Friday, 1 Mar 2024

With Arrest in 1985 Killing, a Woman Mourns a Brother She Barely Knew

Sometimes Jerry Watkins would look at his giggling baby sister in 1985 and ask his mother, in a thrilled shriek, “Mommy, mommy, when is she going to walk?” He would share his candy with his months-old sibling, who crawled around their home in Terra Alta, W.Va., and wait for her first steps.

“Unfortunately, that day never came for him,” his sister, Jamie Cole, now 38, said. “And that hurts. That’s always been pretty painful for me.”

Jerry, whose full name was Jeremiah Matthew Watkins, was a brown-eyed boy who loved Kit Kat chocolate, riding his bicycle around the hills of West Virginia and growling along to the lyrics of “Old Time Rock & Roll.” He was 13 years old when he was severely beaten and fatally stabbed in 1985. His body, the authorities have said, was found on Nov. 12 that year in a shallow hole near railroad tracks in the town of Terra Alta.

For nearly 40 years, the case was unsolved, and Jerry’s sister and mother, Enid Nicola, remained haunted by his absence, and furious over a lack of leads in the investigation. But on Tuesday, the Preston County Sheriff’s Office said that after a thorough review of the case that began early this month, it had arrested David Monroe Adams in connection with the killing.

Mr. Adams, 56, of Westover, W. Va., was charged with second-degree murder after the sheriff’s office said that he “eventually confessed” in interviews with investigators that when he was 18 years old, an argument over a stolen bicycle drove him to take Jerry into a shed and kill him.

Mr. Adams could not be reached for comment on Thursday, and it was not clear if he had a lawyer.

After years of being told that the chances of finding Jerry’s killer were low, Ms. Cole said that she felt a mixture of emotions when her mother, Ms. Nicola, informed her of the arrest. Feeling angry, numb and overwhelmed, Ms. Cole sat in her car outside her home in Lexington, Ky., to process the news.

“I was screaming through the tears,” she said.

Ms. Nicola, 74, said in an interview that a deputy with the Preston County Sheriff’s Office came to her apartment and asked if she knew Jeremiah.

“Yes, that’s my son,” she recalled saying.

The officer told her about the arrest and gave her the number of the person in charge of the case, Capt. Travis Tichnell. Ms. Nicola and Ms. Cole called him that night, and he relayed some details about his findings, which were included in a news release from the sheriff’s office about the arrest. But many questions remained, Ms. Cole said: What was behind the argument over the stolen bicycle? Who stole it? And who was Mr. Adams, a man unknown to Ms. Nicola?

In a brief interview, Captain Tichnell declined to answer most questions about the case, saying that he did not want to jeopardize the case. Asked why he and the sheriff’s office had decided to review the case this month, he said, “It was a case I was familiar with, and I had an opportunity to look at it.”

He said he noticed “some inconsistencies” in Mr. Adams’ statements in 1985 and decided to interview him a couple times with a colleague. He declined to share those inconsistencies or to say whether there was other evidence that possibly tied Mr. Adams to the killing.

It was during those interviews, Captain Tichnell said, that Mr. Adams confessed to killing Jerry.

The case had stuck in the minds of many in the county of about 34,000 residents. Law enforcement officers interviewed scores of people in the 1980s and searched for possible leads, yet made no arrests.

The pain of the child’s killing was felt most acutely in Ms. Nicola’s home, where a baby girl was beginning to grow up and question what had happened to her brother, whom neighbors and friends remembered as the “sweetest boy.”

“I didn’t know it most of my life, but now that I’m older and reflecting, I can just tell how broken she was,” Ms. Cole said, referring to her mother.

She would watch Ms. Nicola cry as the song “Stand By Me” played on the radio. Then she would hear snippets from Ms. Nicola about what happened in the fall of 1985.

And Ms. Cole said she would at times feel stuck in a fog of frustration: Who had done this to her brother, whom she barely knew, but whose presence she felt all her life? In high school, Ms. Cole said, she had a recurring vision of herself sitting on a highchair as a baby and Jerry looking on, laughing.

“I feel like I had a memory or two of him,” she said. “But, you know, at 1, how much do you remember?”

When she was in college in the early 2000s, Ms. Cole said, she reached out to the authorities to ask if any investigations were still active, but officials said that the elapsed time would make finding a culprit extremely unlikely.

This week, she said, she realized that “clearly someone didn’t give up on him.”

On Tuesday, after learning of the arrest, she remained in her car for several minutes, screaming, crying, running through the images in her mind of Jerry. And on her phone, she saw the mug shot of Mr. Adams, his hair now gray. Almost 40 years of never getting caught, she thought. Nearly four decades stolen from her big brother, and who would he have become had he been given the chance?

She walked inside her house, where, inside of a box, were photos of Jerry.

“He just was a genuine person,” Ms. Cole said. “A boy that just never got to grow to be a man — who would have been a wonderful person.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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