This serial rapist and killer who sparked fear among Raleigh women in the 1990s remains on death row

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- With trendy bars, thriving businesses, fashionable apartments and creative food options, downtown Raleigh is booming.

Part of the growth includes the Warehouse District, where a lively mix of art museums, shops and technology firms live side-by-side with transportation hub Union Station and The Dillon, an 18-story mixed-use business and residential development.

But some areas remain unkempt, with overgrown vegetation, graffiti and barbed-wire fences that hint of a darker past.

In the late 1990s, the Warehouse District was characterized by fading brick buildings, with crime, homelessness and prostitution the norm.

Then in 1996, black women started turning up dead.

THE VICTIMS

The first body of 1996 was discovered Jan. 7.

It was a snowy Sunday, and Raleigh police officer G.M. Wright responded to a call in the 1500 block of S. Blount Street.

When Wright got there, a man was waving his arms to get the officers attention. The man, Rodney Bass, told Wright that he had seen a person with no clothes on behind a building.

Wright found a woman's body, covered with snow, on a bench, with her legs and feet hanging off the edge. She was naked, except for white socks.

There was a thermal, long-sleeved T-shirt folded up under her buttocks and a pair of jeans folded under her head, like a pillow. A couple of crack pipes and a lighter were next to the bench.

The body was that of Patricia Ashe, a habitual crack cocaine user who may have also been involved in prostitution.

There were footprints in the snow near the body, but not close enough to suggest the person they belonged to had been involved in some way. After further questioning, the mystery was cleared. The footprints belonged to Bass, who said he had been walking around the building but stopped about 20 or 30 feet short of the bench when he saw the body and then decided to call police.

An autopsy performed on Ashe's body concluded that she had died from strangulation.

But she apparently had put up a fight. She had scrapes and scratches on both sides of her neck as well as some on the front part of her neck. She also had scrapes and scratches on her back and arms and a small tear in her skin in the groin area. Some of the neck scratches were so deep that a bit of skin was torn off.

More bodies followed. A woman named Dewanna Burt was found dead later in January. Then Patricia Woods, Dawn Grandy, and an unidentified woman whose body was found in August.

The sixth victim was 35-year-old Deborah Jean Elliot.

DEBORAH JEAN ELLIOT

On Dec. 23, 1996, Elliot spoke with one of her sisters about Christmas plans. She was supposed to go to her other sister's house about 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve and stay for the holidays, but she never arrived.

According to court documents, a sister told police that Elliot was known to be involved in high-risk activities, such as using crack and prostitution.

But others knew Elliot in a different way, as a loving mother of three and a dedicated worker at McDonald's, where she had worked for about a year and was on track to become an assistant manager.

"We'd see each other every day at McDonald's," said a woman who worked with Elliot at the fast-food restaurant. "And we'd talk, we'd carry on like we were sisters, you know, we'd laugh and stuff. She talked about her kids, her twins, her boys."

The day after Christmas, a Thursday, Oliver Parrish was working at a building on N. West Street in downtown Raleigh. The building was part of the Pine State Creamery, and Parrish was checking to make sure doors were locked.

In a part of the building with three bays, Parrish saw something: It was a body, lying face down, naked except for socks and shoes. It was Deborah Elliot.

Minutes after her body was identified, her friends gathered at her home.

"I really didn't think it would be her. It really is a shock. All I have is good things to say about her. I'm choked up ... she was a nice person," one man said.

Asked whether she had any enemies, the same friend said: "She was nice person, you know. She liked to have fun. She was friendly with everybody. I didn't ever see her around any bad crowd."

Raleigh Police weren't sure whether Elliot's death was connected to the killings of the five other black women earlier in 1996.

"We are not discounting or assuming anything at this point, that they are connected or they are not connected," a Raleigh Police spokesman said at the time. "We're just currently investigating them to the best of our ability right now."

A SERIAL KILLER IN RALEIGH?

