"Most people aren't comfortable talking about it," says the clerk at CoolVines, an upscale wine shop located in the heart of Westfield, New Jersey's central shopping district. The A.C. in CoolVines is turned down to "arctic tundra," a welcome relief from the relentless sun in which I've been standing all day, asking everyone I see whether they know anything, anything at all, about the identity of The Watcher.
"Are you?" I press, thrilled by this lead. After five hours in the sun, any response besides a resigned shrug is classifiable as a success.
"No," he says. He's in his late 20s, generically attractive, wearing polo shirt and a wedding ring. He doesn't look like a conspiracy theorist, nor does he look like the type to spill a closely held town secret.
"I got my reasons."
"What are they?"
"They're my reasons."
After some additional back and forth, he finally says: "Personal reasons. It reminds me of my past." He looks at me. "Do you like talking about your past?"
A customer comes in, and he promptly turns his attention to her, waxing poetic about a sauvignon blanc.
Let me explain why, a month after the Watcher first captured my attention with his creepy scribbles, it took me until now to journey to Westfield.
On Tuesday, I was contacted by Bill Shaffer, a former inhabitant of the now-famous Watcher house, the apparent fixation of one deranged individual and the source of a chilling lawsuit filed last month. There were letters, you see, sent to a family who had recently purchased the home for $1.3 million, threatening letters that refer to the family's children as "young bloods" and inquiring whether they've "found out what’s in the walls yet?”
Shaffer, whose family bought the house in 1955 and sold it in 1963, recalls nothing but happy memories there—not one piece of mail purporting to watch the children sleep. But the next day, we did receive the following email:
So... heard from a friend who knows someone who lives on that street in New Jersey. The Watcher is a local crazy who lives on the street and harasses everyone. Apparently he's an adult son of a couple living on the street. Everyone who lives there knows who it is and no one will speak up because they're afraid he'll genuinely retaliate. The guy's parents defend him and think he's harmless, when in reality he makes life uncomfortable and annoying for everyone in the neighborhood. He probably hasn't actually broken any laws, so the police will do nothing.
I went to Westfield the next day, convinced that someone would break the town's apparent code of silence if I cajoled hard enough. "Story of the Century" the Times would bleat. Christian, the photographer assigned to join me, assured me it would play out just like on True Detective. I have not seen True Detective, but I agreed that he was correct. I'd be the actor from Cheers, we decided.
Christian and I started our quest with the Westfield police department, a handsome brick building framed by a perfectly manicured lawn. After a few moments of lingering in the deathly silent lobby, I tracked down a detective, who brought me into the station's back conference room. I introduced myself to him and his partner, and the three of us sat down.
I explained the email to the two detectives, who asked to see it. "Listen," I said, trying to sound conspiratorial. "Off the record, can you confirm that this is just some crazy person, sending these letters?"
They could not. One of them, who looked vaguely like a fish, explained that our conversation would be brief indeed unless I produced this email. After a moment of hedging, I read the email, and awaited his end of our non-bargain.
"Welp, looks like we're done here," he said, rising to his feet.
"But you didn't... you said..." I stammered. The Fish placed his hand on my back and steered me toward the front door, and, despite my protests, I was promptly shoved back into the hot sun.
A patrolman strolled through the parking lot. I asked him about the Watcher—any working theories? Any juicy rumors?
"People ask me about it all the time. Even when I'm off-duty, at parties," he said. "I tell them 'The only thing to watch is me drink another beer!'"
The street on which the Watcher house is located is quiet, but not totally devoid of human life. Mid-day walkers stroll down the pristine sidewalks, and several people appear to be inexplicably at home. A few doors down, a young man in rose colored shorts waters a veritable sea of Impatiens bordering a sprawling lawn. Westfield is full of sprawling lawns.
"Are you guys from NJ.com?" he asked politely. He explained that his parents had already spoken to several reporters, but that no one in his family knew anything beyond what they'd read in the papers. The former owners, the Woods, were very nice people. I told him about the email I'd received, that everyone in the neighborhood knew it was someone's deranged adult son. "I'm The Watcher!" he laughed. Christian and I laughed, too. He said he was a fan of Gothamist, and bid us farewell.
