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No official chatter on cold case

Investigators release few details; suspect gets public defender

Steven A. Watts
Steven A. Watts

DIXON – Officials aren't providing details in the case involving an Arkansas man charged in the death of a Peoria man whose badly beaten body was found in a Franklin Grove hog pen in 1983.

Steven A. Watts, 56, of Berryville, was arraigned Thursday in Lee County court.

He is charged with one count of first-degree murder in the death of Gary D. Dawson, 30, whose body was found Aug. 29, 1983. Investigators think he was killed the day before, and Watts was a suspect at the time.

According to the criminal complaint, Watts, "or one that he is legally accountable for," hit Dawson in the head and body "knowing such acts created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm."

He is in Lee County Jail on $5 million bond. He was appointed a public defender Thursday and has a preliminary hearing March 6.

Few details have been released on the cold case, including how, when and why it was revisited and what led deputies to Watts.

Dawson’s naked body, with tape around his wrists, mouth and nose, was found leaning against a wall in the hog pen, according to Sauk Valley Media archives.

Investigators determined he had been beaten by more than one person; an autopsy showed that he was beaten and suffocated.

Investigators said at the time that they thought Dawson's death was drug-related and that the beating happened in Peoria County, although they didn’t know where he died. His family reported him missing the day before.

Then-Sheriff Raymond Nehring declined to say whether Watts was a suspect, but said he had "valuable information" related to Dawson's murder. Both men were members of the same motorcycle club in Peoria, according to SVM archives.

This is not the first time Watts has been inside a Lee County courtroom. 

About a month after Dawson died, a $100,000 warrant for obstruction of justice was issued for Watts in connection with the case. In January 1987, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 2 years, 6 months probation. 

Lee County Sheriff John Varga told the Carroll County News (Ark.) this week that Watts originally was a suspect, but police at the time were unable to gather enough evidence to prosecute him.

Detectives in the department's cold case unit recently revived the investigation, Varga told the paper.

The paper also reported that police said more arrests are possible.

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