Post by Joanna on Nov 15, 2018 12:17:27 GMT -5
The Westfield 'Watcher'
One night in June 2014, Derek Broaddus had just finished an evening of painting at his new home in Westfield, New Jersey, when he went outside to check the mail. He and his wife, Maria, had closed on the six-bedroom house at 657 Boulevard three days earlier and were doing some renovations before they moved in, so there wasn’t much in the mail except a few bills and a white, card-shaped envelope addressed in thick, clunky handwriting to “The New Owner.” The typed note inside began warmly:
“Dearest new neighbor at 657 Boulevard,
Allow me to welcome you to the neighborhood.
For the Broaddus family, buying 657 Boulevard had fulfilled a dream. Maria was brought up in Westfield and the house was a few blocks from her childhood home. Derek was from a blue collar family in Maine and moved up the ladder at a Manhattan insurance company to become senior vice-president with a salary sufficient to afford the $1.3 million home. Mr. and Mrs. Broaddus purchased 657 Boulevard just after Derek celebrated his 40th birthday and their three children were already debating which of the fireplaces in the house Santa Claus would use.
But as Derek continued reading the letter from his new neighbor, it took a turn. “How did you end up here?” the writer asked. “Did 657 Boulevard call to you with its force within?” The letter went on:
657 Boulevard has been the subject of my family for decades now and as it approaches its 110th birthday, I have been put in charge of watching and waiting for its second coming. My grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched in the 1960s. It is now my time. Do you know the history of the house? Do you know what lies within the walls of 657 Boulevard? Why are you here? I will find out.
The author’s reconnaissance had apparently already begun. The letter identified the family’s Honda minivan, as well as the workers renovating the home. “I see already that you have flooded 657 Boulevard with contractors so that you can destroy the house as it was supposed to be,” the individual wrote. “Tsk, tsk, tsk ... bad move. You don’t want to make 657 Boulevard unhappy.” Earlier in the week, Derek and Maria had gone to the house and chatted with their new neighbors while their children, ages 10, 8 and 5, ran around the backyard with several kids from the neighborhood. The letter writer seemed to have noticed. “You have children. I have seen them. So far I think there are three that I have counted,” the anonymous correspondent wrote, before asking if there were “more on the way”:
Do you need to fill the house with the young blood I requested? Better for me. Was your old house too small for the growing family? Or was it greed to bring me your children? Once I know their names I will call to them and draw them too [sic] me.
The envelope had no return address. “Who am I?” the person taunted. “There are hundreds and hundreds of cars that drive by 657 Boulevard each day. Maybe I am in one. Look at all the windows you can see from 657 Boulevard. Maybe I am in one. Look out any of the many windows in 657 Boulevard at all the people who stroll by each day. Maybe I am one.” The letter concluded with a suggestion this message would not be the last – “Welcome my friends, welcome. Let the party begin” – followed by a signature typed in a cursive font: “The Watcher.”
It was after 10 p.m. and Derek Broaddus was alone. He raced around the house turning off lights so no one could see inside, then called the Westfield Police Department. An officer came to the house, read the letter, and remarked, “What the fuck is this?” He asked Derek if he had enemies and recommended moving a piece of construction equipment from the back porch in case The Watcher tried to toss it through a window.
Derek rushed back to his wife and kids, who were still living at their old home elsewhere in Westfield. That night, Derek and Maria wrote an email to John and Andrea Woods, the couple who sold them 657 Boulevard, to ask if they had any idea who The Watcher might be or why he or she had written, “I asked the Woods to bring me young blood and it looks like they listened.”
Andrea Woods replied the next morning: A few days before moving out, Mr. and Mrs. Woods had received a letter from “The Watcher.” The note had been “odd,” she admitted and made similar mention of The Watcher’s family observing the house over time, but Andrea indicated she and her husband had never received anything like it in their 23 years in the house and had thrown the it away without much thought. That day, Andrea and John Woods went with Maria to the police station, where Detective Leonard Lugo told her not to tell anyone about the letters, including her new neighbors, most of whom she had never met – and all of whom were now suspects.
