Fam­ily grieves for ‘for­got­ten lit­tle girl’

1964 homi­cide of teenager re­mains un­solved, Mid­lands’ old­est cold case

The State (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY DAVID TRAVIS BLAND tb­[email protected]­tate.com

Mar­garet and Lu­cille Wil­liams, ages 14 and 15, fol­lowed a man along the rail­road tracks at the edge of Columbia’s Booker Washington Heights neigh­bor­hood. It was April 1964, and they were look­ing for their younger sis­ter, Vir­ginia, who was miss­ing for three days.

The sis­ters said the man, Mr. John­son, had told them he knew where to find 13-year-old Vir­ginia. Think­ing Vir­ginia would be thirsty af­ter three days, Mar­garet car­ried a jar of ice wa­ter.

John­son led the girls to the woods that lined the rail­road tracks. But when they found Vir­ginia, Mar­garet threw the jar into the woods and ran back down the tracks.

Vir­ginia’s body was in a shal­low grave. To­day, Vir­ginia Wil­liams’ mur­der re­mains un­solved. It’s of­fi­cially Rich­land

County’s old­est cold case.

More than 54 years later, Vir­ginia’s sis­ters and one of the girl’s child­hood friends say they still grieve and strug­gle to cope. The chal­lenge is more dif­fi­cult, they say, be­cause they couldn’t prop­erly mourn a half cen­tury ago.

Last year, they gath­ered on Mother’s Day to talk about their shared pain. They met again in De­cem­ber, this time with jour­nal­ists from The State.

They’re plan­ning a vigil in Vir­ginia’s mem­ory, pos­si­bly in Jan­uary, when Vir­ginia would have cel­e­brated her 68th birth­day. And the Rich­land County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment said it has been more ac­tively in­ves­ti­gat­ing the case in re­cent years.

“I tried to for­get it,” Lu­cille said. “There’s so much pain . ... It’s hard to get rid of some­thing like that. It was a ter­ri­ble death.”

An April 20, 1964, story in The State re­ported de­tails of that ter­ri­ble death. The story said the lit­tle girl had been stabbed and stran­gled with a piece of her own cloth­ing, which was em­bed­ded in her neck. While it wasn’t re­ported at the time, Vir­ginia’s fam­ily knows she was raped.

The ar­ti­cle said a man, E. D. John­son, told po­lice he saw Vir­ginia walk­ing near the rail­road tracks the pre­vi­ous Thurs­day, which was the day the girl was last seen by her fam­ily. “He later heard her scream but didn’t see her and thought noth­ing of it...”

When he learned that a girl was miss­ing, he led fam­ily mem­bers to the area where he heard the scream, the ar­ti­cle said.

“Of­fi­cers the­o­rized the vic­tim was walk­ing along the tracks on the way to work when she was grabbed, dragged into the woods and killed,” The State’s story said. “They said there were no sus­pects in the case and no ar­rests have been made.”

Now, the rel­a­tives of Vir­ginia hope to re­de­fine their fam­ily story from one of loss to one of com­mem­o­ra­tion.

‘BRAVER THAN THE REST OF US’

Vir­ginia was born in New York City on New Year’s Day of 1951. Named af­ter her mother, she spent her youngest days in the Bronx be­fore the fam­ily moved to Booker Washington Heights, a his­tor­i­cally black neigh­bor­hood roughly bor­dered to the north by West Belt­line Boule­vard and what’s now Far­row Road to the west. Grow­ing up in a house of eight sis­ters and one brother, Vir­ginia was smart and pop­u­lar amongst their class­mates and neigh­bor­hood boys be­cause she was tall and skinny.

She had a dis­tinct beauty mark on her face. Vir­ginia was the sis­ter that had boyfriends, Mar­garet said. She could also beat boys in a footrace.

Lu­cille, Mar­garet and Vir­ginia were close, the two sis­ters said. Vir­ginia was her sib­lings’ shield even though she was younger. To her sis­ters, Vir­ginia was “G boo,” and though she de­fended them, they also fought like sis­ters at times.

“She was braver than the rest of us,” Mar­garet said.

When Mar­garet Wil­liams was about 11 year­sold, she was walk­ing on the rail­road tracks to school. She wore a new blue dress for the first time that her fa­ther bought. An­other girl, a bully, stepped on the new dress, get­ting mud on it. So Mar­garet took a pin that helped hold the dress in form and stuck the class­mate.

Af­ter school she reaped the con­se­quences of pok­ing the girl. Mar­garet got jumped by the girl and a gang of her friends, she re­mem­bered. While they got a few blows in, Vir­ginia came to her sis­ter’s side and ran the other kids off.

