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Remembering Slain Alabama Sheriff 'Big John' Williams


In Alabama, funeral services are scheduled today for "Big John" Williams. He was a popular sheriff allegedly killed by the son of a deputy from a neighboring county. Williams is the fifth law enforcement officer killed by gunfire in Alabama this year, the highest number in at least six years. His death has resonated nationwide. Janae Pierre from member station WBHM has more.

JANAE PIERRE, BYLINE: He stood 6-foot-4, more than 260 pounds, with a deep voice. Residents in Alabama say Sheriff "Big John" Williams lived up to his name not just in stature but with his heart. He spent four decades working in law enforcement and the last nine years as sheriff of Lowndes County.

Williams, a black man, was fatally shot more than a week ago at a gas station in Hayneville, outside of Montgomery. He was responding to a complaint about people blocking gas pumps with their cars and playing loud music. It was a call many officers say wasn't unusual. The suspect, 18-year-old William Chase Johnson, is charged with murder and is being held without bond. But few details surrounding the shooting have been released.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) For Sheriff John Williams.

PIERRE: On Sunday morning, dozens of people marched on a main city street to demand justice for the slain 62-year-old sheriff. Hayneville police chief Kelvin Mitchell, Williams' close friend, was one of the leaders of the march.

KELVIN MITCHELL: I ain't thinking about no conflict; this is about justice. I don't have a conflict with anybody.

PIERRE: Mitchell says the investigation is being handled by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office.

MITCHELL: You got a young white kid that takes the life of the highest law enforcement official in the county, and there's no outcry. Nobody's saying anything.

PIERRE: Mitchell says state officials are trying to change the narrative, saying the sheriff wasn't on duty at the time and didn't follow proper procedure, including, they say, failing to identify himself as law enforcement. Williams was on the scene responding to a call from someone at the gas station.

MITCHELL: They're saying he wasn't on duty. The sheriff's on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 a year.

PIERRE: Many Lowndes County residents can attest to Mitchell's statement. Most say Williams was always on duty and many had his cellphone number. Walter Hill is a former county official. He spoke to a crowd of nearly 50 at the march about the sheriff's accessibility in the community.


WALTER HILL: Mothers could pick up the phone when their child was being disorderly. Teachers, principals - you name it - all they had to say, let me call "Big John."

PIERRE: Stewart Harrell is one of the owners of the gas station where Williams was killed. He says the sheriff would stop by as often as three times a day just to check in.

STEWART HARRELL: Every morning, he would ride by and toot his horn. And you can ask all the businesses - he would wait until you waved at him, and then he'd leave, every morning about 5 o'clock.

PIERRE: Harrell says Williams was a symbol of what a leader in law enforcement should be. He says Williams will be missed by all.

HARRELL: I bet you if you go down to the jail, all the inmates are going to miss him. He meant that much everybody - everybody.

PIERRE: Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has ordered flags to be flown at half-staff today in memory of Sheriff "Big John" Williams. His funeral will take place this morning at a Montgomery coliseum that seats more than 10,000 people.

For NPR News, I'm Janae Pierre in Hayneville, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST'S "7TH OCTOBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Janae Pierre