The first murder of the 1980's took place on April 20, 1980, when a 17-year old girl was found stabbed to death on a lawn at 2820 Page Street, a short distance from her home. Shirley Small was found early on a Sunday morning dead from a stab wound to her chest. There was also several cuts to her face. Small was not sexually assaulted.
Small had been out with friends roller skating at a roller skating rink in Farmington and then went to the Big Boy Restaurant in Ypsilanti. She never entered the restaurant with her friends as she was upset with her boyfriend, as they had just broken up. She began walking home to Ann Arbor from Ypsilanti, as her boyfriend was driving the path he thought she was walking home, looking for her. He found her walking up Packard Road, heading for her home at 3:45 a.m. He twice offered her a ride, but she refused and continued walking. At approximately 4:45 a.m., she was stabbed to death, just feet from her apartment.
Detectives searched for a motive and evidence, but could find neither. The murder was starting to fade from public consciousness when another, very similar murder occurred.
On July 13, 1980, Glenda Richmond was also found stabbed to death. She was found outside of her townhouse on Braeburn, on the city's south side. Richmond was employed at the Brown Jug Restaurant and had returned home from work. Her body was found by a neighbor, lying in the grass, 10 feet from her front door. Richmond was engaged to be married. Again, detectives lacked any motive or evidence.
On September 15, 1980, another murder, similar to the first two, occurred in the Waldenwood Apartment Complex on Pauline. Flight Attendant Rebecca Huff was returning to her apartment when, at approximately 4:30 a.m., she was stabbed to death. She was not sexually assaulted and robbery did not play a part in the death. Huff was studying business at the U of M, working towards her masters degree.
Huff had exited her vehicle and was walking toward the entrance when she was confronted by the killer. A witness heard screams and then saw a man running and enter a vehicle. She was found on the front steps to the apartment, mortally wounded.
After this third murder, Chief Corbett held a press conference to point out the similarities in the murders. Clearly one person was felt to be responsible for all three. Chief Corbett announced that all of the department's 31 detectives were working on the cases and asked the public to call if they knew anything about the crimes.
While Chief Corbett tried to reassure the public against the possibility of a “psychotic killer,” he said there were the following similarities in the three murders:
-All three had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest.
-None of the victims were sexually assaulted.
-All of the victims were found outside their homes or apartment buildings and killed in the predawn hours.
Prosecutor William Delhey stated, “If there is no connection between the three women and their killers, we're in trouble.”
Mayor Louis Belcher stated, “I want to assure all citizens that we will use our full unlimited resources in tracking down the killer or killers of the three young women, who were murdered so ruthlessly and in cold blood.”
The mayor was also disturbed that neighbors of the victims had heard screams but “not one of them called the police.” In two of the three murders it was found that neighbors did hear screams and moans, but did not investigate. One could only think that they did not take the matter seriously.
Most thought that one killer was responsible for the murders, but many felt that Shirley Small was killed by someone she knew and the other two murders were coincidences. There were many reasons for this, including the fact that she had just broken up with her boyfriend and his friend disliked her. But after an intensive investigation, no one she knew was charged with her murder and it was concluded that one killer was responsible for all three.
The facts certainly supported this theory. All of the victims were attractive females who were murdered around 4:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings, all three bodies were found near their homes in large apartment or townhouses and all were stabbed to death.
During the investigation many rumors floated around the city about the murders. One of them was that several other women had been murdered and the police department kept these slayings secret for fear of panic.
Warnings of more murders were found on numerous occasions by “pranksters” as they had wrote “another woman will die tonight” in soap, on mirrors in the Michigan Union. Chief Corbett stated, “Either someone is trying to be funny, or it is the guy we are after. If it is a prankster he is taking valuable time away from the investigation and may be endangering other lives.
“If they were written by the guy we're after, we would like the student body to be especially vigilant and give us all the help they can in helping us find the person responsible.”
Detectives conducted an intensive investigation and found the person they believed was responsible for the murders. Coral Eugene Watts was this suspect and the investigators were positive he was responsible for the three murders. The key tip came from Detroit Police Officer James Arthurs, who had once worked with Chief Corbett. Officer Arthurs had helped Kalamazoo police execute a search warrant in Detroit, seeking evidence linking Watts to a Kalamazoo murder. Watts was the main suspect in the brutal stabbing death of Western Michigan University student named Gloria Steele in 1974. Steele had been stabbed over 30 times.
