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Monday, August 19, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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System's quirk may let killer go

The Associated Press

HOUSTON — The murders were as random as they were vicious: stabbings, hangings, stranglings, drownings. The women didn't know each other or the hooded man who, according to one survivor, enjoyed the killing so much he was "clapping and dancing."

Police eventually caught up with Coral Eugene Watts but couldn't connect him to the savage crimes in Texas and Michigan.

Desperate to close the cases, prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain. In 1982, Watts admitted he killed 13 women — "They had evil in their eyes," he said — but he went to prison for burglary with intent to commit murder.

He was sentenced to 60 years, and prosecutors, police and the judge thought that was enough.

Now, a quirk in the Texas legal system may short-circuit their intentions. Mandatory release laws aimed at relieving prison crowding require that Watts be discharged on May 8, 2006, unless he loses good-behavior credits that he has accumulated in prison. He will be 52.

Watts is believed to have killed dozens of women, and authorities in Texas and Michigan are scouring old files, archives and evidence folders for any shred that might tie him to an open case for which he didn't receive immunity in the plea.

"Everybody knows he is going to kill again," said Houston police Sgt. Tom Ladd, who interrogated Watts after his arrest in 1982. "His last statement to me was, 'You know, Tom, if I get out, I'm going to do it again.'

"He's a homicidal time bomb," Ladd said.

Watts declined a request for an interview. His defense attorney in 1982, Zinetta Burney, did not return calls requesting comment.

Finding new evidence will be tough, Ladd said. DNA testing wasn't done in the 1980s, and evidence collection was handled differently.

And with Watts' attacks lasting just moments, he left little behind, the homicide detective said.

"He was a stalker, a predator," Ladd said. "He would get in his car at night and he would drive around and he would see a female, and he would follow that female, and he would kill that female, and he would get back in his car. He might look for another one, he might go home."

Watts first came to the attention of authorities in Michigan in 1974 when he was accused of choking and beating a woman in Kalamazoo. He was convicted of aggravated assault in 1975 and spent a year in jail.

He then moved to Ann Arbor, where police kept a close eye on him but never caught him committing a crime.

"There was no DNA, and lacking eyewitnesses, lacking a smoking gun, it is very hard to prove a case," retired Ann Arbor police detective Paul Bunten said.

Michigan authorities eventually suspected Watts of attacking at least 14 women and killing eight in Ann Arbor, Detroit and the neighboring Canadian town of Windsor between October 1979 and November 1980, according to the Houston Chronicle. But they could do little more than relay their suspicions and details of Watts' background to Houston authorities after he moved south in 1981.

"Logistically, it was impossible to keep a 24-hour tab on this guy," Ladd said. "We didn't have anything to follow him on."

Twelve Texas women died before Watts crossed paths with police again.

On May 23, 1982, Watts choked to death Michelle Maday, 20.

Two hours later, he choked and beat Lori Lister in a parking lot outside her home, then dragged her limp body up to her apartment.

Lister's roommate, Melinda Aguilar, awoke and found Watts staring her in the face.

"He grabbed me, pulled my hair back and started choking me," Aguilar said. "I pretended like I passed out."

Watts bound both women's hands with wire hangers.

"I knew he was there to kill just by the excitement he had," Aguilar said. "He enjoyed what he was doing. I remember him jumping and clapping and being excited about what he was doing."

While Watts filled the bathtub, Aguilar slipped out and called police, who arrived in time to grab Watts as he ran out the front door.

"It is a miracle I'm alive," said Lister, who was rescued from the bathtub and resuscitated. "I was told and promised that he would serve his full 60 years."

Texas' mandatory-release program was approved in 1977 and rescinded in 1996, but prisoners who qualified in between those times remained eligible.

Bryan Collier, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's parole division, said that if Watts gets out in 2006 he will be watched closely from his release until his 60-year sentence expires in 2042.

Harriett Semander, whose 20-year-old daughter, Elena Semander, was strangled with her own shirt, isn't convinced that will be enough.

"There's no doubt in my mind that he has been sitting in prison for the last 20 years planning his next murder," she said.

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