Josh Shaffer

Sad tale of young NC couple’s death needs a better reminder

A memorial to Peter Williams stands at the corner of Lead Mine and Lynn roads, but it is tucked in a corner away and difficult to see. Williams and Patricia Grimes were murdered along the Neuse River in 1972, and Williams’ father donated land for a park.
A memorial to Peter Williams stands at the corner of Lead Mine and Lynn roads, but it is tucked in a corner away and difficult to see. Williams and Patricia Grimes were murdered along the Neuse River in 1972, and Williams’ father donated land for a park. jshaffer@newsobserver.com

In 1972, the city shuddered at news that a young and prominent couple had turned up shot to death along the Neuse River, murdered at a popular lovers’ lane known as Raleigh Beach.

They’d gone for a bicycle ride and stopped near Milburnie Dam, presumably to look at the ruins of an old mill standing there. Neighbors heard shots and screams in the middle of an autumn Saturday, and a passer-by discovered their bodies on the ground.

Peter Williams Jr., 27, the son of a well-known Realtor, a rising businessman himself, a go-getter who had served in the Navy and spent a year racing yachts in the Caribbean.

Tricia Grimes, 24, women’s page editor for The Raleigh Times, a respected reporter who wrote a column called “This Is Raleigh,” a debutante who’d attended Broughton High School and whose grandfather had been N.C. Secretary of State.

I’d never heard this story until a source of mine called to point out the memorial to Williams, a plaque on a granite rock near the corner of Lead Mine and Lynn roads – hard to see unless you go looking for it.

That’s why I’m dragging this case out of a file cabinet in the back of our library. I think Raleigh can do better. I think Peter Williams deserves more notice, especially in the park that bears his name, sitting on land his father donated in his memory. And I think Tricia Grimes merits some mention at this memorial. As the N&O noted in a 1972 headline, they were “young and bright, looking to the future.”

It took sheriff’s deputies only a day to arrest Michael LaPrade, whom they found at home watching television in the Azalea Trailer Park. At 24, he’d dropped out of high school, gotten married twice and served a prison term for assault. He’d come to Raleigh from Greensboro, having worked as an instructor at an Arthur Murray dance studio, but lost his job as a laborer the day before the murders.

At his trial only two months later, witnesses described him borrowing a rifle and going to the river to shoot and fish. But a motive never emerged. The victims weren’t sexually assaulted, and their pockets hadn’t been turned.

In a taped confession, LaPrade tearfully confessed that he fired the first shot accidentally and the rest out of fear. But officers did not believe him, and a judge did not allow the jury to hear his story.

The prosecutor told jurors he believed LaPrade shot Williams first with the idea of raping Grimes, but he admitted he had no proof to back up this theory. LaPrade’s attorney offered no evidence, and after jurors convicted him, a judge sentenced him to life in prison. LaPrade remains behind bars after 42 years, his hair gone white.

Williams would be 70 now, Grimes 67.

I read through the old clippings to see what I could learn about them, and here’s what I found:

Williams once sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Grimes most enjoyed writing about fashion and consumer tips, and she’d been particularly proud of a story she’d written about flammable nightwear for children, which “generated considerable response from readers.”

They met, I learned, thanks to a newspaper feature about leap year. This tidbit puzzled me – leap year? – but I’m guessing that Grimes must have written it and interviewed her future beau. They started dating soon after.

“I came back from a trip in June and talked with Tricia,” a friend told the N&O. “She sounded so happy. I asked her who the boy was. She was giddy happy and it couldn’t have been her new job. You don’t get giddy over a job.”

After I finished, I drove out to Williams Park.

Its sign bothered me first. It ought to include the name Peter. Lots of people are named Williams, and that last name on its own doesn’t make you curious about the park’s namesake. Edna Metz Wells got her full name on a park sign. So should Peter Williams.

The memorial is more troubling. The rock is boulder-sized, and the plaque is still readable. But it’s at the far end of the park, well away from the parking lot, the playground and the tennis court. None of the pathways leads to it, and it’s off by itself under some trees. If you’re turning right onto Lead Mine off of Lynn, you might catch a glimpse if you slow down.

I’m suggesting we move the rock and paint “Peter” on the sign at the very least. Better still would be a sign that tells the story of two lovebirds senselessly killed before they turned 30. I called Mason Williams, Peter’s younger brother, and he told me it would be nice to see that memorial in a more prominent place. He hadn’t been by it in a while.

I hardly need point out that time relentlessly erases any trace of the people who once walked here. But we can write their names again, using darker ink.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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