Queries for an accused killer

Victims' families meet privately with Watson

Sun exclusive

August 15, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

The families were quietly ushered into the courthouse to meet their loved ones' accused killer face to face. Behind closed doors in a small conference room, they confronted Alexander Wayne Watson Jr., the man charged with stabbing and strangling -- and in two cases raping -- their relatives more than a decade ago.

While the victims' relatives will publicly read statements at Watson's plea hearing tomorrow in Annapolis, they were allowed Monday to talk to him privately, for as long as they wanted.

The meeting was part of an agreement with Watson, charged with three counts of first-degree murder in cases that stretch back nearly 20 years: He will plead guilty to all three killings in exchange for prosecutors withdrawing the threat of the death penalty.

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys would discuss the meeting or the plea agreement. Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank B. Weathersbee and a representative of the victims' families are expected to comment after tomorrow's hearing.

Russell P. Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center, said a meeting among victims or their family members and their attackers is unusual before a conviction. He said the desire to obtain answers is not.

"Nothing that judge is going to do will bring the loved ones back," said Butler, whose organization provided free legal assistance for some of the families. "But by accommodating the victims and allowing this plea to occur, they've gone out of their way to make sure victims are provided what little bit they've asked for [in] the loss of a loved one."

Serving a life sentence for a 1994 killing in Prince George's County, Watson, 37, was indicted three years ago in the three Anne Arundel killings after cold-case detectives linked him to them by using DNA evidence. Investigators said Watson lived in the same neighborhoods as his victims and monitored their movements. The killings began just after his 17th birthday.

Watson is accused of raping and killing Thailand native and Fort Meade dining hall worker Boontem Andersen at her Gambrills home Oct. 8, 1986, and raping and killing Mary Elaine Shereika, a jogger who was attacked while on a morning run May 23, 1988. And prosecutors said Watson repeatedly stabbed Lisa Kathleen Haenel, 14, a straight-A student, as she walked to Old Mill High School on Jan. 15, 1993. The three victims were also strangled.

Watson was eligible for the death penalty only in the Shereika case. He was a minor when Boontem's killing occurred, and there were no aggravating circumstances, such as a rape or robbery, that would allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty in Haenel's death.

Under the plea agreement, in which prosecutors agreed not to pursue the death penalty, Watson was required, to the best of his ability and under the guidance of his attorneys, to answer "any and all" questions posed to him by the relatives in a meeting with no time limit.

The meeting Monday took place in the grand jury room of the Circuit Courthouse, an official with the sheriff's office confirmed. It was kept low-profile -- court records make no mention of Watson being brought from the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup -- and county police officers and sheriff's deputies provided extra security, said Maj. Paul R. Tabor of the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Office.

"It had the potential to be a very volatile situation, and we didn't want to take any chances," Tabor said yesterday.

Watson's arrest was a breakthrough for Anne Arundel cold-case detectives in 2004. The Andersen, Shereika and Haenel killings were among the first to be reinvestigated when county police formed a cold-case unit in 1998, and detectives used a federal DNA database of violent offenders and thousands of pages of paperwork to piece together evidence.

At the time of his arrest, police said, Watson's crimes were motivated by opportunity. His parents had bought a house in November 1985 in the Four Seasons neighborhood where Andersen and Shereika lived. Watson also knew Andersen's fiance's family.

By the early 1990s, Watson became a father, married and moved to an apartment in Glen Burnie, near Old Mill High School. Records show that Haenel's family lived in the same apartment complex, called Southgate.

About a year and a half after Haenel's killing, Debra Cobb, 37, was stabbed to death at an office in Forestville. Watson, who worked at an office in the same plaza as Cobb, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced in December 1994 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In a letter to a judge before his sentencing, Watson blamed Cobb's killing on his addiction to crack cocaine and asked for a second chance to prove he was not a threat to society.

Ten years later, while behind bars, Watson was indicted by an Anne Arundel County grand jury in the killings of Andersen, Shereika and Haenel.

In a letter to Judge Joseph P. Manck, Shereika's eldest sister, Alyce Kay Buchanan Cronkrite, lamented Watson's claims.

"I thank God and science every day for [the DNA database] and the detectives and investigators who kept looking and digging until they had identified the gutless, weak, cowardly individual who was responsible for my Elaine's death," Cronkrite wrote. "Let him now reap the true and full rewards of his repulsive, appalling and unspeakable acts."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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