The violence that has rocked Chester for years exploded again Tuesday night when Chester City Councilman Odell Williams was killed in a drive-by shooting that police say might have been gang-related.
City officials, police officers and residents who knew and respected Williams were appalled by the death of the brick masonry contractor and retired police officer, who was shot once in the head when an unknown assailant peppered his car with at least 15 bullets.
Chester Mayor Wanda Stringfellow called the shooting a “heinous crime,” and Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood vowed to catch the killer.
Williams, 69, was killed at about 8 p.m. near the intersection of Parkway Drive and Roundtree Circle – about two blocks from his home. After Williams was shot, his car smashed a mailbox and careened through two yards before crashing into a Roundtree Circle home. He died at Chester Regional Medical Center soon afterward.
The neighborhood is home to the Roundtree Circle gang, which Underwood said could have played a role in Williams’ death.
“Odell Williams was a police officer before he retired, and we will not rest until whoever is behind this is caught,” Underwood said. “This is not going to happen in Chester County.”
Police have investigated multiple gang-related shootings in recent years, in and around this city of about 5,500 people – most recently in July, when police say a Roundtree Circle gang member shot a teen in the middle of a Chester street. Men who police say have gang ties have been arrested in several killings in Chester dating back to a 2010 shootout that left two dead and three wounded. Police in Chester have identified at least six gangs in the past four years that have had violent clashes.
Williams was killed just outside the Chester city limits. Eric Simpson, who lives on Roundtree Circle, was at home when Williams’ car smashed into his porch so hard that it was knocked several feet askew and brickwork crumbled.
“I felt the car hit the house after I heard the gunshots – there were four or five shots that I heard – and I got low because I didn’t know what had happened or who was being shot at,” Simpson said. “Then I looked outside and saw the car, and the police were coming right after that.”
Simpson, who has known Williams for years, called him a “great guy.”
“It is bad when this kind of stuff is happening day by day,” he said, “and now someone like this is dead.”
Several other neighbors were terrified by the gunfire that drew a squadron of officers from the Sheriff’s Office, the Chester Police Department and the State Law Enforcement Division to search the area. Investigators interviewed neighbors and used metal detectors to look for shell casings. Underwood said the shots were likely fired from another vehicle into Williams’ car.
“This is just shocking,” said Sarah Land, who lives two doors down.
Another neighbor, Daniel Parker, ran to the scene after hearing gunshots and saw Williams’ car smash into Simpson’s home. Police then fanned out across the neighborhood, Parker said, and word spread that Williams had been shot in the head in his car before the crash.
“It scares you to think this happened right here,” Parker said.
‘Our highest priority’
Anywhere from “15 to 20” bullets were fired at Williams from what appeared to have been a tan Dodge pickup, Underwood said. Police declined to say what caliber shell casings were found or name any suspects, although detectives are pursuing leads related to the pickup and other evidence collected at the scene and through interviews.
Williams’ car, which was riddled with multiple gunshots, also was seized by police.
Underwood said the confrontation between Williams and his attackers apparently started about three-quarters of a mile away, then moved to Roundtree Circle, about two blocks from Williams’ home on Brawley Street. Police declined to say exactly where the incident began, and would only say that Williams appeared to have played no role in what happened other than being the victim.
The sheriff declined to say if Williams was armed or had returned fire or in any other way had been able to defend himself, saying he didn’t want to harm the ongoing investigation.
The motive for the initial confrontation and the shooting remained unclear Wednesday, as did the reason Williams drove to Roundtree Circle.
In March, Williams was charged with threatening a public official after an alleged racially charged confrontation with Chester Police Chief Andre Williams at a City Council meeting. Underwood said that incident has no connection to Tuesday’s shooting. Williams had denied threatening the police chief, and the case was pending. Odell Williams and Andre Williams were not related.
Williams had not reported to police any recent troubles with anyone else, Underwood said, and his death after a long life of public service makes the crime even more despicable.
Williams was one of Chester’s “most upstanding citizens,” Underwood said, and the Sheriff’s Office has made catching his killer or killers “our highest priority.”
‘A tireless servant’
Williams was a Chester police officer for two decades before retiring to run his business, Williams Concrete Works. He was one of the city’s most well-known black civic and business leaders.
Dot Duncan, who lives near Williams’ masonry business and home, said he also was one of the city’s most generous and decent people.
“Mr. Williams was just a nice man, and he didn’t deserve for this to happen to him,” Duncan said. “I brought kids here to play in his sand pile. He did some work for me, too. Just a super man and this is just plain wrong.”
Neighbors and friends went to the crime scene and to Williams’ home Wednesday, dropping off bouquets of flowers and writing notes that said he will not be forgotten. Flowers from King’s Funeral Home were rushed to the doorway of his business.
Williams’ killing is believed to be the first homicide of a sitting public official in Chester, City Councilman William Killian said. He called Williams’ death “a sad, sad day in the history of the city of Chester.”
“We all in Chester are hoping to find out what happened,” Killian said. “Odell Williams helped people on the council. Even if people had their differences, he always had the interest of the people and the community at heart.”
Williams, who was married with adult children, had been on the City Council since 1997, most recently representing Ward 4.
Mayor Stringfellow went to the shooting scene Tuesday night and was among several officials at the Chester hospital, where she “tried to comfort the family” after Williams died.
“I am deeply saddened by this heinous act of violence,” Stringfellow said. “I am confident that the police will find out what happened, and there will be justice served for this family and the people of Chester.”
Williams’ killing, she said, has “left each of us devastated.”
City Administrator Sandi Worthy said she is “speechless” over Williams’ death.
“He was a tireless servant of the community who had a wonderful demeanor.”