My Mother's Murder
The author and his baby sister were in an adjoining room at a neighbor's house when their mother was murdered. The scene of the crime? The bucolic suburb of South Salem.
In Cold Blood in Westchester County
“My Mother Was Murdered 27 Years Ago. I Was There”
Writer Jason Minter remembers the chilling act of violence that shattered his South Salem childhood and colored his entire life
Northern Westchester. The sun was nearing its descent beyond the thick patch of woods, which lay to the west of my friend Lucas Watson’s modern-style home in South Salem. It was magic hour, and the sky was orange and purple. The date was March 2, 1977.
Lucas, then 6, and I had played that afternoon at my house on West Lane, and now my mother was driving Lucas back to his house where my sister, Maggie, then 3, was playing with Lucas’s younger sister, Nicole. Lucas’s mom was supposed to drop my sister off, but she never showed. My mother tried calling her for a long time, but kept getting a busy signal. Finally, we just decided to drive over.
As we slowly rumbled up the gravel driveway, we did notice an unfamiliar blue van parked to the right of the Watsons’ front door, but no one seemed to think anything of it; at least I don’t remember anyone saying anything about it. My mother and Lucas got out of the car, walked up the pathway and disappeared behind the front door. I waited in the car, expecting in just a few minutes to see my mom and Maggie walk out of the house and to all go home.
I was six years old at the time.
I sat in the car for what seemed like an eternity, but I probably waited only five minutes. Finally, the front door of the house opened, and a skinny, dark-skinned man came walking out. He wore old, dirty clothes and a snow cap. But it was warm out; why did he need a hat?
“Hey kid, your mother wants you,” the man said.
I guess she wants to have dinner over, I thought, or maybe the girls want to keep playing. I certainly wasn’t scared, or even very curious to know who this man was. I was more concerned with getting home in time to watch “The Muppet Show.”
The man bent down and snatched my mom’s purse from the front seat. I didn’t think that that was strange. I wasn’t alarmed. He must be from the garage, I thought, and he needs to work on the van in front of the house. Isn’t it nice that he’s bringing my mom’s purse to her?
We walked up the path to the house in silence. When he opened the front door, I knew something was terribly wrong. The house was a total mess, chairs tossed upside down, pictures torn from the walls, and drawers dumped empty of their contents. Every cushion on the couch had been ripped to pieces; their insides were scattered all over the floor. The living room was covered in broken odds and ends.
The man kicked the door shut behind us. I said nothing, believing that, if I said anything, I’d get into trouble. As I stepped towards the stairs, my foot crunched on a hairbrush; there was a clump of thick black hair in it. Somewhere from above me I could hear a little girl crying. Maggie? Nicole? I couldn’t tell. I was confused and nervous. Something or someone had come here, to this house, and turned everything upside down, but I was sure my mom would explain everything to me later.
The man grabbed my arm and began to pull me upstairs. He seemed so mad, but why? Did I do something wrong? I was too scared to ask. I stayed silent.
At the top of the stairs, he pushed me into Lucas’s parents’ bedroom where I saw my sister and her friend sitting on a bed—crying. Lucas, who was standing in front of them, was trying to calm the girls down. “It’s okay,” Lucas told the girls. “Everything is going to be okay.”
My mom and my friend’s mom were sitting on another corner of the bed. Two men stood over them holding guns. Were they toy guns? They couldn’t be real.
I looked at my mom. “Jason, just relax,” she said. I wanted to ask a thousand questions, but I couldn’t. I remained silent.
The men grabbed my mom and her friend and pushed them into a doorway. We kids just sat and watched. There was a bathroom between the bedroom we were in and the bedroom into which the men were taking our mothers. I saw one of the men looking behind the shower curtain. What was he looking for?
Now the men were pushing my mom and Lucas’s mom through the bathroom into the adjoining bedroom. “What are you going to do with us?” I heard my mother ask. No one answered—one of the men just shoved her.
Though terrified, somehow I managed to find my voice. “Who are you?” I cried, nearly yelling. “Stop! What are you doing? What’s going on?”
No one answered me. Instead I saw one of the men casually walk over. Then I felt the barrel of a gun pressed against my nose. “Shut the f— up, kid.” Those five words would remain burned into my memory for the rest of my life.
I froze. He’s going to shoot me, I thought. But as slowly and deliberately as he had walked over to me, he walked out the door back towards the other bedroom. Peering through the bathroom, I could see my mom and Lucas’s mom sitting on a bed. Then one of the men closed the doors between us.
