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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Sentenced to death

Thursday, July 26, 2007

History has been made in Sharp County. A local jury sentenced Steven Victor Wertz to death by lethal injection for killing Terry and Kathy Watts in their Ash Flat home in December 1986. It marks the first death sentence handed down in Sharp County.

The jury of seven men and five women convicted Wertz, 57, of two counts of capital murder July 18 after just 40 minutes of deliberations. Sentencing began the next morning and the jury took just an hour to reach the decision -- death.

Wertz spoke briefly after the jury rendered its decision.

"There's a lot of evidence that is not admitted," he said. "I did not kill Terry and Kathy Watts."

Wertz's execution date is set for Sept. 4, but will be rescheduled due to the appeals process, Circuit Judge Harold Erwin said. Death sentences are automatically appealed, he said.

Special Prosecutor Jack McQuary said death is the only sentence the jury could have arrived at.

"Don't hang your common sense on the door before you go into the jury room," he said. "This is premeditated and deliberate like you've never seen."

The sentence concluded the nine-day trial. "I'm glad it's over with," said Ed Bone, Kathy Watts' father. "It's like a big weight has been lifted off our shoulders. It's been a long time coming."

"We're glad it's over," said Randy Watts, Terry Watts' older brother. "I can't say enough about Jack (McQuary) and (Sharp County Detective Sgt.) David Huffmaster, Sheriff Weaver and everyone else -- all of them," he said. "There's nothing we can give them to pay them back for all their hard work."

"The 14 people who sat there (on the jury), I can't say enough about them. I was real impressed when I saw them taking notes. They took an interest in this case," he said.

Terry and Kathy Watts were found murdered in their home around 6:35 a.m. Dec. 31, 1986, by Kathy's mother, Judy Bone, who had came to the house to take her son-in-law to work. Terry, 25, was found in the front room of the home, while Kathy, 22, was found in the master bedroom. The couples' 11-month-old son, Joshua, was found unharmed sleeping between his father's legs.

The front door of the home had been kicked in and the front glass had been broken. The fire in the wood furnace had gone out and the house and all of its occupants were cold. According to Dr. Charles Paul Kokes, chief medical examiner for the Arkansas State Crime Lab, the couple were likely murdered between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.

Terry suffered two shotgun blasts to his body -- one to the right chest and another to his arm near his shoulder, Kokes said. One of the shots severed a finger. His throat had also been slashed.

Kathy, 22, was shot in the right side of the head and in the left side of the chest, which exited her breast and traveled to her thigh because she was likely bent over, Kokes said.

Wertz, who was married to Watt's first wife, Belinda, became a suspect immediately. She had married Wertz, a Vietnam veteran, an Oklahoma police officer and an employee of the National Guard, in February 1986. The couple had lost yet another custody battle for 5-year-old Chasenda, the daughter of Terry and Belinda, shortly before the murders occurred.

Terry Watts married Belinda, in 1981, at the age of 19. His new bride was 17-years-old and pregnant with their child. After two years of marriage, the couple divorced and had joint custody of their young daughter until October 1984.

Shortly after, Terry met Kathy Bone. After a brief courtship, the two married. Kathy soon became pregnant and the couple welcomed a son in January 1986. They were also awarded full custody of Chasenda citing physical abuse and neglect from her mother. Soon the new family of four moved to Ash Flat to be near Kathy's family.

Belinda and Wertz filed for at least two changes in custody in 1986. Each time they were turned down, Belinda said. The last time was Dec. 18, 1986.

"He (Wertz) wanted me to have custody of her," she said. "I wasn't happy I lost custody again. I was just disgusted about not winning again."

Belinda said she had lied to police each time she was questioned, including about Wertz's whereabouts the night of Dec. 30. She said the last time she saw Wertz was around 4 or 4:30 p.m. with James Guthrie Burr Snyder Jr., a co-defendant in the case. She said Wertz was carrying a bag when the two left.

She said she didn't see Wertz again until the next morning as the sun began to rise.

