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.