CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Craig White’s family has justice, but still no body.
They have their murderer, a relative whom they long suspected but who is now identified as such in the eyes of the law.
But as White’s family on Friday watched Jesse Watkins sentenced to 45 years in prison for the 1990 murder, there remained a haunting secret that a two-week trial could not unearth: Where was Craig’s body?
“It’s heart-wrenching to know we don’t know where he’s at, or what happened truthfully,” said Craig White’s uncle, Vince Watkins. "There’s no closure. That’s fitting to what we’re used to.”
Craig White and Jesse Watkins were second cousins, and friends.
Prosecutors built their case using confessions Watkins made to former lovers and relatives and his own suspicious behavior and conflicting stories following White’s disappearance from the Whitesboro section of Middle Township in February 1990.
But those confessions were inconsistent about where Watkins put White’s body after shooting him in the head.
Was the body weighted down and dropped in water, or was he buried with road construction equipment while still wearing a locket with his infant son’s photo around his neck?
White’s family received no answers Friday afternoon, when Watkins proclaimed his innocence to Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten at sentencing. A jury convicted him in February.
“I was not the one. I loved my cousin Craig,” Watkins said. “Craig was like a son to me.”
Craig’s mother, Lee White, scowled at him from the audience.
“There was no DNA, no witnesses, no crime scene, no body,” Watkins said, shackled and wearing reading glasses. “I had a jury with none of my peers. There were no blacks on the jury.”
“I just ask for leniency, please, sir,” he said.
Batten cited the evidence presented at trial, a “lifestyle of violence and threats of violence,” and a detached, cool manner during a trial in which he remained stone-faced as a jury found him guilty.
“Not as much as the blink of an eye,” the judge said.
Batten sentenced the 47-year-old Watkins to 45 years in prison, with parole eligibility after 30 years. Watkins could be anywhere from his mid-70s to early 90s when he is released.
“In time, we’ll forgive him, and hopefully, God will forgive him too,” Craig’s aunt Kay White said in court.
After court, she hugged Watkins’ 90-year-old father.
Prosecutors painted the motive for the February 1990 slaying as a love triangle.
White, who was 18, had slept with Watkins’ live-in girlfriend. The woman admitted the affair shortly after Watkins proposed marriage.
Watkins was suspected in White’s disappearance since the beginning.
White was last seen hopping in Watkins’ truck to cut down poles in the woods of Whiteboro, a historically black and rural community tucked between Cape May Court House and Rio Grande.
And within a week of White’s disappearance, Watkins told four different stories to friends and police about his last encounter with White, witnesses testified.
He had asked others to lie and disguised his voice over the telephone to try to impersonate White on several occasions, several witnesses testified.
But some of the strongest evidence came from two of Watkins’ former lovers — Karen Fox and Margarette Marion — to whom he confessed years after White’s disappearance.
A chilling detail in both accounts related to a locket White wore around his neck. The photo was of his 1-year-old son, Craig White Jr., who is now older than his father was when he died.
“He said when he buried him, (White) had a locket on a necklace with a picture of his son,” Fox testified Jan. 28. “He knew how much he loved, he cared for his son, so he left the locket around his neck. He didn’t want to take it off.”
E-mail Brian Ianieri: