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'Not a random act': Four charged after Black man is strangled, set on fire in Iowa ditch

Authorities and local civil rights leaders said there was no evidence suggesting the victim, Michael Williams, 44, was killed because he was Black.

Four white people were charged Tuesday in the alleged murder of a Black man whose body was found burning in a ditch in rural Iowa earlier this month, but authorities said it did not appear that he was targeted because of his race.

Speaking at a joint press conference with local civil rights leaders, Dennis Reilly, police chief in the small town of Grinnell, said he understood why the death of Michael Williams, 44, had created a "heightened sense of danger" among the town's Black residents.

"I want to be clear to say: This was not a random act of violence," he said. "Those responsible for this heinous act, they knew each other. They were associates. They hung out together. Mike was part of their circle."

44-year-old Michael Williams of Grinnell, Iowa.
44-year-old Michael Williams of Grinnell, Iowa.Iowa Department of Public Safety

The four people charged in Williams' killing are Steven Vogel, 31; his mother, Julia Cox, 55; Roy Garner, 57; and Cody Johnson, 29. Vogel was charged with first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse, according to a criminal complaint filed in Poweshiek district court.

The others have been charged with destruction of evidence, abuse of a corpse and accessory after the fact, according to Adam DeCamp, Special Agent in Charge at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Vogel, Cox and Garner have lawyers. Cox and Garner were being held at Poweshiek County Jail, DeCamp said. Vogel was at Marshall County Jail, where he had already been in custody on unrelated charges, DeCamp said.

Authorities declined to discuss a potential motive, and DeCamp said it wasn’t clear when Williams was killed. He said the last time Williams appears to have talked with anyone was between Sept. 11 and Sept. 13.

Williams, who was from New York state, moved to Grinnell about 12 years ago, according to his aunt Paula Terrell. She told the Des Moines Register that he worked at fast-food restaurants but had recently been unemployed because of health problems.

The complaint cites a witness who told investigators that on Sept. 13, Vogel allegedly showed him Williams’ body, which was wrapped in plastic in the basement of Cox's home. Vogel allegedly admitted strangling Williams and asked the witness if he could help move his body, according to the complaint.

On the same day, Vogel allegedly asked Cody Johnson to help him move Williams’ body. Johnson told investigators that he tried to help, but they were unable to move Williams, according to the complaint. Two days later, Vogel asked Johnson for help again, the document says.

According to the complaint, Cox told investigators that her son loaded a “long object covered with a brown blanket” into the truck of a man she lives with, Roy Garner. Vogel, Garner and Cox then drove to a gas station, where Vogel bought fuel. They traveled several miles east before Cox allegedly helped Vogel move Williams’ body into a ditch, the police documents state.

Williams' body was found Sept. 16, shortly before 6 p.m., when firefighters responded to a report of a blaze in a ditch on the side of a road. Authorities found that he had been bound by rope and duct tape, and wrapped in cloth and plastic. The medical examiner identified Williams the next day and later determined that he had likely been strangled before his body was set on fire.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said that it was “understandable that having a body of an African American man found burning in a small town in Iowa would raise several red flags and concerns.”

Andrews said her office had received “numerous” calls and inquires about the slaying, but she added that there appeared to be “no indication that Mr. Williams was targeted because of his race.”

Williams’ aunt, Paula Terrell, told the Des Moines Register that her family had been pleading with him to return to New York.

"All we wanted was for him to come home,” she told the newspaper. “Now we have to bring him home in the worst possible state.”

"We will fight for justice," she added. "This is our family's mission, no matter what — we will fight for his legacy to be remembered as who he was: a loving, kind, gentle giant who loved his family, who loved his children."