The real story behind ‘The Watcher’

Many of you may have seen The Watcher on Netflix.  I have binged it this week and we thought it might make for a good Halloween episode and blog.  So here we are.

The Watcher is based on a true story.  Some artistic license has been taken – names have been changed etc, but the premise of the story is the same. 

This is the bio of the show from Netflix

Ominous letters. Strange neighbors. Sinister threats. A family moves into their suburban dream home, only to discover they’ve inherited a nightmare.

It follows the true story of a married couple (the Brannock’s) who, after moving into their dream home in Westfield, New Jersey, are harassed by letters signed by a stalker named The Watcher.

The real life story involves the Broaddus family, Maria and Derek and their children.

The couple purchased 657 Boulevard in Westfield, NJ in June 2014.  They paid $1,355,657.

You can see the house listing on Zillow.

Maria had grown up in Westfield and the new home was very close to her childhood home. Derek grew up in Maine.  He eventually moved to New York City where he worked his way up the corporate ladder.  He became a senior vice-president at an Insurance company. 

Westfield seems like a nice place to raise a family.  There are 30,000 residents and it is an affluent area. Bloomberg ranked Westfield the 99th-richest city in America — but only the 18th wealthiest in New Jersey — and in 2014, when The Watcher struck, the website NeighborhoodScout named it the country’s 30th-safest town. The most pressing local issues of late, according to residents, have been the temporary closure of Trader Joe’s after a roof collapse and the rampant scourge of “unconstitutional policing,” by which they mean aggressive parking enforcement. 

The real estate market in Westfield was very competitive at the time that the Broaddus’ purchased their home.  “There’s a lot of money and a lot of ego,” one resident told The Cut. “I’ve seen bidding wars where friends lost by $300,000.”

The Broaddus family were doing some renovations to the house before they moved in.  Three days after they closed on the property, Derek was there painting.  After he finished, he went to check the mailbox.  

There is a really comprehensive article on this case by The Cut (it is said a lot of info from the Netflix show was taken from this article) and this info is directly from it:

There wasn’t much in the mail except a few bills and a white, card-shaped envelope. It was addressed in thick, clunky handwriting to “The New Owner,” and the typed note inside began warmly:

Dearest new neighbor at 657 Boulevard,

Allow me to welcome you to the neighborhood.

“How did you end up here? Did 657 Boulevard call to you with its force within?”

657 Boulevard has been the subject of my family for decades now and as it approaches its 110th birthday, I have been put in charge of watching and waiting for its second coming. My grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched in the 1960s. It is now my time. Do you know the history of the house? Do you know what lies within the walls of 657 Boulevard? Why are you here? I will find out.

The letter identified the Broadduses’ Honda minivan, as well as the workers renovating the home. “I see already that you have flooded 657 Boulevard with contractors so that you can destroy the house as it was supposed to be,” the person wrote. “Tsk, tsk, tsk … bad move. You don’t want to make 657 Boulevard unhappy. You have children. I have seen them. So far I think there are three that I have counted.” 

“Who am I? There are hundreds and hundreds of cars that drive by 657 Boulevard each day. Maybe I am in one. Look at all the windows you can see from 657 Boulevard. Maybe I am in one.”

Do you need to fill the house with the young blood I requested? Better for me. Was your old house too small for the growing family? Or was it greed to bring me your children? Once I know their names I will call to them and draw them too [sic] me.

The letter concluded by saying, “Welcome my friends, welcome. Let the party begin,” and signed his name, “The Watcher.”

I have tried to find the letters in full but I haven’t been able to yet.  The contents of the letter that we just mentioned have been pieced together from different articles.

The Broaddus’ had purchased the house from a couple named Andrea and John Woods.  After Derek received the first letter, they emailed the Woods’ to ask if they had ever had any contact from ‘The Watcher’.  

Andrea replied and said a few days before they moved out, they did receive a letter.

