After he’d finished painting one evening at his new house in Westfield, New Jersey, Derek Broaddus found an envelope addressed in thick, clunky handwriting to “The New Owner.”
Dearest new neighbor at 657 Boulevard, allow me to welcome you to the neighborhood.
Buying 657 Boulevard had fulfilled a dream for Derek and his wife, Maria Broaddus. The house was a few blocks from Maria’s childhood home. Their three kids, who were five, eight, and ten years old, were already debating which of the house’s fireplaces Santa Claus would use.
The typed note went on:
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. Tsk, tsk, tsk … bad move. You don’t want to make 657 Boulevard unhappy.
Earlier in the week, the family had gone to the house and chatted with their new neighbors. The letter writer seemed to have noticed.
You have children. I have seen them. So far I think there are three that I have counted … Once I know their names I will call to them and draw them too [sic] me.
The envelope had no return address.
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.
Welcome my friends, welcome. Let the party begin.
A signature was typed in a cursive font: —The Watcher
It was after 10 p.m., and Derek was alone. He raced around the house turning off lights so no one could see inside, then called the police. An officer came to the house and read the letter. He asked Derek whether he had enemies and recommended moving a piece of construction equipment from the back porch in case the Watcher tried to toss it through a window.
Derek and Maria emailed John and Andrea Woods, the couple who’d sold them 657 Boulevard, to ask whether they had any idea who the Watcher might be. Andrea replied that a few days before moving out, they’d received an odd note signed “The Watcher.” She said that 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 Broadduses spent the next weeks on high alert. Derek canceled a work trip, and whenever Maria took the kids to the house, she would yell their names if they wandered into a far corner of the yard. The contractor arrived one morning to find that a heavy sign he’d hammered into the front yard had been ripped out overnight.
Two weeks later, another letter arrived. Maria recognized the thick black lettering and called the police. This time, the Watcher used their names, misspelling them as “Mr. and Mrs. Braddus” and identifying their three kids by their nicknames—the ones Maria had been yelling.
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.
Have a happy moving in day. You know I will be watching.
Derek and Maria stopped bringing their kids to the house. They were no longer sure when, or if, they would move in. Several weeks later, a third letter arrived.
Where have you gone to? 657 Boulevard is missing you.
Many Westfield residents compare their town to Mayberry, the idyllic setting for The Andy Griffith Show. Westfield is 45 minutes from New York City, and the town’s 30,000 residents are largely well-to-do families. The Boulevard is a wide, tree-lined street. Built in 1905, 657 Boulevard was perhaps the grandest home on the block, and when the Woodses put it on the market, they received multiple offers. The Broadduses won the bidding war and got the house for $1.3 million. They initially suspected that the Watcher might be someone upset over losing out on the house. But the Woodses said one interested buyer had backed out after a bad medical diagnosis, while another had found a different home. Andrea Woods thought it was more likely someone in the neighborhood.
The letters did indicate proximity. They had been processed in Kearny, the U.S. Postal Service’s distribution center in northern New Jersey. The first was postmarked June 4, before the sale was public—the Woodses had never even put up a for-sale sign.
A few days after the first letter, Maria and Derek went to a neighborhood barbecue. They hadn’t told anyone about the Watcher, as the police had instructed, and found themselves scanning the party for clues while keeping tabs on their kids, who ran guilelessly through a crowd that made up much of the suspect pool. “We kept screaming at them to stay close,” Maria said. “People must have thought we were crazy.”
John Schmidt, who lived two doors down, told Derek about the Langfords, who had lived in the house between them since the 1960s. Peggy Langford was in her 90s, and several of her adult children lived with her. The family was a bit odd, Schmidt said, describing one son, Michael Langford, as “kind of a Boo Radley character.”
Derek thought the case was solved. But detectives said they had already spoken to Michael. He denied knowing anything about the letters. Without hard evidence, there wasn’t much the department could do. Frustrated, the Broadduses began their own investigation. They set up webcams and employed private investigators, including two former FBI agents.
One of the agents, Robert Lenehan, recognized several old-fashioned tics in the letters that pointed to an older writer. Envelopes were addressed to “M/M Braddus,” and the sentences had double spaces between them. The letters had a certain literary panache, which suggested a “voracious reader,” and a surprising lack of profanity given the level of anger, which Lenehan thought meant a “less macho” writer. He didn’t think the Watcher was likely to act on the threats, but the letters had enough typos to imply a certain erraticism. Lenehan recommended looking into former housekeepers or their descendants.
The Broadduses’ housepainter noticed that the couple behind 657 Boulevard kept a pair of lawn chairs strangely close to the Broadduses’ property. One day he saw an older man sitting in one of the chairs. “He wasn’t facing his house,” the painter said. “He was facing the Broadduses’.”
Maria said she felt as if almost anyone could have been the Watcher, which made daily life feel like navigating a labyrinth of threats. She probed the faces of shoppers at Trader Joe’s to see whether they looked strangely at her kids and spent hours googling anyone who seemed suspicious.
