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Crime News Dateline

Illinois Father Is Shot Dead When Picking Up Daughter From Ex-Wife's "Clannish" Family

A heated custody battle turned deadly after Steven Watkins went to pick his baby daughter up for a court-ordered visitation and was shot in the back of the head by a surprising killer. 

By Jill Sederstrom

Steven Watkins was just trying to see his baby daughter when he was shot in the back of the head. 

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Watkins had arrived at the home of his estranged wife Jennifer Watkins and her family to pick up baby Sidney for a court-ordered visitation when someone fired the fatal shot.

But who killed Steven? Jennifer told a 911 dispatcher, according to Dateline: Secrets Uncovered, that Steven forced his way into the house, knocked her grandmother Shirley Skinner over, and was heading for her and baby Sidney, when someone in the family shot Steven in self-defense.

Police never believed the shooting was in self-defense, but the insular Skinner family quickly closed ranks and stopped talking to authorities, leaving investigators to unravel the complicated mystery on their own. Did Jennifer pull the trigger? Or was it her 75-year-old religious grandmother? 

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Who was Steven Watkins?

From the time Steven was a child growing up in tiny Chandlerville, Illinois he had always dreamed of being a family man. 

“He loved kids, loved people, and he always wanted to have kids and be around them,” his father Dale Watkins recalled. 

Friends remembered him as a “really good guy” who was always kind. 

After high school, Steven wanted to see the world and joined the Coast Guard. 

But it wouldn’t be the only new adventure in his life. Steven’s ex-girlfriend was pregnant and welcomed daughter, Alexendrea,while he was in the service. The former couple decided that Steven, who was by then stationed in Virginia, was able to give Alexendrea the most stable life and her mother gave him full custody of the child.

"Steven was right there when she was born. He doted over her,” his mother, Penny, recalled. “He was just excited about every little thing. He would sleep right by Alex’s bed, holding her little hand. I mean, that’s just how he was.” 

Steven thrived as a single parent. After completing his military service, he and Alexendrea returned home to Illinois, but he was still hoping to find the perfect wife to complete the family he had always envisioned. 

Steve Watkins' Wife, Jennifer Watkins

What Really Happened the Night of Steven Watkins' Death?

Jennifer Watkins came from a tight-knit family of her own. 

“We’re a kind of family that every single night for probably 15 years we met for supper some place, either at their house, my house or at a local restaurant,” her uncle, Ed Skinner, told Dateline: Secrets Uncovered. “We was just a close knit family.” 

The family owned their own business together and multiple generations lived in the same large house, leading some in the community to describe the family as almost “clannish.” 

Jennifer and Steven first crossed paths in a shared work parking lot. Sparks flew between the two and before long they were in a whirlwind courtship. 

The Divorce

Just weeks after they began dating, the couple tied the knot in August of 2006.They bought a house not far from Jennifer’s family and were soon expecting a child of their own. 

But the relationship began to fall apart almost as quickly as it came together. Steven told his parents that Jennifer’s family — who had once happily embraced his daughter Alexendrea — made it clear his daughter would never be part of their family. The distance grew by the summer of 2007, when baby Sidney was born.

“It was like Jennifer wanted her family and her to be part of Sidney’s life but didn’t want anybody else to be part of it,” Penny recalled. 

Steven told her that he barely got to see his own daughter. Every day after work, Jennifer would take the baby to her parent’s house and stay until 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m., only returning home when it was time to go to bed.

Steven realized the only way he might get time with his daughter was by filing for divorce and getting court-ordered visitation, his family recalled. 

The same day Jennifer learned he had filed for divorce, she called the state’s child welfare agency and accused Steven of molesting both of his daughters, a claim that a state investigation would later rule was “unfounded.” 

As the divorce proceeded, Steven — who was fighting for full custody — was granted regular visits with his daughter, but his family said the Skinner family often prevented those visits from happening, telling Steven that Sidney was sick.

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The Day of the Shooting

In late November 2008, on the eve of yet another court hearing, the conflict turned deadly. 

Steven went to the Skinner’s home to get Sidney for a court-ordered visitation, but wouldn't leave the house alive. 

The only details Jennifer and her family provided about what happened that night came from a 911 call Jennifer placed to request an ambulance for her grandmother. 

“My grandmother needs help,” she said in the call. “My husband came to pick up my child because we’re getting a divorce, and he come after her and then tried to come after the baby and I — and now he — he’s on the floor, shot.” 

Jennifer went on to explain that Steven had “pushed” her grandmother, Shirley Skinner, before “he tried to come after Sidney and I.” 

Jennifer said her grandmother needed medical help because she was having “heart trouble” but made no mention of needing any assistance for her estranged husband, who was found dead on the floor when authorities arrived at the time.

First responders reported hearing Shirley say she shot Steven, but by the time Ashland Police Chief Jim Birdsell got to the scene, Shirley, Jennifer, and Jennifer’s grandfather all refused to give any statements about what happened and referred investigators to their attorney. 

Birdsell never believed the family’s claim that the shooting had been in self-defense. Steven had been unarmed and was shot in the back of the head. Yet, he had also never investigated a murder before. 

Birdsell tried to work the case himself for months before calling in state investigators to take over. 

By then, there were already several significant holes in the investigation. Birdsell had not conducted gunshot residue tests on any of the family members after the shooting. First responders and Birdsell himself reported seeing two parallel scratches on Shirley’s hands they believed were caused when she fired the gun, but no photos were ever taken of the injuries. 

There were also no fingerprints on the gun or DNA to lead them to the killer. 

A police handout of Shirley Skinner

Who killed Steven Watkins?

Investigators believe Steven was killed to put a final end to the heated custody battle. 

“In their view, Sidney was their property and they were not going to share their property with anyone outside that Skinner family, even Steven Watkins,” State Special Prosecutor Michael Vujovich said.

Yet, it was difficult to determine who pulled the trigger. 

Jennifer’s Uncle Ed believed she had either shot Steven herself or convinced her grandmother to do it on her behalf. 

“There was nothing that Jennifer could ask for that she didn’t get,” he said. “She lived as a princess.”

While Jennifer clearly had a potential motive in the case, Vujovich said the evidence and witness statements led them to believe Shirley fired the fatal shot. In addition to the testimony of the first responders, who testified they heard Shirley say she shot Steven, they also had two employees at the family’s company who told authorities Shirley had offered them $10,000 to “cap” Steven about a month before his death.

The 75-year-old grandmother was arrested and charged with murder and two counts of solicitation of murder.

Shirley was convicted in May of 2010 and sentenced to 55 years behind bars.

Where is Sidney Watkins today?

Jennifer was never charged in connection to Steven’s death. 

In the aftermath of his death, Steven’s parents filed for grandparent’s rights and were awarded visitation in 2010. Jennifer fled to Florida to avoid the visitation and was arrested in 2016 while living in Massachusetts for contempt of court for violating the visitation order, according to The Illinois Times.

Sidney was placed in the care of her paternal aunt and uncle, who have been granted permanent guardianship.