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DNA match leads to charges in Laurel cold case killing

Missing person poster for Stefanie Watson
Missing person poster for Stefanie Watson (Courtesy Richard Friend)

After nearly 31 years of mystery, rumors and speculation regarding the disappearance and killing of Laurel resident Stefanie Watson; Prince George's County Police finally have a suspect.

Police announced Tuesday a murder charge in the case has been levied against an incarcerated felon after DNA evidence placed him at the scene of the crime.

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John Ernest Walsh, 68, faces one charge of first-degree murder. He is currently being held at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover on unrelated charges.

"The DNA tests continue to get more sensitive. We are finding things today, that we couldn't find three years ago," said Sgt. Richard Fulginiti from the County Police's Cold Case Unit.

According to Fulginiti, suspect DNA taken from the blood-stained interior of Watson's car, which was discovered four days after she had been reported missing in July of 1982, was entered into the state's Combined DNA Index System in March of this year. On May 14, Police were notified that the suspect DNA matched Walsh's DNA, which was filed in the Maryland Convicted Offenders database.

After confirming the DNA match in June, Fulginiti interviewed Walsh, who did not admit to the crime.

Watson, 27, was last seen leaving her apartment at approximately 9 p.m. on July 22, 1982, when she was presumably on her way to work her final shift at 11:30 p.m. at Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital before relocating to Texas. On June 26, police discovered Watson's car, a 1981 Chevette, parked on Fourth Street in Laurel with a blood stained interior. According to the documents, "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 gloves throw something into the woods, which was reportedly used as a dumping ground. 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 put out 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.

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