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.

"Rodney knew that [some people] were doing drugs and couldn't stand it," claims Mr. Williams, a 49-year-old long-distance truck driver who had a close relationship with the boy he nicknamed "Dodie Mite." He said he suggested that Rodney complain to the coach, but Rodney said he didn't want to be labeled a snitch.

An autopsy indicated that Rodney died of "asphyxiation by hanging," but the Williamses have come to believe he died at the end of a hangman's rope. "My baby would not have hanged himself," Mrs. Williams insisted in one of her letters to Detective Cerliano, pleading with him to do something about the alleged crime.

With tempers running high in Jasper, partly because of recent attempts by blacks to leave no stone unturned as they dig into the town's racial history, some might say that Albert and Katie Faye Williams concocted a murder fantasy to attract media attention. But the lynching of James Byrd has contributed to a reassessment of race relations in East Texas, and Rodney's death, his family maintains, will always stand as a reminder of bigotry and hatred in Kilgore. Even now, Katie Faye Williams is overcome by guilt for not pulling her son out of the predominantly white community. "He begged me, 'Mama let me come home; they're prejudiced up here.' "

RESENTMENT OF BLACKS is not the kind of image Kilgore likes to project. In the little oil-rich town that was founded by plantation owners during the Civil War, spring is highlighted with blooming azaleas and dogwood trees.

One promotion claims that "Kilgore offers several ingredients that make up a great quality of life" for its 11,000 residents, 22 percent of whom are black. Its police force boasts of a department "where civic pride is justified." But the stain of racism has spread across this idyllic picture.

Blacks say the racial climate in Kilgore worsened after it was learned that it was a Kilgore police officer, Frank Baggett Jr., who shot and killed Annie Rae Dixon during the botched drug raid in neighboring Tyler in 1992. The raid by Baggett and other officers, who were out of their jurisdiction, was prompted by an informant who said he had bought crack at the house from one of Dixon's relatives. Baggett maintained that his gun fired accidentally when he stumbled through Dixon's bedroom door. No drugs were found, and no charges were filed. An inquest jury deadlocked and the case went to the grand jury, which did not indict Baggett.

"If it was not a question of murder," says Andrew Melontree, the only black-elected commissioner in Smith County history, "we were at least looking for manslaughter."

But it was murder in the case of four whites who were slain by a black gunman--and the incident triggered accusations of racism. Saying he "felt like doing something devious," DaRoyce Lamont Mosley shot the victims in the head at point blank range during the robbery of a Kilgore bar in 1994. According to court documents, Mosley was one of two men who burst into the bar just before closing and demanded money. Sandra Cash, a waitress, gave the men a tackle box with the night's receipts.

Mosley then shot Patricia and Duane Colter, Luva Congleton, and Alvin Waller, all of whom were customers. He confessed to the murders, but said an accomplice wounded Cash, who was shot three times and is paralyzed from the waist down. Mosley was sentenced to death. Last month, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the capital murder conviction against him.

Six years before this upsurge in racial violence, a wide-eyed Rodney Williams had won a scholarship to play football at Kilgore College, located in the heart of the East Texas piney woods, and home to the award-winning Kilgore Rangerettes drill-and-dance team.

The six-foot-three, 200-pound defensive end, who was studying criminal justice at the two-year community college, became one of the most popular players on the team and a big man on campus. "I always appreciated your son's attitude and cheerful disposition," Ray Woodard, one of Rodney's coaches, would later write to his parents.

Although Rodney's brief football career was plagued by injuries, he seemed to fit the definition of manhood for the coed, who fell under the spell of an interracial romance. He was her O. J. Simpson. Albert Williams says a black police officer told him that "the white girl stayed many nights in Rodney's room. So Rodney's involvement with her was no secret."

"I for one objected," says Katie Faye. "I told her he was not safe there all by himself because it was a prejudiced town; she could get him in trouble."

On October 4, 1989,the young woman began to bare her soul about the stormy affair, hinting sadly in love letters to Rodney, which were released by the Williamses, that theirs was no common relationship.

"Hello Sexy," one missive began. "How's your day? I hope you feel a whole lot better than you did last night. I shouldn't have asked you to walk me to the library and shouldn't have stayed. . . . But I'm glad that I did. I like you holding me. I was tossing and turning but you still managed to hold me and to keep me covered up. . . . I hope you get better so you can play good Saturday."

