For the foreseeable future, it’s quite likely that the name James Holmes will be infamous in the state of Colorado and perhaps across the United States. Much the same as Charles Manson is in California and nationwide.
Holmes’ place in the gallery of infamous mass killers is assured now that he has been convicted of fatally shooting 12 and wounding 70 in a 2012 massacre at a suburban Denver theater that was screening the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. On Aug. 7, the 27-year-old Holmes escaped a death sentence only because one juror held out, apparently wanting to spare the life of a mass killer she believed was mentally ill. Instead, Holmes will serve life in prison without possibility of parole.
His infamy, however, is a sore point with some relatives of victims of the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting. Before Holmes’ trial began earlier this year, they launched a campaign to persuade the media in Colorado and across the country to refrain from identifying him and the culprits in all mass shootings after the initial news coverage.
On a website called “No Notoriety,” the group contends mass killers crave fame from their heinous deeds, the media obliges by repeatedly including the culprits’ names and showing their faces in reports on the crimes and the coverage inspires copycat attacks.
A July 23 incident in a Lafayette, Louisiana theater, which ended with three dead and nine wounded, could be cited as a copycat attack. But it has been the only mass shooting reported in an American movie theater since the Colorado attack three years ago.
It’s understandable that repeatedly seeing the names, photographs and video of assailants in news reports adds to the pain of survivors and relatives of mass murder victims.
But the family members of the Colorado victims apparently have a shortsighted view of the circumstances elsewhere, especially in heavily populated states and urban areas that experience far more violent crime than in the smaller Rocky Mountains state.
In the more populated states and cities, the names of the perpetrators, even of the most egregious crimes, generally are forgotten or scarcely remembered as time passes.
Voltaire Alphonse Williams could be Exhibit A in demonstrating how memories fade in California, America’s most populated state, and Los Angeles, which has more residents than any U.S. city but New York. Williams was a little-known professional boxer who became a convicted co-conspirator in one of the most heinous murder plots in Los Angeles history.
Nevertheless, it would be surprising if scarcely any residents of the neighborhood where the killing occurred now recall Voltaire Williams’ name and role in the crime.
That may have factored into why Voltaire Williams was found suitable for parole for a plot that ended with the murder of a Los Angeles police detective. The Aug. 4 decision was made by a California state Board of Parole Hearings panel after Williams was denied parole for more than a decade.
The plot was so diabolical and the murder so horrific that Daryl Gates, the police chief at the time, called it “an assassination,” a crime unlike anything else in the annals of the Los Angeles Police Department.
On Halloween of 1985, LAPD Detective Thomas Williams was picking up his six-year-old son from his church school in the suburban San Fernando Valley community of Canoga Park. As they were about to enter the detective’s camper truck, 17 rounds from a fully automatic assault weapon were fired from a car. The 42-year-old detective only had time to order his son, Ryan, to duck. Eight bullets struck Detective Williams, killing him instantly. But his son dropped down just as the remaining bullets passed by him. The boy escaped injury.
A few of the bullets hit a classroom, but school was out and it was empty at the time. If it had occurred earlier in the afternoon, it might well have ended in a mass shooting.
The Medal of Valor, the LAPD’s highest award for bravery, was given to Detective Williams posthumously for saving his son’s life while losing his own.
Detective Williams was neither related to Voltaire Williams nor knew who he was. But Voltaire Williams, according to his own testimony at his 2014 parole hearing, had a profound role in the death of the 13-year LAPD veteran, even though he didn’t pull the trigger and wasn’t at the Faith Baptist Church school scene when the attack erupted.
Voltaire Williams, now 52, originally wasn’t even scheduled for a parole hearing this year. When he was denied parole in 2014, the parole board told him he would have to wait three years to try again. But the parole board, acting on its own, advanced the hearing two years, according to Luis Patino, a state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman.
The Board of Parole Hearings, under pressure from courts and state officials to consider overcrowded prison conditions, has advanced many parole hearings for “lifers,” such as Williams.
More than 30,000 lifers are in California prisons, comprising about a quarter of the overall state prison population. Several hundred have been granted parole annually the past few years, though not all have been released in the same year. In 2014 a record 902 lifers were granted parole while twice as many – 1,807 – were rejected for release, according to state prison system figures.
Voltaire Williams is serving a 25 years-to-life sentence in state prison for conspiring to kill Detective Williams. Before the recent decision, the parole board turned down Voltaire Williams several times since 2002. Each time, the board received hundreds of letters opposing parole from family members and friends of the victim and police-affiliated groups and individuals in California and across the country.
During the 2004 parole hearing, Ryan Williams, now 36, testified by teleconference along with his mother, Norma, in opposition to Voltaire Williams’ release.
The full parole board now will review the decision for up to 120 days. Unless it’s reversed, which is unlikely, the board will then submit the case for Voltaire Williams’ release to Governor Jerry Brown, said prison system spokesman Patino. Brown then will have a maximum of 30 days to consider Williams’ parole. The governor could uphold the parole decision, reverse it, take no action or send it back to the full parole board for further review, Patino noted.
The unions representing Los Angeles prosecutors and police officers have launched another letter-writing campaign opposing the release of Voltaire Williams. The effort is aimed at persuading Brown to revoke Williams’ parole once the case reaches the governor.
In her letter to Brown, Norma Williams wrote, “If Voltaire Williams is released, I strongly fear that my children, my grandchildren and I will be in real danger.” She added that he has shown “no remorse and is still a danger to the residents of California.”