In the days after Elliot's death, Raleigh Police said the FBI was helping to develop a psychological profile for the person or persons responsible for the killings of the six young women since January.

Mitch Brown, who was Raleigh Police Chief at the time, said police were talking to officials in other cities where similar crimes had happened.

"Anytime that's there's a homicide of similar occurrences, we're in touch with those jurisdictions," Brown said.

Concern grew across Raleigh as the body count grew. Nowhere more so than in the Walnut Terrace Public Housing Project, where two of the victims lived.

Sharon McClain often visited her sister at Walnut Terrace, just a mile from Raleigh's downtown.

"You'll be scared to go out at night by yourself, being a young black woman, you know, and just stuff going on," McClain told ABC11 at the time. "I really don't know what to say. It's just fear in my heart."

Raleigh Police assigned 54 investigators to work on the murders and worked to quell fears in the community.

"I'm optimistic about clearing every homicide that occurs in the city, and I believe we will eventually clear this as well," Brown said.

REWARD OFFERED

In January 1997, state and local officials offered up to $6,000 in reward money for information to help solve the murders. The office of then-Gov. Jim Hunt had posted a $5,000 reward the previous Fall for information leading to arrests and convictions in the killings of Ashe and Burt, and Raleigh police had a $1,000 reward through the CrimeStoppers program.

Faced with the possibility that a serial killer was on the loose, Raleigh Police conducted an estimated 6,000 interviews and beefed up patrols in the area around Moore Square.

Pressure was mounting to solve the brutal killings, and on Feb. 4, 1997, police caught the break they were looking for.

CAUGHT RED-HANDED

That night, a woman named Shelly Jackson was at the A.S.K. Store near Moore Square. According to court records, Jackson had been out drinking and using drugs. About 7 p.m. she saw a man getting out of another man's van and struck up a conversation.

The man, according to the court records, told Jackson he had some cocaine and said, "Come go with me to my secret place that I go to."

They went to a fenced-in lot with abandoned vehicles off W. Hargett Street and got into an abandoned truck.

Jackson later told police that as she bent down to put her purse on the floor, the man got behind her, grabbed her around the neck and flashed some sort of weapon, a razor blade perhaps. He told her to take her clothes off. She said she refused and screamed.

As the man said, "Shut up ... I got you now. I'm going to kill you," she happened to see a police car coming down the street and managed to break loose, jump from the truck and run screaming toward the police car.

Raleigh Police Sgt. T.C. Earnhart was driving past the back lot of 612 W. Hargett St. about 8 p.m. when he heard the woman scream. He got out of his patrol car and saw her jump out of a truck and run toward his vehicle.

Earnhart later testified that Jackson was "frantic" and "hysterical" and said something about a man trying to cut her and rape her. Her hand was dripping blood. She said the man was about to cut her throat, so she brought her hand up to defend herself and was cut in the process.

The alleged attacker hopped out of the old truck and ran away. But Officer Earnhart saw him and radioed for backup.

Within 10 minutes, police spotted the suspect and took him into custody.

When the man was brought back to the crime scene, Jackson identified him as the attacker. Police found a box cutter in the man's pants pocket, and he had a cut on his right hand and blood on his shirt. His blood was also found inside the truck where Jackson said the attack took place.

Police identified the man as 35-year-old John Williams Jr., a drifter and native of Augusta, Georgia.

Williams was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill and attempted first-degree rape.

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The arrest was seen as a "significant break" for Raleigh Police as they investigated the murder of the six women on city streets.

Despite the arrest, police maintained there remained multiple suspects.

"All of the suspects that we arrest in these homicides, we are looking at them as possibilities of multiple killings, so we're looking at him and other ones that we have, that we're investigating right now," Chief Brown said.

Nevertheless, news of the arrest came as welcomed relief in the neighborhood.

The Associated Press reported at the time that "many people who work downtown said they were relieved that a suspect was behind bars. At one store not far from the railroad tracks, police posters of the women killed last year are taped to the front door."

