By all accounts, Elizabeth Watkins was getting her life back together. She had a new place, a new job and new friends within a church community that was helping the single mother from California get back on her feet.
Which is what made it so hard when 20 years last week, Watkins and her 3-year-old daughter Nicole were found beaten to death in their apartment in the Highlands.
The crime still shocks those who knew her and the detective assigned to the cold case still unsolved two decades later.
“She just was the most kind wonderful person,” said Barbara, a family friend who had the misfortune of finding their bodies after the murder. Barbara has asked that her last name not be used. “She was trying really hard to get on her feet and make something of herself.”
“She wasn’t someone who was on anyone’s radar,” said Detective Pete Montemayor, the Renton detective assigned to the case.
Watkins moved to the Renton area from California in the early 1990s and found herself at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in the Highlands, according to Barbara.
“When she came to Washington, she was homeless,” Barbara said.
The church took her in and helped her get back on her feet and Watkins joined the congregation and became involved, donating her time and her good nature to help pay back the community for what they’d done for her.
Barbara said she and Watkins “became best friends” after Barbara helped the woman with some bookkeeping. After the birth of Nicole in 1993, Watkins enrolled in a nursing program at Renton Technical College and Barbara said she tutored Watkins and helped with her homework.
On the morning of Nov. 3, 1995, Watkins was supposed to meet Barbara for a lunchtime study session.
“She didn’t show up for lunch that Saturday,” Barbara remembered.
Barbara said she tried Watkins’ phone and got no answer, which was unlike her, so she decided to go over to her apartment and check in. She got no answer to her knocks but noticed something a bit off about the apartment’s sliding-glass door.
“I looked at the sliding-glass door and it was partially open,” she said.
After not getting a response from her knocking and hearing a TV on inside, Barbara let herself in through the back of the one-bedroom apartment and found the bodies of both Elizabeth and Nicole Watkins.
“They were laying on the floor in the kitchen,” Barbara said, emotion creeping into her voice these two decades later.
Elizabeth and Nicole were 39 and 3, respectively. According to police, both died from blunt-force trauma.
“It appeared (Elizabeth) was trying to protect her daughter,” Montemayor said.
Investigating a cold case
Detective Montemayor joined the Renton Police Department in 1996, a year after the Watkins murders. He is the fourth detective to be assigned to the case following the retirements of his predecessors.
Montemayor said the case came to him in five large document boxes, which he organized into a series of binders that still fill a shelf at his desk. He also used to keep a picture of Watkins visible to remind him, though he has since replaced it.
The Watkins case is one of a handful of cold cases – unsolved investigations that are still open – in the department and on Montemayor’s desk.
But after 20 years of working on it, including a 400-name matrix of contacts and interviews he created, he is still not sure if he is any closer than when he started.
“These people have all been talked to,” he said, flipping through the matrix. “And I’m not at all convinced the name of the suspect is anywhere in here.”
After checking all of the connections and interviewing hundreds of people, Montemayor said the crime appears to have been random, which is unusual in a homicide. The Watkins did not have a lot – and nothing appeared to be stolen, nor did Elizabeth have any apparent connections to drugs or crime.
“It’s fairly uncommon to come across matters, specifically in violent crimes, where it appears the victims did nothing to bring this on themselves,” he said, adding that speculation is that Watkins came home and interrupted someone burglarizing her apartment.
But after 20 years, it’s hard to know where to look next to try and solve the case.
“When it’s random, who do you talk to?” he said. “It’s pretty barren.”
Montemayor said one neighbor reported hearing a woman scream, but it stopped and the neighbor did not think too much about it. Beyond that, the evidence is a bit light and no weapon was ever recovered in the case.
At one point, a suspect, now deceased, was identified, but Montemayor said he is “pretty confident” that person did not commit the crime.
Montemayor said some of the evidence is being scrutinized again in the wake of new techniques like DNA identification and he hopes to meet with a scientist at the state lab before the end of the year.
“These types of cases garner a lot of interest with the scientists at the Washington State Patrol,” he said.
Still hoping for justice
For Montemayor and for Barbara, the hardest part of the case is still the seeming randomness of it and the inherent unfairness of a woman and her daughter cut down as they getting back on their feet.
“I get to know these people after the fact,” he said. “But she was doing everything right.”
Montemayor said no one could identify any potential enemies and said people described Watkins as a nice quiet girl who kept to herself.
“I don’t know what the motivation would be,” he said.
“She was kind and sweet and never did anything to make anyone angry,” agreed Barbara. “Why did they do this to this wonderful lady and her 3-year-old child?
“There could be no reason at all,” she said.
Both Barbara and Montemayor said they hoped putting the case back in the public eye might spur a memory or a clue from someone who may have seen something on that November night in 1995.
“I’m hoping that someone will feel like they know something they should have said back then or something will strike someone to say something,” said Barbara, who checks in with the police every year on Nov. 3. “Liz and Nicole deserve to have justice for what happened to them.”