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Sentencing ends 32-year mystery of Stefanie Watson's death

Missing persons poster for Stefanie Watson.
Missing persons poster for Stefanie Watson.

A murder case that bedeviled police investigators for more than 30 years finally came to a close Monday when a man was sentenced to 33 years in prison after pleading guilty to killing a woman who vanished in 1982.

The State's Attorney Office for Prince George's County said in a news release that 71-year-old John Ernest Walsh had been sentenced after pleading guilty to second-degree murder and false imprisonment this month in the slaying of 27-year-old Stefanie Watson of Laurel.

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Prosecutors say Watson left her apartment in July 1982 for her job but never arrived. Her car was later found covered in blood. Her skull was later found but her body was not.

Prosecutors say in 2013 a detective submitted blood samples from Watson's car to a state police lab, and a state DNA database returned a match for Walsh, who was in prison on an unrelated rape conviction.

John Walsh
John Walsh (Courtesy PGPD)

"We want people to know that no matter how old a case may be, we never stop fighting for justice for our victims," State's Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said in a news release. "Even though Mr. Walsh is currently in prison on an unrelated conviction, it is important that we prosecute him in this case to help Stefanie's family continue to heal."

John Ezren, spokesman for the State's Attorney's Office, said members of Watson's family attended the sentencing on Monday.

The night Watson vanished, July 22, 1982, she was on her way to work her final night shift as an admitting clerk in the emergency room at Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital. The Harrisburg, Pa., native lived alone in an apartment on Eighth Street, having moved to Laurel in 1981. She had planned to move to Texas to live with family, according to news reports. Before leaving, she had plans to meet with a cousin the following day for a trip to Ocean City but never showed up.

Police discovered Watson's 1981 Chevrolet Chevette on July 26, parked on Fourth Street in Laurel covered in blood, according to news reports. Police determined "a violent struggle" had occurred inside the vehicle, according to charging documents.

Six weeks later, Laurel Police reported Watson's skull had been found in a wooded area off Larchdale Road after a witness reported seeing a man wearing yellow gloves throw something into the woods. Watson's body was never found.

Thirty-one years after Watson's death, police revisited the case. They found a seat from her Chevette in storage and tested blood stains for DNA, which led them to Walsh, who was incarcerated at Eastern Correctional Institute in Westover, serving a 72-year prison term for rape and kidnapping stemming from two crimes in 1969.

Stefanie Watson
Stefanie Watson (Courtesy PGPD)

Walsh initially served a year in prison for the rapes and then was moved to the now-closed Patuxent Institution, a rehabilitation center for convicts, and then released to a halfway house after serving eight years of the sentence, according to news reports. He was returned to prison in 1989 after violating parole when a urine sample tested positive for marijuana, according to the State's Attorney's Office.

Prosecutors and police spent 15 months working to ensure they had a strong case after matching the blood found on the car seat to Walsh before seeking an indictment, the State's Attorney's Office said.

—The Associated Press contributed to this story

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