Carl “Coral” Eugene Watts was one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history, murdering dozens of women over an eight-year period that finally ended in 1982.
This new episode of the KPRC 2 Investigates true crime docuseries ‘The Evidence Room,’ reveals how a Texas woman finally stopped him - and how he nearly became the first serial killer to be legally released from prison.
“He had three ways that he killed his victims - stabbing, strangulation and drowning. He never sexually assaulted anybody, and if he took anything they were very small trinkets for trophies. So robbery was not a motive as well,” said Director of Victim Services for Houston Crime Stoppers, Andy Kahan. “He was simply a cold-blooded killing machine.”
“How many murders do they believe Watts committed?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“I’m comfortable with saying he’s credited with over 40, because when you add Texas and Michigan, he was aligned with about 22. There were also five in Windsor, Canada, across the border. They have footage of his car going back and forth from Detroit to Windsor, Canada,” said Kahan. “Several women in Canada ended up being dead and some actually survived as well. One of them was also later able to identify him.”
‘The Sunday Morning Slasher’ was finally captured after trying to murder Lori Lister and her roommate, Melinda Aguilar, at their Houston apartment in May 1982. While Watts was trying to drown Lister in a bathtub, Aguilar escaped by jumping from a 2nd story balcony with her hands bound behind her back. Three months before his capture, Watts murdered Elena Semander.
“Elena was the oldest of four siblings. She was my oldest sister by five years and she was 20, just a week before her 21st birthday when she was murdered by Carl Watts,” said Elena’s sister, JoAnna Semander Nicolaou. “She was athletic. She had a field hockey scholarship at the University of Denver, and then she transferred back to Houston and she kind of missed Texas, her Texas roots and her family. She was a student at the University of Houston. She was studying math and physical education. She was also an artist.”
“How did your sister even cross paths with Watts?” asked Arnold.
“He selected her at random, just like he did all of his victims. He just saw her driving at night and followed her,” said Nicolaou.
Elena’s mother, Harriet Semander, knew her daughter’s murder was not just some random act of violence. Nicolaou said her mom began scouring newspapers for reports of similar murders and even contacted families of other young women who were killed. Nicolaou said her mother tried to persuade police to put out a warning that someone was targeting young women, but was told no such predator was operating in the city.
“She felt there was a pattern, but she was told it was not connected. She was told by the police chief then that absolutely there’s no way there’s one person doing this,” Nicolaou said.
Kahan said Watts spent most of his life in Michigan and moved to Houston when police began zeroing in on him as a suspect in several murders. Kahan said one of the officers from Michigan even tried to warn Houston police when he learned Watts moved to town.
“He actually put together a dossier, he sent it down to Houston homicide and said, ‘this is a bad guy, we have him as a suspect in numerous murders. You need to keep an eye on him,’” Kahan said.
Given the manpower crunch Houston police experienced in the 70s and 80s, 24-hour, 7-day a week surveillance on Watts was not sustainable, even though police did try to keep tabs on him, Kahan said.
“Nobody put one and two together,” said Kahan. “So nobody was willing to come out and say, ‘Hey, Houston, we’ve got a serial killer loose.’”
In August of 1982, Watts began confessing to several murders and leading police police to spots where he buried the bodies of young women. These confessions led to a plea deal for Watts; he would be convicted of burglary with the intent to commit murder for the attacks on Lister and Aguilar, and given a 60 year prison sentence. Watts was given immunity on the other crimes.
“Watts was also willing to confess to all the murders in Michigan and Michigan officials rejected any plea offers,” said Kahan.
“Were families told about that prior to the deal being made?” asked Arnold.
“I think being told and really understanding are two different things,” said Nicolaou.
Kahan said adding insult to injury, Watts became eligible for parole much sooner than family members anticipated. Watts successfully argued prosecutors did not notify him the water in the bathtub would be considered a ‘deadly weapon’ for purposes of sentencing Watts. The ‘deadly weapon’ portion was then dropped from the conviction.
“Because he won the appeal, he was basically eligible for parole as, quote, a non-violent offender,” said Kahan.
The news got even worse when Kahan had to tell family members that because Watts was now considered a non-violent offender, he was eligible for ‘good time’ credit. At the time of Watts’ conviction, Texas allowed non-violent offenders who exhibited good behavior behind bars to reduce the time they were required to remain in prison before the state had to release them on parole. The Watts’ case was a main factor in Texas overturning its ‘mandatory release’ laws. However, the US Supreme Court ruled Texas could not apply this change retroactively.
“I’ll never forget calling your mom, and I said, ‘Harriet, I said, parole is the least of your problems. Under Texas law he has an automatic mandatory release date somewhere around the year 2006. And by Texas law, assuming he maintains good behavior in prison, he’s walking out - no ifs, ands or buts.’ So, you know, parole isn’t going to be the issue, no one’s going to parole him. This is the looming issue,” Kahan said.
Kahan said that was the moment Elena’s family and he realized a nationwide effort needed to be launched to keep Watts in prison. Since Texas granted Watts immunity, the hope fell to Michigan charging Watts with a new case. In 2002, Kahan, Harriet Semander and an organization called ‘Justice for All’ came up with the idea of having a 20th anniversary memorial service. This included a nationwide media blitz to remind the public of Watts and his crimes.
“My mother felt a deep conviction to kind of speak up not just for Elena, but for all the victims,” said Nicolaou. “She carried the torch for everybody. She felt that responsibility and she took it very seriously, and what started out as just being for her own daughter ended up being for, she represented all the voices that weren’t there anymore.”
Kahan said the effort began in 2002, which allowed only four years before Watts’ release.
“We just decided, you know what? If we were going to legally release a serial killer, we’re going to go down kicking and screaming and fighting, and the whole world is going to know about it,” said Kahan.Two years later that effort paid off.
“We did a segment for the Today Show and they reran it that evening on MSNBC,” said Kahan. “The Michigan Attorney General was on, and he was pleading for the public’s help in the unsolved 1979 murder of Helen Dutcher, and they had a sketch of the suspect at that time, and they held it up. This guy comes home from a suburb of Detroit, and he does what guys do, he picks up the remote, starts flipping channels, right - and he stops on that segment, and he literally froze and he screams to his wife, ‘that’s the guy I saw kill the girl in the alley 25 years ago.”
Turns out that witness, Joe Foy, first told police he believed Watts was the killer in 1982 after seeing video of his arrest in Houston. Watts was then charged and convicted of Dutcher’s murder in 2004. He was sentenced to life in prison. In 2007 Watts was convicted of the 1974 murder of Michigan college student, Gloria Steele, and sentenced to life without parole. Watts died in prison the same year of prostate cancer.
Nicolaou remembers the phone call she received from her mom following Watts’ death.
“She was crying and she said, ‘I have my life back.’ She never thought she’d outlive him,” Nicolaou said.
Nicolaou’s brother, John Semander, wrote a short film titled ‘The Empty Chair,’ and is working to turn the project into a series.
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