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First-degree murder suspect back in Arkansas

Man released on relatively low bond

Steven Watts
Steven Watts

DIXON – Steven Watts, 56, is accused of first-degree murder in the 1983 death of Gary D. Dawson of Peoria, whose body was found in Lee County.

Watts has yet to go to trial; in fact, the murder defendant who was arrested a year ago is no longer behind bars.

He was released in September on a $100,000 bond, unusually low for a murder charge. Now, he is two states away – near Berryville, Ark., more than 550 miles from Dixon. 

“He’s at the same place where he was arrested,” Lee County State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller said in a telephone interview this week.

What’s going on?

Sacco-Miller, the county’s top prosecutor, is saying little about the case. It has always been sealed. It’s not even listed in the county’s online judicial records.

Authorities say Dawson died of blunt-force trauma to the head, and that his battered body was found in a hog pen in rural Franklin Grove on Aug. 28, 1983.

At the time, officials said that Dawson had been beaten in Peoria County, but they didn’t know where he actually died. It’s not clear why his body was taken to Franklin Grove. 

Last year, Lee County Sheriff John Varga said all the players in the case had drug connections. And Sacco-Miller said then that two other suspects in the case were believed to be in the general area, which includes Peoria.

Watts, who was arrested last February in Arkansas, was released Sept. 27 from the Lee County Jail, according to the jail.

Watts couldn’t be reached for comment this week, but his father, Wilburn Watts, 81, said his son had been helping him the past few months at his farm near Berryville in hilly northwestern Arkansas.

“He’s waiting for them to drop this deal,” Wilburn said in a telephone interview. “He has to check in every Monday with a detective. Thank goodness he hasn’t had to go back for a court date.”

Wilburn said he had to come up with 10 percent of the $100,000 bond for his son’s release.

“I had to sell a bunch of stuff. Anything that wasn’t necessary, I sold,” Wilburn said. “That’s a lot of money to me.”

According to Wilburn, Lee County authorities want his son to tell them who killed Dawson.

“I don’t think he knows,” the father said. “It would all have to be hearsay, and that isn’t a good thing. It’s hard to get blood out of a turnip.”

Wilburn said that in the 1980s, his son “mixed in the wrong crowd” and got involved in selling drugs. But the father said he didn’t believe his son committed murder.

In Arkansas’ Carroll County, where Watts had lived for 16 years before his arrest, he had little trouble with the law. His only known arrest there was in 2010 for a misdemeanor bad check charge, authorities say.

Watts’ $100,000 bond is far less than that of other Lee County inmates who have been charged with serious crimes, according to online court records. 

Matthew Welling, 33, accused of killing an elderly man in Amboy, is being held on a $2 million bond. Keith Shomaker, 19, charged with reckless homicide in the dragging death of a woman, is behind bars on a $500,000 bond. Charles George, 36, accused in the death of his 3-month-old daughter, is behind held on a $1 million bond.

Sacco-Miller said Watts’ case is much different.

“It’s from 1983. There are other people who are involved who we are investigating,” she said, adding that she didn’t want “my officers walking into an ambush.”

Watts’ father said his son has hardly been a fugitive. His number has been in the phone book for years.

“When they figured he wasn’t going to run,” Wilburn said, “they dropped his bond down.”

When the Lee County state’s attorney’s office sought an arrest warrant for Watts last year, it also asked the court to seal the case. Officials wanted the records kept secret to avoid alerting the other suspects.

After Watts was arrested in Arkansas, though, Sheriff John Varga issued a news release to Arkansas media, which went against the plan to keep the case under wraps, Sacco-Miller said at the time.

“The cat was not let out of the bag by me or my office. I’m trying to protect the investigation,” Sacco-Miller said in an interview last March. “They [other suspects] are out there. The press release in Arkansas didn’t help. Now, we’re scrambling to fix it.”

Watts’ attorney, Public Defender Bob Thompson, said hearings are held in the case every other month “just to confirm the case is still pending.”

“The defendant’s presence has been waived,” the lawyer said.

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