In the summer of 1982, Stefanie Watson disappeared without explanation.
Her family had no answers and was left to ponder the unthinkable.
It wasn't until weeks later that they finally had their painful answer.
Police in Maryland recovered a bag that contained part of Stefanie's skull. The young, beautiful woman from Lower Paxton Township was the victim of a heinous homicide.
"The anger that her death caused in all of our hearts changed our family irreparably,'' said Peg Adams, her older sister.
The pain Stefanie's family endured stayed at the forefront for more than 30 years as her homicide went unsolved.
But recently they received news that might finally move them closer to some semblance of closure.
Police have likely found her killer.
Cold case detectives in Maryland used newly discovered DNA evidence to charge John Ernest Walsh, a convicted rapist, with first-degree murder in Stefanie's slaying.
After three decades, the break in the case was a complete shock, said Christy Torres, Stefanie's cousin and best friend.
"This is something you've waited for all these years and then to finally get that phone call.'' said Torres, who lives in Hampden Township. "To not have any answers, for years you just play it through your mind.''
The fresh start that never happened
Stefanie Watson, whose maiden name was Wilbert, was an independent, fun-loving woman with a great sense of humor, her sister and cousin said.
A striking blonde, she made friends easily and those bonds often lasted from grade school through her adult life.
Stefanie graduated in 1973 from Central Dauphin East High School. She knew what she wanted in life and went for it, her sister said. It was always onto the next chapter, which is exactly the situation 27-year-old Stefanie found herself in during the summer of 1982.
Twice married, she was planning a fresh start outside of Laurel, Md., where she lived. She was scheduled to work a final Thursday night shift as an emergency room clerk at the hospital in Laurel.
She had plans the next day with Torres to travel to Ocean City for a weekend getaway. The following week, she was set to move to Fort Worth, Texas, to start a new job and be closer to her older brother and sister.
Stefanie was last seen around 9 p.m. on July 22, 1982. She never made it to work that night and failed to meet up with Torres, which left her fearing the worst.
About four days later, her 1981 Chevy Chevette turned up in an apartment complex with the interior soaked in blood. The sheer quantity left authorities doubtful that she was still alive.
That suspicion was confirmed about six weeks later. A high school student spotted a man wearing rubber gloves who dropped a bag in a wooded area.
Police determined that it contained a portion of Stefanie's jaw, which had its teeth intact. It helped authorities identify her, although the rest of her body was never recovered.
The witness who saw the man dropping the bag didn't get a close look at him, but gave police a brief description of the vehicle he was driving.
Police investigated a suspect in the case, Torres said. But the man died in a car accident and the case eventually went cold.
A break in the case
Even though the trail had gone cold, Torres continued to keep in touch with police, including Prince George's County Cold Case Detective Richard Fulginiti.
This year, after speaking with Torres, Fulginiti decided to take another look at the case evidence, which included the bloodstained car seat recovered from Stefanie's vehicle. He also took a blood sample from Peg Adams, which gave police a DNA sample from one of Stefanie's immediate relatives.
Fulginiti then sent the DNA samples to the county's crime lab, and they were run through a database containing information on convicted felons.
The database returned a match _ John Ernest Walsh.
Walsh, 68, was convicted in 1970 of two rapes. In 1969, he kidnapped and assaulted a woman in the back seat of her car. He also ran another woman off the road in Anne Arundel County and slashed her throat and wrists.
Walsh received a 72-year prison sentence, but served less than 10 years. He was sent to the Patuxent Institute, a rehabilitation facility in Jessup, Md., and released in 1980 after therapists determined he had been rehabilitated.
The facility also released nearly 100 convicts who eventually were arrested again, including one convicted killer who later raped and stabbed a 12-year-old boy, the Washington Post reported.
Walsh returned to prison in 1989 after failing a drug test while on parole, police said. He spent approximately nine years as a free man. He is now incarcerated at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, Md.
Police and prosecutors are preparing an indictment against Walsh, said Wesley Adams, the chief prosecutor in the homicide unit for the Prince George's County State's Attorney's Office.
It could be anywhere from six to 18 months before a potential trial, Adams said. It is not clear whether Walsh has hired a lawyer to defend him.
Fulginiti said he recently questioned Walsh, who did not confess to the killing. Another interview is planned, and police continue to investigate whether Walsh is connected to other crimes from the time he was paroled to when he was re-incarcerated.
Fulginiti said the Prince George's County Cold Case Unit has about 1,400 unsolved cases. He said that solving a murder after three decades requires a lot of patience.
"It's not like watching television and the `Cold Case Files' where it's solved overnight. It's a long, drawn-out process,'' Fulginiti said. "You're gratified that finally it comes together.''
A "precious'' life taken
In April, 1981 _ the year before she died _ Stefanie sent Christy Torres, her cousin, a handwritten letter. She wrote that she had recently paid off a loan on her car, only to watch it die a short time later.
That forced her to walk to several job interviews _ a practice that Wayne Watson, her husband at the time, told her to stop because it was unsafe.
"After I got home, Wayne called and said to forget walking `cause there are too many weirdos around to trust walking,'' Stefanie wrote to Torres. "It's really a (shame) how bad society is today _ you have to stay home or in your car to be safe. I was relieved when he said that because I was afraid of the thought of having to walk to work every day.''
Reading the letter still sends chills down Torres' spine. She often finds herself thinking of her cousin, who was two years older.
"The fact that she's been dead longer than she was alive, it's hard to believe,'' Torres said.
Torres and Peg Adams, who now lives in California, praised the efforts of the Prince George's County Cold Case Unit, which uncovered the evidence that finally created a break in the case.
Both of Stefanie's parents, Margaret and Lloyd Wilbert, died before learning who killed their daughter.
But Adams, Stefanie's only living sibling, plans to be present if Walsh heads to trial. So does Torres.
They both look forward to the day that justice will finally be served.
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