Crime

Beloved Coast nurse’s violent death remains unsolved. Did son’s ‘intuition’ find killer?

His mother died violently days before Trevor Watts sat down with his father, Thomas Dale “Tom” Watts.

They were in a conference room at First Baptist Church in Long Beach, a place Trevor felt safe. The 18-year-old sat at one end of a long conference table, his father at the other.

Trevor had a question. He had seen the scratches on the backs of his father’s hands after his mother’s death. He had heard the suspicions of her kin.

“Did you kill mom?” Trevor asked his father.

“He didn’t give a response,” Trevor said. “He just blankly stared in my eyes.”

Five years ago this coming Sunday, on Nov. 10, 2014, someone killed Kimberly Jo “Kim” Watts in her Long Beach home. Her attacker stabbed her in the heart and clavicle and strangled her.

Nobody has been charged in the death of the 48-year-old registered nurse.

“Familial intuition” has convinced Trevor that his father, a nurse anesthetist, killed his mother, Trevor says in court records. He filed a wrongful death case against Tom Watts in Circuit Court, asking for unspecified compensation and punitive damages.

The court file reveals details never publicly released about the homicide, including how Kim Watts died.

The case also documents turmoil in the Watts family from the time Trevor was 12, when his parents went through a bitter divorce.

The special judge in the civil lawsuit, Robert E. Helfrich, recently dismissed Trevor’s case against his father. Helfrich found the only evidence against Tom Watts was his refusal to answer any questions related to his ex-wife’s death. Instead, Tom Watts invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

Trevor’s attorney, Tim Holleman of Gulfport, plans to appeal Helfrich’s ruling. Holleman said, “I believe there is other evidence to support the case against Mr. Watts.”

An uncomfortable night

Trevor was an 18-year-old in his first semester at Ole Miss when he learned from an ex-girlfriend’s text that his mother was dead, according to his testimony.

A family member was on the way to Oxford to break the news in person and take him home to Long Beach. Back home, he spent one night with his father — the last night they have spent under the same roof. Trevor said he saw the scratches on the backs of his father’s hands while they were together.

Trevor woke up during the night, he said, to find his father staring down at him, something that had occurred many times. The boy pretended to be sleeping.

After that night, his mother’s family and friends let Trevor know they were concerned for his safety.

Father and son met again at the church in Long Beach. It was there, Trevor believes, that he asked his father about the scratches on his hands. His father said they were from a grinding wheel, Trevor said. Trevor did not believe it.

The scratches were crisscrossed on the backs of both hands, bad enough to break the skin but not so deep they would leave scars. To Trevor, they looked like fingernail marks.

Trevor did not get any resolution from the meeting, he said. Father and son agreed any future visits would be “facilitated.”

Person of interest

The Long Beach Police Department investigated Kim Watts’ homicide, the first in the city since 2007. They received no tips that first year, according to an update in the Sun Herald. Police said they had a “person of interest” in the homicide but released no details.

In the wrongful death case, Tom Watts has identified himself as a “person of interest” in the investigation. He did so when he asked the judge to seal the file in the civil case.

Watts said that he would be invoking his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination if asked about his ex-wife’s death. He did not want potential jurors in a criminal trial, should he be charged, finding out he had refused to answer questions in the wrongful death case, a civil matter.

In a criminal case, a defendant can’t be compelled to testify against himself and juries are instructed they are not to infer guilt from the defendant’s silence. In civil cases, jurors can draw a negative inference from the defendant’s refusal to testify.

Judge Helfrich granted Watts’ request and sealed the case. For reasons unknown, the court file remains open.

The attorney for Tom Watts, Richard Filce of Hattiesburg, has not returned telephone calls from the Sun Herald.

Only one motive

Kim Watts apparently believed something might happen to her. She confided in her best friend and in her sister.

“Mom was very adamant about the fact that if she ever died or was found dead for anything other than natural causes that it would undoubtedly be because of my father . . . ” Trevor said in pretrial testimony in his civil case.

