A Killer is Born

Coral Watts appearing in a Houston courtOn November 7, 1953, Richard Watts, an Army soldier stationed in Killeen, Texas, and Dorothy Mae Young gave birth to a baby boy they named Carl Eugene Watts. Once year later, in 1954 they again conceived a child, this time a daughter they named Sharon Yvonne Watts. By 1955, Richard and Dorothy Mae divorced leaving Dorothy to care for the two young children. The turmoil that was to become common in the Watts household had already begun at a young age.

After the divorce, Dorothy moved with her children to Detroit, Michigan where she held a job teaching art classes. By this time, Carl, who talked with a Southern drawl, was known as “Coral”, a name he eventually legally adopted and the name by which this notorious serial killer would be known.

When Coral turned 9 years old, his mother remarried to Norman Ceaser, a mechanics helper. Dorothy continued growing her family – Norman fathered two additional children with her. About this time, Coral had a near fatal bout with meningitis and was forced to miss an entire year of school. The missing year, or possibly brain damage from the meningitis, was devastating to his development. After he returned to school it was discovered that his learning had slowed noticeably. Not to despair, Coral worked exceedingly hard and even though a “slow learner”, he continued to excel in school and earned high grades.

The Violence Begins

At the age of 13, Coral took a job delivering newspapers to earn spending money. Although the job occasionally required personal contact with his customers, the already antisocial Coral was afforded the opportunity to view his customer’s lives from a distance. He delivered papers quietly, occasionally stopping to watch his customer’s lives unfold. On June 24, 1969, Coral delivered the daily paper of Joan Gave to her door. He knocked on the door and when Joan answered, he quietly handed the paper to her and stood on the step peering past her into the living room. His gaze returned to her and their eyes locked. For no apparent reason, Coral struck her in the face. Joan held her cheek and stood, shocked at the sudden outburst, staring at her attacker. Coral lunged and began beating her mercilessly. Joan began screaming and Coral, clutching his newspaper bag, ran into the street. He continued delivering his papers as if nothing unusual had transpired.

Coral Watts in prison garb.The following day, police arrested Coral and took him into custody. Due to the unusual nature of the event, Coral was sent to a forensic psychiatry center in nearby Detroit, Michigan. Doctors interviewed Coral and he soon admitted that he often had dreams and violent fantasies of beating and killing women that made him feel good. The doctors concluded, and it was officially recorded, that Coral was struggling to control “homicidal tendencies and was considered dangerous.” They reported that Coral “showed no remorse for his actions and was impulsive, reckless, and emotionally detached”. However, they did not believe he suffered from any kind of psychosis and believed he was able to distinguish between right and wrong.

Coral spent the remainder of his teenage years getting into and out of trouble. Neighbors and acquaintances recall that he spent most of his time at home with his mother. He did not have many friends. He began playing football for his school and became quite good at it. In 1972, Coral graduated from High School and was awarded a college scholarship in football. He was injured in his first year and promptly returned home to his mother.

One year later, Coral obtained a college grant and returned to college at Western Michigan University. During 1974, his first year in college, two women were mysteriously attacked on campus. A third woman, Gloria Steele, was murdered – she was stabbed 33 times. Due to his already atypical background, Coral became a suspect and was once again taken into custody. After repeated questioning, Coral admitted to attacking one of the women but would not discuss the Gloria Steele murder with investigators. Coral’s mental state was once again evaluated to determine if he was fit for trial. Psychiatrists indicated that Coral suffered from depression and was indeed a danger to others. However, they found him fit for trial. Coral was convicted and sentenced to one year in jail. He was released in 1976.

Sunday Morning Slasher

After returning from prison, Coral began courting Delores Howard, a childhood friend. The brief romance produced a child but no long term commitment. Two years later Coral met and wed Valerie Goodwill. Again, the romance was brief; the marriage lasted a mere 6 months. During this time, Valerie recalled how Coral would have recurring nightmares, waking up screaming and swinging his arms violently as if he were fighting someone. She puzzled at his strange behavior – he would frequently rearrange the furniture and cut up houseplants with a pocketknife. She later recounted how Coral had suddenly decided to become an atheist and threw a fit when she purchased a Christmas tree. She also recalled how after sex, Coral would get up and disappear in the family car for hours. It was during this time that the “Sunday Morning Slasher” made his appearance.

