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Can Pennsylvania Convict a Man for Killing a 14-Year-Old in 1974?

After 41 years, the cops think they found out who murdered Johnny Watson—but will the conviction stick in court?

by Nick Keppler
Mar 19 2015, 4:00am

Photo via Flickr user Jon Dawson

On May 3, 1974, 14-year-old John Watson's body was found in a ditch with a .22-caliber bullet in the back of his head.

The night before, the teen's mom tasked him with bicycling to a motel in their rural hamlet of Wheeler Bottom, Pennsylvania, to buy her a pack of cigarettes. (It was 1974 and 14-year-olds could do that, apparently.) An attractive kid with a bright smile, dark eyes, and a wave of chestnut hair extending to his eyebrows, Johnny, as he was known, arrived at the motel, bought the cigs, and played on the pinball machine for a while. He said hello to a pair of neighbors as he bicycled back through the rainy night.

They were the last to see him alive, according to a Pennsylvania State Police affidavit.

When Johnny failed to return home, police and volunteers canvassed the area with flashlights. It wasn't until the next morning that a town resident found Johnny on his back with his head tipped oddly to the side. His bike was discovered in the woods, about 200 feet from the body.

Johnny's brother, Thomas, rushed to scene and hugged the lifeless, 150-pound body. Then he noticed something strange: The corpse was dry, despite the rain of the prior evening. Police later found dragging marks in the area, but even with these tantalizing clues, the case went cold.

Decades passed. Johnny's parents died without ever knowing who shot their son. His brother and sister died, too. It seemed like the whole town, which sits about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh, forgot about Johnny Watson.

At least until last month.

On February 18, state police arrested Joseph Edward Leos, 58, for Watson's murder. In 1974, police had questioned Leos, a friend of Johnny's, and took a raincoat from him. The coat sat in storage for decades, but now a forensic test has confirmed the presence of gunshot residue on the jacket. Investigators beat the odds; according to a 2011 study by the RAND Corporation, only one in 20 cold case re-openings leads to an arrest. Had police arrested Leos before he became a salt-and-pepper-haired middle-aged man, they might have prevented another murder for which he was suspected but never arrested.

Leos was 17 at the time of Johnny Watson's murder and lived with his grandmother, whose property abutted the one where the body was found. The affidavit that lead to his recent arrest suggests the two boys were lovers. Back in 1974, Thomas Watson told investigators that Leos had been "engaging in relationships with other male individuals" and also noted that Johnny "began seeing a girl from school" before the killing, suggesting jealousy might have played a role.

On the night Johnny failed to return home, Leos went to the Watson residence to see him, a mutual friend told police in 1974. Leos left at 9 PM while Johnny was biking back from the motel, according to the police timeline.

Leos's aunt, Carol Grandy, remembered encountering him about an hour later. When she testified before the grand jury that approved the warrant for his recent arrest, she recalled that he appeared "agitated," "frantic," and "really upset."

"Something terrible has happened to Johnny," Leos reportedly muttered to her. "He is in trouble."

As a search party fanned the neighborhood, a state trooper interviewed Leos. He merely said, "Something just hit me and told me that Johnny was in bad trouble. That is all I can tell you," according to the affidavit.

The trooper took a blue overcoat from Leos, presumably to look for blood or other clues. They also found and confiscated a .22-caliber rifle at the home of Johnny Watson, the victim.

In the days to come, Leos seemed like a wounded friend. He even sat next to Watson's mother in the hearse at Johnny's funeral, the dead boy's niece recently told a local TV station. He stayed close to the Watsons and even left his grandmother's home and to live with them for a few years.

Leos stayed in the area after things settled down. He worked as a janitor at a Volkswagen plant for a while and was apparently dedicated to his pets. Last month a reporter for a local paper, who trampled through his property, found the graves and headstones of four of them, marked with birth and death dates and names (Itty Bitty, Callie, Skittles, and Poor Little Puss).

His was not an entirely quiet life. In 1983, Leos was arrested for aggravated assault, though the archived Pennsylvania court record offers few details. In 1992, he was brought up on assault charges again.

Alberta Myers, a 93-year-old resident of Ruffs Dale, says Leos stabbed her son Dennis at that time and was briefly jailed for it. Myers adds that Leos was "a friend of Dennis and the two lived together."

Myers recalls her son as "helpful" and a "workaholic." He had assisted his father in a tractor dealership and, at one point, began the process of trying to start a dealership with Leos as a partner.

Nine months after Leos was arrested, the mobile home he shared with Dennis Myers in Mount Pleasant caught fire, killing 38-year-old Myers and the pair's dog.

Myers's mother says police thought the fire had been set intentionally and questioned Leos. "They considered setting up a microphone at [Dennis's] grave," which Leos often visited, she says. Ultimately, "they told me they didn't have the evidence for an arrest."

When asked if she believes if Leos murdered her son, Myers answers, "Yes, I do. Oh, yes." She adds, "I wasn't ever looking for revenge, but I would have liked for someone to have paid for my son's death."

All through his years, that blue raincoat was waiting to catch up with Leos.

In 2009, the Pennsylvania State Police's cold case investigator, John Tobin, sent it to the R.J. Lee Group, a scientific testing company headquartered in Monroeville, Penn. "It was because testing had come such a long way, they thought they might be able to get some gunshot residue off it," explains Ryan Clark, a spokesperson for the Fayette County District Attorney's Office.

Allison Murtha, the manager of R.J. Lee Group's forensics department, says 99 percent of its cases are related to gunshot residue. The company is consulted by both prosecutors and defense attorneys. "It's not unusual for us to get items that are very old," she says.

The firm utilizes scanning electron microscopy, a technique that has become "the standard of the industry," according to Murtha. EMS looks for lead, antimony and barium, trace elements of gunshot residue, in close concentration.

More than five years passed between the day Leos's old raincoat tested positive and a judge signed off on his arrest. (Murtha remembers seeing the coat as an intern and is now managing the department.) Clark, the DA spokesperson, says this delay was due to the slow-moving mechanism that is a grand-jury-authorized arrest.

The preliminary hearing resumes on March 24. Prosecutors have their work cut out for them; the same 2011 RAND report that found just one in 20 cold case re-openings leads to arrest concluded that only one in 100 leads to a conviction. But they'll attempt to prove that the gunshot residue completes the timeline of what happened of May 3, 1974, that 17-year-old Leos fetched a rifle from the victim's own home and, between nine and 9:30 PM, spotted Johnny Watson on his bicycle and gunned him down.

Tagged:
crime
murder
Pennsylvania
cold case
americana
1970's
Pittsburgh
jealousy
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