Brenda Adams worked in an office directly across Hargett Street from the location Williams was apprehended.

"We're right beside the railroad tracks and of course, this area is known for a lot of derelicts, winos, and often they come to our door," Adams told ABC11 at the time.

Adams said she felt better after Williams' arrest: "Most definitely. Sure am." She said she was pleased by stepped-up police patrols around her office, saying Raleigh Police are doing a terrific job.

While Williams sat in jail for the assault on Jackson, police diligently worked to link him to other crimes.

Williams, 36, was charged on March 19, 1997 with the killing of Patricia Ashe in January 1996. While in jail on the assault rap, he was also charged for the murder of Debra Elliott in December.

Marty Ludas, a latent print examiner, who testified at Williams' trial as a footwear-identification expert, compared a pair of Williams' tennis shoes to a shoe print taken from glass pieces that had been put together at the spot where Elliot had been killed. Ludas concluded that only Williams' left shoe could have made that print.

DNA testing was conducted on the swabs that the medical examiner took from Ashe. Williams was a match.

After Williams' arrest, a number of women came forward to say Williams assaulted them.

"For whatever reason, they didn't report it at the time they were attacked," police said. "Based on the interviews we got from them and the information they were able to give us, it led to, it was a substantial amount, and the information they gave led to the arrest today (in other cases)."

"Crime-scene search yielded some evidence that we needed the suspect to put back with the evidence. We were able to do that with laboratory techniques," police said.

Police told The Associated Press in 1997 that they believed Williams also killed Grandy and Brown. Both their bodies had been dumped near downtown railroad tracks

"We have our man," Capt. Dennis Ford told the AP. "People should feel comfortable at this point that we have our perpetrator."

Investigators told media that they believed that Williams met his victims downtown and that they willingly went with him to secluded spots where "he felt comfortable to make the attacks.

The legal trouble grew: Williams was charged with the sexual assaults of four other women dating to October 1995.

THE TRIAL

At Williams' 1998 trial, defense attorneys brought in two mental health experts to testify in an attempt to avoid the death penalty.

They cited Williams' past and rough upbringing, issues that may have affected Williams' state of mind.

A psychiatrist said that as a child, Williams saw his sister being sexually assaulted by his stepfather.

"He felt powerless to do anything about the violence ... sexual violence. He felt really powerless, he didn't think anybody would believe him if he reported that to his mom..." the expert testified.

Throughout the testimony, Williams seemed restless, pitching forward occasionally and often slumping back in his chair, his relatives sitting stoically behind him, refusing to comment to the media about the proceedings.

A psychologist testified that Williams believed he was incapable of harming any women and he actually saw himself as kind and benevolent toward them.

The psychologist also cited Williams' IQ of 80 and doubted that Williams was capable of concocting several elaborate murder schemes and then lie about them later.

The jury was having none of it.

On March 4, 1998, the seven-man, five-woman jury decided that Williams, who they saw as a "lethal predator," should get the death penalty.

Williams was convicted in the first-degree premeditated murders of Ashe and Elliot. He was also convicted in the attack on Jackson.

In addition, he was convicted in the rapes of two other women, an assault on another woman, but found not guilty in another case of attempted rape.

Williams, now 58, remains on North Carolina's death row at Central Prison.

BITTERSWEET JUSTICE

Williams' conviction brought tears of joy and relief to some members of victims' families. Others called for harsh justice.

"I'm glad, and now he needs to be choked like he choked the rest of them women," one woman said after the verdict. "They should choke him before they kill him, they really should."

Elliot's sister also had pointed words for Williams after the conviction.

"I wish they'd let me do it," she told ABC11 at the time. "I wanted him to suffer just like he made my sister suffer. I mean, he's sitting in there grinning. Like it was all good, he ain't did nothing wrong.

"God is good," she added, "and I'm glad it's over."
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