The sister Kim Watts confided in, Sherry Bass, is the wife of Long Beach Mayor George Bass. The homicide case was transferred to the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office in July 2017, when George Bass took office, because he wanted to avoid any conflict of interest.

A sworn statement from Bass was recently filed in the wrongful death case. Bass said in the statement that he discovered his sister-in-law’s body.

His wife had called and asked that he check on Kim Watts because she had failed to show up for work at Gulfport Memorial Hospital.

He said that he knew something was wrong when he pulled up to her house because her car was in the driveway, not the garage where she always parked.

“There was no sign of burglary or robbery and, to my knowledge, nothing was missing from Kim’s home,” he said. “Kim was fully clothed with her purse on her shoulder . . . ”

Murder, he said, appeared to be the only motive.

“Prior to her murder, on multiple occasions, Kim expressed fear of Tom Watts and specifically she feared he would kill her one day,” Bass said.

Clues at the scene

He said that he immediately called the police and, when they arrived, told them about his sister-in-law’s fear of her ex-husband.

A bag with bleach and wipes inside, but no receipt, was found by the back door. He said the bag did not appear to be from a store where his sister-in-law shopped. The former Long Beach fire chief wondered if the bleach and wipes could have been used to destroy evidence and fingerprints.

Bass also noted that Tom Watts has refused to cooperate with the investigation, even to explain his whereabouts around the time of the murder. And he said he saw pictures of Watts’ hands.

“Both hands had fresh scratches that were consistent with the appearance of human fingernail scratches,” Bass said. “ . . . The scratches I saw in the pictures were not from a ‘grinding wheel.’ ”

Kim Watts’ car was not in the garage, he said, because the circuit breaker had been turned off and the garage door was not working.

He said her assailant would have been unable to conceal himself had Kim Watts entered her house through the garage door. Because she came through the front door, he believes her killer was able to hide and surprise her.

There was no sign of forced entry. Trevor Watts believes that is because his father knew how to pick locks, a skill he taught his son.

“He taught me how to pick a dead bolt, which is far harder than a normal door lock,” Trevor said. “He pretty much covered most of the bases.”

Sheriff Troy Peterson said he could not comment on the investigation, beyond saying, “We are still diligently working the case.”

Waiting for justice

Tom and Kimberly Watts first met while he was in recovery for prescription drug abuse, court records say. They married in April 1996.

Court records indicate problems began in their marriage after he sought treatment a second time for prescription drug abuse and was released from rehab in January 2007.

They divorced in 2009, but Tom Watts fought the judge’s decision giving the couple joint custody of Trevor, their only child, and awarding Kim Watts $1,000 a month in alimony and $15,000 in attorney’s fees. Tom Watts appealed the judge’s decision, fighting for sole custody and against the award of alimony and attorney’s fees.

Trevor’s desire at the time was to live with his father, court records show. The judge in the divorce case found that his father had “somewhat poisoned” Trevor against his mother.

The boy and his mother grew closer over time. He noticed a big change in her after the divorce, Trevor said during pretrial testimony in his civil case.

“She became a likable person, a happy person,” he said. “She wasn’t depressed. She wasn’t sick. And we started to find lots of things we had in common with each other.”

In his pretrial testimony, Tom Watts answered questions from his son’s atttorney about where he lived, his professional background and work history.

His attorney advised Watts not to answer when attorney Holleman asked Watts if he had ever driven his motorcycle by his ex-wife’s house.

As anticipated, most of his responses after that were, “On counsel’s advice, I invoke my Fifth Amendment right not to answer.”

Since the day at school he found out about his mother’s murder, Trevor Watts has forged ahead. Now 23, he is finishing up his bachelor’s degree at Ole Miss and planning to enroll in pharmacy school.

“He’s extremely smart,” said his cousin, Damian Holcomb, a criminal defense attorney in Gulfport. “It’s what his mom would have wanted.

“Our whole family still prays every day that we find justice for Kim.”

Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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