While there was not enough evidence to gain a conviction on the Steele murder, Kalamazoo police were convinced Watts was the killer. Officer Arthurs had read about the Ann Arbor murders and was convinced that Watts could be a suspect if he was in the area. He called Chief Corbett with his beliefs and this is credited with saving the life of a young woman that Watts was stalking in Ann Arbor.
When Arthurs phoned Chief Corbett it was not even known if Watts was in the Ann Arbor area. Photographs of Watts were distributed to Ann Arbor patrol officers with the instructions that Watts could be involved in the Sunday morning murders.
The break in the case came in a most unusual way, due to the theft of parking meters. Officers Al Doades and Don Terry were working the midnight shift and were assigned to investigate the theft of parking meters downtown. On November 15, 1980, they were assigned an unmarked detective vehicle and had raincoats over their uniforms. They were driving through the downtown area when they observed a female out walking by herself. She was walking along, looking behind her and they felt she could possibly be a lookout for the suspects stealing the meters. Also suspicious was the fact she was out by herself so early in the morning.
As the officers followed her she continued to walk downtown, unaware of their presence, as was Coral Eugene Watts, who also was following this very same woman. As the officers entered the intersection of Liberty and Fourth Ave., they stopped their car, keeping their eye on the woman. While they were stopped, a vehicle pulled up right next to them, the driver seemingly unaware of the officer's presence. The officers immediately became suspicious of the vehicle and ran the license plate through the computer. The communications operator advised them the vehicle belonged to Coral Watts, suspect in the murders. Watts was then stopped and arrested for these suspicions. An attorney came in to defend him and after questioning he was released due to lack of evidence. Officer Arthurs' suspicions about Watts may have saved the life of this woman that he was following that November night.
As there was not enough evidence to detain Watts, every move that he made was watched by a team of undercover detectives. While positive that they ‘had their man,’ they were simply missing the necessary evidence to secure a conviction in court. Watts felt the heat of this intense investigation and moved to Texas. There he was eventually arrested for breaking and entering with intent to commit murder. In the Texas case he kidnapped a female in the parking lot of her apartment and forced her into the residence. He then tied up her roommate and attempted to drown her. The roommate jumped from the second floor balcony and called police, who arrested Watts as he attempted to flee from the apartment.
Texas authorities felt very strongly that Watts was responsible for a string of murders in their state. Like their Michigan counterparts, they also did not have enough evidence to prosecute Watts. They reached a plea agreement with Watts in which he pled guilty to the breaking and entering charge and confessing to 11 murders there, in exchange for a 60 year prison sentence. Under this agreement Watts was not charged with the murders but simply confessed to them.
While they strongly believed Watts committed the 11 murders, they simply did not have the evidence to charge Watts with them. It was felt the agreement would keep Watts in prison for the remainder of his life however.
This agreement came back to haunt the prosecution as the Texas Court of Appeals ruled that the bath water Watts used in his attempt to drown the victim in the breaking and entering was not considered a “deadly weapon.” This decision by the court stated the parole department should consider Watts for a “normal parole.” This in effect meant that Watts could be paroled from prison as early as 1992. Needless to say this shocked many law enforcement officials who believed Watts was responsible for a string of murders in different states.
Texas Prosecutor John Holmes stated, “We've got film of him confessing to 11 murders and it looks like he's good for your three (in Ann Arbor) and a bunch more around the country. But our film doesn't mean a thing because he was granted immunity to clear up those killings.
“It was the only way we could go because we didn't have a clue one against him. By rights this bird (Watts) should be on Texas death row with the other 12 we've got there now. But he will be walking out of that cell one of these days.”
Texas authorities found that Watts stalked his victims. “He put them under surveillance before he killed them,” Holmes said. “One woman he followed for 150 miles from here (Houston) to Austin. Then he drowned her in a swimming pool. He's a calculating killer and he likes to kill. It leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth. It mocks justice.”
Chief Corbett called Watts the “third or fourth worst mass murderer in the United States.” Officials lobbied the parole board to keep Watts in prison and were effective in doing so. Watts continues to come up for parole and it is believed he eventually will be paroled.