The 81-year-old Watts died Thursday, less than two months after he laid down his life, according to police and family members, to protect his wife. A robber - police arrested a 16-year-old boy in the crime - attacked the Watts in their driveway and Willie Watts draped his body over his wife, taking the brunt of the attack.
The teen charged in connection with the beating has also been charged in several other crimes, including the armed robbery of a WOIO-TV reporter on assignment.
Watts was treated at University Hospitals after the beating and released but returned six weeks later due to complications from heart surgery that he had four years ago. He had a valve implanted in his heart at the time to correct congestive heart failure.
He ultimately died of an infection surrounding the valve, said his 76-year-old wife, Della.
Family members want the teen's felonious assault charge upgraded to murder or aggravated murder, which would allow the state to imprison him for decades. But before prosecutors can seek enhanced charges, the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner would have to link his death directly to the beating.
University Hospitals did not report the death as suspicious. A hospital spokesman said Tuesday that he would look into the matter and see what policies the hospital has in regards to reporting suspicious deaths to the medical examiner.
Prosecutors late Monday asked the medical examiner to investigate the death, according to a statement from Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson. Watts' body was taken to the medical examiner's office on Tuesday.
Gilson's statement said the prosecutors notified his office about the beating. The Medical Examiner's Office will perform an autopsy.
Delays in autopsies can have varying effects on the outcome, including in cases where the body had already been embalmed, as in Watts' case, Gilson said.
Family members believe that given his health issues and his age, the severity of the beating must have somehow contributed to his death.
Doctors at UH had considered another surgery to try to save Watts, but decided he wouldn't be able to survive the procedure, his wife said.
"They said he wouldn't last on the operating table. But if anybody with a bad heart, and you stomp and you beat him," she said, while choking back tears. "The doctor won't say that that boy killed him. But he beat us unmercifully. He had no mercy on us. He has a black heart."
Coal, coding and Cleveland
The family tries not dwell on how Watts' life ended but it's hard. It was the last major event in a life that included a stint in the military, his 59-year marriage and decades of dedication to his family.
Willie Watts Jr. was born in Alabama, but his father moved the family to the Eastern Kentucky coal-mining area of Benham when he was just 8 months old. Harvester International recruited his father to work in the mines and because of his talents as a baseball pitcher, family members mused. Harvester International wanted him on the company team.
Watts grew up with a pet wolf and spent his time playing in the mountain air. His mother taught Sunday school and Watts himself began teaching classes at age 14.
He followed his father's athletic exploits at the segregated Benham High School, where he starred as a point guard on the basketball team, quarterback on the football team and played every baseball position on the diamond.
After graduating in 1954, he enlisted in the Air Force, where he spent three years stationed in Germany decoding enemy radio messages.
"He broke codes tracking down where the enemies were," his wife said. "My husband could type as fast as these kids are on their cellphones now. He could type just as fast."
Back in Kentucky, coal-mining production slowed, and Watts' family moved to Cleveland. While on leave from the military, Watts came home to Cleveland and met his sister's best friend, a sharp-dressing roller-skate-loving 10th grader at Jane Adams High School named Della.
"He was tall and handsome and good looking," she said. "Oh, he was good looking. He just had a bubbly personality."
They quickly formed a bond over their shared history as Kentucky coal-mining kids. She was raised in another coal-mining camp and later moved with her family to Cleveland. They also were both passionate sports fans, following the Browns and later the Cavaliers. He wrote her love letters while serving in Germany until he was honorably discharged in 1957.
Building a family and a life
Once home in Cleveland, he took a job at Allied Chemical, dated Della and married her on Aug. 22, 1959. His oldest granddaughter also plans to marry the same day in 2020 in homage to her grandparents.
In the 42 years and nine months at Allied Chemical, he never called in sick, Della Watts said. She worked for 30 years for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District as a parent-teacher liaison.
They eventually had two children, adopted three others and fostered five kids.
"He was very family-oriented," Della Watts said. "He taught them to love the Lord. He never wavered from his responsibility as a husband and a father. Never. Sometimes he had tough work days but it didn't matter as long as his family was taken care of."
Despite the busy household, the couple found time to organize the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, a group of former coal-mining kids who wanted to stay in touch as the mines closed and the families spread across the country. The Watts organized yearly reunions and hosted them all across the country.
The couple stressed the importance of education to their children and grandchildren. Of their eight grandchildren, five have college degrees, two are attending college and their youngest, a 10th grader, already secured a four-year academic scholarship, something that made her grandfather especially proud.
One of their grandchildren wrote a report on Watts for school. The assignment: write a paper about your hero.
Watts was known for his immaculate style that always included a suit, with matching hat and shoes. He focused his energy on religion, his son-in-law Daryl Mapson said. Watts was an ordained deacon at the East Zion Baptist Church in Cleveland, where he taught Sunday School and later became the superintendent of the program.
He headed up the church's Boy Scouts troop and participated in Friday night Bible studies. Every month, he took communion to elderly churchgoers who were unable to make it to church services.
After his retirement in 2001, Watts focused on his grandchildren, giving them rides to school, helping out with their cars and spoiling them in any way he could, his widow said.
The two still lived active lives, despite Willie Watts' health issues. His wife said he started having problems in October and was in and out of doctor's offices for several months.
A raving maniac and an ATM code
The attack was as savage as it was unforeseen.
On Feb. 7, Della called her husband and told him she'd be home soon. He always kept an eye out for her and stood by the side door to wait for her, she said.
She pulled into the unattached garage on East 99th Street and Superior Avenue and walked toward the door with groceries in her arms. That's when the attacker approached her.
He demanded her purse and she gave it to him. He shoved her to the ground before picking up her cane and hitting her in the head and body several times. She described him as a "raving maniac."
Watts moved in and dove onto his wife's body to protect her from the blows.
The attacker turned his attention to Watts, beating him with the cane and stomping on his head. He demanded Della Watts' ATM code. She rattled off a fake code so he'd leave.
"If this is wrong, I'll kill you," he said, before running into a home across the street.
A nearby Cleveland police officer investigating a report of a stolen car spotted a teen running into the home. It was the same home the officer was dispatched to in the stolen car investigation. The officer said he found the teen hiding in the basement with Della Watts' cellphone, credit cards and purse.
Cuyahoga County prosecutors are seeking to have the teen's cases transferred to adult court, where he would face more prison time if convicted.
Della Watts' will accept no excuses for what the attacker did.
"That was his choice," she said. "His choice. And I don't want a judge to tell me he did this because of the way he was raised or the way he was brought up. He chose to do this to us."
Watts suffered five broken facial bones, including a broken eye socket and broken nose. He also suffered a concussion. Both he and his wife got several stitches and remained in the hospital for about 12 hours.
Mapson said his father-in-law was different after the attack.
"The beautiful thing about it is that he took care of her during the beating. He made the ultimate sacrifice. He's my hero," Mapson said. "But he lost a little spirit after that. He was quieter."
Della Watts still struggles to make sense of it all.
"If he wanted our money or whatever, he didn't have to beat us," she said. "I gave him my wallet and my cellphone. He didn't have to stomp us. He became so vicious and angry."
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