Family of Grinnell man killed in 2020 hopes trial of alleged killer brings closure, justice

Andrea May Sahouri
Des Moines Register

GRINNELL — Family members of a Grinnell man who was killed last year say they find comfort sitting on a bench in the city's Central Park, where Michael Williams once sat. 

They feel closer to "Big Mike" when they drive by the apartment where he lived and meet people who knew him around town.

That feeling leaves them, though, when they're in the same room as the man police say killed Williams — "That's a whole different story," said Williams' father, James Williams.

Steven Vogel, 32, of Grinnell has been charged with first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse in the slaying of Michael Williams, 44, whose body was found Sept. 16, 2020, burning in a rural Jasper County ditch. The cause of death was ruled homicide by strangulation.

The body of Michael Williams, 44, was found burning in a roadside ditch in rural Jasper County on September 16, 2020. The Syracuse, New York native had been living in Grinnell, Iowa about 12 years.

Three others from Grinnell have been charged with abuse of a corpse and destruction of evidence, among other charges, for allegedly helping Vogel transport Williams' body and attempting to dispose of it.

Previously:Michael Williams' life and the investigation into his killing

Vogel's trial began last week, and Williams had family there from his native Syracuse, New York, and others from Florida, Michigan, and Missouri. 

"We want justice, it's been too long," said James Williams, 69, of Miami, Florida. "There was no reason to kill my son. That’s my baby boy.”

Opening statements reveal 'love triangle' motive

During opening statements Friday at the Keokuk County Courthouse in Sigourney, the state presented its case against Vogel, who allegedly killed Williams out of jealousy and anger stemming from a "love triangle" involving Vogel's girlfriend. 

Vogel was allegedly concerned Williams was interfering with his relationship and sent Facebook messages to a friend — plotting Williams' killing — just a few days before his death. At least three witnesses testified that Vogel had admitted to killing Williams.

One witness testified that Vogel told him he had killed "Black Mike" by clubbing his head from behind and hanging him with a rope in the basement of Vogel's Grinnell home.

Closing arguments are expected Tuesday morning in the trial.

Family says race was factor in killing

Williams was Black. All four people charged are white. Authorities and the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP have said there is no evidence Williams was killed because of his race. But for Williams' family and other Black Iowans, the imagery of Williams' death is aligned with historical lynchings in the United States in which Black men were killed — many hanged — after claims of sexual contact with white women.

"This should be a national story," said Paula Terrell, 58, Williams' aunt who lives in Syracuse, New York. She said the NAACP "killed the story" and claimed the organization was too quick to make a statement that Williams' death was not racially motivated.

The Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, a local racial justice organization, has also taken issue with the NAACP's response.

"The NAACP is not only failing the family of Michael Williams, but is failing all Black Iowans," said Jaylen Cavil, a prominent organizer within the movement. 

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, initially said that based on the evidence presented at the time, she believed there was no indication that Williams was targeted because of his race.

On Sunday, she said she’d continue to evaluate the evidence and acknowledged the racial dynamics of the case. 

“The NAACP seeks justice for Michael Williams," she said. "His life was valued and precious and no one deserves the horrible way it came to an end or the disrespectful, heinous treatment of his body after death.

“We understand that there is a lot of pain and ... heightened emotions around this terrible situation, coupled with a community’s calls to address America’s and Iowa’s racial inequities in 2020 spurred by the murder of George Floyd as well as centuries of victimizing Black people in this country. We also understand that the truth is important and, as we stated last year, our ultimate objective is that the full truth comes to light, no matter what it is, and that justice is served on behalf of Mr. Williams and all those who loved him.”

Vigil for Williams rallies support for family

Paula Terrell and James Williams during a vigil for their loved one Michael Williams, on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, at Grinnell's Central Park. A first-degree murder trial for Steven Vogel, the man charged with killing Michael Williams, started the previous day.

At Grinnell's Central Park, a vigil was held Saturday for Michael Williams. Family and friends remembered him as friendly and silly with a big heart and a trusting soul. About 30 people attended the vigil, many wearing white T-shirts that read "Justice for Michael Williams" in orange — a tribute to Syracuse University's colors.

James Williams spoke of the feeling of loss that will never leave him. He said he misses hearing his son's voice.

Danté Williams, 18, and Michael Williams Jr., 15, wear "Justice for Michael Williams" T-shirts during a vigil Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, at Central Park in Grinnell in honor of their father, Michael Williams, who was killed last year.

Michael Williams’ 18-year-old son, Danté Williams, said the community support has given his family strength — he and his siblings miss taking walks with their father at that same park.

“This space is sacred because Michael walked these streets," Terrell said.

And when Terrell spoke of her nephew, she said it was the first time she referred to him in the past tense. She said she misses his frequent phone calls, especially the ones on her birthday, when he always called.

“I have been living in a fantasy, that maybe it wasn’t Michael," she said. 

Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at asahouri@registermedia.com, on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.