s stay at the mental hospital, he slipped into a temporary depression. He attempted suicide by hanging himself with a cord. Yet, he ended up with only minor injuries.
In the summer of 1975, Coral was officially evaluated again. Psychiatrists found that he suffered from depression and posed a danger to himself and others. However, despite his behavioral problems, he was found fit enough to stand trial for the assaults.
He was eventually sentenced to one year in jail. Unfortunately, he never stood trial for Steele’s murder because prosecutors lacked strong enough evidence to convict him. He was released in the summer of 1976, eager to resume his deadly campaign against women.
Moore wrote that upon Coral’s release, he found work as a mechanic and moved home with his mother. Many believed that he was a “mama’s boy” because he didn’t like being away from her for long periods. She was perhaps the only one person who understood him.
Not long after Coral’s release he began dating a woman named Delores. The pair had a child together, but never married. Eventually, the couple split up and Coral began dating another woman, Valeria, who married him in 1979. Their marriage lasted only six months.
During a police interview years later, Valeria admitted that Coral’s behavior became increasingly volatile during their brief relationship. According to Moore, Valeria told investigators that Coral had violent nightmares, “became messy, leaving clothes, even garbage on the floor.” Moreover, he would “cut up houseplants with a knife” and melt candles onto tables. Even more bizarre was the fact that every time they had sex, Coral would get up and leave the house for hours. Larry Werner suggested in his 2002 Star Tribune article that it was likely that Coral went stalking for new victims during that time.
Over the course of a year, many more women were attacked and murdered. One of them was Detroit News reporter Jeanne Clyne, 44, who was attacked on Halloween Day, 1979, as she walked home from a doctor’s appointment. She was accosted in broad daylight along a busy suburban road near her home in Grosse Point Farms. She died from 11 stab wounds.
Unfortunately, police were unable to find any evidence leading them to a suspect. Initially, detectives suspected Jeanne’s husband, but he was later cleared of suspicion when Coral confessed to her murder.
Jeanne Clyne, victim
It is not known whether Coral attacked any more women between Clyne’s murder and his divorce in May 1980. At least, there was no evidence linking him to any other crime. However, considering his record, it’s very possible that he did commit other assaults.
On April 20, Ann Arbor, Mich., high school student Shirley Small, 17, was stabbed to death twice in the heart outside her home. A similar attack against Glenda Richmond took place outside her Ann Arbor area home that summer. The 26-year-old manager of a diner was found dead with 28 stab wounds to her chest. There was not enough evidence at either scene to convict anyone. Yet, the murders bore the trademark of Coral Watts.
On September 14, University of Michigan graduate student Rebecca Huff, 20, was found murdered outside of her home. She had been stabbed approximately 50 times. Her case was unique because it was one of the first murders to be directly linked to Coral. Moreover, it prompted one of Ann Arbor’s largest murder investigations. It took two months before the link between Coral and Rebecca was made.
Turning Up the Heat
Ann Arbor police badge
Three Ann Arbor girls murdered within the space of five months caused great alarm within the otherwise tranquil college town. Paul Bunten, a felony investigator for the Ann Arbor police, was determined to catch the killer. He dedicated years of his life in pursuit of the man commonly referred to by Ann Arbor newspapers as the “Sunday Morning Slasher.”
Bunten headed the task force whose first job was to increase the patrols in and around the town. On November 15, officers got a lucky break. Two policemen patrolling the area around Ann Arbor’s Main Street at about 5 a.m. noticed a suspicious man in a car slowly following a woman walking home.
The woman realized she was being followed and tried to hide in a doorway, hoping the man would lose her trail and give up his pursuit. She likely feared for her life because most people were aware of the local murders. According to Moore, Bunten said Coral “almost went nuts” when he could no longer find the woman he was chasing.
The police officers pulled over Coral’s car and arrested him for driving with expired license plates and a suspended license. They also searched his car and found a couple of screwdrivers and a box with wood-filing tools. Yet, their most significant find was a dictionary with the etched words, “Rebecca is a lover,” which belonged to Rebecca Huff. It turned out to be their biggest clue yet linking Coral to the murder, yet it still was not enough evidence to convict him.
Bunten and his team began round-the-clock surveillance on Coral. His movements were monitored with the help of a tracking device that was inconspicuously hidden under his car. Officers hoped to catch him in the act so they could put him away for good. They were almost certain that Coral was responsible for the deaths of Small, Richmond and Huff. They just had to prove it.
Coral knew that he was being observed and he consciously suppressed his urge to kill or assault for two months. With no evidence to go on, the police ended their surveillance and brought Coral in for questioning. Werner said that Bunten interviewed him for approximately nine hours, but Coral refused to reveal any information.
Interestingly, Whitley alleged that Coral broke down in tears when Bunten graphically described how he believed the women were killed. Bunten was quoted in the article saying that, “it was the first real emotion we’d seen from him.” Coral asked to be excused so that he could contact his mother. After speaking with her, he wouldn’t discuss the cases any longer. Hewitt, Stewart and Cosgriff reported that following the interview, Bunten described Coral as “soft-spoken,” shy and agreeable, “if you could forget what he does.”
Eventually, Coral was released from police custody due to lack of evidence. At the time, he was suspected of at least two attempted murders and believed to have possibly committed five in and around the Detroit area. In the spring of 1981, Coral moved to Columbus, Texas where he found work at an oil company. He spent the weekend nights driving more than 70 miles to the Houston area. It would become his new hunting ground.
