Four Grinnell residents are in custody and facing charges in the homicide death of 44-year-old Michael Williams.
Williams’ body was found the afternoon of Sept. 16 in a ditch in rural Kellogg, after it had been set on fire. The Kellogg Fire Department and Jasper County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene and found the body after the fire had been extinguished. The Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation began helping with the case and ruled the death a homicide.
Law enforcement officials held a news conference Tuesday afternoon where DCI Special Agent Adam DeCamp announced the arrest of Steven A. Vogel, 31, and charged him with first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse. Vogel was already in custody at the Marshall County Jail on an unrelated charge.
Also arrested were Julia A. Cox, 55; Roy L. Garner, 57; and Cody J. Johnson, 29. Cox and Garner were charged with two counts of destruction of evidence, abuse of a corpse and accessory after the fact. Johnson was charged with one count of destruction of evidence and abuse of a corpse and accessory after the fact. Cox, Garner and Johnson are being held at Poweshiek County Jail.
At the press conference, DeCamp said the incident was not a random act as Vogel and Williams were acquainted with one another and were known to socialize in the same circles.
“While it would be inappropriate to speak to a motive in this case, I can say without hesitation that no evidence has been found that show the acts against Michael Williams were motivated by his race,” DeCamp said.
The manner in which Williams’ body was found had raised concerns about the death being racially motivated before information had been released to indicate that was not the case. Iowa Nebraska NAACP President Betty Andrews also spoke at the press conference Tuesday to address these concerns.
“It is 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. Because for many it trumps up images from a not-too-distant past of when Blacks brutally died at the hands of cowardice, racist lynch mobs,” Andrews said.
The NAACP had received multiple inquiries about the incident. Andrews said these concerns were taken seriously, and it was important that they be addressed. The NAACP had established a task force to help bridge communication with law enforcement and communities of color. Through this task force, they were able to speak to law enforcement Monday about the Williams homicide.
“From that meeting, and the information that we at this point have heard, we want to confirm that, first of all, that no matter how Mr. Williams died, it was a crime against mankind. But based on our understanding of the well-established relationship that the victim and suspects had, the accounts that were shared by the witnesses and information relayed to us about the circumstance of the crime from the medical examiner and the answers to the Q&A session that we had with authorities, at this time, the NAACP sees no indication that Mr. Williams was targeted because of his race,” Andrews said.
The Grinnell Police Chief Dennis Reilly also acknowledged national conversation about race-based violence, especially when it applies to Black Americans. He addressed what he described as a “heinous act” had caused fear in the city of Grinnell, especially among the Black community.
But Reilly reiterated DeCamp’s words that this was not believed to be a random act of violence. The investigation has revealed a long-standing relationship with the victim and the suspects. He expressed confidence in the arrests that have been made and progress in the case so far.
“There continues to be no danger or threat to our community. But again, I can’t emphasize enough, understanding the fear that this horrible crime has caused our community members. This terrible act is not representative of nor does it reflect upon the welcoming community that Grinnell is,” Reilly said.
The investigation revealed Williams was killed on or around Sept. 12 at 1203 Spring St. in Grinnell. According to court documents, Vogel, Garner and Cox all resided at the house. His body was kept in the basement of the residence until it was taken to a rural Jasper County location. He was wrapped in cloth, plastic and carpet that was secured with rope and duct tape when he was set ablaze.
DeCamp said the fire was set in an attempt to conceal Williams’ identity and evidence of the crime, but thanks to the actions of the Kellogg Volunteer Fire Department and a Jasper County deputy, along with the Iowa State Medical Examiner and DCI Criminalistics, the attempt failed.
According to an affidavit, multiple witnesses contacted law enforcement after Williams’ body was discovered, revealing Vogel as a person of interest in the murder. One witness admitted to have seen his body in the Grinnell home.
Also in the court documents, Johnson admitted Vogel offered him drugs in exchange for help removing Williams’ body from the basement on Sept. 15.
Then on Sept. 16, using Garner’s green 1999 Dodge Dakota pickup, Vogel, Cox and Garner drove to a rural area in Jasper County. Cox and Vogel left the vehicle and pulled the roll of carpet into the ditch. Cox stated that the smell “was making her sick.”
Garner then drove Vogel to his sister’s residence in Marshalltown. He and Cox went to a rural area in Tama county to get rid of evidence consisting of bleach bottles, rubber gloves, plastic and plywood. They threw the items in a ditch and left, according to court documents.
On Sept. 18, the Iowa State Medical Examiner officially classified the death a homicide, saying the cause of death was likely strangulation.
DeCamp said more than 50 law enforcement officials have assisted in the investigation. While the arrests have been made, the investigation remains ongoing and anyone with information is asked to contact the Grinnell Police Department or DCI.
DeCamp, Reilly and Andrews all expressed condolences to the Williams’ family. All three understand the importance of bringing justice for him.
“While our goal is to provide transparency and assurance to the public, obtaining justice for Michael is at the heart of this law enforcement investigation. There will be information known to law enforcement that cannot and will not be here today,” DeCamp said.
Reilly highlighted the fact there were kids in the Grinnell community that were without a father and a grandfather. Family was important to Willliams, and Reilly compelled the community to support them through this loss.
“‘Big Mike,’ as he was commonly referred to for those who knew him, was a member of our community and our community mourns his loss. We mourn for his children, we mourn for his parents and we mourn for his extended family,” he said.
Andrews expressed condolences to his family in Iowa, New York and Florida from the NAACP. She extended prayers to the family and promised seeking justice for him was of the utmost importance.
“No matter how he met his demise, it is unacceptable and we join you all in seeking justice. Justice for Mr. Williams and all who loved him and justice for this community,” she said.
A GoFundMe account, Justice For Mike Williams, has been established to help the family with the final arrangement expenses for Williams.
Contact Pam Pratt at 641-792-3121 ext. 6530 or firstname.lastname@example.org