Stefanie Sue Watson, 27, disappeared in Laurel on July 22, 1982. Prince George's County Police have charged John Ernest Walsh, 68, with her murder. DNA evidence solved the cold case, police say. (Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post)

Stefanie Sue Watson disappeared almost 31 years ago on what was supposed to be her last night in the Washington area.

The emergency room clerk with the long, curly hair walked outside her Laurel apartment, got into her Chevrolet Chevette and was never heard from again.

Her cousin, waiting for Watson to arrive in Pennsylvania, called police.

Days later, Christy Torres got the worst possible news: Her cousin’s blood-soaked Chevrolet had been found elsewhere in Laurel. Months later, even more chilling images: a shadowy figure had been seen dumping a bag in the woods. Inside, police found a piece of Watson’s skull.

Watson, 27, had been brutally slain, and a killer lurked in the leafy Maryland suburb. But the trail was already growing cold.

Stefanie Sue Watson disappeared July 22, 1982 (Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post)

To relatives, friends and many others in the Laurel area, the case remained a haunting tale until late last week, when Torres got the call she thought would never come.

The Prince George’s County police department’s cold-case squad and its crime lab had gotten a DNA match on a second person’s blood that had been saved from the crime scene.

“After 31 years, you never thought anything would happen,” Torres said. “It’s a lot to absorb. I’m in shock — it’s almost like it’s not real.”

On Friday, Prince George’s police charged John Ernest Walsh, 68, with first-degree murder, saying he savagely bludgeoned Watson as she sat in the driver’s seat. A smear of blood on the back of her seat, in a place the driver could have never reached, had his DNA, said William Vosburgh, head of the county’s crime lab.

Watson had fought back, likely injuring Walsh, but he overpowered her, said Sgt. Richard Fulginiti, with the department’s cold-case squad.

“I’ve been working on this case on and off for years,” Fulginiti said. “It’s great to have it closed.”

Fulginiti said that Walsh had been in the Patuxent Medical Center, a now-closed prison hospital, for many years until 1980, when he was released on parole. Walsh violated his parole in the late 1980s and was reincarcerated. In 1996, he was charged with kidnapping and remains in custody today, Fulginiti said. Attempts to reach an attorney who represented him previously were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Walsh is being looked at as a suspect in other unsolved homicides, Fulginiti said.