Jeanne Clyne - killed on Halloween night 1979, in front of several witnesses.On Halloween night, 1979, Jeanne Clyne was standing in the midst of several trick-or-treaters when a muscular black man approached her on the sidewalk. He casually reached into his pocket and pulled out a screwdriver and stabbed her 11 times. She died within hours. Six months later, 17 year old Shirley Small was stabbed twice in the heart while walking home. Three months later, in July of 1980, Glenda Richmond, manager of a local diner, was stabbed 26 times outside her home. Later in that month, Lilli Dunn was taken kicking and screaming from her driveway. Witnesses watched as the car sped off with Lilli screaming in the front seat. On September 14, 1980, 20 year old Rebecca Huff was found dead. She had been stabbed over 50 times. In November of 1980, 63 year old Lena Bennett was found hanging in her garage – she had been sexually assaulted and choked to death.

From 1979 to 1980, 14 women were attacked in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area. 8 of them were murdered either by strangulation or stabbing. The 6 surviving women described their attacker as a powerfully built black man, usually wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

During this rampage, Coral was stopped by the police for stalking a woman. Police described how he followed the walking woman with his car and when she ducked into a doorway, he stepped out of the car and went into a rage. He began pacing uncontrollably, waving his arms, and frantically trying to determine which doorway the woman had stepped into. Police stopped Coral and conducted a cursory search of his car. They found several wood working tools – screwdrivers and steel files. They found a dictionary in his car with the words “Rebecca is a lover” written on the cover. They arrested him for driving with an expired license plate and a suspended license. Shortly thereafter, they discovered that the dictionary belonged to Rebecca Huff, linking Coral to the area murders. Coral became the police’s primary suspect.

An around the clock surveillance watch was put on Coral. When Coral discovered that he was being watched he suddenly stopped moving around and began spending all his time locked away in his house. On January 29, 1981, Chief Detective Paul Benten again brought Coral in for questioning. Benten demonstrated to Coral how the murders were being done. He walked up behind Coral, placed his left arm around him and pretended to stab him from behind with his right hand. Coral broke down sobbing but no confession was made.

The Move to Houston

Two months later, tired of being harassed and followed by the police, Coral packed up his belongings and moved to Houston, Texas.  Officer Benten immediately transferred an 18 page file on Watts to the Houston police. The file contained pictures, fingerprints, and descriptions of the murders he was suspect in. During 1981, Houston unfortunately experienced over 700 murders in their city. The police force was exhausted, understaffed, underpaid, and had no permanent police chief. The best the department could muster was a intermittent watch on Coral.  On September 5, 1981, Linda Tilley was found drowned in a swimming poll in Austin, Texas. Police ruled the drowning an accident. A short time later this ruling would be officially changed.

Elena Semander - 20 year old victim.Killings began in Houston almost immediately after Coral arrived. 25 year old Elizabeth Montgomery was stabbed in the chest as she carried home her groceries. 21 year old Susan Wolf was stabbed to death in the chest while returning home from getting ice cream – she was only a few feet from her apartment door. 14 year old Emily LaQua, 32 year old Carrie Jefferson, and 20 year old Elena Semander were all found stabbed to death during a 2 month period in 1982. Phyllis Tamm, 27, was found hanging in a local park. Police ruled it a suicide – another ruling which they would shortly change.

On May 23, 1982, 20 year old Michelle Maday was murdered under unusual circumstances. Michelle answered a knock on her door and was surprised when an attacker burst in and began beating and choking her. The attacker then filled a bathtub with hot water and held her under the water until she drowned.

Margaret Fossi - found in trunk of car on campus of Rice University.Margaret Fossi was found dead in the trunk of her car on the campus of Rice University in Houston. She had been choked to death from a brutal blow to her throat. In Houston, more bodies accumulated up during 1982 – 25 year old Susan Searles, 34 year old Anna Ledat, and 22 year old Yolanda Gracia were all found murdered under the exact same circumstances and all attributed to the same killer. Finally, in late 1982, Coral’s luck finally ran out.


22 year old Lori Lister had left her boyfriend’s house and drove home to her apartment in Houston. She walked to her doorway and paused to fumble for the keys in her purse. Suddenly, a man in a hooded, red sweatshirt grabbed her from behind and began choking her until she was semi-unconscious. During the struggle she managed to get off a weak scream – a scream that the attacker thought was quiet enough to go unnoticed. Fortunately, a neighbor heard the weak cry and called the police.

