Election Day 2014 in Chester started out with a tight race for county supervisor and ended with murder.
An election day unlike any other changed Chester County immediately when Chester City Councilman Odell Williams was killed in what police and prosecutors say was a gang shooting following a chase through city and county streets around the time the polls closed.
The killing of Williams, a retired police officer, allegedly at the hands of a violent gang shocked Chester and the nation. It was news across America.
As they investigated the crime and arrested five members of a gang in connection with the shooting, County Sheriff Alex Underwood and his deputies faced death threats from gang members. Underwood and his wife had to wear bulletproof vests when they rode in holiday parades.
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“It is hard to believe it has been a year, but what a year,” said Kim Carter Desrosiers of Chester, who before the killing of Odell Williams had not met Underwood or had any reason to. “It was a very scary time.
“If these gangs would shoot a prominent citizen, that showed they would shoot anybody.”
A year later, the court case against the five alleged Roundtree Circle gang members remains pending. One of the accused claims Williams shot at the gang members first as he chased them. Prosecutors and police say Williams was chasing them because they were plotting an armed robbery of rival gang members near Williams’ home. Odell Williams intervened to thwart the crime.
Outside the court case, the killing pulled gang violence, police, politicians and the community into a maelstrom of confrontation and community activism in this county of 33,000 people.
Underwood declared war on gangs and vowed to protect the public. Then, in a very public dispute, he demanded that the Chester County Council give him money to hire more deputies and buy better equipment to protect those officers against gang violence. The County Council formed a task force, prompting Underwood to say that action, not talk, would solve the county’s gang problem.
It turned out that some of the accused had been free on bond for other alleged crimes at the time Williams was killed, sparking further outrage from residents demanding safer streets. Later, two of the accused were released on bond, only to be re-arrested – including one defendant’s being charged as an accessory in another gang incident during which he was shot.
The political standoff over deputies’ outdated bulletproof vests sparked a huge donation drive, led by Desrosiers and others, that raised more than $20,000 for new vests.
“The community wanted to make sure,” she said, “that the police officers who are out here protecting us had had what they need.”
Eventually, the gang task force determined that most Chester County crime was not gang related, said County Councilman Alex Oliphant. The task force’s work resulted in money to hire more prosecutors and public defenders to try and handle a court backlog that was responsible for the alleged gang members’ being free on bond far too often before charges were heard in court.
The killing of his friend, Odell Williams, was “tragic,” Oliphant said, but the gang problem then became “somewhat overblown” through the media. Chester has crime problems, he said, but the gang problem was hyped after Williams was killed.
Statistics compiled by the task force showed only a small percentage of all crimes were gang related. Yet Underwood and his deputies have continued to force the issue, saying crime and gangs would be hit head-on and they need no politicians to tell them that. During the past few months, other alleged gang members from Chester have been arrested for attempted murder and other crimes, including the terrorizing of two elderly people at gunpoint.
Underwood’s popularity has soared as the community has embraced his tough stance toward crime, while also doing community outreach. Several hundred children and families attended a Halloween event over the weekend, Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse said.
The sheriff’s office remains convinced that its anti-crime and anti-gang efforts have paid off over the past year, Sprouse said.
Chester City Councilman Carlos Williams, who is not related to Odell Williams, said talk of gangs seems to have tapered off somewhat, but that might also be because Underwood increased police visibility, enforcement and arrests.
All of this action in Chester County came about because of one event – the killing of Odell Williams.
Desrosiers is now a board member of the non-profit Sheriff’s Foundation of Chester County, and she and others are part of the fight against crime and gangs.
“The community really appreciates what the police are doing,” she said.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065