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?

Reverend Lewis, who has since died, began to act like a medical examiner conducting an investigation into an unsolved murder. In a 1989 statement, the reverend wrote:"First, I asked him, 'What did Rodney hang himself with?' He said, 'A belt with hooks on both ends.' I then asked him where the belt was, but he hesitated before he took the belt out [of] a brown envelope. He laid it upon the desk. I asked him about the fingerprints [on] the belt. He stated that type of nylon belt would not show fingerprints [and that] he did not see the belt around Rodney's neck because [it] had been removed by two boys that found Rodney hanging."

Reverend Lewis reasoned that if Rodney had "hooked the belt over the rod and slipped it [around] his neck there would only be six inches [of] space between his neck and the curtain rod"--not enough to break his grandson's neck. "The officer said his neck was not broken," he wrote.

Two days later, Reverend Lewis, the Williamses, other relatives, and the two students who said they found Rodney hanging returned to the dorm to pick up Rodney's personal effects. After the students described how they'd found Rodney--hanging from the shower rod, tongue hanging out, body turning blue--the reverend reenacted the hanging. "I went through the motion of a presumed hanging," he wrote. "When I began to choke, I stood up and took the belt off my neck. I told them my grandson did not hang himself."

Later, Albert Williams questioned Randy Matthews, who allegedly told him that he, Rodney, and two other students were "barbecueing and drinking" with Rodney shortly before he died. According to Williams, Matthews said that Rodney suddenly began smashing bottles and turning over tables. Matthews said he asked Rodney for his home number to call his mother and Rodney gave it to him, and went into the bathroom.

What happened next continues to baffle the family. According to Albert Williams, Matthews said that while he stayed behind trying to contact him and his wife, the other students left to attend a party. Frustrated that the Williams's phone was busy, Matthews reportedly gave up and went to look for his friends, and upon finding them asked where Rodney was. But according to the reverend's statement, Randy "told Rodney he was leaving and Rodney told him" he would soon follow.

"Randy said he was gone only five minutes," the reverend added.When nobody recalled having seen him, Matthews left the group and returned to Rodney's dorm room.

Matthews found the front door open, but the bathroom door was locked. When he knocked and then tried to open it, he did not get a response. Concerned that something was wrong, he headed back to the party to alert the other students that something apparently had happened to Rodney, and they should come back to check on him. Matthews told Albert Williams they finally jimmied the lock with a clotheshanger and found Rodney hanging. (Emma Matthews, Randy's grandmother who lives in Silsbee, 51 miles from Jasper, told the Voicethat Randy, now 27, got a scholarship after attending Kilgore College and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. His phone number and address are unlisted.)

Albert Williams says that a federal probe into his son's death might clarify whether a Kilgore College security guard who called police to investigate "an attempted suicide" had said that Rodney left a photograph of the white woman and a suicide note behind, which "said something like, 'No one has to worry anymore.' " The guard allegedly handed the evidence to a police officer at the scene. (Kilgore police did not return calls asking for comment.)

Other crucial evidence in the case is missing.

"When we asked for his clothes, they sent clothes that belonged to a man who had been shot," Mr. Williams recalls. Detective Cerliano later notified the Williamses by letter that Rodney's clothes "may have been destroyed."

In his last days, Rodney Williams had embraced a new love, a black woman. He began to see more of a future with her. He shied away from Kilgore College's preppie world, and seemed to cherish life more. "You can find material values anywhere, but you can't find a new life," Rodney writes in an unfinished draft of an English term paper dealing with life after death. "Some people say that life goes on, but that is not true. Once you lose your life, which should be your most valued possession, there is no returning. My life to me is my most valued possession."

Research assistance: Vicki Shiah and W. Michelle Beckles

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