“She’d whooped their be­hinds,” Mar­garet said. “She was the only one to do some­thing for me.”

Vir­ginia also stood up for her friend Fred­die John­son and other kids. She was “my pro­tec­tor,” John­son said.

Sab­rina Wil­liams, Mar­garet’s daugh­ter, learned about her aunt even though Sab­rina was born years af­ter Vir­ginia was killed. She said her late aunt pos­sessed a “de­fi­ant spirit.”

It was with that strong will that Vir­ginia went on a walk along the Booker Washington Heights rail­road tracks on April 16, 1964.

At 13, Vir­ginia was cleaning peo­ple’s homes to earn her own money and help her mother. She was de­ter­mined to get money that was owed to her by a neigh­bor­hood fam­ily whose house she’d worked in.

Her mother told Vir­ginia not to go, to let the money be. But Vir­ginia was re­solved. On that Thurs­day morn­ing, Vir­ginia left her home at 3436 West Belt­line Blvd. around 8:15 a.m. Lu­cille re­mem­bered see­ing her sis­ter go down the street and wave back.

“She never came back,” Mar­garet said.

SI­LENT EF­FECTS

Mar­garet and Lu­cille said they were pro­hib­ited from talk­ing about Vir­ginia’s death. They re­mem­ber the si­lence in part be­cause it seemed like no one cared for Vir­ginia.

John­son, Vir­ginia’s close friend, went to school and watched as her teacher cleaned out Vir­ginia’s desk, she said. The teacher gath­ered up all the pa­pers, pen­cils and other school sup­plies and threw them in the trash.

“The teach­ers didn’t even talk about it,” John­son said.

John­son un­der­stood from her teacher’s mute­ness that she shouldn’t talk about Vir­ginia as well. That si­lence was im­posed on the com­mu­nity, par­tic­u­larly young women and moth­ers, John­son and the Wil­liamses said. When par­ents talked about the death, they spoke in whis­pers, John­son said.

When the si­lence was bro­ken it was of­ten by peo­ple or other kids la­bel­ing Lu­cille and Mar­garet as the sis­ters of the girl whose body was found in the woods.

“I got so tired of hear­ing ‘You’re G-boo’s sis­ter. Your sis­ter got killed,’” Mar­garet said. “I got so sick of that.”

Af­ter Vir­ginia’s killing, the sis­ters missed school for months, feared walk­ing in the neigh­bor­hood, and lost friends. They moved out of Booker Washington Heights and never moved back, the sis­ters said.

Mar­garet saw their mother deal with Vir­ginia’s pass­ing qui­etly and with lit­tle sup­port. Their fa­ther had died a few years be­fore the mur­der, and com­mu­nity and church lead­ers sug­gested that she give her chil­dren away.

Lula, as her chil­dren called her, prob­a­bly strug­gled more than they knew, ac­cord­ing to her daugh­ters and grand­daugh­ter. She didn’t talk about the death, let­ting it be a pain that she qui­etly car­ried un­til she died.

“Mama didn’t have no­body,” Lu­cille said.

Fear spread through Booker Washington Heights. The ru­mor of the “Green Man,” some­one who abducts chil­dren, spread through the neigh­bor­hood, John­son re­mem­bered. If she ever had to walk alone she ran non­stop. Par­ents took steps to pro­tect their kids.

John­son’s mother paid an older girl to walk with her daugh­ter.

“I use to walk down Pied­mont (Street) but af­ter Vir­ginia, never again,” John­son said.

To Lu­cille, it felt like ev­ery­one “left us by our­selves with our pain.”

1964 PO­LICE WORK

The med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s re­port gave Vir­ginia’s name and then “(F-C),” mean­ing fe­male, colored. It said where her body was ex­am­ined, Leevy’s Fu­neral Home, and the date the post­mortem was done. The brief re­port gives her age as 14 even though she was only 13.

To the Wil­liams fam­ily, the wrong age is just one ex­am­ple of the au­thor­i­ties’ ap­a­thy in the case.

John­son and Sab­rina Wil­liams in re­cent years re­viewed the orig­i­nal Rich­land County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment case file from 1964. The lack of ev­i­dence and doc­u­men­ta­tion struck both of them.

“I think it’s pretty clear they didn’t do an in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Sab­rina said. “There’s noth­ing in that file.”

John­son be­lieves the po­lice “didn’t do their due dili­gence to take care of this young black girl.”

Po­lice told Lu­cille and Mar­garet not to talk about their sis­ter’s death, they said.

“They told us to hush up,” Lu­cille said. “Leave it alone.”

Af­ter they were told not to talk about it, Mar­garet re­al­ized “they weren’t go­ing to do no more work on it.”

A crime scene photo seen by Sab­rina was also part of the orig­i­nal case file. It was poor qual­ity, Sab­rina said. “It wasn’t much to see. You saw the body but you couldn’t see her face.”

The black-and-white saddle shoes she was wear­ing stood out in the pho­tos more than any­thing con­nected to the crime.

Sgt. An­drew Cald­well, who to­day su­per­vises cold case in­ves­ti­ga­tions with the Rich­land County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment, knows the Wil­liams case well, he said.

Noth­ing in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion from 1964 leads him to be­lieve the de­tec­tive work was be­low stan­dard be­cause of race. He said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion showed that po­lice were co­op­er­at­ing be­tween agen­cies and of­fi­cers shared in­for­ma­tion. Of­fi­cers spoke with the me­dia, hop­ing to get more in­for­ma­tion from the pub­lic, Cald­well said.

“I did not get the in­di­ca­tion that no­body cared about this case — that there were things that could have been done and weren’t done,” Cald­well said.

Us­ing to­day’s po­lice stan­dards, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion a half cen­tury ago might seem to be lack­ing, ac­cord­ing to Cald­well.

“The tech­nol­ogy and train­ing was just not what it is to­day,” Cald­well said.

Cald­well said the Wil­liams death is an open in­ves­ti­ga­tion so he couldn’t speak about de­tails of the depart­ment’s lat­est ef­forts. How­ever, the depart­ment’s han­dling of cold cases gen­er­ally works like this: De­tec­tives con­stantly look for any new in­for­ma­tion and ex­plore any new an­gles. In­ves­ti­ga­tors may re­ex­am­ine a case af­ter a cer­tain pe­riod of time passes, time that may cre­ate a fresh per­spec­tive. A cold case might go to a new in­ves­ti­ga­tor to get new eyes on it.

“They’re al­most in a con­stant state of re­view,” Cald­well said.

Cold cases like Vir­ginia’s will never be closed un­til a per­son is held ac­count­able for the crime, whether that per­son is dead or alive — un­til Cald­well can say to a fam­ily “here’s an an­swer of what hap­pened to your loved one. Here it is be­gin­ning to end.”

For the fam­ily, nei­ther they nor Vir­ginia have found that clo­sure.

“I don’t think my sis­ter is re­ally rest­ing good,” Lu­cille said.

JUDG­ING A SUS­PECT

The Wil­liams fam­ily said ques­tions have been raised about sev­eral peo­ple in con­nec­tion to Vir­ginia’s death.

One was E.D. John­son, the man quoted in The State’s ini­tial story and who led the sis­ters to the body.

The State’s ini­tial story said John­son led them to the area where she was last seen, but Lu­cille and Mar­garet said John­son took them to the ex­act lo­ca­tion of Vir­ginia’s body, even brush­ing away the de­bris that cov­ered her.

Decades later it was in­di­cated to Sab­rina Wil­liams that in­ves­ti­ga­tors in 1964 didn’t be­lieve John­son was a per­son of in­ter­est.

Af­ter the fam­ily moved from Booker Washington Heights, Lu­cille re­mem­bered her mother an­swer­ing the door of their apart­ment at Saxon Homes, a for­mer Har­den Street pub­lic hous­ing com­plex near where Allen Bene­dict Court stands. John­son was at the door. As Lu­cille stood by her mother’s side, he said, “‘I killed your daugh­ter. I’m sorry,’” Lu­cille re­mem­bered.

Her mother started cry­ing. The next day, Lu­cille watched as John­son’s body was brought out of a nearby high­rise hous­ing com­plex, she said.

Lu­cille doesn’t be­lieve that John­son killed her sis­ter. She said he was too old and weak, that Vir­ginia would have got­ten away or hurt him. Lu­cille be­lieves John­son was cov­er­ing for some­one else, she said.

Mar­garet and Lu­cille also thought that maybe a neigh­bor­hood boy who gave Vir­ginia a ring could have at­tacked her. The ring was miss­ing when they found her, the sis­ters said.

The fam­ily and Fred­die John­son know of other sus­pects.

John­son said she was told by au­thor­i­ties that a man serv­ing a life sen­tence for a dif­fer­ent crime said he killed Vir­ginia. Later, au­thor­i­ties told her that new in­for­ma­tion showed that man didn’t kill Vir­ginia.

An­other man ad­mit­ted to the killing in a let­ter to au­thor­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to the fam­ily and John­son.

The Rich­land County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment would not say whether it had any tips or leads in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Even if no one ever faces a jury, Lu­cille be­lieves judg­ment will still come.

