CSPD Detectives Solve 1999 Cold Case

CSPD Public Affairs
Dec 9, 2020 · 6 min read

On November 6, 1999, Mr. Michael Watkins reported his wife, Jennifer Watkins, as missing to the Fountain Police Department after she did not return home from work following her shift at Memorial Hospital. On the same day, Mrs. Irene Skinner also called the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) when her daughter did not return to pick up her children after work. CSPD officers initiated a missing person’s report.

Investigating patrol officers and detectives conducted multiple interviews with family members and coworkers of Jennifer Watkins during this initial investigation. With the assistance of Michael Watkins, officers located Jennifer Watkins’ vehicle in an employee parking lot located near Printers Parkway and East Pikes Peak Avenue. The vehicle was impounded and the subsequent search did not reveal any items of evidence or clues related to her Jennifer’s disappearance.

On November 8, 1999, at approx. 10:00 A.M., while detectives were at Memorial Hospital conducting interviews regarding the missing person report of Jennifer Watkins, they were notified that a body was found under a stairwell in an area 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. 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. Investigators from the CSPD Homicide Unit, Metro Crime Lab, and the El Paso County Coroner’s Office were requested and responded to the scene. Investigators removed the plastic and found the dead body of an adult white female with brown hair. The victim was wearing a teal colored uniform smock, a purple blouse, and black pants. The clothing was positioned as such to indicate a sexual assault had occurred. During the course of the investigation multiple employees and contractors working at Memorial Hospital were interviewed by detectives. Other potential suspect leads were investigated as well, but no suspect was identified.

The El Paso County Coroner’s Office completed the autopsy of the deceased adult female and she was positively identified as Jennifer Watkins. The El Paso County Coroner at the time, Dr. David Bowerman, reported that the victim died as result “of blunt force trauma” to the head. Her death was ruled a homicide.

As part of the crime scene processing, a careful examination of the plastic used to wrap the body of Jennifer Watkins revealed some hairs, fibers, and a “yellow/white” stain, later determined to be semen. Additional biological evidence was collected at autopsy as well. Multiple items of evidence were sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for analysis. Two DNA profiles, other than the victim’s, were developed from the evidence items submitted for analysis. These profiles were developed from semen samples collected at autopsy, from the plastic wrap, and from the victim’s pants. The semen recovered from the plastic wrap and from the pants of Jennifer Watkins matched each other but were not a match to the sample collected at autopsy.

Biological samples were taken from several possible suspects and all of these individuals had been cleared due to their respective DNA not matching the two unknown DNA samples. As the investigation continued Jennifer’s husband, Michael Watkins, was interviewed several times and fully cooperated with any request made by investigators. After an extensive investigation no suspect was identified and eventually the investigation became a Cold Case. Over the past 21 years, multiple detectives continued to work on this case in order to identify a suspect to no avail.

Between 2017 and 2018, Cold Case detectives, with the assistance of Parabon NanoLabs (Parabon) — a DNA technology company in Virginia — utilized DNA Phenotyping to predict the physical appearance and ancestry from the unidentified DNA evidence. Using DNA evidence recovered from the pants of Jennifer Watkins, Parabon produced trait predictions for the associated person of interest (POI). Individual predictions were made for the subject’s ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape. By combining these attributes of appearance, a Snapshot composite was produced depicting what the POI may have looked like at 25-years-old and with an average body-mass index (BMI) of 22. These default values were used because age and BMI cannot be determined from DNA. This composite was subsequently released to the media in an effort to generate leads. Investigators also attempted to use the DNA evidence collected at autopsy but were unable to due to the poor quality of the sample.

In March 2019, a Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) hit was received on the unknown DNA profile developed from the evidence collected at the autopsy of Jennifer Watkins. The match in this instance was to Michael Watkins and was expected to be present based upon information learned during the initial investigation.

The remaining unknown DNA profile developed from the semen on the pants of Jennifer Watkins was submitted for Genetic Genealogy (GG) research through Parabon. Genetic Genealogy uses advanced DNA testing in combination with innovative genetic analysis, sophisticated identification techniques, and traditional genealogical methods to establish the relationship between an individual and his/her ancestors. For forensic investigations, it is used to generate highly informative leads as to the possible identity of an unknown victim or offender.

In the investigation of the homicide of Jennifer Watkins, Parabon submitted the genetic data profile created from the unknown crime scene DNA sample collected from the pants of Jennifer Watkins to a public genetic genealogy database for comparison in hopes of finding individuals who share significant amounts of DNA with the unknown subject. These genetic matches served as clues to inform traditional genealogy research: first, family trees of the matches were constructed back to the set of possible common ancestors using online genealogy databases, newspaper archives, public family trees, obituaries, and other public records, after which descendancy research was employed to enumerate the possible identities of the unknown subject. Other information, such as age, location, triangulation between matches, and/or ancestry and phenotype (trait) predictions, were used to narrow down the possibilities before a final list of leads was produced.

In August 2020, the CSPD was notified of a potential GG DNA lead to the still unknown DNA profile. The person of interest was identified as Ricky Severt.

With the new lead generated by Parabon, Cold Case Unit detectives used traditional investigative best practices to follow-up on this information. A search of the original case report revealed Ricky Severt, then 29-years old, was interviewed by detectives on November 19, 1999, as part of that initial homicide investigation. Mr. Severt worked as an employee in the maintenance department at Memorial Hospital and he had been employed with Memorial Hospital since April 1998. Based on the work schedule Ricky Severt provided during his interview, he would have been working a swing shift on November 5, 1999, the date Jennifer Watkins was last seen. He also denied having seen Ms. Watkins before. Further investigation revealed Ricky Severt was killed in a traffic accident on November 2, 2001, on Hwy. 94 just east of Colorado Springs.

Familial DNA was collected from surviving relatives of the suspect Ricky Severt. In September 2020, CBI 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%. Mr. Severt cannot be excluded.

On October 1, 2020, this case was sent to the Forth Judicial District Attorney’s Office for review. After the review was completed in December 2020, the District Attorney’s Office is confident the person responsible for the murder of Jennifer Watkins is Ricky Severt. Because Ricky Severt was killed in a traffic accident in 2001, the investigation into the murder of Jennifer Watkins will be closed out as Exceptionally Cleared / Death of Offender.

“After all these years, we are grateful to finally give Jennifer Watkins’ family the answers they deserve. No matter the length of time, we will always work to serve this community, and I am proud of all the Cold Case detectives throughout the last 21 years who have never stopped working for Ms. Watkins. Not for one moment did they ever lose sight of what was most important: Finding the truth for the Watkins’ family. And thank you to our partners. We would not have been able to solve this case without your time, skill, and dedication,” says CSPD Chief Vince Niski.

The Colorado Springs Police Department would like to thank the numerous units/agencies who have provided a tremendous amount of investigative assistance in this case over the years including the Fountain Police Department, the Forth Judicial District Attorney’s Office, The El Paso County Coroner’s Office, the Metro Crime Lab, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and Parabon.