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Fall Feature FLASHPOINTS October 2019

October 15, 2019Print This Post Print This Post

John C. Murray

“Watcher House” Finally Sells; With Threatening Letters Follow? 

An interesting occurrence involving a prominent residential property sale, which has recently received renewed attention and scrutiny by the media, concerns “the Watcher,” who several years ago sent an anonymous threatening letter to the owners of a historic home in Westfield, New Jersey. The letter claimed the sender’s right of possession and/or ownership of the residence. The owners subsequently sold the home to a couple with three young children for $1.35 million in 2014, without mentioning the letter. Three days later the new owners began to receive letters from the Watcher, threatening them and their children. The following excerpt, which appeared in the New York Timesin 2016, summarizes the history of the events that occurred with respect to the property:

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 frivolous litigation and defamation. They have also requested that the case go to trial. Katie Rogers, “The Watcher” Makes Eerie Threats That Complicate a New Jersey Home Sale, New York Times (Mar. 30, 2016).

The lawsuit brought by Derek and Maria Broaddus was filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Union County, on June 2, 2015. A Superior Court judge eventually dismissed the Broadduses’ lawsuit in October 2017, ruling that there was no evidence that the former owners, John and Andrea Woods, intentionally hid the letter they received from the Watcher from the Broadduses. The judge also determined that upholding the complaint would place too great a burden on sellers of property with respect to speculation about what they must disclose to buyers regarding nonphysical aspects of the property and would lead to uncertainty in real estate law. The judge also dismissed the Woods’ counterclaim, holding that the Broadduses had not damaged the Woods’ reputation because there was no evidence that they tried to harass the Woods by filing the lawsuit.

The identity of the Watcher has never been established, despite extensive investigation into the matter by the town’s police, the county prosecutor’s office, and private investigators over a period of several years. The mystery surrounding the Watcher has generated continued media and internet attention and commentary, especially since even the latest technological advances have failed to help authorities identify the writer of the letters or the motive behind them. On February 20, 2017, a fourth letter was sent to the home (less than three weeks after a renter moved in and coming after a nearly two-and-a-half-year silence), which the Broadduses’ attorney said contained specific threats and was more derogatory and sinister than any of the previous letters. The latest letter was investigated by the local police, the county prosecutor, and the U.S. Postal Service, but the identity of the author still has not been identified.

The Broadduses tried to sell the home at least three times (unsuccessfully, due to the negative publicity and the threatening letters) but were only able to rent it. They also were unsuccessful in their attempt to tear down the house and divide the property into two lots, because the city’s planning board refused to approve the proposal. They were finally able to sell the house on July 1, 2019 (after five years of never having lived in it), for $959,380, approximately $400,000 less than the original purchase price paid by the Broadduses. They also were unable to recover the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spent on upgrades and renovations, additional security, and private investigators. Only time will tell whether the new owners will start receiving letters from the Watcher.

For more work by John C. Murray, click here to see the JOHN C. MURRAY COLLECTION available to Online Library subscribers for free. If you don’t currently subscribe to the Online Library, visit www.iicle.com/subscriptions.

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