The note had been “odd,” she said, and made similar mention of The Watcher’s family observing the house over time, but Andrea said she and her husband had never received anything like it in their 23 years in the house and had thrown the letter away without much thought.

The Broaddus’ continued on with their renovations while they lived elsewhere.  One morning, a contractor arrived at the property to find that a sign he had hammered into the ground had been removed. 

Maria was the one to find the second letter, two weeks after they got the first one.  It was addressed to Mr and Mrs Braddus (misspelled their last name)

“Welcome again to your new home at 657 Boulevard,” The Watcher wrote. “The workers have been busy and I have been watching you unload carfuls of your personal belongings. The dumpster is a nice touch. Have they found what is in the walls yet? In time they will.”

The letter writer identified the names of the Broaddus’ children,  “I am pleased to know your names now and the name of the young blood you have brought to me,” it said. “You certainly say their names often.” The letter asked about one child in particular, whom the writer had seen using an easel inside an enclosed porch: “Is she the artist in the family?”

The letter continued:

657 Boulevard is anxious for you to move in. It has been years and years since the young blood ruled the hallways of the house. Have you found all of the secrets it holds yet? Will the young blood play in the basement? Or are they too afraid to go down there alone. I would [be] very afraid if I were them. It is far away from the rest of the house. If you were upstairs you would never hear them scream.

Will they sleep in the attic? Or will you all sleep on the second floor? Who has the bedrooms facing the street? I’ll know as soon as you move in. It will help me to know who is in which bedroom. Then I can plan better.

All of the windows and doors in 657 Boulevard allow me to watch you and track you as you move through the house. Who am I? I am the Watcher and have been in control of 657 Boulevard for the better part of two decades now. The Woods family turned it over to you. It was their time to move on and kindly sold it when I asked them to.

I pass by many times a day. 657 Boulevard is my job, my life, my obsession. And now you are too Braddus family. Welcome to the product of your greed! Greed is what brought the past three families to 657 Boulevard and now it has brought you to me.

Have a happy moving in day. You know I will be watching.

Maria and Derek stopped taking their children to the house after that.  They became unsure as to if they wanted to move into the property at all.

A few weeks later, they got another letter.

“Where have you gone to?” The Watcher wrote. “657 Boulevard is missing you.”

Maria and Derek began to look into who The Watcher might be.  The house they purchased had much interest and they beat other prospective buyers by offering above asking price.  They thought that The Watcher might be someone who was mad about losing out on the property.  The Woods (previous owners) told them about the other two parties that had put in offers  – one had pulled out for medical reasons and the second had already purchased another property. 

Andrea Woods suggested that The Watcher was someone who lived nearby, as they had mentioned seeing contractor trucks at the property.

They also looked into the post mark dates of the letters.  The first was postmarked June 4, which was before the sale details were made public.

Derek and Maria showed police the easel that was mentioned in the letter.  It was on a porch that was hidden from the street by vegetation, making it difficult to see unless someone was behind the house or right next door.

Police told Maria and Derek not to tell anyone about the letters.  The couple went to a neighborhood barbecue and used the opportunity to try to find out about any locals who could potentially be The Watcher.

Derek was speaking to John Schmidt, who lived two doors down.  John told him about the Langfords, who lived between them. Peggy Langford was in her 90s, and several of her adult children, all in their 60s, lived with her. The family was a bit odd, Schmidt said, but harmless. He described one of the younger Langfords, Michael, who didn’t work and had a beard like Ernest Hemingway, as “kind of a Boo Radley character.”

(Boo Radley is from To Kill a Mockingbird. ‘He is a mysterious, reclusive man and the frequent subject of children’s ghastly urban legends’)

Derek thought the case was solved. The Langford house was right next to the easel on the porch. The family had lived there since the 1960s, when The Watcher’s father had begun observing 657 Boulevard, according to the letters.