The family spent the coming weeks on high alert. Derek canceled a work trip and whenever Maria took the kids to their new home, she would yell their names if they wandered into a corner of the yard. When Derek gave a tour of the renovation to a couple on the block, he froze when the wife said, “It’ll be nice to have some young blood in the neighborhood.” The family’s general contractor arrived one morning to find that a heavy sign he’d hammered into the front yard had been ripped out overnight.
Two weeks after the letter arrived, Maria stopped by the house to look at some paint samples and check the mail. She recognized the thick black lettering on a card-shaped envelope and called the police. “Welcome again to your new home at 657 Boulevard,” The Watcher wrote. “The workers have been busy and I have been watching you unload carfuls of your personal belongings. The dumpster is a nice touch. Have they found what is in the walls yet? In time they will.” This time, The Watcher had addressed Derek and Maria directly, misspelling their names by writing “Mr. and Mrs. Braddus.” Had The Watcher been close enough to hear the contractors addressing them by name? The Watcher boasted of having learned a lot about the family in the preceding weeks, especially the children. The letter identified the three kids by birth order using their nicknames – the ones Maria had been yelling. “I am pleased to know your names now and the name of the young blood you have brought to me,” the letter read. “You certainly say their names often.” The writer asked about one child in particular, whom he/she had seen using an easel inside an enclosed porch: “Is she the artist in the family?” The Watcher continued:
657 Boulevard is anxious for you to move in. It has been years and years since the young blood ruled the hallways of the house. Have you found all of the secrets it holds yet? Will the young blood play in the basement? Or are they too afraid to go down there alone. I would [be] very afraid if I were them. It is far away from the rest of the house. If you were upstairs you would never hear them scream.
Will they sleep in the attic? Or will you all sleep on the second floor? Who has the bedrooms facing the street? I’ll know as soon as you move in. It will help me to know who is in which bedroom. Then I can plan better.
All of the windows and doors in 657 Boulevard allow me to watch you and track you as you move through the house. Who am I? I am the Watcher and have been in control of 657 Boulevard for the better part of two decades now. The Woods family turned it over to you. It was their time to move on and kindly sold it when I asked them to.
I pass by many times a day. 657 Boulevard is my job, my life, my obsession. And now you are too Braddus family. Welcome to the product of your greed! Greed is what brought the past three families to 657 Boulevard and now it has brought you to me.
Have a happy moving in day. You know I will be watching.
Derek and Maria ceased bringing the kids to the house. They were no longer sure when, or if, they would move in. Several weeks later, a third letter arrived. “Where have you gone to?” the Watcher wrote, “657 Boulevard is missing you.”
Many Westfield residents compare their town to Mayberry, the idyllic setting of The Andy Griffith Show – the sort of place where a new neighbor might greet you with a welcoming note. Westfield is 45 minutes from New York and a bit too slow for singles, meaning the town’s 30,000 residents are largely well-to-do families. This year, Bloomberg ranked Westfield, which is 86 percent white, the 99th-richest city in America – but only the 18th wealthiest in New Jersey – and in 2014, when The Watcher struck, the website NeighborhoodScout named it the country’s 30th-safest town. The most pressing local issues of late, according to residents, have been the temporary closure of Trader Joe’s after a roof collapse and the rampant scourge of “unconstitutional policing,” by which they mean aggressive parking enforcement.
One activity all locals recognized as treacherous is trying to buy a house. “There’s a lot of money and a lot of ego,” one resident, who requested anonymity before discussing Westfield real estate, told New York Magazine. “I’ve seen bidding wars where friends lost by $300,000.” The Broaddus house was on the Boulevard, a wide, tree-lined street with some of the more desirable homes in town, as The Watcher had noted: “The Boulevard used to be THE street to live on ... You made it if you lived on the Boulevard.”
Built in 1905, 657 Boulevard was perhaps the grandest home on the block and when the Mr. and Mrs. Woods put it on the market, they had received multiple offers above their asking price. This led the new owners to initially suspect The Watcher might be someone upset over losing out on the house. But Andrea and John Woods said one interested buyer had backed out after a serious medical diagnosis, while another had already found a different home. In an email, Andrea proposed another theory: “Would the mention of the contractor trucks [and] your children suggest that it was someone in the neighborhood?”