Coral Watts drug the limp body of Lister upstairs where he was surprised to meet her roommate, 18 year old Melinda Aguilar. Coral dropped Lister to the floor and quickly grabbed Aguilar. He choked her until she too was semi-unconscious. Wisely, Aguilar faked this and was fully aware of what transpired.

Coral wrapped both women’s hands with wire coat hangers and Aguilar later described how he jumped up and down, rubbing and clapping his hands with excitement. He placed both women’s bodies on the bed and walked into the bathroom and turned on the water. As the water ran and the bathtub filled with hot water, Aguilar quietly slipped to the nearby balcony and jumped to the ground below. As she hit the ground she began screaming for help. Watts heard the screams and fled down the stairs and into the courtyard below. Police, who had arrived to investigate the neighbor’s call made earlier, quickly apprehended him.  Officers ran up the stairs of the apartment and found Lister’s limp body hanging over the edge of the bathtub, her head submerged under the water.

Houston police, with a huge caseload of files on hand and little of no evidence in the other unsolved murders, offered Coral immunity in exchange for murder confessions. Coral quickly agreed and began detailing some of his attacks. He took police to 3 burial sites. He confessed to the murders of only 13 women even though Coral had confessed to averaging one attack every other week and police knew he was suspect in over 100 murders in Michigan and Texas. At one point in the questioning, Paul Bunten asked Watts, “Coral, just how many women have you killed? Are there enough fingers in this room to count them?”. Coral calmly looked around the room, counted the 5 people in attendance, lowered his head in contemplation and said “Captain, there are not enough fingers and toes in this room to count them.”

The Deal

In a deal worked out with the Houston prosecutors, Coral was given immunity and charged with burglary with the intent to commit murder. He was given 60 years, enough time to ensure he would grow old and die while in prison. Before Coral left to serve his prison sentence, he told Houston Investigator Tom Ladd, “Ladd, you know if they ever let me out, I’m gonna do it again.”

While in prison at the Ellis Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville, Texas, Coral attempted to escape. He greased his entire body with hair gel and tried to slip through the bars on his window. Guards found him wedged halfway between the bars.

On January 15, 1990, Coral was denied parole by Board Members because (a) parole was not in the best interest of society, (b) the nature and seriousness of his offense, (c) us of a weapon in his offense, and (d) assaultiveness in the offense. On September 3, 1993 Carol was again denied parole and again on October 23, 1996 and November 19, 1999.

In 2002, Coral’s case now took an even more bizarre turn. Coral’s attorneys discovered that Judge Shaver had failed to specify the water in the bathtub as a deadly weapon the court record. This allowed Coral the opportunity to file an appeal against his conviction. The appellate court agreed and since there was no evidence a deadly weapon had been used, his crime was reduced to burglary. This gave Coral 3 days off his sentence for every day that he had served. Coral was now eligible for release in 2006.

Houston Police scrambled to find a way to rectify this mistake. They discovered that the killing of 14 year old Emily LaQua occurred in Walker County, not in Harris County as was originally charged. This places that killing outside the blanket Watts received from the Harris County prosecutors. This leaves Watts vulnerable in this case if evidence other than his confession can be found. DNA, which was in its infancy in 1982, could not be used to convict Watts if he left any traces on LaQua’s clothing. This evidence, however, has been misplaced and can not be found.

Helen Dutcher - killed on December 1, 1979.Michigan police have also fought to find a way to keep Watts in prison and a lucky series of events have allowed them to bring charges against Watts in the 1979 slaying of 36 year old Helen Dutcher (which Watts has plead not guilty to). In early 2004, and unidentified man known only as “Joe” from Westland, Michigan, came forward after seeing a TV show on Coral’s murderous rampage. He indicated that 25 years earlier, on December 1, 1979, he had watched from his bedroom window as Watts stabbed and beat a woman in an adjoining alleyway. He had notified police at that time and a sketch was made but no suspects were found. Even more bizarrely, the man had previously seen Watts on TV in 1982 and also phoned police at that time. Police took no action then because Watts was already scheduled for a lengthy prison sentence.

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