Richard Langford, the family patriarch, had died 12 years earlier, and the current Watcher claimed to have been on the job for “the better part of two decades.”

Derek took that information to Detective Lugo who was handling the case.  He already knew about the Langford’s though and had interviewed Michael Langford after the first letter had arrived.  Michael denied knowing anything about the letters and police said there was no evidence to charge him with anything.

Michael had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man. He sometimes spooked newcomers to the neighborhood when he did strange things, like walk through their backyard or peek into the windows of homes that were being renovated. But those who knew him said the odd things he did were mostly just unusual neighborly kindnesses. 

“He goes out and gets the newspapers for me every morning,” said John Schmidt, another neighbor. People who had known Michael for decades told reporters that they didn’t believe he was capable of writing the letters. 

Derek compiled a map of the area and began to find out about the residents.  The Langford family were the only ones who had been there since the 60’s.  He also tried to work out how close by someone would have to live to hear them speaking the kids’ names (as referenced in the letter).

The police and the Broaddus’ came up with a plan to send a letter to the Langfords, informing them of their plans to tear down the house.  I think this was meant to act as ‘bait’ to see if The Watcher became angered.

Nothing happened.

The Broaddus’ hired a PI who found that there were two sex offenders living nearby.  Nothing seems to have come from that lead.

Bill Woodward, the Broadduses’ housepainter, had also noticed something strange. The couple behind 657 Boulevard kept a pair of lawn chairs strangely close to the Broadduses’ property. “One day, I was looking out the window and I saw this older guy sitting in one of the chairs,” Woodward told me. “He wasn’t facing his house — he was facing the Broadduses.’ ”

By the end of 2014, which was six months after the house was purchased by the Broaddus family, the investigation had gone nowhere.  There were no fingerprints or DNA on the envelopes and letters.

It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” said Scott Kraus, who helped investigate the case for the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. In December, the Westfield police told the Broadduses they had run out of options.

The Broaddus family had still not moved into the property.  They had sold their previous home and had moved in with Maria’s parents.  Alarms would occasionally go off in the middle of the night at the property, and Derek would search the house with a knife.

“They were so joyous about their new home, and then within days, they were petrified,” Bill Woodward, the painter, said. “I’m a stranger, and Maria was crying and shaking in my arms.”

The Watcher kept sending letters, and they seemed to becoming unhinged.

657 Boulevard is turning on me. It is coming after me. I don’t understand why. What spell did you cast on it? It used to be my friend and now it is my enemy. I am in charge of 657 Boulevard. It is not in charge of me. I will fend off its bad things and wait for it to become good again. It will not punish me. I will rise again. I will be patient and wait for this to pass and for you to bring the young blood back to me. 657 Boulevard needs young blood. It needs you. Come back. Let the young blood play again like I once did. Let the young blood sleep in 657 Boulevard. Stop changing it and let it alone.

This info is from The Cut:

They told only a handful of friends about the letters, which left others to ask why they weren’t moving in — “Legal issues,” they said — and wonder if they were getting divorced. They fought constantly and started taking medication to fall asleep. “I was a depressed wreck,” Derek said. Maria decided to see a therapist after a routine doctor’s visit that began with the question “How are you?” caused her to burst into tears. The therapist said she was suffering post-traumatic stress that wouldn’t go away until they got rid of the house.

The Broaddus’ decided to sell the house.  They put it on the market for more than they had paid, to reflect the renovations they had completed.

One broker emailed to say her client “loved” it but that “there are so many unsubstantiated rumors flying around,” ranging “from sexual predator to stalker,” that they needed to know more. 

The Broaddus’ sent a partial disclosure mentioning the letters to interested buyers and told Coldwell Banker, their Realtor, that they intended to show the full letters to anyone whose offer was accepted.  

A Coldwell agent who hadn’t read the letters told them in an email that they were being unnecessarily forthcoming — “My friend got horrible threatening letters about her dog barking and she didn’t think to disclose” — but the Broadduses insisted. “I don’t know how you live through what we did and think you could do it to somebody else,” Derek said.

