Breakthrough in cold case reopens controversial chapter in Md. corrections

Family photo - Stephanie Sue Watson poses in this undated family photo. Watson was 27 years old when she left for work on the night of July 22, 1982, and never arrived. Police say her remains were positively identified a few months later. In March 2013, detectives sent DNA recovered from the victim's car for testing and it matched 68-year-old John Ernest Walsh.

More than two decades after Maryland lawmakers abandoned a controversial approach to rehabilitating some of its most violent criminals, a haunting reminder of that failed experiment has surfaced.

New DNA testing, police say, proves that the long-unsolved killing of Stefanie Sue Watson, whose body parts were discarded in Washington’s leafy suburbs in 1982, was the work of a convicted rapist who was released decades early from a state-run mental institution.

(Courtesy of Prince George's County police) - John Ernest Walsh

More crime and safety news

Fairfax City’s Rappoport to step down as police chief

The veteran officer will leave in May to join Amtrak’s police force.

Attorney: Release ‘person of interest’ in Alexandria killings

Lawyer says a weapons charge against his client was drummed up to aid the investigation of three deaths.

Repeat burglar gets 25 years in Montgomery County

A 43-year-old Maryland man was sentenced Tuesday for breaking into a home in the Burtonsville area.

Read more

If found guilty, John Ernest Walsh would join a notorious list of criminals who struck again after they were set free in the 1970s and ’80s — usually 20 or more years before they were supposed to be eligible for parole. Therapists had deemed each one rehabilitated by psychotherapy at the state-run Patuxent Institution in Jessup.

Prince George’s County police, who announced the break in the case late last month, say Walsh slashed Watson, a 27-year-old emergency room clerk, in her car, then disposed of her body just months after he was paroled from Patuxent. Walsh had served less than 10 years of a 72-year sentence for two rapes. He had kidnapped one woman in 1969 and assaulted her in the back seat of a car. He ran another off a road in Anne Arundel County, then slashed her throat and wrists.

Police say they are now looking at Walsh for other unsolved killings in the area in the 1980s. Walsh, 68, lived in Washington’s Maryland suburbs until he was reincarcerated for drug use in 1989. He is expected to be transferred to Prince George’s County soon to be arraigned in Watson’s murder. A defense attorney who previously represented him is deceased.

Walsh’s alleged return to violence came amid what most Maryland officials now agree were decades of misguidedly lenient parole standards at Patuxent.

In 1978, one convicted killer was paroled after serving just six years of a 30-year sentence. Three weeks later, he raped and stabbed to death a 12-year-old Clinton boy who had sought his aid in a rainstorm.

Another man who was cleared to leave the facility in 1988 soon raped a woman on her morning jog in an attack that was eerily similar to one he had committed in Hyattsville 10 years before.

Maryland officials eventually determined that nearly half of the 200 Patuxent inmates who were deemed safe to reenter society between 1978 and 1988 had been arrested within three years.

Dozens of Patuxent’s worst repeat offenders from that era, including Walsh, are locked up for follow-up crimes and parole violations. Scores of others, however, never drew the attention of police again.

“Did you ever see ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’? There was a lot of Patuxent in that film,” said former Maryland state delegate and prominent defense attorney Timothy Maloney. “After the changes the legislature made . . . hopefully this is the last cold case from one of them that we hear about. But could there be others? Sure.”

Walsh surfaced as the suspect in Watson’s killing after the 30th anniversary of her disappearance. The case had long troubled some on the police force, and with the continued urging of Watson’s family, investigators revisited the case. Inside boxes of evidence collected in 1982, detectives found the bloodied driver’s side seat from Watson’s car. The angle and position of a smear of blood on the back of the seat led them to think it might be the killer’s blood.

DNA tests, police said, showed that Walsh had been in Watson’s car.

Ready to start over

Watson was tall and funny and, with intense green eyes and feathered blond hair, could turn heads.

It was no surprise, family members said, that a neighbor noticed her leaving her first-floor Laurel apartment on that warm Thursday night, the last night she was seen. About 8 p.m., Watson got in her tan Chevrolet Chevette and headed to her night-shift job at Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital.

It was supposed to be Watson’s last night in the Washington area. The next day, she was planning to meet her cousin, Christy Torres, for a getaway in Ocean City to clear her head before moving to Texas.