I sat with my sister, Lucas and his sister on the bed, frozen in silence. After a few minutes, we heard what I knew had to be gunshots—one, two, three, four shots—but no screaming. The men, I thought, were probably trying to scare our moms. But why? Then I heard footsteps running down the stairs followed by the sound of a car quickly taking off in the driveway.
Good, I thought, they were gone. The other kids and I sat on the bed; we waited for our mothers to come get us. When they didn’t, I decided that, since I was the oldest child there, I would go by myself to the other bedroom, just to make sure that all of the men were really gone. I walked into the room.
Moments later I ran from the house.
My mother, 32, and her friend Sheila Watson, 38, were both murdered that day. Both had been shot multiple times. Yet, even though I had seen their bloodied bodies, it took me days to realize they were not just asleep. I ran as fast as I could to a neighbor’s house. I needed to get help. At first, our neighbors didn’t believe what I was telling them, but when the other kids arrived, the neighbors called the police and my dad at work.
Hours later, a police base of operations was established at a neighbor’s home. I can’t remember when I first saw my dad. But I do know that he arrived at the Watson house from his job as an editor at Reader’s Digest in Pleasantville at precisely the same time as the first state trooper did. We have yet to talk about that day, but I suspect he was in shock and was being comforted by our neighbors. I remember asking a detective if my mom was okay. “Could I visit her in the hospital?” I remember reasoning with myself that my mom and Lucas’s mom had been shot two times each—not enough to kill anyone. I remember the sad look on the detective’s face and I remember his answer. “Yes, they’re gonna be fine.” During most of the evening, I looked at black and white photographs and even at people the police would bring by the house in hopes of recognition.
My father, sister and I spent the night at a neighbor’s home that was about 100 yards away from Lucas’s house. My father and I shared a room. I remember a deafening silence and an almost hypnotic flashing of emergency vehicle lights bleeding through the bedroom curtains. At some point deep into the night, I felt my father squeezing my hand. “We’re going to get through this,” he said. Then he began to weep. I’d never seen him cry before. It made me feel uncomfortable that something could so strongly affect someone I viewed as infallible.
It took two more days for me to realize that, yes, my mother was dead. I didn’t admit to others until many years later that I did not know the truth for all those days. I was too embarrassed.
Samuel Ayala, age 26, Willie Profit, 25, and James Walls, Jr., 26, all from South Norwalk, CT, were captured three days later while trying to return the blue cargo van they had rented. Some material stolen during the crime, including the Watsons’ stereo equipment, was found in the vehicle, and some of my mother’s checks and credit cards were found in Sam Ayala’s pockets. All three men had previous records of criminal behavior of varying degrees of severity, including armed robbery and drug dealing.
My memories of the funeral are scant. I remember being in the back of a tiny crowded church in South Salem. I also remember being taken home before the burial. I didn’t know what a burial was, but I said I wanted to go.
Several weeks later, I returned to Meadow Pond Elementary School, which sat just yards down the road from the house where the murders were committed. Before I returned to class, my father brought me to the principal’s—Mr. Plevka’s—office. I remember being told I could leave class to come and speak to Mr. Plevka anytime I felt the need. Why? Why was I so special? I didn’t want to be different—it made me uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry to hear about your mom,” some classmates said. I suspect now that they were told to say this to me by their parents. Teachers seemed overly nice. All of this special treatment gave me a strong sense of unease.
The three men went to trial the following year. My father, wanting to prevent us from reliving the crime, was successful in keeping my sister and me from the courtroom. In the end, Samuel Ayala and Willie Profit, the actual gunmen, received two concurrent life sentences, while James Walls, who was supposedly downstairs waiting in the van during the actual shooting, received one. All three men remain in New York State prisons, and, because of the concurrent sentences, all three became eligible for parole in 2002 but were denied. The men will again be eligible in 2006.
In the next couple of years after the murders, my father remarried, we moved to Katonah, and one year later, Dad and his second wife were divorced. During the first few years, we remained friendly with the Watson family. Still, I can’t recall the crime ever being discussed, and rarely was the subject of “Mom” brought up. Yes, we talked about it to our therapists—I think every one of us went into therapy—but not to one another. At home, we all fought for normalcy. Our lives were challenging enough without bringing the horrendous incident back to the surface again and again. We all thought it would be better if we didn’t talk about it, think about it, dwell on it. As a 34-year-old adult, I know we were wrong; you can’t make things disappear simply by not talking about them. However, the alternative was just not an option. We kept our feelings regarding the murders to ourselves. It was the only way we knew how to cope.