All of the offers that they received were below asking price and the Broaddus’ did not accept them.

On June 2, 2015, the Broaddus’ filed a legal complaint against Andrea and John Woods, the couple who they had purchased the home from.

They said that they should have been told about the letter that the Woods’ received, just as they had the fact that water sometimes got in the basement. The Broaddus’ wanted to reach a quiet settlement.  Their children still did not know about The Watcher at that point.

They couldn’t keep it quiet for long though.  A local reporter had found the complaint, which included snippets of The Watcher’s menacing threats, and after a belated attempt by the Broaddus’ to seal it, the story went viral. News trucks camped out at 657 Boulevard, and one local reporter set up a lawn chair to conduct his own watch. The Broaddus’ got more than 300 media requests.

They fled Westfield and went to stay at a friend’s beach house and they had to tell their children about the situation.

After the case went viral, members of the public started offering suggestions about the case.

Someone suggested that the Broaddus’ investigate more about the claims about what there was in the walls of the home.

A home inspection had been carried out before the home was purchased, and the inspector said the only anomaly was the lack of insulation in the home.

Barron Chambliss was a detective who worked on the case.  He spoke about the investigation years later.

He said they had looked into Abby Langford, Michael’s sister, who worked as a real-estate agent. Was she upset about missing a commission right next door? She also worked at the local Lord & Taylor, and Barron coordinated with a security guard there to nab her plastic water bottle during a shift. But Barron  says the DNA sample was not a match. 

The police on the case ended up ruling out the Langford family.  They wouldn’t give Maria or Derek any information about how they were ruled out, they just said they were not suspects in the case.

“My family moved to the Boulevard in 1961, and we never caused a problem for anybody,” Sandy Langford said. “This guy gets all these letters, and all of a sudden people are pointing fingers.”

The Broaddus’ kept their own investigation ongoing.  They walked around the neighborhood with The Watcher’s handwritten envelope to see if anyone recognised the handwriting – possibly from a Christmas card.  Nobody did.

They did discover that another family on the Boulevard got a letter from The Watcher at the same time that the Broaddus’ got their first letter.

The parents of that family had lived in their house for years and their kids were grown, so they threw the letter away just as the Woodses had.

There was one seemingly good lead that ended up fizzling out.  This info is from The Cut article:

One night, Chambliss (detective) and a partner were sitting in the back of a van parked on Boulevard, watching the house through a pair of binoculars. Around 11 p.m., a car stopped in front of the house long enough for Chambliss to grow suspicious. He says he traced the car to a young woman in a nearby town whose boyfriend lived on the same block as 657. The woman told Chambliss her boyfriend was into “some really dark video games,” including, in Chambliss’s memory, one in which he was playing as a specific character: “The Watcher.” As for the female DNA, Chambliss figured the girlfriend, or someone else, could have helped. The boyfriend was living elsewhere at the time, but Chambliss says he agreed to come in for an interview on two separate occasions. He didn’t show up either time. Chambliss didn’t have enough evidence to compel him to appear, and with the media attention dying down, he dropped the case and moved on.

One interesting theory is that the Broaddus’ sent the letters to themselves.  Maybe they realized they couldn’t afford the property or were concocting an insurance fraud scheme.

Some locals found it noteworthy that over the course of a decade, the Broaddus’had upgraded from a $315,000 house to a $770,000 house to a $1.3 million one and refinanced their mortgages – this doesn’t seem too weird to me though.

Female DNA had been found on some of the letters and it was tested against Maria’s DNA.  It was not a match.

Locals did not seem too worried about there being any danger from The Watcher.

Mark LoGrippo, the neighborhood’s representative on the Westfield town council, said that the priimary concern he heard from residents was that they “were worried about their property value and the stigma of the neighborhood.”

