"Perhaps we could find some DNA under fingernails in some of the victims."
-- A Texas investigator on Coral Watts
The jury that convicted Father Gerald Robinson for the murder of Sister Margaret Pahl in Toledo in 1980 was never told about the other suspect named by police during the murder investigation. They didn't know that the other suspect was a serial killer. And the prosecution never tested that other suspect's DNA against the unknown male DNA found under the fingernails of Sister Pahl. They should.
Coral Eugene Watts began attacking women in 1969. He soon escalated to murder. He lived in suburban Detroit, but usually drove 1-2 hours to find his victims. By the time he was caught in 1982, his unimpeded rampage ended dozens of lives. Today, he's imprisoned for life without parole in a state prison in Ionia, Michigan.
The serial killer is going on trial again for a murder in Kalamazoo later this year. The Michigan Supreme Court just issued its latest decision about Coral Watts. In a terse, one-paragraph order, the court ended years of appellate battles over evidentiary problems in the case and cleared the path for Watts to stand trial for the murder of Gloria Steele in 1974. At the time, both were students at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Photo: Detroit News
Watts is suspected of killing as many as eighty women, maybe more. If the Michigan authorities can get a full confession out of him -- and God knows a lot of people are praying that the whole purpose of this latest trial is to compel Lady Justice to take him by the hand and guide him to fully account for everything he's ever done -- is it possible that they may find more bodies? Is it possible that another 65 murders, maybe more, could be attributed to him?
And given such a high number, what are the odds that there is, right now, an innocent man in prison for something Coral Watts did? And is one of those men Father Gerald Robinson?
Watts is about to go on trial as soon as a new judge can be assigned, according to the Kalamazoo Gazette, for the murder of Gloria Steele. She was strangled to unconsciousness. She was then stabbed 30 to 35 times in the chest, breasts, and abdomen with an unusual weapon. She was not raped. This may sound familiar to those who have followed the Robinson case.
What really set Watts apart, what made his murders rather unusual for a serial killer, is the fact that the crimes had every appearance of sexual-rage murder, but Watts did not sexually assault his victims. Investigators often said the crimes appeared "motiveless." And that's what has made Sister Pahl's murder so unusual.
In fact, Watts was named as a suspect by police investigating the murder of Sister Pahl. This, according to United Press International. One article ran in the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram in 1982:
I have it now on two reliable authorities that Watts' DNA was not compared to the unknown male DNA found under the victim's fingernails. I am also advised by one reliable authority that witnesses at Father Robinson's murder trial testified that they saw a black male in the vicinity of the murder site that morning.
Watts was a prolific killer. In the last year he was loose, he killed a dozen women in Texas, maybe more -- he moved from Detroit to Texas in 1981. One night after he was caught, while he was working out his plea bargain with Texas authorities, one of the homicide detectives asked him, Coral, how many women have you killed? Coral Watts looked around the room and said, more than there are fingers and toes in this room. There were four detectives, plus Watts, in the room. More than a hundred?
Coral Watts was a mechanic. When murdering women, he used knives, but sometimes used unusual weapons -- screwdrivers, carving tools, an icepick, a scalpel. He is thought to have killed a dozen women in 1979-1980 while living in Inkster and working in Woodhaven. His wife left him in January 1980, and from January to May 1980 the killing was heavy as he went through the divorce. These are known and suspected Watts murders in that time frame:
- March 11, 1980: Hazel Connof, Detroit.
March 31, 1980: Denise Dunmore, Detroit.
Sister Pahl murdered
April 20, 1980: Shirley Small, Ann Arbor.
May 31, 1980: Linda Monteiro, Detroit.
Watts attacked all kinds of women -- black, white, Hispanic, he didn't care. He attacked in the middle of the night, but often attacked women in the early morning hours as well. In Ann Arbor, police noticed a "pattern in the stab wounds" on two murder victims there and dubbed the killer the "Sunday Morning Slasher." He often would prowl for women before going to his pentecostal church. Sister Pahl was murdered on a Saturday morning between 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. according to early press accounts. According to a transcript published in Corey Mitchell's book, Watts was asked --
Detective: Was there any particular day of the week or anything that most of these things have happened on?
CW: The weekend.
To be fair, there are two factors that point away from Watts as the man who murdered Sister Pahl. One, she was much older than Watts' other victims, who tended to be in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Two, the smear of blood on her forehead -- some think it was a "last rites ritual" performed by the killer -- is not something Watts was known to have done.
Then again, according to Watts biographer Corey Mitchell, Watts killed women because he thought they were evil. It's a word he used very often. He was deeply religious and a regular churchgoer all his life. He was concerned about being haunted by the spirits of his victims, so he took strange steps to keep the "spirits" at bay, i.e. in one case, after murdering a woman in her apartment, Watts disrobed and bathed her in what the author dubbed an "evil baptism" to keep her spirit at peace and at bay. In other cases, he took the women's shoes or purses and then burned them, for the same reason, he said, to keep their spirits away. The Roman Catholic ritual of last rites is not a secret; maybe you remember the last rites scene from The Exorcist, which came out in 1973.
Coral Watts was also suspected of murders and assaults in Windsor and other cases in Toledo and suburban Detroit and beyond. Any cold case within an hour or two of Detroit or Houston, his residences, could be his work -- and maybe some "solved" cases too, given the sheer numbers. In fact, at least one man was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for life for something Watts did. Howard Ware Mosley was released from prison in 1982 when Watts confessed to the same crime.
See this post for details -- The Disturbing Reason Why You've Never Heard of Coral Watts
Court of Appeals decision on Coral Watts (reversed)