DNA leads to alleged killer of Colorado hospital food worker raped, slain in 1999, police say

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Jennifer Lee Watkins’ family knew immediately that something was wrong.

Watkins, 23, vanished Nov. 5, 1999, during her shift at Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs. Co-workers had seen Watkins, a food services worker, going about her duties that day.

“When she failed to pick up her two children from her mother after work that evening, her husband reported her missing,” authorities said in 2018.

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Colorado Springs police officers, with help from Watkins’ husband, Michael Watkins, soon found the missing woman’s vehicle in an employee parking lot. The vehicle was impounded, but crime scene investigators found no clues about its owner’s disappearance.

Three days later, as detectives were conducting interviews at the hospital, Watkins’ body was found under a stairwell in a portion of the hospital under construction.

“Officers learned two Dover elevator service employees entered the stairwell on the eighth floor to inspect and repair an elevator shaft,” Colorado Springs police officials said. “When they entered the stairwell area, they detected a ‘distinctive smell.’

“The elevator personnel looked under the stairwell and saw what appeared to be the shape of a body wrapped in plastic and bound with duct tape.”

An autopsy determined that Watkins had died of blunt force trauma to the head. Semen stains were found on the plastic used to wrap Watkins’ body, as well as on her pants.

Additional semen from a different man was found during Watkins’ autopsy, investigators said.

“Scores of co-workers, associates, friends and family members were interviewed, many several times,” police officials said during the investigation. “Numerous items of forensic evidence were recovered from the crime scene, which continue to be analyzed as this technology develops.”

DNA samples were obtained from multiple possible suspects but all were cleared. Michael Watkins, who was interviewed multiple times, was cooperative with investigators and was not believed to be involved.

Jennifer Watkins’ killing soon went cold.

Colorado Springs police detectives announced last week that after 21 years, DNA and genetic genealogy have finally cracked the case.

“After all these years, we are grateful to finally give Jennifer Watkins’ family the answers they deserve,” Colorado Springs police Chief Vince Niski said in a statement.

Authorities said that detectives worked between 2017 and 2018 with Parabon Nanolabs, a Virginia-based company that assists law enforcement with solving cold cases. Parabon took the DNA evidence found on Watkins’ pants and used phenotyping to predict the ancestry and appearance of the man who left the semen behind.

“Individual predictions were made for the subject’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling and face shape,” police officials said. “By combining these attributes of appearance, a Snapshot composite was produced depicting what the person of interest may have looked like at 25 years old and with an average body-mass index of 22.”

The image was released to the media to try to generate leads in the case.

Parabon attempted to create a Snapshot using the semen found on Watkins’ body during autopsy but couldn’t because of the poor quality of the sample.

In March 2019, that sample received a hit in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. It matched Watkins’ husband, Michael.

That match “was expected … based upon information learned during the initial investigation,” authorities said.

Parabon took the second man’s DNA profile and conducted genetic genealogy research in an effort to find family members of the man through public ancestry databases.

In August, the process turned up a name: Ricky Severt.

Severt, then 29 years old, was a maintenance worker at Memorial Hospital when Watkins was killed. Detectives had interviewed Severt about the case on Nov. 19, 1999, about two weeks after the murder.

“Based on the work schedule Ricky Severt provided during his interview, he would have been working a swing shift on Nov. 5, 1999, the date Jennifer Watkins was last seen,” Colorado Springs investigators said. “He also denied having seen Ms. Watkins before.”

Unfortunately, cold case detectives couldn’t go back to Severt for further questioning. He had been killed in a car crash Nov. 2, 2001, near Colorado Springs.

Instead, investigators obtained DNA from Severt’s surviving relatives.

“In September 2020, (the Colorado Bureau of Investigation) conducted analysis of the DNA and determined that the percentage of the population that can be excluded as a contributor to the DNA collected in this case is 99.99994%,” authorities said. “Mr. Severt cannot be excluded.”

The Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s Office reviewed the evidence and determined that Severt was likely the person responsible for Watkins’ homicide. The investigation will be closed out as “exceptionally cleared/death of offender,” police officials said.

Colorado Springs Police Sgt. Cory Dabb told KOAA-TV that the case likely wouldn’t have been solved without Parabon.

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The company’s chief genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, has been investigating the case since 2017, the news station reported.

“We have been working on this case for quite some time. It has not been an easy one to solve,” Moore told the station.

Genetic genealogy technology, which gained increased public notice after it was used to identify California’s Golden State Killer in 2018, has since been used to solve cases across the country. Parabon’s technology has been used to solve more than 140 cold cases over the past two years, Moore said.

The Colorado Springs chief said his detectives never stopped working for justice for Watkins.

“Not for one moment did they ever lose sight of what was most important: finding the truth for the Watkins’ family,” Niski said.