Death of young Philadelphia model Vanessa Watson exposes pervasiveness of domestic violence

Vanessa Watson was slain by her boyfriend, who then killed himself, in January.
Vanessa Watson was slain by her boyfriend, who then killed himself, in January.
Posted: June 21, 2012

AT ONLY AROUND 5 feet 6 inches tall, Vanessa Watson wasn't standard model height, but she once boasted that she walked as if she were 6 feet tall.

Strikingly attractive with a chameleonlike appeal, Watson managed to get work at Philly Fashion Week, on BET's "Rip the Runway," and for the Nelli Millard's show at New York's Fashion Week. And if Watson was still far from supermodel status, "Ms. Banks DoDat" — as she was called on Facebook and Twitter — was, as they say, on the come up.

"DoDat" was a reference to her go-getter ways. At 26, Watson, whose professional name was Vanessa Banks, had earned enough to purchase a three-story, five-bedroom, two-bathroom home in North Philly near Broad and Erie. Family was important to her, so — along with her own three kids — she moved in her younger sister and family. She also let her boyfriend, Louis McCrae, move in.

The two had met when McCrae, 31, installed Watson's cable TV, her family believes. I say believes because no one is certain, and the only two people who really know can't tell me. On Jan. 31, McCrae shot Watson in the head before turning the gun on himself.

On Friday night, a large, fashionably dressed crowd came out to honor Watson at an event held at Trust in Old City. It was called Stomp the Runway, and it was hosted by WRNB radio personality Moshay Laren and Fox 29's Kendra G. Organizers say the event was held to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of domestic violence. As tragic as Watson's story is, perhaps the only thing more tragic is how utterly familiar it is. Every day, three women in the United States are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends.

The commonality of the issue doesn't offer much solace to Watson's friends and family, nor does it give any perspective on the extent of despair wrought by such violence. Almost five months after the deaths, those who knew Watson are still reeling over the loss.

Some of that struggle stems from the inability to sense that Watson was in any sort of danger. "The signs weren't there," said her sister Annette Rodriguez, 25. "But I guess they were there. But we weren't looking at them the right way."

Everyone I spoke with told me that Watson wasn't the kind of woman who would allow herself to be beaten or otherwise bullied. Her family believes she'd been involved with McCrae for several years. McCrae, who most recently was believed to work at Verizon, didn't always have steady work, according to Watson's friends and relatives, but he wasn't the kind of guy your friends and family warn you about. "He was great with her kids. He was good to my kids. She loved him. He kind of blindsided us," Rodriguez told me. "People think they must have been fighting all the time. But she didn't even give you the time to let you argue with her. She didn't really care about the drama. That wasn't her.

“That's why it was so surprising to us that it happened," Rodriguez said, stealing glances at a video montage of photos of her sister on a nearby wall.

So many photos. There were photos of her at her sister's baby shower. Artsy beauty shots taken by fashion photographers. Pictures of her at family weddings. There's not a bad one in the bunch. She's gorgeous even in the snapshot of her dressed in onesie-style pajamas. Artist James Enders stood nearby next to an auction item — an oversized mixed-media painting he'd created to immortalize Watson.

Meanwhile, backstage at the event, Watson's 16-year-old sister, Rikki "Averie Banks" Watson, an aspiring model, was waiting to take her turn on the runway, no doubt hoping her walk would be as fierce as her big sister's.

"I think it helps her heal. I just sit back," said Angeanette Watson, Vanessa's stepmother. "Her father tells her all the time, ‘Your sister opened some doors. You just walk through.' "

In many domestic murder-suicides, the trigger point is often when a woman attempts to sever the relationship. That was the case with Watson. McCrae had developed a habit of trailing behind her to modeling assignments. I talked with one show promoter who said he'd once hired him to appear in a fashion show with Watson. Yet friends and relatives say Watson had grown tired of McCrae's constant presence, and she asked him to move out.

Rodriguez, who last saw her sister on the morning she died, said Watson had been on her way to New York City, where she'd been booked to help promote a liquor company. At some point that morning, Watson drove with McCrae to the Wayne Junction transit station in Nicetown, where the two apparently got in a fight in the parking lot.

"People rode past and heard him arguing," Rodriguez told me. "She was on her phone and he took out his gun and shot her."

Watson's body was discovered in the driver's seat of the Ford Explorer shortly before noon. McCrae, who was shot through the mouth, was in the passenger's seat.

"She told me she didn't want to be with him anymore," added Rodriguez, 25. "I guess he felt like if he couldn't have her, nobody could."

One of Watson's last Twitter postings was dated Jan. 31. It reads, "I was meant for amazing things."

At Friday's event, Philly-based author Brenda Thomas, whose memoir Laying Down My Burdens describes the abusive relationship she was in for years, spoke about how victims are at their most vulnerable when they try to leave. "You can't just leave," Thomas pointed out. "People who've never been in that situation say, ‘Just leave.' But it's not that easy — and it's dangerous. You've got to have a plan."

And now Watson's three children, Serenidy, 9, Zeani, 6, and Nashir, 5, are trying to adjust to life without their mother. Nashir, especially, sticks close to Rodriguez. He sometimes takes Twizzlers and other candy to his mother's grave.

At their home, there's a makeshift shrine in the dining room displaying Watson's trademark high heels — stilettos decorated with feathers, one with mirrored pieces and a pair decorated with spikes. Photos of her in various poses adorn the mantelpiece. Her bedroom remains untouched.

"Her daughter uses her body spray so she can smell like her mom," Rodriguez said. "I go in her room and smell her clothes. Everything smells like her."

Contact Jenice Armstrong at 215-854-2223 or heyjen@phillynews.com, or follow her on Twitter @jenicearmstrong. Read her blog at philly.com/philly/blogs/dnheyjen/.

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