For a while, I refused to believe that my mother’s death was final. I increasingly retreated into my own private little universe with its own rules. I borrowed occult books from the library and began to plan an experiment to bring back the dead. I reasoned and researched the best that I could at eight or nine years of age. I had even begun elaborate plans to exhume my mom’s body and transport it to our basement. Then, when I was about 10, I stopped trying to bring my mother back. I developed a rage.
I wanted them dead, at any cost. I didn’t care if I went to jail or not. I also became increasingly afraid about another “home invasion.” I began making and buying weapons to protect myself and my family—from pellet guns with modified ammunition to table legs with nails converted to primitive deadly clubs to homemade explosives utilizing fireworks and cleaning products. I wasn’t going to ever let anything like this happen again. Our 180-year-old house with a 3,000-plus square-foot barn provided countless nooks and crannies to hide my formidable arsenal from my father and sister. I even built a closed-circuit camera system to watch the hallway outside my bedroom door. I lived life in the grim anticipation that something terrible was bound to happen again. I became plagued with violent nightmares that have lasted to this very day.
By the early 1980s, we had lost touch with the Watsons, and my sister and I were now being raised by an ever-changing group of housekeepers and babysitters. In 1983 my father married his third wife who soon gave birth to our half brother, William. My sister and I were wary of accepting the love of a new mother figure. It took a few years for us to realize that Jane was there to stay.
I was an awkward kid who would rather play Atari or build an elaborate haunted house in his basement than spend any time after school playing sports with my peers—all the while continuing my obsession with security. I despised school and did poorly. Every year, there were discussions about holding me back. I had a great system where I would get to the mailbox and commandeer any school-related mail. My father saw few of the negative interim reports and letters from teachers. I couldn’t hide report cards though, and in time I was diagnosed with ADHD.
My mother and her death remained largely an unspoken subject into my early teen years. Every so often, though, an innocent question would invariably lead to an uncomfortable answer. “You live with your dad and stepmom. Where does your mom live?”
“She passed away,” I’d answer, hoping that a bit of mutual discomfort would be the end of it. It was downright bewildering to both the person asking the questions and me if he or she prodded further.
While attending John Jay Junior High, I learned how to earn the respect of my peers through outrageous humor. As junior high school continued, my gags and stunts grew more advanced and bizarre, culminating with multiple detentions and suspensions. Toward the end of junior high school I was able to bring my grades up—a positive trend I credit partially to the drug Ritalin.
In time, my focus began to shift. I had always loved movies, specifically genre movies. In one of the few treasured memories I have of my mother, I recall watching F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu on PBS with her. After my grandparents purchased a video camera for me at age 14, I knew that I wanted to make films. I made many short films as a child, most of them silly horror “videos” drenched in gore with rudimentary special effects. I believe my mother had nurtured my creative interests in horror and science fiction. One of my cherished possessions is a picture of two monsters I painted as a five-year-old. It remains in the same frame my mother placed it in, and hangs on a wall in my New York City apartment to this day.
Eventually, my father left Reader’s Digest and took a job as the editor-in-chief of a new magazine in Florida. As a result, our family moved to and I briefly lived in Florida in 1988. Within a matter of months, though, I moved back to New York City to pursue my dream of becoming a filmmaker at The School of Visual Arts.
I was 19 years old in November of 1989. I had been working for Metro-North Commuter Railroad as a survey technician to make some extra money while I was in college. My job basically consisted of standing at the end of a train station with a “clicker” and counting people as they exited or entered the train.
On one particular evening, a powerful wind and rainstorm had swept up the eastern seaboard, knocking out significant power including the entire New Haven railroad line. Now my coworkers and I were slowly making our way through southeast Connecticut by shuttle bus. An off-duty conductor sat in the front seat idly chatting with the driver. I faded in and out of their conversation, feeling more and more sleepy. My eyelids grew heavy.
Suddenly, our vehicle rounded a bend in the road. All at once I was roused with a peculiar feeling of clarity, even familiarity. And then, a wash of intense discomfort and foreboding came over me. For a matter of seconds, a lone reflective green sign became entirely visible: “South Norwalk.” I was dragged back to an awful day I had given little contemplation to for the previous 12 years.
I had never been to South Norwalk. I had most likely not even heard a mention of the town in the 12 years between the event of my mother’s death and this creeping shuttle bus ride. But this is the town where her murderers came from. My mind raced with the possibility that the men might still have relations in this town. And although I was deeply disturbed, I felt some satisfaction in my recognition.
The conversation droned on between the conductor and the shuttle driver. I strained to view the area where these executioners had come from. Was I looking at the homes they lived in? It was difficult to see outside, but I could make out various ramshackle structures. Then, for some inexplicable reason, I found myself asking, “Wasn’t this the town where those guys came from in the ’70s and murdered those women in Westchester?” There was a brief pause. Then the conductor replied, “Yep. Bonnie Minter and Sheila Watson...”
