After a year in which there seemed to be little movement in the Peggy Sue Altes murder investigation, suspicions came to rest squarely on the brother-in-law, Jerry Watkins. Two days prior to Peggy Sue’s disappearance, Watkins was caught by his wife, Janice, molesting the girl in the couple’s living room as Peggy Sue watched cartoons. According to his testimony at trial, it was the “second or third time” he had molested Peggy Sue, and he also admitted molesting another Altes sister on multiple occasions. Janice moved out of their home that Saturday, but the couple reconciled the following day after Watkins made a public admission to the family that he had molested Peggy Sue. That weekend, Watkins cut his hair and shaved his beard for the first time in several years. He expressed an interest in attending church with Janice and appeared ready to turn his life around. The next day, Peggy Sue went missing.
Eventually, the timing of the Watkins’ disclosures just prior to Peggy Sue’s abduction, rape and murder would seem like too much of a coincidence to overlook for both the family and authorities. However, other than the admissions of molestation, there was no evidence to link Watkins to Peggy Sue’s murder. On August 14, 1985, Jerry Watkins pleaded guilty to molesting Peggy Sue. Additional charges of assaulting a five-year-old boy were dropped as part of the plea agreement. Watkins was sentenced to serve two years at the Indiana State Farm, but ended up serving only five months after a judge reviewed his case and released him early.
It wasn’t long after Watkins’ release from prison that he was arrested and charged with the murder of Peggy Sue. Following the arrest, Hancock County Sheriff Nick Gulling revealed that Watkins had been the focus of authorities since “the initial stages of the investigation.” Gulling went on to disclose that a search warrant had been served at the Watkins’ home shortly after Peggy Sue’s body was discovered. Additionally, investigators searched Watkins’ car and drew his blood for testing and comparison. Results of testing came back negative or inconclusive. Sheriff Gulling admitted the search netted “some evidence, but I’m not sure it was critical evidence.” Indianapolis Police Department investigator Alda Kaiser echoed the notion that the investigation zeroed in on Jerry Watkins almost immediately. “I’ve always felt the molesting disclosure had something to do with her murder,” Kaiser told reporters.
Clearly, Watkins is someone investigators would want to take an intense look at due to his ongoing abuse of Peggy Sue and her sister. But it seems like investigators went all in on Watkins to the near exclusion of other investigative leads, despite having no evidence against him. According to Sgt. Louis J. Christ of the Indianapolis Police Department, “Our primary thought throughout the entire investigation was to try and locate physical evidence to connect the perpetrator to the crime. From the very beginning we came to the realization that we had no real evidence to tie the perpetrator to the crime. Anything we found we processed through the lab, but we had no identifying evidence.”
So how were authorities able to execute an arrest on Jerry Watkins? What was the crucial piece of evidence that dropped in their lap tying Watkins to the crime? Enter jailhouse snitch Dennis Ackeret. According to Ackeret, on August 14, 1985, he shared a cell with Jerry Watkins in the City-County building while Watkins awaited sentencing for his Marion County molestation conviction. At that time, Watkins told Ackeret that he had killed a girl, slashed her throat and dumped her in some bushes in Hancock County. This was the big break investigators had been waiting for. They had their confession and didn’t seem to mind that it was made not to authorities, but to another inmate.
Watkins went on trial in September of 1986. The prosecution’s case relied almost exclusively on the jailhouse confession and their ability to poke holes in Watkins’ alibi. Dennis Ackeret was the star witness, describing for the jury a distraught Watkins so wracked with guilt that he felt compelled to unburden himself to a cellmate, Ackeret, whom he had just met. The defense pointed out that Ackeret was a thief and a forger, and that he had previously worked as a paid police informant. Other defense witnesses testified that Ackeret made up the story to get a reduced sentence, and that Ackeret boasted about how to become a state’s witness by researching crimes in the newspaper.
