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Suspect in 1983 killing wasn’t hiding, dad says

Watts spent past 15 years in Arkansas

DIXON – Steven A. Watts, who is accused of murder in Lee County, moved away from Illinois long ago.

For 15 years, he has lived near Berryville, Ark., where he ran a chicken farm, his father, Wilburn Watts, said Wednesday.

Watts, 56, is accused in the 1983 beating death of Gary D. Dawson of Peoria. According to the Lee County Sheriff’s Department, Dawson died of blunt-force trauma to the head. Dawson’s battered body was found in a hog pen on a farm about a mile south of Franklin Grove on Aug. 29, 1983.

At the time, officials said they believe Dawson had been beaten in Peoria County, although they did not know where he actually died.

Watts lives with his father in rural Carroll County, which is in hilly northwestern Arkansas.

On Monday, Carroll County sheriff’s deputies knocked on the Wattses’ door. His son answered.

“There were police cars all over, and everything else. They shoved him in the car,” his father said. “Then they knocked on the door again to get his boots.”

Wilburn Watts, 80, doesn’t believe his son committed murder.

“They [deputies] told me, ‘We know Steve didn’t kill him. We want Steve to help us get to the one who did.’”

The Carroll County News reported this week that police said more arrests were possible in the case.

Wilburn said he is a native of Arkansas, but his family moved to Peoria in 1950, during his senior year of high school.

Steven Watts grew up in Peoria and left for California in about 1990. For years, his father said, his son went around the country as part of a company that built stores and malls.

In 1997, his son moved to Arkansas, where his father already had lived for some years. They ran a chicken business. They got out of that business a couple of years ago, his dad said.

“I helped him, and we lost a considerable amount of money,” Wilburn Watts said.

Steven Watts has a bad back and hasn’t worked for the past several years, his father said.

Watts’ marriage turned sour years ago, and he and his wife have been separated, his father said. They have a son and a daughter.

His son was in the Marines and now goes to college, while his daughter, who is graduating from high school this year, is spending half of her days taking college classes, Wilburn Watts said.

He said the authorities implied that his son had been hiding from them.

“I don’t know how they can say he was hiding,” his father said. “Everyone around here knew he was here. All the farmers did; they liked him.”

In the 1980s, Steven Watts was convicted of obstruction of justice in the Dawson murder case. He was sentenced to probation.

“We thought it was all settled,” his father said.

He said he didn’t know of any connections that his son had to Lee County.

In Carroll County, Ark., his son apparently has had little trouble with the law. His only known arrest there was in 2010 for a misdemeanor bad check charge, for which he was jailed briefly, according to Carroll County authorities.

At least one Carroll County resident, Lorrena Webber Rayne, a local bartender, had a hard time accepting the news.

“Wow, what a shock,” she wrote on the Carroll County News’ Facebook page. “I know this man very well. Such a shame!”

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