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Slain officer's family keeps 24-year vigil; Relatives pleased at new prison term for man freed in case


He was supposed to spend "the remainder of his natural life" in prison, a sentence of life plus 95 years for his role in the 1975 killing of a state police sergeant and the rape of a woman whose car he stole after the slaying.

Instead, Charles Edward Watson, once on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List, has had several sips of freedom -- thanks to legal twists and turns that led to a reduced sentence. He picked up golf on a recent vacation to Texas.

This month, Watson, 52, landed behind bars again, the terms of his early release violated when he was accused of tampering with a jar of charity money at a Glen Burnie restaurant. The family of slain Sgt. Wallace J. Mowbray wants to make sure he doesn't leave prison again.

"He did not even serve a quarter of his sentence. It is a slap in the face for my family," said Robin Bell, who was 20 when her father was shot in the face with a sawed-off shotgun. He was 39.

Watson's "wife can still go visit him when all we can visit is a gravesite," said Bell, who is a bookkeeper in Cambridge. "It is like the state fights against me to let him out."

Mowbray's widow, Iris, and three children cannot forget the August night when Mowbray died, less than a half-mile from their home on Kent Island, an hour after he stopped by his house to tell his wife that he would be patrolling nearby if she needed him and that he loved her.

Mowbray pulled his cruiser onto the parking lot of Wheeler Baker's liquor store to check on a suspicious blue van with Virginia dealer tags. The barrel of a shotgun poked out from a window of the van, and the left side of Mowbray's face was blown away.

Four men in the van, all from Anne Arundel County, fled. Watson and Richard Patterson, who was convicted of doing the shooting, kidnapped a couple from outside Pier One restaurant and commandeered their car. The woman was raped.

Watson and Patterson were captured at the Bay Bridge toll plaza several hours later. Raymond Patterson, Richard's brother, and Albert White stole a boat and headed toward the Western Shore. They were arrested within two days.

The arrests brought little peace to Mowbray's survivors, who have spent most of the past 24 years fighting to keep Watson and the other three men behind bars.

Pat Cushwa, a Maryland Parole Board official, described Watson's history as "a revolving door of charges that don't result in time."

Watson's criminal odyssey began in 1963, when he was imprisoned for armed robbery. Paroled two years later, he was arrested seven more times before his May 1976 jury trial in the killing of Mowbray. He was convicted of being an accessory after the slaying, kidnapping, rape and handgun violations.

His criminal background contributed to the sentence Calvert County Circuit Judge Perry G. Bowen Jr. imposed, which exceeded sentencing guidelines.

"The impression this court receives is that it would be exceedingly unsafe and grossly unfair to the law-abiding citizens of this state to ever again let you be free to come and go as you please," Bowen told Watson. "It seems to me that you have devoted most of your adult life to criminal activity. The time has come to put a stop to that."

In 1991, Watson won a new trial, in part because Bowen started one day of the proceedings before Watson arrived and did not include the defendant when he talked with lawyers at the bench. The defense also argued that to punish Watson with the maximum sentences on each count was cruel and unusual in light of his acknowledged alcoholism.

Watson avoided a new jury trial by pleading guilty to using a handgun in a violent crime, two counts of kidnapping and being an accessory to Mowbray's death. His revised sentence was for 27 years, but he was freed in 1993 under court supervision.

Four months later, he violated the terms of release with disorderly conduct charges and went to prison for four years.

"The state could no longer legally hold him," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Despite a 14-month-long escape in 1982 and 1983 that added two years to Watson's sentence and put him on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List, he had accumulated enough credits for good behavior that he was mandatorily released.

"I am shocked," Michael E. Combs, 57, the foreman of the jury that convicted Watson in 1976, said in a recent interview. "My gosh, why do we even have trials if someone is going to let them out?"

The Mowbray family did not know about the second trial and revised sentence until a letter in 1993 alerting them that Watson would be released in 10 days. Bell wrote to the governor and the parole board.

"Has the court, or anyone for that matter, honestly stopped to think what I and my family have been through in the past 15 years?" she wrote. "This type of murder just does not go away over night, yet we have tried to go on with our lives but we have to continually fight for our rights."

The Mowbrays expressed satisfaction at Watson's latest imprisonment, the result of trespassing charges filed in December.

Watson's children said the Mowbrays are not the best judges of what should happen to their father. While he was free, they said, he made daily visits to his mother and sister, who were dying. He ate lots of seafood, and took up golf.

"People change," said Charles E. Watson Jr. "They lost their father but I lost one, too. I didn't have anyone there to raise me. I would have liked to have done the things fathers and sons do."

The younger Watson, 28, with a history of assault, theft and forgery, said he didn't get to know his father until they were in a Maryland prison together.

Watson's wife and two children, residents of Glen Burnie, believe he was passed out in the van the night Mowbray was killed. His father is "remorseful," the son said, and has tried to control the alcoholism that contributed to his run-ins with the law.

"Every once in a while he says he wished he would not have been there when it happened," said Sarah, his wife of 34 years.

Robin Bell wishes the same. She remembers being in a dreamlike state at her father's funeral, which drew then-Gov. Marvin Mandel, Attorney General Francis B. Burch, State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and more than 1,000 law enforcement officers to Kent Island United Methodist Church.

"My mom reminded me of Jackie Onassis, sitting there very stoically and never shedding a tear," said Bell. "We were more worried about my little brother, Ryan, because he didn't quite understand. He had never been to a funeral before."

Important dates

Aug. 9, 1975 -- Sgt. Wallace J. Mowbray is killed.

May 24, 1976 -- Charles E. Watson is sentenced to life plus 95 years for his role in the slaying.

June 1982 to October 1983 -- Watson escapes from prison and lives in Pennsylvania.

Oct. 23, 1991 -- Watson pleads guilty to reduced charges during a retrial. He is freed in 1993.

Aug. 4, 1998 -- Watson is accused of trespassing at Sunset Restaurant in Glen Burnie.

Feb. 12 -- Watson returns to prison.

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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