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DNA match leads to charges in Laurel cold case killing

Inmate charged with murder in death of Stefanie Watson 31 years after she was killed

By Luke Lavoie, llavoie@tribune.com

10:03 PM EDT, June 25, 2013

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When Peg Adams received a call from her cousin last week, she hardly expected the news she waited nearly 31 years to hear: A suspect had been charged in the slaying of her sister, Stefanie Watson, who disappeared in Laurel on July 22, 1982.

"I was shocked. It was like a kind of a dream come true," said Adams. "I've been waiting all these years for something."

On Friday, June 21, Prince George's County police charged John Ernest Walsh, 68, with first degree murder in connection with Watson's death after his DNA was matched with DNA taken from the blood-stained interior of Watson's car. Walsh has been incarcerated since 1989 when his parole for a kidnapping and rape almost two decades earlier was revoked. He is accused of killing Watson while he was on parole.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Sgt. Rick Fulginiti, of the Prince George's County Police's Cold Case Unit, said the recovered DNA was entered into the state's Combined DNA Index System in March.

"As DNA testing has progressed over the years, it has become more sensitive. We were able to conduct a positive test this year," Fulginiti said.

Watson, 27, was last seen leaving her Laurel apartment at approximately 9 p.m. on July 22, 1982. She was presumably on her way to work her final night shift at Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital, which began at 11:30 p.m., before moving to Texas to live with Adams and her brother.

The following day, Watson was supposed to meet her cousin in Harrisburg, Pa., but never showed up. On July 26, police discovered Watson's car, a 1981 Chevette, parked on Fourth Street in Laurel with a blood-stained interior. According to the charging documents, police determined "a violent struggle" occurred inside the vehicle.

Six weeks later, on Sept. 3, Laurel Police reported part of Watson's skeletal remains were found in a wooded area off Larchdale Road after a witness reportedly saw a man wearing yellow dish-washing gloves throw something into the woods. The witness found human bones and teeth, and the medical examiner's office used dental records to identify the remains.

According to Fulginiti, Walsh was on parole during the time of the incident after being found guilty in 1970 of kidnapping and rape in Prince George's County. Fulginiti said Walsh was released from prison on work release in 1978, after serving eight years on his 72-year sentence. He was paroled in 1980 by the Patuxent Institution, which functioned as a rehabilitation facility for convicts.

"(The Patuxent Institution) chose individuals they felt they could rehabilitate," Fulginiti said. "In 1980, they felt he was rehabilitated."

Walsh had his parole revoked in 1989 after failing a drug test, Fulginiti said.

Degree of closure

Adams, who was Watson's older sister, said the news was bittersweet, bringing both the relief of closure and the pains of grief.

"It severely affected all four of our lives when we lost her," said Adams, referring to her parents and brother, all of whom are now deceased.

"My father and mother were never the same again. They were sad and angry all the time; they both died wishing and praying that someone would find him."

Adams, a resident of Pennsylvania, said her father died in 2002, and her mother died in 2010.

"They would be excited that it was coming to a conclusion," she said. "But it would've brought up a lot of anger and hurt again. My mom couldn't stand to look at her picture anymore because it hurt her so bad."

Adams said she stayed in contact with Prince George's County detectives over the years, and complimented the department on what she called their "tenacity."

"It is certainly our goal within the Cold Case Unit to eventually give that same satisfaction (of closure) to every family that has lost a love one," Fulginiti said.

While there is certainly a sense of closure for the family, there is also a degree of closure for the greater Laurel community, which was turned upside down by the horrific crime.

Laurel native Richard Friend, who writes the local blog "Lost Laurel," was 9 years old when Watson disappeared, although he remembers it like it was yesterday.

"It always stuck with me as a kid. I always wondered what happened," Friend said.

Friend was so affected by the crime that he spent hours researching the incident last summer, the 30th anniversary of Watson's disappearance. His work culminated in a 5,000-word blog post, for which he interviewed Fulginiti and members of Laurel Police.

"It stays with you," Friend said. "It's one of those things I never forgot, and never will."