Saunders: A son meets the man who killed his father

bsaunders@newsobserver.comAugust 1, 2012 

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Wendell Williamson during a 1998 hearing.

HARRY LYNCH — 1998 News & Observer file photo

Two dudes sat down at a table across from each other in Raleigh recently.

One grew up in a loving home with a father he adored.

The other never knew – never even saw – his dad, although they lived in the same town. He grew up in a foster home.

So guess which one is locked up today, guilty of a heinous crime that conjures images of last month’s Colorado theater massacre?

And guess which is a doting, married father with a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter?

Wendell Justin Williamson, the one who grew up with every advantage, was a UNC law school student in 1995 when he went strolling along Henderson Street in Chapel Hill, shooting people. The only reason the carnage wasn’t at least as bad as in Aurora, Colo., was because William Leone, an ex-Marine, tackled Williamson before he could reload his semi-automatic rifle.

Williamson was found not guilty by reason of insanity and is committed at Dorothea Dix Hospital.

One of the two people Williamson killed was Ralph W. Walker. And it was Walker’s son, Chaz, who sat across from Williamson at Dix less than two weeks ago.

Two days ago, Walker sat across from me at a Wake Forest sandwich shop.

Now 29, Walker is solidly built, a former high school football player who looks you dead in the eye when talking to you. He said he wanted to meet Williamson for closure.

A monster or not?

Walker already had tracked down Amy Martin, the woman who edited Williamson’s praised and vilified 2001 book, “Nightmare: A Schizophrenia Narrative.”

“She was real genuine, sincere,” Walker said. “She said she got involved because she was intrigued by the way the media portrayed him, like he was some kind of monster.”

Neither Martin nor the anonymous donor who put up the money to publish the tome thought Williamson was a monster, Walker said. And they thought Williamson had a unique perspective that might help others recognize signs of the illness.

After reading the book and meeting Williamson, Walker said he agrees. Other books on paranoid schizophrenia that are out there, he said, “are poorly written and you don’t get a good (picture) of what the telltale signs or symptoms are.”

The meeting with Williamson was over a year in the making, Walker said. He said it’s sad but coincidental that the meeting occurred as the nation is still reeling from the Colorado shootings.

A tragic memory

Walker was in the sixth grade the day his daddy died. He remembers that the assistant principal came up “and asked was I in that class and the teacher pointed me out and he pulled me to the office. My mom was there.”

Walker said he had loving foster parents – his eyes gleamed when he asked if I knew them. But he said he has been on his own since he was 16. His mother died in 2009.

“I never had a relationship with my father,” Walker said. “Never even met him, but (Williamson) took away any chance that I could have.”

“I can imagine him trying to come back into my life at the age of 12. Not sure I would’ve let him, but we’ll never know.”

Walker said he asked Williamson the kind of relationship he had with his father.

“He said they had a real good one and that he loved him. I asked him, ‘If you would have seen your dad that day, what would the outcome have been?’ He said he wouldn’t have shot his father. He loved him too much.”

OK, are you thinking what I’m thinking? That Williamson wasn’t completely bonkers when he went on his rampage?

Walker continued, reading to me from the list of questions he’d prepared for Williamson.

“I asked him what does he see, feel or think when he’s looking at me,” Walker said. “He said he feels embarrassed, ashamed and that he was sorry that he did that to me, that he took my father from me. He was tearing up the entire time, and I cried on certain occasions.”

Walker said he’s forgiven Williamson.

“I forgave him a long time ago, but I just didn’t have the specific answers that I wanted. I’d like to be at his hearings, but not just to make sure he doesn’t get out.”

Walker said he would want to make “an informed decision” before deciding to support or oppose Williamson’s release at some point.

One last question

What if, I asked Walker, five years hence Williamson was released and walked into this sandwich shop while he was sitting here.

“I wouldn’t have any animosity toward him,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d speak to him.”

The last thing I asked Walker was what was the last thing he asked Williamson.

“Me being a father myself, I can’t imagine not being with my daughter. I want my daughter to have everything I didn’t have. I can’t hug her enough,” Walker said. “I asked ‘What should I tell my daughter when she asks where’s her grandfather?’ ”

Williamson gave him a sensible answer, Walker said – one Williamson admitted he filched from a TV shrink in the wake of the Colorado shootings. If a child is between ages 3 and 6, he said, you should simply tell him or her that a bad man did a bad thing. The older they are, the more you can elaborate, Williamson told him, parroting the TV psychologist.

At the end, Walker said, “We had a moment of solitude, of silence, where we just stared at each other.”

Chaz Walker then got up, left the man who killed the father he’d never seen and never would see – and went home to his wife and daughter.

You reckon he hugged them both tighter than usual that day?

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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