The letters did indicate proximity. They had been processed in Kearny, the U.S. Postal Service distribution center in northern New Jersey. The first was postmarked June 4, before the sale was made public – there was never a “For Sale” sign in front of the house – and just a day after the contractors arrived. The renovations were mostly interior and people who lived nearby said they didn’t notice any unusual commotion, even from the jackhammering in the basement. When Derek and Maria walked Detective Lugo around their home, they showed him the easel on the porch was hidden from the street by vegetation, making it difficult to see unless the writer was behind the house or right next door.
A few days after the first letter, Maria and Derek went to a barbecue across the street welcoming them and another new homeowner to the block. They hadn’t told anyone about The Watcher – as suggested by the police – and found themselves scanning the party for clues while keeping tabs on their kids, who ran guilelessly through a crowd that made up much of the suspect pool. “We kept screaming at them to stay close,” Maria recalled. “People must have thought we were crazy.”
At one point, Derek was chatting with John Schmidt, who lived two doors down, when Schmidt told him about the Langfords, who lived between their homes. Peggy Langford was in her 90s and several of her adult children, all in their 60s, lived with her. The family was a bit odd, Schmidt said, but harmless. He described one of the younger Langfords, Michael, who didn’t work and had a beard like Ernest Hemingway, as “kind of a Boo Radley character.” Derek thought the case was solved. The Langford house was right next to the easel on the porch. The family had lived there since the 1960s, when The Watcher’s father, the letters said, had begun observing 657 Boulevard. Richard Langford, the family patriarch, had died 12 years earlier, and the current Watcher claimed to have been on the job for “the better part of two decades.”
When Derek (above) and Maria told Lugo about the family, he said he already knew, and a week after the first letter arrived, he took Michael Langford to police headquarters for an interview. The man denied knowing anything about the letters, but the new owners said Lugo indicated “the narrative” of what he said matched things mentioned in the letters. “This isn’t CSI: Westfield,” Lugo later told Mr. and Mrs. Broaddus. “When the wife is dead, it’s the husband.”
But there wasn’t much hard evidence and after a few weeks, the police chief advised them that short of an admission, there wasn’t much the department could do. “This is someone who threatened my kids and the police are saying, ‘Probably nothing’s gonna happen,’” Derek ranted. “Probably isn’t good enough for me.” After the second letter, Derek informed the cops if they didn’t take care of the situation, they would have a different kind of case on their hands. “This person attacked my family and where I’m from, if you do that, you get your ass beat,” he told New York Magazine.
Frustrated, the Broaddus couple started their own investigation. Derek was particularly obsessed. He set up webcams at 657 Boulevard and spent nights crouched in the dark, watching to see if anyone was watching the house at close range. “Maria thought I was crazy,” he said recently at a coffee shop in Manhattan, where he covered a table with documents relating to the case, including copies of the letters, which he and his wife had shared only with a few friends and family members. He displayed a map indicating when each of 657’s neighbors had moved in – the Langfords were the only ones there since the 60s – with overlays marking possible sight lines for the easel and a circle for “Approximate Range of ‘Ear Shot’” to estimate who might have heard Maria yelling for their kids. Only a few homes fit both criteria.
Mr. and Mrs. Broaddus also contacted several experts. They employed a private investigator, who staked out the neighborhood and ran background checks on the Langfords, but didn’t find anything of note. Derek reached out to a former FBI agent who served as the inspiration for Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs – they were on a high-school board of trustees together – and they also hired Robert Lenehan, another former FBI agent, to conduct a threat assessment. Lenehan recognized several old-fashioned tics in the letters that pointed to an older writer. The envelope was addressed to “M/M Braddus,” the salutations included the day’s weather – “Warm and humid,” “Sunny and cool for a summer day” – and the sentences had double spaces between them. The letters had a certain literary panache, which suggested a “voracious reader,” and a surprising lack of profanity given the level of anger, which Lenehan believed indicated a “less macho” writer. Maybe, he wondered, The Watcher had seen The Watcher, starring Keanu Reeves as a serial killer who stalks the detective trying to catch him.
