A man serving a life sentence for a 1994 murder was charged yesterday with sexually assaulting and killing three Anne Arundel County women more than a decade ago - a serial murder case that police say they pieced together using DNA evidence.
Alexander Wayne Watson Jr., 34, was charged with first-degree murder in the killings of two mothers - Fort Meade employee Boon Tem Anderson in 1986 and jogger Mary Elaine Shereika in 1988 - and high school freshman Lisa Kathleen Haenel in 1993, police said.
Watson was a teenager when two of the Anne Arundel murders occurred. In each case, he lived just a few doors from his victims, address records show.
With yesterday's charges, police say they have closed three unsolved cases that stunned the quiet communities of Gambrills, where Anderson and Shereika lived, and south Glen Burnie, where there is still a white cross bearing Haenel's name on a tree near the place where her body was found.
"It's just this tremendous sense of release. It's like a huge burden has been lifted," Shereika's daughter, Jennifer, 33, said yesterday after Watson had been charged. "I've gone around for 16 years feeling like I had unfinished business that I owed to my mother, and there was no way I could repay it."
Anne Arundel police have scheduled a news conference for 10 a.m. today to discuss the case. In interviews yesterday, police detailed how the cold case squad has investigated the crimes for six years, a time during which they said they connected the murders to each other and then to Watson.
Detectives say they have known since October that DNA evidence linked Watson to at least two of the murders. But they said they did not feel rushed to charge him because he has been behind bars for a decade. Watson was convicted in 1994 of killing office manager Debra Cobb in Prince George's County and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup.
Before his sentencing, Watson, in a letter to a judge asking for leniency, called that killing "a terrible mistake" and blamed it on an addiction to crack cocaine.
"I still believe in my heart that I am a peaceful person," he wrote in the letter, dated Nov. 28, 1994.
Anne Arundel County Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan said yesterday that he can't recall another serial killer case in his three decades with the police force. He said the young age at which Watson allegedly began killing makes him unusual.
"I'd love to get into his head. I'd love to know what else was going on," Shanahan said. "If he was committing murders at age 17, I wonder what he was doing at age 15. I wonder what he was doing at age 14," the chief said.
Police said they are investigating whether Watson could be tied to any other unsolved homicides or sexual assaults in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he lived in the county.
Watson's parents bought a house on Spring Lake Court in the Four Seasons neighborhood of Gambrills in November 1985, Maryland property tax records show.
Less than a year later, on Oct. 8, 1986, Boon Tem Anderson, who lived in the same neighborhood, was stabbed and strangled and left bound and naked in her bathtub. She had been sexually assaulted. Watson had just turned 17.
Anderson, 34, a native of Thailand, had two children and worked as a civilian employee at nearby Fort Meade. Her fiance's 11-year-old son discovered her body when he came home from school.
Police said yesterday that Watson was "an associate" of the family of Anderson's fiance, but they would not give details about the relationship.
Watson was a few months shy of his 19th birthday when, on May 23, 1988, Mary Elaine Shereika was sexually assaulted, beaten, stabbed and strangled in a rye field about a mile from her home in that same neighborhood. The 37-year-old mother of two was out for her daily jog that morning, before she was to go to her job as a paralegal.
By the early 1990s, court records show, Watson had married, become a father and moved to a Glen Burnie apartment complex called Southgate. Lisa Kathleen Haenel's family lived in the same complex. It's a short walk from Old Mill High School, where Lisa was a ninth-grader.
On Jan. 16, 1993, the 14-year- old's nude body was found in a ravine along a path she walked each morning to Old Mill. She had been stabbed to death.
After learning that her daughter never made it to school that Friday morning, Haenel's mother reported her missing that evening. The mother's boyfriend found Haenel's body the next morning. Haenel was called a model student who made high marks and was often hired as a baby sitter by neighbors.
Haenel's killing put Old Mill students and their families on edge. Even 11 years later, there are signs of its impact. A white cross bearing Lisa's name and ladybug decorations remains a visual reminder, and students at the three-school campus still talk about the crime.
Jennifer Shereika, who was 16 when her mother died, is now married and has two daughters, one of whom is named after her mother and whom she says is "the spitting image of her."
She said the charges against Watson give her family some measure of closure. Now living in southwest Virginia, she said she plans to attend all of the major court proceedings.
"Even if we never find out exactly why, knowing who it was is all that matters," she said.
Sgt. David Waltemeyer, head of the homicide unit and one of four detectives now working on the cases, said it has been satisfying to "finally be able to give relatives some answers."
Anne Arundel County formed its cold case unit in 1998, and its first detective, Waltemeyer, said he soon began looking at the murders of Anderson, Shereika and Haenel, among others. In summer 2002, police announced that DNA showed Shereika and Haenel were killed by the same person, though they had not yet identified the killer.
They had submitted DNA taken from Shereika's body and from a Newport cigarette found near Haenel's body. In October 2003, the state police crime laboratory notified the department that those DNA profiles matched that of Watson, police said.
Through advancements in DNA testing, a swab taken from Anderson's body was linked this year to Watson, Waltemeyer said.
"When you dedicate resources to these cases and make them a priority, you can be successful," Waltemeyer said.
After detectives identified Watson as a potential suspect, they knew they needn't worry about his whereabouts: He was in prison.
Watson had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for killing Cobb as she closed up a Forestville business the evening of June 13, 1994. Court records give an account of the grisly killing:
Watson entered the business with a knife and handcuffs and asked the 37-year-old office manager and mother of two if he could use the bathroom.
When he returned, he handcuffed Cobb, threw her to the ground and stabbed her 14 times in the back. He slashed her throat and took cash and checks before fleeing. Watson was employed at United Van Lines, a business just a few doors away from Cobb's office. Her employee identification card was found in his desk.
In court records, Watson has said he is a married father of two. His wife, Vanessa R. Watson, divorced him in June 2001, court records show, after nine years of marriage.
Sun staff writer Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.