Police say race not factor in killing of Black man in Iowa

Police in Iowa have charged four people in the strangulation death of a man whose body was found burning last week in rural central Iowa ditch

KELLOGG, Iowa -- The killing of a Black man whose body was found bound and burning in a rural central Iowa ditch last week prompted fears of a hate crime carried out in the midst of racial strife roiling the country, but authorities stressed when announcing arrests in his death that evidence didn't point to race as a factor.

Four white people are charged in the death of 44-year-old Michael Williams, of Grinnell, authorities said Tuesday. No possible motive was given by investigators, though police and the NAACP both sought to assuage concerns that Williams may have been targeted because the Syracuse, New York, native, was Black.

“The investigation has revealed no evidence to show the acts against Michael Williams were motivated by his race nor that his death was the result of a hate crime,” the Iowa Department of Public Safety said in a release.

Still, Grinnell College had canceled classes Monday based on that fear. On Tuesday, Steven Vogel, 31, of Grinnell, was among those arrested in Williams' killing. He is charged with first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse, and police said Williams and Vogel were well acquainted.

It wasn’t immediately known whether Vogel had a lawyer who could comment on his behalf.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said during a news conference with police Tuesday that based on the evidence, she also believes there is no indication that Williams was targeted because of his race. However, she said she will evaluate additional evidence as it becomes available.

“Given that the current climate where racial justice is on the front burner for so many ... we understand the fear this kind of incident evokes,” Andrews said.

Investigators said that they believe Vogel strangled Williams on Sept. 12. Willliams' body was wrapped, bound and dumped in a ditch Sept. 16 near Kellogg, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) northeast of Des Moines. His body was set on fire and found ablaze after authorities were called that evening about the fire.

The others arrested are Julia Cox, 55, Roy Lee Garner, 57, and Cody Johnson, 29, all of Grinnell. They're each charged with abuse of a corpse, destruction of evidence and accessory after the fact.

Williams' body remained for days in the basement of the home that Vogel, Cox and Garner shared before Vogel, Johnson and Cox moved the body into the ditch, according to police arrest affidavits. Cox and Garner also are accused of trying to get rid of evidence, including bleach bottles, rubber gloves, plastic and plywood, police said.

Online court records for Cox, Garner and Johnson didn't yet list lawyers for them on Wednesday. The case hadn't yet been logged as of Wednesday morning in the online court system for Vogel.

Williams kept in daily contact with his family in Syracuse, his aunt, Paula Terrell, told the Iowa City Press-Citizen. He left his hometown nearly 25 years ago, she said, intent on showing he could live on his own, despite a learning disability. He first moved to Nebraska, then moved to Grinnell, Iowa, about 12 years ago, Terrell said.

Williams’ ex-wife, Sharta Williams, of Kearney, Nebraska, remembered him as personable and loving, and said that he could strike up a conversation with anyone.

“He had such a sense of humor. He was a character,” she said. “If you needed someone to make you laugh, he would be the one to make you laugh.”

Grinnell Police Chief Dennis Reilly called for the community to help Williams’ five children.

“Our mission from the very beginning, and that will continue, is to bring justice for Mike and justice for his family,” Reilly said.