It seemed as if the couple knew that their destiny together was doomed. The woman ended her letter urging Rodney not to "get too mad today. Just ignore people. I'm sorry I have caused you trouble. But I don't care what people think!"

But Rodney cared.

He had complained to his mother about jeers and racial taunts against his girlfriend. "He said that white guys told her if they knew she wanted a black guy they would have rolled over in the mud," Katie Faye Williams recalls.

On October 10, the woman wrote another letter, again reminiscing about a night of "passionate love" and imploring her lover:"Do I have to stay in Hell-Rise tonight, or are you going to let me sleep in your arms once again? If you want me to sleep in the Hell-Rise, I will, but I will complain."

For the next two months, Rodney would make frequent visits to team doctor Wayne E. Forston for treatment of bruised shoulders. "These were not considered serious injuries, nor was it unusual for us to see him as frequently as we did," Forston noted.

But all of Rodney's injuries may not have been game-related; he was tackling opponents off the field as well. "He was getting into fights over her," his mother alleges. One night, she says, the lovers themselves got into a brawl, and Rodney was arrested. Mrs. Williams, who does not remember what the argument was about, says she told the woman, after the charges were dropped, "You gon' get him killed."

LITTLE DID KATIE FAYE WILLIAMS know that her warning would be the epitaph in the chronicle of a death foretold. On Wednesday, December 6, the day the Williamses say an anonymous female called radio station KKDA warning that a "black boy" would be lynched at Kilgore College, Rodney's girlfriend told his parents that Rodney had received a disturbing phone call.

According to Albert Williams, "She thought that someone had died in his family because he was really upset and he started packing, saying he was going home."

On December 8, the last day that Rodney would be seen alive, coach Woodard, who is no longer at Kilgore College, learned that Rodney would not be returning for the spring semester.

"This puzzled me, because I thought that Rodney was happy here," he said in his letter to the Williamses. "I knew that the season had not gone exactly the way he wanted it to. He sprained his ankle early on, and about the time he was over his ankle injury, he hurt his shoulder. Every time I thought he was over his shoulder injury, he would reinjure it. I am a former player, and I did not expect Rodney to play hurt. Rodney was very proud, and he tried to play with his injury. I saw that he was in pain, and it got to the point where I would not let him participate. I tried to explain to him that I understood players getting injured; I knew that Rodney's best football was still ahead of him."

Rodney called home around 3:15 p.m. that day. "Something happened that week that made Rodney want to come home, but he didn't tell me on the phone when he called me," his father says.

Around 5:30, Woodard ran into Rodney in the college cafeteria and confronted his player about a report that he had dropped out of school. Woodard talked him out of leaving.

"He told me that he had thought about it, but that he was definitely going to return," according to Woodard. "He said he was going to work hard again this spring, and that he would be an all-conference player in the fall. We discussed Jasper, and he said that they had some players that we needed. . . . He told me he would help recruit them to come to Kilgore. It seemed to me that Rodney had just had fleeting doubts about playing football. I left his table feeling very good about our conversation."

But Woodard sensed that Rodney was depressed. He understood that young black men like Rodney succumb to any number of pressures, including broken family ties and the burden of succeeding in a white world while facing subtler forms of racism.

The coach later confided to the Williams family that he had experienced some pressures similar to those Rodney faced when he played football at Kilgore College. "Even though I was very happy here," Woodard explained, "there were times I considered quitting and going home. I missed my family and friends, just as Rodney did. I am also from a small town, and I felt I knew what Rodney was going through."

Mrs. Williams spoke to her son around 8 p.m. "He said he was coming home the next day," she sobbed. At about 11:30 p.m., the phone rang.The operator said it was Rodney calling collect. But the voice on the other end was that of Randy Matthews, a friend of Rodney's. He told Mr.Williams that Rodney had hanged himself.

Three hours later, Albert Williams, accompanied by Rodney's grandfather Reverend J. Harvey Lewis, two other ministers, and one of Rodney's uncles, arrived at the Kilgore police station. They were greeted by Detective Cerliano, who told them Rodney had committed suicide. Cerliano added that Rodney did not leave a suicide note, and a preliminary investigation had determined that he had been drinking and had a "girl problem."

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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