DNA evidence links Texas inmate to 25-year-old California cold case rape, murder of jogger

DNA links inmate to 25-year-old cold case rape, murder of jogger

REDDING, Calif. — When Christine Susan Munro was found raped and murdered along the Sacramento River Trail in June 1995, the 37-year-old nurse’s death devastated her four children and the community of Redding.

On Friday, more than 25 years after the brutal crime, Redding police officials announced an arrest in the cold case.

James Earl Watkins, 42, is charged with kidnapping, rape and murder. He was booked Friday into the Shasta County Jail.

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“This case is a good reminder of how a community never forgets when a person has been murdered,” Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said at a news conference Friday evening.

Authorities caught up with Watkins at a prison in Beaumont, Texas. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, he was serving time for charges including the sexual assault of a child, burglary, escape and bank robbery.

“We know it has been a long time since the loss of Christine,” Redding police Chief Bill Schueller told Munro’s family. “Thank you for your support during this investigation. We sincerely hope this brings you some measure of closure.”

James Earl Watkins, seen at right in 1995, was 17 years old when authorities say he raped and murdered Christine Susan Munro, a 37-year-old nurse and mother of four, that June. Watkins, now 42, has been charged after DNA evidence from Munro's fingernails linked him to the crime.
James Earl Watkins, seen at right in 1995, was 17 years old when authorities say he raped and murdered Christine Susan Munro, a 37-year-old nurse and mother of four, that June. Watkins, now 42, has been charged after DNA evidence from Munro's fingernails linked him to the crime. (Redding Police Department)

Munro’s daughter, identified only as Lisa, spoke at the news conference announcing Watkins' arrest.

“Not a single day goes by that I don’t think about the day my mom was murdered, the manner in which she was taken from us and the pain this has caused our family,” she said. “There are simply no words to describe the sadness and grief our family has endured.”

Munro was jogging along the Sacramento River Trail on June 24, 1995, when she was ambushed. Authorities told the Sacramento Bee at the time that the nurse favored the trail, which was a popular destination for runners and cyclists.

Her partially-clothed body was found 30 feet from the trail and about 5 feet from the river’s edge, the Bee reported. She’d been stabbed multiple times, with the cause of her death described as a deep stab wound to the neck.

“She loved the river trail, and I take comfort knowing she died in the place she loved so much,” Munro’s daughter said Friday through tears.

Learn about the Sacramento River Trail below.

Schueller said detectives spent hundreds of hours collecting evidence and interviewing dozens of witnesses and potential suspects. In 1997, two years into the investigation, convicted rapist Michael Vielbig claimed responsibility for Munro’s killing.

Vielbig had been convicted the day before of raping and trying to kill two women near Shasta Lake, according to the Record Searchlight.

Prosecutors at the time believed Vielbig’s story, despite a lack of physical evidence and inaccurate details, the newspaper reported. Ultimately, he was never charged with raping and killing Munro.

Over the years, the case went cold.

In late 2019, Redding police Detective Rusty Bishop began reviewing the Munro case, including looking at physical evidence that could be analyzed with modern DNA technology.

“In January of 2020, Detective Bishop resubmitted fingernail scrapings of Christine Munro to the Department of Justice for DNA analysis,” Schueller said. “This past June, Detective Bishop received notification of a possible match through the Department of Justice Combined DNA Index System, also known as CODIS.”

Watch Redding officials talk about the case against Watkins below.

Christine Munro Cold Case Press Conference

Christine Munro Cold Case Press Conference

Posted by Redding Police Department on Friday, November 13, 2020

CODIS indicated that the material matched Watkins' DNA profile. Detectives immediately began to reconstruct Watkins' history.

“They learned that Watkins moved to Redding from Texas in early 1995, at the age of 17, to live with his aunt and uncle,” Schueller said. “During his short time in Redding, he was contacted by Redding Police eight times over the two-year period.”

Watkins' interactions with law enforcement included a shoplifting arrest, an arrest on an undisclosed warrant and a citation for unlawful camping, the chief said. In the fall of 1997, Watkins returned to Texas, where he continued racking up criminal charges.

“He has spent a significant portion of his life in prison,” Schueller said.

In August, multiple Redding detectives, along with a prosecutor, flew out to Texas to follow up on the case, including interviewing Watkins in prison.

“With assistance from the Texas Rangers, a search warrant was issued for Watkins' DNA,” the chief said. "Upon their return, detectives transferred the Watkins' DNA sample to the California Department of Justice, Redding lab. Within a few weeks, the analysis confirmed the original CODIS hit was a match.

“In simple terms, Watkins' DNA was under Christine Munro’s fingernails at the time of her murder.”

An arrest warrant was issued for Watkins, as was a governor’s warrant seeking his extradition from Texas to California. Watkins waived extradition, and detectives flew to Texas Thursday to bring him back to Shasta County.

The district attorney, Bridgett, said Friday that the charges against Watkins include enhancements for lying in wait, murder while in commission of a kidnapping and murder while in the commission of or for the purposes of rape.

Because Watkins was 17 at the time he is accused of killing Munro, the case has been filed in juvenile court. Bridgett said, however, that her office will request a transfer so he can be prosecuted as an adult.

“That is something that can take some time,” Bridgett said. “In the meantime, he is going to be housed in the Shasta County Jail with no bail.”

Because of his status as a juvenile in 1995, Watkins is not eligible for the death penalty if convicted of the charges. He is eligible for life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Munro’s daughter thanked everyone involved in solving her mother’s murder, particularly Bishop.

“His tenacity ensured that my mom’s murderer will never know what it means to be free again,” Lisa said.