Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Watcher’ Makes Eerie Threats That Complicate a New Jersey Home Sale

A stately colonial home recently listed for sale in Westfield, N.J., comes with six bedrooms, wood flooring and a disturbing back story that left its last owners living in fear of a stalker who sent them a series of cryptic, threatening letters.

The house was considered a dream home by Derek and Maria Broaddus when they purchased it for themselves and their three small children in 2014. But three days after they closed, a letter arrived signed by someone who went by the name “The Watcher,” according to the couple’s lawyer, Lee Levitt.

The writer claimed that the house was a family obsession: “My grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched it in the 1960s. It is now my time.”

More correspondence followed that grew increasingly threatening, and specific, according to a lawsuit filed by the Broadduses against the former owners.

The writer wanted to know whose bedroom faced the street, and criticized changes that made the home more “fancy.” The letters hinted that the writer had identified the children: “I am pleased to know your names now and the name of the young blood you have brought me.”

Fearing for their safety, the Broadduses never moved into the home in Westfield, a town of 30,000 located about 45 minutes from New York City. Instead, they hired an F.B.I. profiler, who deduced from the handwriting on the envelope that “The Watcher” was likely an older person.

The couple sent the letters to the Westfield police, who found the DNA of a woman on one envelope but never landed on a suspect.

Finally, they brought a lawsuit against the former owners, John and Andrea Woods, that said the sellers had also received an anonymous letter but had kept that information secret.

The Broadduses are seeking the nullification of their contract, punitive damages and a refund of the purchase price, with interest. A lawyer for the Woodses declined to comment, but the couple has filed a lawsuit of its own against the Broadduses, accusing the new owners of frivolus litigation and defamation. They have also requested that the case go to trial.

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The danger-in-suburbia story was picked up by local broadcasters and soon grew into a media circus for the Broadduses. The identity of “The Watcher” became a subject of intense curiosity on Internet forums dedicated to unsolved mysteries.

Theories abound, but none have panned out:

• Was “The Watcher” a disgruntled potential buyer who balked at the $1.3 million price tag? (There was no bidding war, according to the couple’s lawyer.)

• Was it masterminded by the Broadduses themselves, to get more money out of the previous owners? (“These are the nicest people. They wanted to buy their dream home and move into it,” Mr. Levitt said.)

• The Hollywood theory has had perhaps the most subscribers. (“I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out the new owners are screenwriters/authors,” one Reddit theorist wrote.)

Indeed, “The Watcher” is now being developed by the executive producer of “Homeland” and was bought preemptively by NBC, Deadline Hollywood reported.

For some armchair investigators, the “Watcher” case has evoked memories of a brush with suburban horror in Westfield back in 1971, when John E. List shot and killed his wife, three children and 85-year-old mother. He left the lights on in the house and organ music on an intercom system before he left town. The bodies weren’t discovered for weeks, and Mr. List was not caught until 1989.

The Broadduses, who temporarily moved away to escape the media attention, have since settled back in New Jersey, but their lawyer won’t say where. “Put it this way: How would you feel if you haven’t slept in your own bed for 20 months?” Mr. Levitt said.

Mr. Levitt thinks the case has inspired such intense interest partly because it can’t be solved easily, despite technological advances. “We can crack iPhones to get to terrorist texts and things of that nature,” he said, but we can’t figure out who wrote a letter.

Michael C. Buccola, who is selling the home on behalf of Westfield Realty Service, said he would not comment on whether the home, whose price was dropped to $1.2 million, has attracted any serious interest.

Mr. Levitt said that the new buyers would get a house that has been improved and maintained by the Broadduses. But he also acknowledged that the identity of whoever sent those letters was still the target of an active police investigation.

“Someone’s going to get a great house,” Mr. Levitt said, before adding, “How do you get over the dichotomy of whether it’s a real threat or a perceived threat?”

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