Westfield is also known for one other high profile crime.  On November 9, 1971, John List killed his wife, mother, and three children at their home in Westfield and then disappeared; he had planned the murders so meticulously that nearly a month passed before anyone suspected that anything was amiss.

He assumed a new identity, remarried, and eluded justice for nearly 18 years. He was finally apprehended in Virginia on June 1, 1989, after the story of his murders was broadcast on the television program America’s Most Wanted. After extradition to New Jersey, he was convicted on five counts of first degree murder and sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment, making him ineligible for parole for nearly 75 years.

Derek wanted to pack up, cut their losses and leave Westfield for good.  Maria did not want to uproot their lives any further though.  “This person took so much from us,” Maria told The Cut. “I wouldn’t let them take more.” Two years after The Watcher’s letters arrived, the Broaddus’ borrowed money from family members to buy a second home in Westfield, using an LLC to keep the location private.

Their lawsuit against the Woods family dragged on.  Some states require sellers to disclose “transient social conditions” like murders or possible hauntings — in a 1991 case involving an allegedly ghost-filled house, a New York court ruled that “as a matter of law, the house is haunted” — but New Jersey had no such regulation.

A judge ended up dismissing the lawsuit.

Derek looked into rental options for the home.  He even thought about making it into a halfway house.

They ended up putting the house back up for sale in 2016.  They thought maybe some of the people who said that the letters wouldn’t rattle them might be interested in purchasing it.

They decided to look into subdividing the property.  They had the idea to sell it to a developer who could split the property into two blocks and build two homes.

To subdivice, they would have had to be granted an exception by the Westfield Planning Board.  Due to the size of the property, the two smaller lots would be 67.4 and 67.6 feet wide — just shy of the mandated 70 feet.  More than 100 residents showed up to the hearing re the subdivision.  

This info is from The Cut:

After a quick discussion about a Wells Fargo branch that wanted to use brighter lightbulbs than the town allowed, the room grew as tense as suburban-planning-board meetings get. James Foerst, the Broadduses’ attorney, explained that the three-foot exemption was as narrow as the easel he was using to display a map of the neighborhood — a map that showed several lots on the block that were also too small. The neighbors expressed concern that the plan might require knocking down trees and that the new homes would have aesthetically unpleasing front-facing garages. Foerst repeatedly threatened the halfway house as a possible alternative.

At one point, Abby Langford stood up to say she had “spent almost 60 years looking at a magnificent, beautiful house” and didn’t “want to be looking out at a driveway.”

The hearing lasted four hours and eventually the board unanimously declined the proposal.

Following the board hearing, the Broaddus’ family finally got some good news.  They had found a family who had agreed to rent the property. . The renter told the Star-Ledger he wasn’t worried about The Watcher, though he had a clause in the lease that let him out in case of another letter.

A few weeks after they moved in, The Watcher sent another letter to the property. 

Violent winds and bitter cold

To the vile and spiteful Derek and his wench of a wife Maria.

“You wonder who The Watcher is? Turn around idiots,” the letter read. “Maybe you even spoke to me, one of the so called neighbors who has no idea who The Watcher could be. Or maybe you do know and are too scared to tell anyone. Good move.”

“I walked by the news trucks when they took over my neighborhood and mocked me”

“I watched as you watched from the dark house in an attempt to find me … Telescopes and binoculars are wonderful inventions”

“My soldiers of the Boulevard followed my orders to a T. They carried out their mission and saved the soul of 657 Boulevard with my orders. All hail The Watcher!!!”

Maybe a car accident. Maybe a fire. Maybe something as simple as a mild illness that never seems to go away but makes you fell sick day after day after day after day after day. Maybe the mysterious death of a pet. Loved ones suddenly die. Planes and cars and bicycles crash. Bones break.

The Broaddus’ finally sold the house in 2019, for $959k, a loss of almost $400k. It is not believed that the new owners have received any letters from The Watcher.


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