Forensic pathologist Dr. John Pless, who conducted the autopsy on Peggy Sue, testified that she died from 15-20 stab wounds to the left side of her neck. Some of the wounds severed a jugular vein and a carotid artery. The doctor testified that Peggy Sue had abrasions on her hands and neck, plus a bite mark on one of her breasts. Additionally, there were other wounds that indicated a sexual assault had taken place. Regarding time of death, Pless could be no more specific than sometime between the day of her disappearance and the day before discovery of her body. While there was no murder weapon presented, prosecution witnesses testified that Watkins was sometimes seen carrying a knife at work and at church.
Watkins himself took the stand. His testimony focused mostly on denying the accusations made by other witnesses and establishing an alibi for the day of the abduction and the days that followed. Watkins testified that he had worked from 7:00 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. on the day of Peggy Sue’s abduction. His testimony was corroborated by his employer. After work, he and his wife, Janice, moved furniture back into their house that had been removed during their brief separation. This testimony was corroborated by Janice and Watkins’ mother. At 7:00 p.m. the couple attended a church revival at Bethel Tabernacle 4232 S. Foltz St. Indianapolis until 10:00 p.m. After the revival, the couple returned to Janice’s parent’s home to find out that Peggy Sue was missing and participated in the family search until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Subsequent days were spent searching, working and attending church revival meetings in the evenings.
During closing statements, Hancock County Deputy Prosecutor Pete Shumacker attacked the veracity of Jerry and Janice Watkins’ testimony. “If you’re going to be a liar, you better have a good memory. Janice doesn’t have a good memory and neither does Jerry.” For prosecutors, the fountain of truth and virtue was Dennis Ackeret who wanted nothing for himself, but willingly gave testimony “as any human being with a soul that had information would come forward with it,” said Prosecutor Larry Gossett. Furthermore, prosecutors would assert, Ackeret’s testimony had to be credible because he gave details that went unreported in newspaper accounts. According to Prosecutor Gossett, newspaper articles made no mention that Peggy Sue’s jugular vein had been cut as Ackeret had testified. In fact, Judge Richard Payne allowed newspapers to be entered into evidence to allow jurors to verify that the information could not have been gleaned from news articles. I’m no lawyer, but this seems like a highly prejudicial move.
Despite the scarcity of evidence, Watkins was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison. In the end, Watkins was an admitted child predator who had molested Peggy Sue and her older sister on numerous occasions, making him a wholly unsympathetic character in the eyes of the jury. It is not hard to imagine how law enforcement, prosecutors and jurors would think he had to be the guy. However, there are abundant reasons to believe that investigators should have known he wasn’t the guy. First, during the investigation, he and Janice both passed a polygraph examination. While not admissible in court, detectives used the exam to eliminate certain suspects. Why wasn’t it used to clear Watkins? Especially, since it lends credibility to what was a pretty solid alibi. Second, tests on seminal fluid revealed that Peggy Sue’s attacker must have had type B blood. Watkins was blood type O and Peggy Sue was type A. How is this not evidence that the rape was commited by someone else? Third, investigators had a witness that saw Peggy Sue get pulled into a black Camaro at Porter Park around 2:30 p.m. on November 12. Not only did Jerry Watkins not own a black Camaro, his employer confirmed that he was at work at that time. Apparently, this bit of evidence was not shared with the defense. In the end, the exculpatory evidence is much weightier and far more credible than the evidence to convict. On this knowledge alone, investigators should have known they were pursuing the wrong man and that the real killer or killers were still on the loose. Although it would take several years and investigators would resist it tooth and nail, eventually DNA technology would set them straight, eliminating conclusively Jerry Watkins as Peggy Sue’s assailant and redirecting the focus onto a man named Joseph Mark McCormick.
The Indianapolis Star
The Indianapolis News
The Daily Reporter (Greenfield, Indiana)
Watkins v. Miller, Southern District of Indiana (2000)