Lenehan didn’t think The Watcher was likely to act on the threats, but the letters had enough typos and errors to imply a certain erraticism. (The first letter was dated “Tuesday, June 4th,” but that day was a Wednesday.) There was also a “seething anger” directed at the wealthy in particular. The Watcher was upset by new money moving into town – “Are you one of those Hoboken transplants who are ruining Westfield?” – and by the relatively modest renovations:
The house is crying from all of the pain it is going through. You have changed it and made it so fancy. You are stealing it’s [sic] history. It cries for the past and what used to be in the time when I roamed it’s [sic] halls. The 1960s were a good time for 657 Boulevard when I ran from room to room imagining the life with the rich occupants there. The house was full of life and young blood. Then it got old and so did my father. But he kept watching until the day he died. And now I watch and wait for the day when the young blood will be mine again.
Lenehan recommended looking into former housekeepers or their descendants. Perhaps The Watcher was jealous the Broaddus family had purchased a home the writer couldn’t afford.
But the focus remained on the Langfords. In cooperation with Westfield police, Mr. and Mrs. Broaddus sent a letter to the Langfords announcing plans to tear down the house, hoping to prompt a response. (Nothing happened.) Detective Lugo brought in Michael Langford for a second interview, but got nowhere, and his sister, Abby, accused the police of harassing the family. Eventually, Derek and Maria hired Lee Levitt, a lawyer, who met with several members of the Langford family, as well as their attorney, and showed them the letters, along with photos explaining how their home was one of the few vantage points from which the easel could be seen. The meeting grew tense, Levitt reported, and the Langfords insisted Michael was innocent. One night, Derek had a dream in which he confronted Peggy, the eldest of the Langford family, and demanded she build an eight-foot fence between the properties.
Maria was having a dreams of a different type. One night, she awakened from a particularly vivid dream about a man who lived nearby. “He was wearing these boots and carrying a pitchfork and calling to the kids and I couldn’t get to them in time,” she remembered. She thought almost anyone could be The Watcher, which made daily life feel like navigating a labyrinth of threats. She probed the faces of shoppers at Trader Joe’s to see if they looked strangely at her children and spent hours Googling anyone who seemed suspicious.
There were reasons to consider other suspects. For one thing, the police spoke to Michael Langford before the second letter was sent, which would make sending two more exceptionally reckless. (Mr. and Mrs. Broaddus said Lugo told them they wouldn’t receive any more letters after he spoke to Michael.) Then there was the rest of the neighborhood to consider. The private investigator found two child sex offenders within a few blocks. Bill Woodward, the man painting the house, had also noticed something off. The people behind 657 Boulevard kept a pair of lawn chairs strangely close to the Broaddus property. “One day, I was looking out the window and I saw this older guy sitting in one of the chairs,” Woodward recalled. “He wasn’t facing his house – he was facing the Broadduses.”
By the end of 2014, the investigation had stalled. The Watcher had left no digital trail, no fingerprints, and no way to place anyone at the scene of a crime that could have been hatched from pretty much any mailbox in northern New Jersey. The letters could be read closely for possible clues, or dismissed as the nonsensical ramblings of a sociopath. “It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” observed Scott Kraus, who helped investigate the case for the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. In December, the Westfield police told Derek and Maria they had run out of options. Subsequently, Derek showed the letters to his priest, who agreed to bless the house.
After the Broaddus family sold their old home, they moved in with Maria’s parents while continuing to pay the mortgage and property taxes on 657 Boulevard. “I had to do things like shovel the driveway,” Derek said. “Just picture that little indignity: I’d go at 5 in the morning, then come back and do it again at my in-laws.” They told only a handful of friends about the letters, which left others wandering why they weren’t moving in. “Legal issues,” they claimed, which led to speculation the two were getting a divorce. They fought constantly and started taking medication to asleep. “I was a depressed wreck,” Derek recalled. Maria decided to see a therapist after a routine doctor’s visit that began with the question “How are you?” caused her to burst into tears. The therapist told her she was suffering post-traumatic stress that wouldn’t go away until they got rid of the house.
Six months after the letters arrived, Derek and Maria decided to sell 657 Boulevard. They initially listed it for more than they paid to reflect the renovations they’d done. But few locations are more gossipy than suburban New Jersey and rumors had already begun to swirl about why the house sat empty. One broker sent an email indicating her client “loved” the house, but “there are so many unsubstantiated rumors flying around,” ranging “from sexual predator to stalker” and the client insisted on knowing more. Mr. and Mrs. Broaddus released a partial disclosure mentioning the letters to interested buyers and told Coldwell Banker, their realtor, they would show the letters to anyone whose offer was accepted. Several preliminary bids came in well below the asking price, but the owners weren’t ready to take such a financial hit and wanted to share the letters with likely buyers only. No one got that far, even after the price was lowered. A Coldwell agent who hadn’t read the letters advised in an email they were being unnecessarily forthcoming: “My friend got horrible threatening letters about her dog barking and she didn’t think to disclose” – but the Broadduses insisted. “I don’t know how you live through what we did and think you could do it to somebody else,” Derek explained.