He knew their names. And for the next 15 minutes I listened to two men I had never met before speak in great detail about the most personal and painful event of my life. I never revealed who I was, but the incident acted as a catalyst. I could no longer ignore my past.
I began researching my mother’s death, and eventually decided to make a documentary film with the theme of the long-term effects of violent crime on a family. My research began with my filtering through The New York Times microfilm and copying any information on the case that I could find. Police reports made me aware of the full brutality of the crime. I learned that both women were shot many more times than I had previously known—or thought I had heard. And on a train ride home from White Plains, I read for the first time that both women were raped. This fact was kept from the press presumably in an effort to shield the families from the more disturbing details. I viewed my findings with a mix of fascination, horror and tremendous sadness. After a number of personal setbacks and difficulties, I dropped the documentary project for the better part of a decade. I didn’t shoot an inch of film.
Although the past stood still within me, other aspects of my life continued to move forward. I became a location scout on the popular TV program “Law & Order” and shifted my focus almost entirely to my career. Over the years I worked on various films and television shows, finally settling at “The Sopranos” in 1999 as a location manager handling many of the location shoot logistics of the production. In 2002, I became the personal assistant of David Chase, the creator/executive producer of “The Sopranos.”
I am 34 years old now, and live in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Recently, I became engaged and will be married in June of 2005. My father, now 59, and stepmother, Jane, now 50, continue to live happily in semi-retirement on the West coast of Florida. My sister Maggie is now 31 years old and is a veterinary assistant in Missoula, MT. She hunts, sometimes works as a guide leading parties through the mountains and has her own personal assortment of animals. We talk on the phone several times a week. My half-brother William is now 19 and is following in my footsteps studying film at The School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Although my family is close in many ways, long ago, it seems, we all began to behave as if we had signed an unspoken agreement to not talk about my mother’s murder and how it has affected each of us. We enjoy one another’s differences but share a common thread of silence about what happened on March 2, 1977.
In recent years, I have once more felt the need for closure. The nightmares have been manageable, but I have always felt guilt, having abandoned the project in the early ’90s. Now, I am preparing to make this documentary again, and I have begun the process of locating people with connections to the event for the purpose of interviewing them. It is time for me to finally delve into my past and come to grips with my central obsession: What exactly does a crime like this do to a community, to a family, to real individuals? What has it done to me?
Every March I journey 30 miles or so up the road to South Salem for a yearly tradition. I lay flowers on the graves of both my mother and my grandmother. I then walk a few yards to Sheila Watson’s grave and leave flowers for her as well. I always look carefully for evidence that others have visited the graves of these women, but find none.
Driving a few more miles up the road, I pull over on a side street and gaze at our last residence as a family—my mother’s dream house. It is a stunning 19th century, 11-bedroom Victorian designed by Stanford White. My parents bought this home in 1976 for $99,000, and it was so vast we were unable to even heat or furnish much of it in the brief period before we moved to Katonah. It was a perfect place to fuel the imagination of a child, complete with back stairways and hidden doors. I have not set foot in the house in more than 25 years, and I oddly find the thought of walking back through its enormous front door unsettling. Perhaps I sense that the house is such a strong relic of a wonderful time where undisturbed happy memories that linger still could be as painful as even those of the murder itself.
I can only drive by the house where the murders took place—there is no shoulder to pull a car over. Generally, I’ll pass and look, turn around, and pass and look again. I invariably resist an urge to pull up the long driveway and knock on the front door. Not knowing the current owners, I could never quite formulate a story for my “stopping by.” But then in the past I could never quite come up with a reason for me to stop by.
My last visit was different though. I passed by the house with knowledge that I would soon walk its floorboards again. And as I drove away, I noted to myself that just miles away down Route 123 lies South Norwalk, CT, another place in which I would soon be spending much time.
My mother was murdered 27 years ago. I was there. I met the men who did it. I know where to find Willie Profit, Samuel Ayala and James Walls, Jr. Recently I have written them letters. It is time for us to meet again. I need to visit and revisit every painful place I have been and have never been while making this project. To end my obsession, I need to know, to understand, to remember every awful detail that I have worked so hard to forget all these years. My cameras will act as a shield. I need my audience to bear witness to this process, to peer over my shoulder as I try to sift through all these pieces to reveal whatever truth they hold. I must know everything. I need to free myself.
If you have any information or recollections regarding this incident which might be helpful to the author or his film, e-mail him at JfilmM@aol.com.