Predator in the park Part 2

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. 

Sources:

The Indianapolis Star

The Indianapolis News

The Daily Reporter (Greenfield, Indiana)

Watkins v. Miller, Southern District of Indiana (2000)

Predator in the park Part 1

Hidden behind working-class homes on the eastside of Indianapolis, Porter Park isn’t visible from the city streets that surround it.  If you’re driving on English Avenue by the Greater Shepherd Baptist Church, you might catch a glimpse of the park behind the church’s parking lot.  Otherwise, you could pass it everyday and never know it exists.  Maybe the city prefers it that way, because the park looks more like a municipal afterthought than a destination for fun and excitement.  Surrounded by a crooked chain link fence, the park boasts some swings, a basketball court, a jungle gym and a large open field.  The only way to access Porter Park is via the aforementioned church parking lot or the nearly hidden alleyways that split off of Hamilton Avenue or St. Paul Street.  Undoubtedly, it is a source of amusement for the neighborhood children, but it lacks a parking area, and there is little chance any area family loads up the minivan and heads out for an afternoon of laughter and thrills at Porter Park.   

But Porter Park is where 11-year-old Margaret “Peggy Sue” Altes found herself on the afternoon of Monday, November 12, 1984.  It was Veterans Day and a school holiday.  Peggy Sue had left her home at 442 St. Peter Street around 1:00 p.m. to meet a friend at a neighboring residence where the friend’s grandmother resided, while Peggy Sue’s mother and sister attended a church revival.  However, when no one answered the door at the residence, Peggy Sue did what a lot of kids did in those days, she went to the local playground to pass the time and connect with neighborhood friends.  Around 2:30 that afternoon, Peggy Sue was seen playing in the park with a couple of neighborhood boys.  Peggy Sue was a fifth-grader at School 48.  She was five foot tall with blondish brown hair.  She wore a white furry jacket, burgundy corduroys and blue tennis shoes.  A witness saw her playing on the swings.  By all accounts she was taking full advantage of time away from teachers and parents to have a carefree day of play and fun.

However, there were others in this neighborhood who were also taking the day off.  Not because they were honoring those who had nobly served their country, but because for these men of low character most days were an exercise in scoring dope and getting high, or swigging whisky and getting wasted on a weekday afternoon.  And if that is all they did and they confined their activities to the dark places, the seedy bars and grubby apartments that concealed their shabby and disordered lives, then maybe their weakness of character could be forgiven.  But men like these are not content to stay in the shadows.  They are jackals hunting the weakest prey, stalking innocent lives for their own vile and twisted pleasure.

One of these jackals was creeping through the streets surrounding Porter Park in a black Chevy Camaro.  A witness described seeing Peggy Sue enter the passenger side of the vehicle.  The witness, a delivery driver whose schedule routinely brought him to the area, said Peggy Sue was forced to get into the car.  He told authorities, “she didn’t want to get in, he grabbed her by the sleeve.”  The witness described the black Camaro as having gray stripes that ran the length of the car along the door handles.  The car had rust over the rear wheel well, a blue interior, and a piece missing from a wing on the back of the car.  The witness described the driver of the Camaro as having a mustache and black curly hair that puffed out in the back.

The parents of Peggy Sue Altes did not realize their daughter was missing until 7:00 p.m. when they received a phone call from the family of the friend she was supposed to have met that afternoon.  Peggy Sue’s family immediately began searching the area and reported Peggy Sue missing to police around 11:15 that night.  In the days that followed, the search continued with family, friends and church members joining in to search neighborhood streets and abandoned buildings.  A flier bearing Peggy Sue’s name, age and description was distributed to neighborhood businesses imploring anyone who had seen her to contact “missing persons.”  However, family members charged that the police response was nearly non-existent with Peggy’s brother James telling the Indianapolis Star, “they haven’t done all they could do.”  IPD detectives didn’t exactly dispute James’ claim, responding that they had entered Peggy Sue’s name and description into a state and a national database, which apparently constituted the extent of investigative effort for locating missing eleven-year-olds at the time.   

Peggy Sue’s nude body was discovered by hunters in a Hancock County field around 10:00 a.m. the following Saturday, November 17, 1984.  Although reports initially claimed she had been shot, it was later confirmed that she had been stabbed in the neck.  Her body was located about 100 yards off Jacobi Road just north of County Road 300S in Hancock County.  A group of hunters had parked their truck just off the road and we’re following a path on foot back to a wooded area.  About a hundred yards in they discovered the body of Peggy Sue lying face up along the path.  The four men quickly returned to their truck and drove to a nearby house where the owner immediately contacted Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Bradbury who was a resident of the area.  

Hancock County investigators were on the scene by 11:00 a.m.  There they discovered that the path leading back to the scene was deeply rutted with tire tracks.  In some places, the ruts were more than 12 inches deep, indicating a vehicle may have become stuck in the mud at some point.  Investigators made plaster casts of the tire tracks.  They also photographed the scene extensively and recovered several items, including a thin gold bracelet.  Present at the scene were Hancock County Prosecutor Larry Gossett and Deputy Coroner Fred Counter.  Sheriff Detective Technician Bill Applegate and Captain Malcolm Grass supervised the evidence gathering.  Around 3:00 that afternoon, Counter and Applegate assisted as Peggy Sue’s body was carefully sealed in sterile wrappings and transported to Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis for autopsy.  Investigators concluded that Peggy Sue had been murdered at the scene because her hand was found to be clutching grass and weeds, and initially they thought her death had been quite recent.  While awaiting autopsy results, Hancock County Sheriff Nick Gulling told reporters, “Until we get those results, we’re operating under the assumption that we had Saturday, and that is that she died sometime Friday night or Saturday morning.”

That she may have been killed the morning of her body’s discovery seems like a pretty startling assertion.  Based on their assessment of the crime scene and the condition of the body, homicide investigators, a crime scene tech and the county coroner were of the opinion that she likely died within the previous 24 hours, maybe even a mere few hours prior to discovery.  That would mean that she had to have been held somewhere in the intervening days since her abduction Monday afternoon.  

The autopsy report would tell a different story, although it would fail to nail down conclusively when Peggy Sue Altes was slain.  Forensic pathologist Dr. John Pless would conclude that she died of knife wounds to the left side of her neck that severed a jugular vein and carotid artery.  No other wounds were indicated other than some superficial cuts.  There was evidence of rape which included the presence of semen in her vagina and a tear caused by penetration.  The time of death was estimated to be at least 48 hours prior to the discovery of her body.  

Perhaps investigators could be forgiven for being a few days off on the time of death.  After all, it was November, so cold temperatures probably made it difficult to determine with any degree of certainty.  But, in retrospect, crime scene investigators’ failure to distinguish a stab wound from a gunshot wound may have revealed a lack of experience, if not a lack of competence, and that misstep may have proven to be a rather ominous sign of investigative failures to come.  Because this is a case where poor decisions on the part of investigators and prosecutors sent an innocent man to jail and allowed guilty men to walk free, all while two grieving parents eventually went to their graves having never seen justice for their slain daughter.

Sources:

The Indianapolis Star

The Indianapolis News

The Daily Reporter (Greenfield, Indiana)

Watkins v. Miller, Southern District of Indiana (2000)