On Nov. 6, 1999, Jennifer Watkins’ husband and mother called police when the young mom didn't come home from her shift at the Colorado hospital where she worked or pick up her kids from her mother’s house.
Two days later, elevator service employees working in an area of the hospital that was under construction made a grisly discovery when they came upon a body wrapped in plastic and bound with duct tape hidden under a stairwell.
Authorities identified the deceased female as Watkins, 23, who had been sexually assaulted and died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head, an autopsy showed.
Her death was ruled a homicide.
For the next 21 years, cold case detectives worked to find her killer.
On Wednesday, Colorado Springs Police announced that investigators had used genetic genealogy and DNA analysis to identify Watkins’ killer as Ricky Severt, a maintenance worker at Memorial Hospital where she worked as a food service aide.
Severt was killed in a car accident in 2001.
“After all these years, we are grateful to finally give Jennifer Watkins’ family the answers they deserve,” CSPD Chief Vince Niski said in a statement.
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“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.”
How DNA solved the case
According to a release from the CSPD, investigators joined forces with Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company in Virginia, and renowned genetic genealogist CeCe Moore to solve the crime.
"We have been working on this case for quite some time,” Moore, who is Parabon’s chief genetic genealogist, told KOAA. “It has not been an easy one to solve," said Moore.
Back in 1999, investigators collected evidence including “hairs, fibers and a ‘yellow/white’ stain, later determined to be semen,” from Watkins’ pants and from the plastic used to wrap her body and sent it to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the release says.
Two DNA profiles were developed from that evidence, the release says.
Between 2017 and 2018, cold case detectives worked with Parabon, which used DNA Phenotyping to “predict the physical appearance and ancestry” of the potential killer from unidentified DNA evidence collected at the scene.
In June 2018, police released the composite image to the public of what the suspect would have looked like in November 1999, encouraging anyone who recognized the photo to come forward.
In August 2020, Parabon identified Severt as a person of interest.
“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,” the release says, adding that he denied ever having seen Watkins.
Severt had been employed with Memorial Hospital since April 1998, and had been working on the date Watkins was last seen.
Familial DNA was collected from Severt’s surviving relatives.
“In September 2020, CBI conducted an 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,” the release says.
Because Severt died in 2001, the investigation into the murder of Jennifer Watkins will be closed, the release says.
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