ConfessionsAfter learning about the move, Bunten sent copies of Coral’s criminal files to Houston police in the hopes of preventing more murders. The police were able to locate Coral, yet they were unable to directly link him with any criminal activity. However, he was the main suspect in several murder cases. Investigators just didn’t have enough evidence to tie him to any murder.
According to Pam Easton’s November 2002 Associated Press article, Houston police homicide Sgt. Tom Ladd claimed that it was difficult building a case against Coral because, “he used different methods to kill, never sexually assaulted his victims and chose strangers.” He further stated that there was rarely evidence left behind at the scenes because he “killed within minutes of encountering his victims.” Following the attack on Lori Lister and Melinda Aguilar in May 1982, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Ira Jones came up with an idea that would prompt Coral to confess to the crimes of which he was suspected.
Whitley reported that on August 9, 1982, Jones offered Coral a deal. In exchange for information and murder confessions, Coral would get immunity for murder. Coral agreed and several days later he took investigators to the burial sites of three of his victims. According to the Associated Press Online article, Serial Killer’s Confessions, Coral eventually admitted attacking 19 women, 13 of which he murdered.
Linda Tilley, victim
Elizabeth Montgomery, victim
Susan Wolf, victim
Margaret Fossi, victim
Elena Semander, victim
Emily La Qua, victim
Anna Ledet, victim
In court, Coral pled guilty to one count of burglary with intent to kill, just as he bargained for. He eventually received 60 years in a penitentiary. Kurth stated that before Coral left for prison he told an investigator “You know, if they ever let me out, I’ll kill again.”
Coral Eugene Watts
Several months after Coral was imprisoned he attempted an escape. He greased himself with hair gel and tried to squeeze out of his jail cell window. However, his attempt failed when he got stuck. From that moment on, he tried using a more legal method to get of prison. He began appealing his sentence.
In 1989, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reviewed Coral’s case. Moor said that the judge failed to inform Coral that, “the bathtub water he attempted to drown Lori Lister in was construed as a lethal weapon.” Consequently, he was not required to serve his entire sentence.
Coral was now considered a “nonviolent” inmate and was allowed to earn “good time” credits for being a model prisoner. The “good time” policy was an old mandatory law enacted in Texas that granted prisoners a reduction in time for good behavior. The policy was based on a criminal classification system.
Coral was classified as a Class I inmate and was accredited 2-3 days sentence reduction for every 1 day served. The credits would reduce his sentence by more than half. The man who admitted to killing again if let out of prison was due to be released on May 9, 2006. He would be considered one of the first confessed serial killers to be legally released in U.S. history.
The fact that Coral was going to be released early horrified his surviving victims, the families of those murdered and area citizens, who were well aware of his promise to initiate a new murder campaign. According to Hewitt, Stewart and Cosgriff, Lori Lister suggested that she thought Coral was being put away for life and felt “misled” and “not protected by the law” when she learned he was being let out just 36 years after his sentence. Many others mirrored her feelings and felt betrayed by the system.
Because of Coral’s new status as a Class I inmate, he was also eligible for parole. However, he would not be granted it. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Coral’s release six times between 1990 and 2004.
The Associated Press suggested that the authorities in Michigan and Texas were working hard to find old cases, where evidence might have been overlooked. State police forensic scientists were also hoping to use DNA tests, unavailable in the 1980s, to link Coral with some of the crimes. It was clear that the authorities in both states realized that Coral’s pending release in 2006 should be avoided at all costs because he posed a threat to society. No one doubted he would kill again.
Behind Bars for Good
Helen Mae Dutcher, victim
Hugh Aynesworth reported in his 2004 Washington Times article that Foy saw a television program in 1982 about Coral that prompted him to call the police again. Yet, Whitley claimed that the authorities “didn’t pursue the Dutcher investigation, assuming Watts would leave his cell in a pine box.” They did not know or take into consideration the “good time” policy.
After Foy saw the MSNBC show The Abrams Report in January 2004, concerning the Coral Watts case, he called the police again and filed a complaint. He hoped that his story might be able to prevent Coral’s early release. Foy provided the big break that surviving victims and families of those murdered by Coral wished for.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm
Coral Eugene Watts
Helen Dutcher, victim
Coral Eugene Watts in court
Oakland County Courthouse
Judge Richard Kuhn
Julie Sanchez recounts stabbing
Melinda Aguilar and Lori Lister, Watts ‘ last known victims also gave testimony that day, recounting their brutal attack. Like Sanchez, Aguilar claimed that Watts seemed to enjoy inflicting pain on her and her roommate. In a November 15th AP article, Aguilar said that the moment she pretended to be dead she heard “Watts give a little jump and clap his hands,” obviously “enjoying what he was doing.”
The state’s key witness, Joseph Foy also testified about what he saw years earlier. Ginsberg quoted Foy who claimed that he “looked into the face of evil…” and that “there was no soul, no feeling, no remorse…” At the time he alerted the police to Dutcher’s murder, he provided them with a composite of the killer. The composite bore remarkable similarities to Watts.
Police sketch of suspect
On Friday September 21, 2007, Watts died in a Michigan hospital of prostate cancer. He was 53-years-old. His death came just two month after a jury convicted him in the 1974 stabbing death of Western Michigan University student Gloria Steele, 19. ‘We’re just glad that it’s over,’ Carol Tilley, mother of Linda Tilley, told Star-telegram.com. ‘We feel like it helps to close the book on this. It’s never over. But it helps.’