But the Watcher left no digital trail, no fingerprints, and no way to place someone at the scene of a crime that could have been hatched from pretty much any mailbox in northern New Jersey. The letters could be read closely for possible clues or dismissed as the nonsensical ramblings of a sociopath. In December 2014, six months after the first letter had arrived, police told the Broadduses they had run out of options. Derek showed the letters to his priest, who agreed to bless the house.
The renovations, including a new alarm system, were finished, but the idea of moving in filled the Broadduses with overwhelming anxiety. They had sold their old home, so they moved in with Maria’s parents while continuing to pay the mortgage and taxes on 657 Boulevard. 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 whether 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 Broadduses decided to sell 657 Boulevard. But rumors had already begun to swirl about why the house sat empty. They told their Realtor that they intended to show the letters to anyone whose offer was accepted. Several bids came in, but they were well below the asking price.
The media caught wind of the tale. “We do some creepy stories,” host Tamron Hall said on TODAY. “This might be top-ten creepy.” News trucks camped out at 657 Boulevard, and one local reporter set up a lawn chair to conduct his own watch. The Broadduses got more than 300 media requests but decided not to speak publicly. The attention forced Derek and Maria to sit down with their children to explain the real reason they hadn’t moved into their new home. The kids had plenty of questions: Who is the Watcher? Where does this person live? Why is this person angry with us? Derek and Maria had few answers.
“Can you imagine having that conversation with a five-year-old?” Derek said. “Your town isn’t as safe as you think it is, and there’s a bogeyman obsessed with you.”
From a safer distance, the Watcher was a real-life mystery to solve. A group of reddit.com users obsessed over Google Maps’ Street View, which showed a car parked in front of 657 with, one user thought, a man holding a camera. (Others, more rationally, saw “pixelated glare.”) Proposed suspects included a jilted mistress, a spurned Realtor, a local high schooler’s creative-writing project, guerrilla marketing for a horror movie, and “mall Goths having fun.”
Some people thought the Broadduses were wimps for not moving in. “I would NEVER let this sicko stop me from moving into a house.”
This irked the Broadduses. “None of them have read the letters or had their children threatened,” Derek said.
In Westfield, people were on edge. Mayor Andy Skibitksy assured the public that even though the police hadn’t solved the case, their investigation had been “exhaustive.” Then Barron Chambliss, a veteran detective who had been asked to look at the case, discovered something surprising: Investigators had analyzed the DNA on one of the envelopes and determined that it belonged to a woman. The police asked for permission to test Maria’s DNA. It didn’t match.
Chambliss decided to look more closely at neighbor Abby Langford, who worked as a real estate agent. Was she upset about missing a commission right next door? But her DNA sample wasn’t a match either.
One night, Chambliss and a partner were sitting in a van watching the house. Around 11 p.m., a car stopped out front long enough for Chambliss to grow suspicious. He says he traced the car to a woman whose boyfriend lived on the block. She told Chambliss her boyfriend was into “some really dark video games,” including one in which he was playing as a character: “The Watcher.” He agreed to come in for an interview on two separate occasions. He didn’t show up either time. But Chambliss didn’t have enough evidence to compel him to appear.
While the Broadduses continued to be consumed by stress and fear, for the rest of Westfield, the story became little more than a creepy urban legend—a house to walk by on Halloween if you were brave. In spring 2016, 657 Boulevard went back on the market. But potential buyers would back out once they read the letters.
Feeling as if they were out of options, the Broadduses’ real estate lawyer proposed selling the house to a developer, who could tear it down and split the property. But the two lots would be just shy of the 70-foot width mandated by zoning laws.
When the planning board met to discuss granting an exception, more than 100 residents showed up. Neighbors expressed concern that the plan might require knocking down trees and that the new homes would have aesthetically unpleasing front-facing garages. After four hours, during which there was little discussion of the reason the Broadduses sought to tear down their dream home in the first place, the board unanimously rejected the proposal.
Derek and Maria were distraught. “This is my town,” Maria said. “I grew up here. I came back; I chose to raise my kids here.” On top of the mortgage and renovations, the Broadduses have paid more than $100,000 in Westfield property taxes—the town denied their request for relief—and spent at least that amount investigating the Watcher.
Not long after, a family with grown children and two big dogs agreed to rent 657 Boulevard. The rent didn’t cover the Broadduses’ mortgage, but they hoped that a few years of renting without incident would help them sell. When Derek went to the house to deal with squirrels that had taken up residence in the roof, the renter handed him an envelope.
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. Maybe you even spoke to me, one of the so called neighbors who has no idea who The Watcher could be …
The letter indicated revenge could come in many forms.
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 [sic] 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.
“It was like we were back at the beginning,” said Maria. The renter was spooked but agreed to stay. The Broadduses continued to press the case, sending new names to investigators whenever they found something odd.
Finally, this past July, a buyer purchased 657 Boulevard—for far less than the Broadduses paid for it.
The prosecutor’s office has kept the case open, but the Broadduses believe it is unlikely the Watcher will ever be caught. They can’t help but feel, as the last letter taunted: The Watcher won.