He continued to drench the flowers, and we walked away. "I'm not convinced he's not the Watcher," I whispered.
Christian went to make a phone call, and I knocked on the door of another house around the corner. An open garage door was visible around the back of a house, which I took as a sign that someone was home. A man who looked to be in his late 60s opened it, his white hair the same hue as the tube socks on his feet. I explained why I was there, and he opened the screen door further: Would I like to come in for an iced tea?
Inside his air-conditioned living room, John Manos said that while he'd heard of the Watcher, he certainly didn't know of anyone's adult son terrorizing the neighborhood. He's lived in his home for 13 years, and insisted he would have been fine staying put had the threats been directed at him.
"I would have just put in an alarm system," he said. "But everybody's different. I don’t have any young kids. If you have a couple of young kids, then you may react differently."
Manos doesn't think his neighbors are especially fearful of The Watcher. "I just think it’s somebody with a psychological problem," he said. "There are a lot of psychologically impaired people. People don’t always take their medicine."
But Westfield is a safe town, and this is a safe neighborhood, he said.
"Most of the time I don’t even lock my back door."
Horace Corbin is sitting in the downtown offices of the Westfield Leader, the town's local paper since 1890. He's in his 70s, with a shock of white hair and a red cup in his hand. "It's after 5, so I'm drinking a vodka," he informs me. The office has lots of wood-paneling and smells heavily of cigarettes. I feel immediately at home.
Corbin is the paper's publisher, and put plainly, he thinks the idea of an unhinged madman haunting the neighborhood is a load of crap. In an effort not to reveal too much, he peppers me with a series of questions about mortgages that I don't understand.
"When did the closing happen? When was the lawsuit filed, and when was all the work done?" he asked. (I did not have answers to these questions at the time, though I have since learned that the lawsuit was not filed until a solid year after the new owners were allegedly scared from their home.) He went on to ask, rhetorically, who the lender was, and who owns the lending company.
"How can a couple with a $300,000 house in Scotch Plains and $175,000 mortgage 10 years ago have a $1.1 million mortgage at a mortgage rate that doesn't make sense? You might ask those questions," he said, waving the cup. "Or you might ask, maybe it's a ghoul in a house. But the issues are probably more practical." He pointed out that records show the new owners having had 12 mortgages in the past 10 years.
Corbin says that, despite the lawsuit claiming that the new owners already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovations, neighbors deny that any contractors were ever seen at the house, and that no permits were ever filed with the city.
Nor, he said, has the house been put on the market. Moreover, upon receipt of these alleged "letters," the new owners didn't even go to the police—instead, they went directly to the Union County Prosecutor. Westfield has a great police department—why wouldn't they go to the cops?
"There are a lot of weird things—protocol and timing things, that don't make sense," he said. It's clear he thinks the new owners wrote the letters to themselves to get out of their million dollar mortgage, though he does not explain why they would choose such a glitzy publicity stunt sure to attract media attention.
As for the tip I'd received about the alleged deranged son, Corbin told me that last year, several neighbors had filtered into the Leader's offices—well before the lawsuit was filed—curious as to why their new neighbor had not moved in. (The Leader has an open-door policy, and Westfield is that kind of town.)
"The neighbors knew something was strange, not from the fact that there was a 'watcher' going around doing weird things," he said. "But after 10 months or more, they're saying, 'something is wrong, where are the new neighbors?' It wasn't that our neighborhood is filled with goblins."
Corbin feels confident the house will go in a short sale. "It's going to go quietly into some legal settlement in the background—and then there will be no Watcher!" He laughs.
"It would surprise me if the owner pursues this lawsuit. It's very possible that the size of the marketplace and the stakeholders involved will make this slowly disappear."
"I would say at this stage, things have been fleshed out in a lot of different directions, such as who all the players are, who all the real estate agents are, all the transactions, all of the mortgage records of all the players. And my opinion is, there is no Watcher."
I thanked Corbin for his time, and left. I'd talked to dozens of people that day, all of whom had arrived at roughly the same bathetic conclusion—The Watcher was a prank, a hoax, the figment of someone's unwell mind. But all agreed—whoever it was, he or she was totally harmless.
"Horace Corbin is the Watcher," I wrote in my notes. Case closed.