She said Wertz told her if anyone asked, they were at home all night and at the National Guard armory during the day. She said she and Wertz went to see a doctor at nearby Tinker Air Force Base the next morning. She said he was complaining of vomiting and diarrhea although she said she never saw him get sick.

She said they were there when she learned about the deaths of Terry and Kathy.

They stopped by the Guthrie Police Department, where Wertz worked, and then went to pick up Chasenda from her mother's home. The three then went to their church and met with Rev. Don Gatlin who told them again about the deaths of the Wattses. Gatlin, who said he thought he was telling Belinda and Chasenda of the deaths for the first time, had earlier testified that Belinda "fell apart" while Wertz showed no change in demeanor.

Snyder said he was 19-years-old and was living in Oklahoma City with his parents when Wertz called him the night of Dec. 30 and told him he needed to turn in his gear to the National Guard before going on active duty. Snyder also said Wertz told him he needed some help concerning Terry Watts.

Snyder said he borrowed his mother's car, a 1985 Plymouth Laser, because his car was not reliable enough to make the more than an hour drive to Wertz's home in Cushing.

Snyder was only at the home about 15 minutes when he and Wertz left the house heading to Guthrie. He said Wertz had a shotgun with him and told him to go to a house in Guthrie where Terry was thought to be visiting with five to eight other people. Wertz said they were going to kill Terry and all the adults and children over age 8 to eliminate possible witnesses. When Snyder told Wertz he didn't want to take part in his plan, Wertz told him he didn't want to "make himself expendable."

When the two found no one at the home, they then began their trip to Arkansas traveling between 85 and 90 mph most of the way, Snyder said. He said they arrived in Ash Flat between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m. and parked the car beside the house, got the shotgun out and walked onto the front porch. Snyder knocked on the door. When Terry came to the door Wertz stepped out from behind Snyder. Terry cried out "Steve" (Wertz), Snyder said. Wertz then fired his shotgun and went inside the home. Snyder said he heard two to three more shots from his position in the yard beside the porch of the house.

About five minutes later, Wertz came out of the home and the two left and made their trek back to Oklahoma. In the car, Wertz told Snyder that they would tell police they had stayed at Wertz's home all night and he had been sick with the flu. He said he would go to the doctor to establish a more concrete alibi.

When originally questioned by police in January 1987 Snyder told authorities the alibi Wertz had told him.

"At that point I knew I had been involved in something highly illegal. I was concerned about the consequences from Steve Wertz and from a legal standpoint," he said.

Snyder said it wasn't until police came to his family's home in Kentucky in 2003, after he had served time for a DWI homicide charge in Illinois, that he decided to come clean.

"It was the right thing to do. It was always the right thing to do," he said.

At the time of his testimony, Snyder had not reached a deal with the state as of yet and his trial had not been set. He said the more he told on the witness stand "the better chances of leniency."

Wertz's attorney Greg Bryant told the jury he didn't know Snyder would fabricate his story.

"This guy's an actor," he said, adding that Snyder was an intimidating witness and was "highly intellectual."

"(Snyder) is very articulate -- maybe too much sometimes," he said. "But it's not my job to prove why James Snyder is lying."

Judy Wertz took the stand before her husband's sentence was decided.

She said she and Wertz had married more than seven years ago. She said he brought joy and love into her life she hadn't had since her husband had died years before.

She said Wertz was a spiritual man and faith was a common bond they had.

"This man is not someone I know could have committed a crime like this," she said. "From the bottom of my heart I know this."

While her life will be forever changed by having a husband in prison, Joshua Watts' life hasn't been the same since the murder of his parents.

"It affects everything in life really," said the 21-year-old man. "Everyone has memories of my mother and father but to me it's more like stories. You never get used to them not being there."

Joshua said he is expecting a son to be born in August to his fiance. He said his child will miss out because they won't have two sets of grandparents.

Terry's eldest brother, John Watts, told the jury of all the times he has missed with his brother and sister-in-law.

"Don't take your family for granted that they'll be here tomorrow because there is a chance they won't," he said.

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