“I put it in God’s hands and let God han­dle it,” Lu­cille said. “When you take some­body’s life, it’s ter­ri­ble to do that. But they think they got away with some­thing. You ain’t got away with noth­ing. You ain’t done noth­ing but hurt your­self. You got to an­swer to that man up there.”

‘NOT FOR­GOT­TEN’

Vir­ginia’s death has haunted them, the sis­ters said. Decades later, both Lu­cille and Mar­garet some­times see their sis­ter’s body when they try to sleep.

Fear fol­lowed Mar­garet when she be­came a mother. She wor­ried about let­ting her four chil­dren go out on their own. She said she was overly pro­tec­tive of them, and for so long they never knew why.

They lived in the shadow of Vir­ginia’s death, Mar­garet’s daugh­ters said.

“We lived that,” Mar­garet’s sec­ond-old­est daugh­ter, An­gela Brown, said. “For a long time our mama wouldn’t let us go nowhere.”

In 2017 Fred­die John­son wrote a let­ter to the Rich­land County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment, im­plor­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors to look deeper into the death of her for­mer class­mate. She didn’t know that Sab­rina Wil­liams also had re­newed in­ter­est in the case.

John­son or­ga­nized a meet­ing with Sab­rina, Mar­garet and Lu­cille on Mother’s Day in 2018.

“There were hugs and tears and for me a sense of re­lief,” John­son said. “I im­me­di­ately felt a kin­ship, a con­nec­tion of a sort. To me it was like they were pour­ing out their souls of all that pent-up grief ... They felt like it was a gift to their mother.”

John­son, Sab­rina and the two sis­ters came to­gether again on Dec. 16 at John­son’s home in North­east Columbia along with Mar­garet’s two other daugh­ters, Tanya and An­gela, and Regina Wil­liams, a long­time Booker Washington Heights res­i­dent and com­mu­nity leader. Regina Wil­liams is not re­lated to Vir­ginia and her fam­ily.

Regina Wil­liams along with a his­to­rian at USC are putting to­gether a his­tory of Booker Washington Heights. Telling Vir­ginia’s story is part of the ac­count, she said.

Wil­liams is also work­ing with Sab­rina on putting to­gether a vigil for Vir­ginia.

Talk­ing about Vir­ginia can still bring Mar­garet to tears. The tears are from sor­row and joy. While the trauma still lingers, the si­lence has been bro­ken.

Sit­ting across from Mar­garet in the liv­ing room, Fred­die said that ev­ery spring when flow­ers are bloom­ing she thinks of Vir­ginia.

“She’s a sweet spirit,” Fred­die said.

Fred­die brought them to­gether to share their grief, Vir­ginia’s sis­ters said, a rec­on­cil­ing that was over­due and one that brought Mar­garet to say to Fred­die, “I love you so much, you just don’t know.” While John­son can’t stop the pain, “you’re go­ing to ease the pain,” Mar­garet said. “I thought no­body cared, or no­body knew us.”

For the sis­ters, know­ing that some­one cares about Vir­ginia and cares about their fam­ily heal­ing was miss­ing for so long. Now, the Wil­liams knows they aren’t alone in re­mem­ber­ing Vir­ginia.

“She looks like a for­got­ten lit­tle girl,” Fred­die said. “But she’s not for­got­ten by us.”

GAVIN MCIN­TYRE gm­cin­[email protected]­tate.com

Fred­die John­son stands in the door­way of the old Sarah Nance Ele­men­tary School. John­son shared a desk with Vir­ginia Wil­liams and re­mem­bers her pro­tec­tive pres­ence in school. Wil­liams was raped and killed in 1964.

JOSEPH WIN­TER South Carolini­ana Li­brary, USC

The Wil­liams fam­ily be­lieves this is the only photo known of Vir­ginia Wil­liams, who would have turned 68 this month.

GAVIN MCIN­TYRE gm­cin­[email protected]­tate.com

From left, Fred­die John­son, Lu­cille Wil­liams, An­gela Brown, Sab­rina Wil­liams and Mar­garet Wil­liams stand to­gether af­ter spend­ing the af­ter­noon with fam­ily and friends.

JOSEPH WIN­TER South Carolini­ana Li­brary, Uni­ver­sity of South Carolina

A photo from 1967 shows the home where Vir­ginia Wil­liams and her fam­ily lived on West Belt­line Boule­vard.

GAVIN MCIN­TYRE gm­cin­[email protected]­tate.com

Vir­ginia Wil­liams was raped and killed in 1964 as she walked through the Booker Washington Heights neigh­bor­hood. Her body was found in a wooded area.

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