A summer romance that had brought Watson to Maryland two years earlier, and into a rushed second marriage, had fizzled.

The Harrisburg native had confided in friends and family that she wanted to move away and start over. Besides, amid the violence of the Washington area in the early 1980s, she said she never felt safe — even with her big white husky.

In a letter months earlier to Torres, who lived in Pennsylvania, Watson wrote that she felt uneasy walking a mile to job interviews when her car had broken down.

It’s sad, she wrote, “how bad society is today — you have to stay home or in your car to be safe.”

When Watson failed to show for the trip to the beach, Torres drove to Laurel to report her missing. Days later, police found Watson’s blood-soaked Chevette a mile from her apartment.

Torres still shudders when she thinks about the visit from police months later, in the fall of 1982.

An unidentified man wearing yellow dish gloves had been seen dumping a paper bag in the woods a few miles from Watson’s apartment, police told her. Inside the bag, they found part of Watson’s jaw, including several teeth.

“Steph was my super cool, big cousin, and I was just devastated,” Torres said. “This was before cell phones and e-mail, but we wrote letters and visited all the time. We knew each other really well, and I could just never picture it; I couldn’t imagine that she was dumb enough to let someone in her car.”

A test in rehabilitation

Police say that if Walsh’s previous crimes are any guide, Watson may have had little chance.

In 1969, the stocky Walsh forced a woman into a car in University Park and raped her while an accomplice drove around the Capital Beltway. Later, he trailed a woman through Prince George’s County before running her off the road, raping her and leaving her for dead.

A defense attorney who represented Walsh at the time tried to explain his client’s behavior, saying Walsh had spent his adolescence in and out of mental hospitals.

Walsh pleaded guilty to the rapes and kidnapping. At sentencing, a Maryland circuit court judge said Walsh would be required to serve at least 24 years before becoming eligible for parole.

But under a provision in Maryland code dating to the heyday of experimental psychotherapy in the 1950s, state officials a year later labeled Walsh a “Defective Delinquent,” and sent him to the Patuxent Institution.

Maryland had built the facility in the mold of mental hospitals in Western Europe in the years after World War II. The idea of rehabilitating violent criminals was never widely accepted in the United States, but it appealed to Democrats who ran Maryland, Massachusetts and a handful of other states.

From 1955, when the facility opened, to the late 1980s, when its autonomy was drastically curtailed, inmates — even those serving life terms — essentially had their sentences suspended upon entering. The facility’s mental health professionals — and not the Department of Corrections — had authority to decide when inmates were ready for weekend furloughs, work-release programs and parole. One study showed that convicted murderers were released, on average, within eight years.

Inmates such as Walsh were required to attend therapy sessions with other rapists under a theory that only those who had committed similar crimes could understand the psychosis and help determine if the fellow inmate was truly repentant. Walsh would have been required to talk about his rapes, articulate what he thought triggered his behavior and show remorse, according to officials who worked at Patuxent at the time.

Eight years after his 72-year sentence began, Walsh was released to a halfway house. He was paroled fully about six months before police say he killed Watson.

All living members of the Patuxent board who paroled Walsh said they had no recollection of him, and corrections officials say records detailing his treatment and rationale for his release were destroyed in a flood in the mid-1990s, along with those of other Patuxent inmates.

Walsh was arrested for shoplifting in 1985 but allowed to remain free until he was caught with marijuana in 1989. After his reincarceration, he spent years behind bars writing meticulous legal filings. He alleged that the state had no right to put him back in jail because at Patuxent, his sentence had been suspended to “non-punitive” mental health treatment. He went as far as to allege that the state owed him more than $1 million in lost wages and suffering for his additional years in prison. A federal judge denied his claim.

Norma B. Gluckstern was the director of Patuxent at the time Walsh was there and unsuccessfully fought efforts beginning in 1988 to curtail its authority.

“Patuxent had enormous power, and we made some mistakes” such as allowing anyone with a life sentence to be paroled, Gluckstern said in a recent interview. She nonetheless said she still believes that Maryland was better off with such a program.

“I still believe that if you want to lock someone up and leave them there, that’s one thing, but if you want to parole them, you need to treat them first,” Gluckstern said.

“Sadly, Patuxent went down without anyone really analyzing how much good it did,” she said. “It was measured not on what we accomplished, but on how many cases we missed.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

 
Read what others are saying