Derek and Maria thought about what they would have done had the previous owners told them about their letter from The Watcher. The Woods couple, both retired scientists, said they considered the letter, which thanked them for taking care of the house, more strange than threatening. They claimed they never had any issues. “We certainly never felt ‘watched,’” Andrea insisted. In fact, they rarely locked the doors.
But Mr. and Mrs. Broaddus felt the name alone was ominous enough to merit mentioning to a new family moving in and on June 2, 2015, a year after buying 657 Boulevard, they filed a complaint against John and Andrea Woods, alleging Mr. and Mrs. Woods should have disclosed the letter just as they had the fact water sometimes got into the basement. The plaintiffs said they hoped to reach a quiet settlement. Their kids still didn’t know about The Watcher and their lawyer assured them that, at most, a small legal newswire might pick up the story.
“We do some creepy stories,” Tamron Hall said on NBC’s Today a few weeks later. “This might be top-10 creepy.” A local reporter had found the complaint, which included snippets of The Watcher’s menacing threats, and after a belated attempt by the Broaddus couple to seal the case, the story went viral. News trucks camped out at 657 Boulevard and one local reporter set up a lawn chair to conduct his own watch. Mr. and Mrs. Broaddus received more than 300 media requests, but with advice from a crisis-management consultant referred by one of Derek’s colleagues, they decided not to speak publicly to spare their children. They left Westfield and went to a friend’s beach house. (They didn’t find much peace: Maria’s grandfather had a heart attack and the friend with whom they were staying had a grand-mal seizure.) Eventually, Derek and Maria sat down with their children to explain the real reason they hadn’t moved into their home. The kids had plenty of questions: Who is The Watcher? Where does this person live? Why is this person angry with us? The parents had few answers. “Can you imagine having that conversation with a 5-year-old?” Derek asked rhetorically. “Your town isn’t as safe as you think it is and there’s a boogeyman obsessed with you.”
From a safer distance, The Watcher was a real-life mystery. A commenter on nj.com suggested ground-penetrating radar to find whatever The Watcher claimed was in the walls. (The property inspector had already checked and told Derek the only issue was the aging home’s lack of insulation.) A group of Reddit users obsessed over Google Maps’ Street View, which showed a car parked in front of 657 that one user thought had “a man holding a camera in the driver’s seat.” (Others, more rationally, saw “pixelated glare.”) The range of proposed suspects included a jilted mistress, a spurned realtor, a local high school student’s creative-writing project, guerrilla marketing for a horror movie and “mall goths having fun.” Some simply thought Mr. and Mrs. Broaddus were wimps for not moving in: “I would NEVER let this sicko stop me from moving into a house. Never back down from a TERRORIST,” which irked the family. “None of them have read the letters or had their children threatened by someone they didn’t know,” Derek countered. “To decide whether this person’s only nuts enough to write these letters and not to do something – what if something did happen? ”
In Westfield, people were on edge. Laurie Clancy, who taught piano lessons in her house behind 657 Boulevard, said one of her students came for a lesson shortly after news of The Watcher broke and started bawling. “She was terrified to walk down the Boulevard,” Clancy recalled. At the first Westfield town-council meeting after the letters became public, Mayor Andy Skibitksy assured the public The Watcher hadn’t been heard from in a year and that even though the police hadn’t solved the case, their investigation had been “exhaustive.” This was news to 657’s neighbors, most of whom had never heard from the cops. “We are confounded as to how a thorough investigation can be conducted without talking to all the neighbors with proximity to the home,” several of them wrote in a letter to the local paper. Under the glare of national attention, Barron Chambliss, a veteran detective with the Westfield police, was asked to review the case. “The Broadduses are victims and I don’t think they got the support they needed,” Chambliss, who has since retired, said of the initial investigation. Continued below