A Question of Murder

Nine years ago, a forbidden interracial love affair in an east Texas town ended with a hanging. Was it suicide or a perfect lynching?

This freshman . . . was a football player and apparently a popular student at Kilgore. He was having problems with a girlfriend and apparently his grades were not very good. He was playing cards with another male and two females in the room when he became excited and started throwing things and stating he was going to leave school. He went into the bathroom and locked the door; and when the other people did not hear from him they forced the door open and found him hanging in the bathroom by a belt.

—Introduction to the autopsy report on Rodney Edward Williams, December 9, 1989

Jasper, Texas--In the nine years since a coroner's verdict of suicide seemed to close the book on the circumstances surrounding the death of their son Rodney, Albert and Katie Faye Williams have been waging an uphill battle to add the final chapter. The rallying cry of that struggle--"Getting Away With Murder!"--has been stoking passions in this East Texas town inflamed recently by the white supremacist killing of a black man who was dragged behind a pickup truck by his ankles until an arm and his head were torn off.

Although Rodney died in Kilgore, a rural community about 100 miles from his hometown of Jasper, the FBI, which is investigating the dragging murder here, is being asked by the Williams family and civil rights leaders to look into the Kilgore hanging.The Reverend Billy Robinson of the Jasper chapter of Al Sharpton's New York–based National Action Network says the bewildering case is far from cut-and-dried, and is planning to write to Attorney General Janet Reno asking for an investigation to determine whether Williams's civil rights were violated.

A Justice Department source, who emphasized that he was not commenting on the case, said any consideration given to such a request probably would amount to a limited analysis of existing evidence, not a reopening of the investigation. Reno, Robinson says, also will be asked to review a series of bizarre incidents in the past 10 years that have charged the racial atmosphere in East Texas's oil and timber country.

For example,Smith County, which is 134 miles from Jasper, has been another alleged hotbed of racially motivated bloodshed.About 32,000 blacks live in the county, which has a population of 151,000.

In 1990, in Tyler, a town of 80,000 in Smith County, Thomas Ladner, James "Bo" Hyden, and Ray Horton--three white former cops--went to prison for the 1987 murder of 34-year-old Loyal Garner Jr., a black truck driver who died after being beaten while he was in jail.

In 1992, Annie Rae Dixon, a bedridden, 84-year-old black woman, was shot to death in her home during a botched drug raid.

Eleven months later, another black man, Jesse Rose, died after being arrested during a drug raid. It was ruled an accidental cocaine overdose.

In 1993, Demetrius Cortez Caddell,a black man who pleaded guilty to organized criminal activity, died after suffering an asthma attack in jail.

On the surface, Rodney Williams's death appeared to be suicide: almost everyone, including the 19-year-old freshman's head coach at Kilgore Junior College, where he played defensive end for the Kilgore Rangers, concluded that it was Rodney, after all, and Rodney alone, who was guilty of taking his own life.

"We wish that we could make this incident disappear . . . but in our minds it did happen and we have no doubt that it happened as it was presented to all of us," coach Jim Miller would later declare in a letter to the Williams family.

A January 29, 1990, letter to the family from Kilgore Police Department detective sergeant Maxey Cerliano also was not crafted to ease the grieving parents' doubts. Toxicology tests had determined that no drugs were in Rodney's system but that he was drunk the night he died. "It should be noted," pointed out Cerliano--who is now assistant chief--"that the Blood Alcohol is .11 gram per milliliters and the legal intoxication level in Texas is .10." Four months later, after receiving written complaints from the family, Cerliano declared that "there was no evidence of foul play" and that case 89-9147 was closed.

Anguish ceded to dogged suspicions about events the Williams essay went unquestioned throughout the police investigation. Among the rumored motives for Rodney's death was his troubled romance with a white Kilgore College coed. (The woman, who left Kilgore College after her freshman year, could not be reached for comment.)

Several weeks before Rodney died, Katie Faye Williams, 48, wrote to her son, warning him "that even today some people are still prejudiced" and fear the taboo of interracial love. "I told him that someone was going to kill him if he didn't stop liking the white girl," she remembers. Her husband claims that two days before Rodney's death, an unidentified woman called radio station KKDA-AM in Grand Prairie, Texas, saying "she had heard that there was going to be a hanging of a black boy at Kilgore College." (The current station manager said he had no recollection of the call.)

Another account has it that Rodney knew too much about alleged drug dealing on campus. The drug dealers reportedly wanted Rodney to get on their gravy train, and when Rodney refused he was silenced.

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