Orange County District Attorney
Tony Rackauckas, District Attorney
401 Civic Center Drive West
Santa Ana, CA 92701
For Immediate Release
Susan Kang Schroeder
JURY RECOMMENDS DEATH FOR MAN CONVICTED
OF 1980 COLD CASE MURDER OF 70-YEAR-OLD
SEAL BEACH WOMAN FOUND RAPED AND DEAD
ON CHRISTMAS EVE
SANTA ANA – A jury recommended today that a former Long Beach man receive the death penalty for the 1980 sexual assault murder of a 70-year-old Seal Beach woman. Benjamin Wayne Watta, 63, was convicted of one felony count of murder during the commission of rape and burglary on June 2, 2008. Watta is scheduled to be sentenced July 31, 2008, in Department C-41, Central Justice Center, Santa Ana.
On Dec. 23, 1980, Watta murdered 70-year-old Simone Sharpe at her neighbor’s home in Seal Beach. Sharpe had been helping her vacationing neighbors for several days by entering through an unlocked garage door to feed their cats and collect the mail. The following evening, on Christmas Eve, Sharpe’s son noticed that his mother was missing and went to the neighbor’s house to look for her. Her son entered the neighbor’s home the same way as the victim and found his mother murdered in a bedroom, wedged between the bed and the wall. She had been raped, strangled, and suffocated.
The case remained unsolved for over 20 years until March 21, 2001, when the OCDA Task Force Aimed at Catching Killers, Rapists and Sexual Offenders Unit (TracKRS) linked Watta to the murder through DNA from the 1980 rape kit. The DNA technology used by TracKRS to analyze forensic evidence from the crime scene did not exist in 1980. When TracKRS linked Watta to the murder, the defendant was in custody in Florida for shooting and attempting to murder his then-girlfriend. He was extradited to Orange County to face charges for murdering Sharpe.
During the guilt phase of the trial, the defense presented evidence that convicted Texas serial case Henry Lee Lucas confessed to Sharpe’s murder in 1986, but the People argued that the DNA evidence conclusively matched Watta to the crime.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin of the Homicide Unit is prosecuting this case.