After the murder, she, her teenaged daughter Susan and young Ryan were under police protection for some time. Police investigators learned that in addition to the shots that narrowly missed Ryan, another of’ the hired hit men had offered to shoot members of the detective’s family. That did not occur.
Now, however, Norma Williams is expressing concern that Voltaire Williams is still loyal to Daniel Steven Jenkins, the detective’s convicted killer and instigator of the murder plot.
Voltaire Williams admitted during his parole hearing last year that he took part in the plot largely to demonstrate his loyalty to Jenkins. But Williams denied having that motivation any longer.
Jenkins was sentenced to die while Voltaire Williams and a third man were convicted and sent to prison for their roles in the murder plot. Of the three, only Williams is eligible for parole. Jenkins has been on California’s death row since 1988 and Reuben Antonio Moss has been serving a term of life without parole since he and Jenkins were convicted in the same trial.
Moss was Jenkins’ second in command in a violence-prone robbery gang and helped Jenkins arrange the plot to kill Detective Williams, according to evidence presented at the murder trials.
What began with Detective Williams arresting Jenkins for an armed street robbery in 1984 escalated into a near-fatal “hit” on the robbery victim and ended with the detective’s murder during Jenkins’ robbery trial.
Testimony and other evidence presented in the murder trials of the three convicts showed that Jenkins engineered the plot to kill Detective Williams in a desperate effort to escape a prison sentence for the robbery.
The plot was designed to sabotage Jenkins’ robbery trial, according to testimony by former Jenkins henchmen in the murder trials. Detective Williams was the lead investigator on the prosecution team in Jenkins’ robbery case.
Initially, Jenkins hired Voltaire Williams to kill the detective. Early in the robbery trial, Voltaire Williams was waiting with a gun for the detective to pick up his son at the church school, but the intended victim didn’t show up, at least not where he was positioned, Voltaire Williams acknowledged in his 2011 parole hearing. While waiting for the detective to arrive, Voltaire Williams contended that he realized he couldn’t carry out the “hit” himself.
In his 2014 parole hearing, Voltaire Williams admitted that he recruited a friend, Aladron Hunter, to be the actual triggerman and was supervising Hunter at the time of the intended hit. But Hunter backed off when he saw Detective Williams with his son Ryan.
Voltaire Williams urged Hunter to try again, but his friend refused.
After the detective was murdered, Hunter went to the police and became a prosecution witness. Voltaire Williams made no effort to expose the plot, both before and after the detective’s murder. Voltaire Williams admitted in his 2014 parole hearing that he kept quiet largely out of loyalty to Jenkins.
If Voltaire Williams had made any effort to report the plot before the actual hit, it would have saved Detective Williams’ life, said Michael Thies, who was the lead investigator on the murder case and a longtime member of the LAPD’s elite Major Crimes unit before he retired.
Until he saw the hitman – Jenkins in a disguise – Detective Williams never suspected that he had become Jenkins’ target. The robbery victim, a North Hollywood theater manager, was guarded by police when he provided crucial testimony against Jenkins in his robbery trial.
Jenkins was convicted of carrying out the murder after Voltaire Williams and Jenkins’ other hired hit men failed to kill the detective.
The police chief of Riverside, Calif., put the case in perspective as part of a letter opposing parole at a previous hearing for Voltaire Williams. “…The victim in this case was not just one man,” wrote Chief Sergio G. Diaz, a former LAPD deputy chief. “The integrity of the entire criminal justice system was the target.”
In the interest of full disclosure, Detective Williams and I were college fraternity brothers. In June of 1985, he arranged for me to interview the victim and key witness in the Jenkins robbery case for a Los Angeles Daily News story. I was a reporter covering the LAPD and major crime stories for the Daily News then.
At the time, the victim, George Carpenter, the theater manager, was recuperating from a near-fatal “hit.” Carpenter had been shot and nearly killed several months after Jenkins’ robbery arrest. Jenkins came under suspicion for the hit but did not match the description of the gunman.
Investigators later identified a suspect in the Carpenter shooting but were unable to develop enough evidence to prosecute him. As part of his murder trial though, Jenkins was charged and convicted of attempted murder in the Carpenter hit.
Four months after my Carpenter story ran, Detective Williams was shot to death. It occurred on the day before Jenkins’ robbery trial ended, which happened to be Halloween. Jenkins was free on low bail at the time.
When the court session ended that day, Detective Williams left to pick up his son. They were planning to go to a Halloween party for members of Ryan’s soccer team. Jenkins was waiting in a car outside the church school when the father walked with his son back to the detective’s camper truck, according to evidence presented in Jenkins’ murder trial. The detective and his son had no chance to go to the Halloween party
A movie about the life and death of Detective Williams aired on NBC in 1994. Working with the production company, Norma Williams served as a technical adviser and I co-produced the movie. Both Jenkins and Voltaire Williams were portrayed in the movie.
Today Jenkins, 60, is one of 750 inmates on California’s death row. The California Supreme Court recently denied his habeas corpus petition, but he continues to appeal his conviction and sentence.
While the diabolical plot and killing amounted to an attack on the justice system, the public’s memory of Jenkins, let alone Voltaire Williams, has faded as other heinous criminals have committed more recent ghastly offenses. Jenkins and Williams may not be remembered among California’s most notorious killers. They never will be as infamous as Charles Manson or some other convicted mass killers, such as James Holmes for the Colorado theater massacre.
But with parole now a reality for Voltaire Williams, it’s a time to reflect on the severity of the crime and his fitness for release.