Questions surround early-morning incident in Weirton
May 22, 2016 12:00 AM
Courtesy of the Poole family
Ronald D. Williams Jr., shot and killed by a Weirton police officer May 6 after a domestic dispute. He is shown here earlier in 2016 with his now 5-month-old son.
By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The relationship between Ronald D. Williams Jr. and his former girlfriend hit a high point on Jan. 1.
She gave birth to a healthy son who was the first baby born at Trinity Medical Center West in Steubenville in 2016 and the couple was featured in stories in the local paper and television station.
“He is starting the New Year off right for all of us,” Mr. Williams told the Herald-Star newspaper. “This is really special for us.”
But within just a couple weeks of that wonderful day, Mr. Williams and his former girlfriend’s relationship began falling apart over personal squabbles between them, and, eventually, over care and custody of their son when they split in April and he moved in with his mother in Pittsburgh.
It came to a horrifying conclusion at about 4 a.m. on May 6 at the Weirton home they previously shared when a domestic fight between them resulted in the woman calling 911.
According to authorities, she told the dispatcher that Mr. Williams was holding a knife to his throat and threatening to harm himself. When she told him she called 911 and police were coming, she said Mr. Williams told her he was going to get his handgun from his car and make police shoot him.
According to a May 9 press release from West Virginia State Police, “He met Weirton Police Department officers outside the home, brandished the firearm in their direction, and was shot and killed.” State police are investigating the shooting.
That is virtually all local authorities have said about the case, beyond a few general comments made by the local prosecutor and the police sergeant investigating the case.
The lack of details about what happened that morning has frustrated and angered Mr. Williams’ family, who say the actions described in the press release do not make sense to them, and that they have heard parts of the story change over time.
“There are so many discrepancies in their story,” said Heather Poole, Mr. Williams’ half-sister from Bellevue.
Both Hancock County Prosecutor Jim Davis and state police Sgt. R.J. Gibson, as well as Weirton Police Chief Rob Alexander, have refused to release any details about the officer who shot Mr. Williams, other than to say he was “experienced,” and this may have been the first time he shot someone. They also refuse to say definitively whether there is any audio or visuals from the scene — either from on-body or in-squad-car cameras or microphones — that recorded the events.
Mr. Davis said while the final report has not been completed, Mr. William’s death “doesn’t appear to be anything other than an unfortunate situation where the gentleman utilized the police to commit suicide.”
Sgt. Gibson said of Mr. Davis’ position: “I would agree with that initially.”
He said his final report on Mr. Williams’ death is waiting on completion of the autopsy by the state medical examiner’s office, which could take several more weeks, as well as other evidence.
But Mr. Williams’ family wants an outside examination of the case. They say he had never been in trouble before — other than a drunk driving charge that was dismissed last year — and they do not believe he was suicidal.
Adding to their concern, they say Mr. Williams became suspicious that he was being watched by local law enforcement last year when he was stopped in September by a Hancock County Sheriff’s deputy for speeding, and then charged with drunk driving, even though he tested below the legal limit for blood alcohol content.
They said Mr. Williams told them when he returned home following his arrest, the deputy told Mr. Williams’ girlfriend that he knew her because she used to date a colleague of his.
“He told us he felt was being harassed,” said Ms. Poole.
She and other family of Mr. Williams, who was African-American, have consulted with both the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter organizations on hiring a civil rights attorney to help them, and this past week hired Jack Dolance, an attorney from Wayne, W.Va. They also hired well-known Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht to do a second autopsy before Mr. Williams was cremated and a funeral service held last Sunday.
“The family wants answers,” Mr. Dolance said Friday. ”They want to know who did this and they want to know why this happened and how this happened.”
Mr. Williams’ mother, Ida Poole, said she saw her son — whom the family called “R.J.” — just before he left to visit his son at his former girlfriend’s home in Weirton, late on May 5.
The couple — who met when both worked at the Allegheny Valley School in Coraopolis where Mr. Williams worked with disabled children — had been fighting over the care and custody of their son during the weeks before and it upset him, she said.
But on May 5 “he was in higher spirits and said, ‘She seems normal right now. I’m going to see them.’ He wanted to go and spend the night with his son,” Ida Poole said. “I told him, ‘R.J., you should just wait until the next day,’ when he was supposed to pick him up in the morning anyway. But he wanted to go.”
She said her son had never been suicidal before.
Sgt. Gibson said, however: “That is not my information.” He would not say why he believed Mr. Williams had been suicidal previously.
The family said, among other problems they have with the story so far, is that the initial news and police reports they heard and read changed how many gun shots were fired at Mr. Williams. Mr. Davis said Mr. Williams was hit and killed by just one bullet but reports say as many as four or as little one were fired. Mr. Dolance said that he has been told by Dr. Wecht that the one shot that hit Mr. Williams hit him with a downward trajectory on the right side of his head behind his ear, exiting on the left side of his head, killing him instantly.
Reports also changed about whether he held the knife at his own throat, his former girlfriend’s throat, or both of their throats, Mr. Dolance said.
“They’ve been told a couple different stories by police and they’ve been getting the runaround,” he said. ”Rather than be helpful, [the police] have stonewalled and been rude to the family.”
Another part of the family’s concern is that after Sgt. Gibson was chosen by Mr. Davis to investigate the case early on the morning of the shooting, Sgt. Gibson left for a week’s vacation the next day. Everyone said only Sgt. Gibson would talk to them, and when he did, he would add nothing to the initial story. The family also initially was told it could not recover Mr. Williams body for a funeral until Sgt. Gibson returned from vacation, though that later changed after the family complained.
“It just does not sound right the way they handled this case,” Ronald D. Williams Sr., Mr. Williams’ father who lives in El Paso, Texas, said last week. “I’ve been trying to get the answers but I haven’t gotten anything that sounds right.”
Reached by phone Tuesday, Mr. Williams’ former girlfriend would only say: “I have nothing but love and respect for the Poole family and may R.J. rest in peace.”
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill