Felon faces federal gun charge tied to southern Illinois bank robbery that killed 2 employees

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A former convict and registered sex offender was charged Friday with a federal weapons count linked to a botched southern Illinois bank holdup in which two women workers were stabbed to death and a third critically injured by a knife.

An armed James Watts, 29, was arrested Thursday in Cairo on an Ohio River train trestle, after leading police on a chase in one victim's new sport utility vehicle, FBI Special Agent I.A. Bratcher alleged. The holdup occurred hours earlier at the city's downtown First National Bank branch, Bratcher wrote in an affidavit included with Friday's criminal complaint.

Watts, charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, has not been charged in the robbery Bratcher said took place shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday when a gunman in a hooded sweatshirt confronted the three victims as they emerged from the bank they had closed for the day.

The gunman forced the women back inside but, because the bank was closed, got no money from it, Bratcher wrote. Surveillance video showed the suspect placing the victims' purses into a victim's SUV and fleeing, Bratcher said. Police a short time later found the victims in a break room, Illinois State Police said.

The eventual chase leading to Watts' arrest involved speeds exceeding 100 mph, Bratcher wrote. A.380-caliber semi-automatic pistol was found in Watts' hooded sweatshirt, Bratcher added.

Watts remained jailed without bond Friday, pending a detention hearing next Tuesday. His court-appointed public defender, Melissa Day, did not respond to a message Friday.

"While we commend the quick response of all of the officers and first responders, there are no words to express this tragic and senseless violence against these innocent victims and loyal employees," Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau said.

Illinois State Police on Friday identified the dead as 52-year-olds Anita Grace of Illinois' Olive Branch and Nita Jo Smith of Wickliffe, Kentucky. The survivor, 23, was in critical condition and would not be identified, police said.

A longtime First National Bank teller, Smith was described by her cousin Morrissa Clanahan as a travel and outdoors enthusiast who along with her husband recently welcomed their first grandchild.

"They were just the perfect family, and this is just a nightmare. I can't believe it's all been torn up," said Clanahan, of Olive Branch just north of Cairo. "She was just one, big good Christian girl who went to church like everyone else. This is just a tragedy — a senseless, stupid thing."

Court records show Watts was sentenced to seven years in Illinois prison after pleading guilty in 2003 in Alexander County — Cairo is the county seat — to felony charges that he sexually abused a child who was 11 years old. Watts was discharged from the Illinois Department of Corrections on April 29, spokesman Tom Shaer said.

Watts also drew prison time on felony forgery convictions in Missouri's Cape Girardeau County.

Watts claimed in a court filing Friday he is jobless, penniless and without any assets.