Arnold Friedman writes for various national and California publications and news sites. His specialty is the criminal justice system and its intersection with politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Voltaire Alphonse Williams could be Exhibit A in demonstrating how memories of the culprits in notorious crimes fade as time passes in a city the size of Los Angeles and a state as populated as California.
Unlike what happens in smaller states and communities, the names of perpetrators, even of the most egregious crimes in LA and California's other urban areas, generally are forgotten or scarcely remembered with the passage of time.
Voltaire Williams (right) was a struggling young professional boxer who became a convicted conspirator in one of the worst murder plots in Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley history. The plot was so diabolical and the murder so horrific that the police chief at the time, Daryl Gates, called it "an assassination," a crime unlike anything else in the annals of the LAPD.
On Halloween of 1985, LAPD detective Thomas Williams was picking up his six-year-old son from his church school in Canoga Park. As they were about to enter the detective's camper truck, 17 rounds from a fully automatic assault weapon were fired from a car. The 42-year-old detective only had time to order his son, Ryan, to duck. Eight bullets struck the father, killing him instantly. But Ryan managed to drop down just as the remaining bullets passed by him. The boy escaped injury.
A few of the bullets hit a classroom, but school was out and it was empty at the time.
The Medal of Valor, the LAPD's highest award for bravery, was given to Detective Williams posthumously for saving his son's life at the cost of his own.
Detective Williams was neither related to Voltaire Williams nor knew who he was. But Voltaire Williams, according to his own testimony at his 2014 parole hearing, had a profound role in the death of the 13-year LAPD veteran, even though he didn't pull the trigger and wasn't at the Faith Baptist Church school scene when the attack erupted.
Nevertheless, it would be surprising if scarcely any of the residents of the area where it occurred remember Voltaire Williams' name and his role in the crime.
On Tuesday, a state Board of Parole Hearings panel found Voltaire Williams suitable for parole. Originally, Williams, now 52, wasn't even scheduled for a parole hearing this year. When he was denied parole in 2014, the parole board told him he would have to wait three years to try again. But the parole board, acting on its own, scheduled Tuesday's hearing, according to Luis Patino, a state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman.
The Board of Parole Hearings, under pressure from courts and state officials to consider overcrowded prison conditions, has been advancing parole hearings for "lifers," such as Williams.
More than 30,000 lifers are in California prisons, comprising about a quarter of the overall state prison population. At least a few hundred have been granted parole annually in recent years, though not all have been released in the same year. In 2014 a record 902 lifers were granted parole while twice as many - 1,807 - were rejected for release, according to state prison system figures.
Voltaire Williams has served 26 years of a 25 years-to-life sentence in state prison for the murder and conspiracy to kill Detective Williams. Before Tuesday's parole board decision, he was denied parole several times since 2002. The board has received hundreds of letters opposing the parole from family members and friends of the victim and police-affiliated groups and individuals throughout much of the country.
During one of the earlier parole hearings, Detective Williams' son, Ryan, now 36, testified by teleconference along with his mother, Norma, against Voltaire Williams' release.
The full parole board now will review the decision for up to 120 days, then, barring an unlikely reversal, will submit the case for Voltaire Williams' release to Governor Jerry Brown, said prison system spokesman Patino. Brown then will have a maximum of 30 days to consider Williams' parole. The governor could uphold the parole decision, reverse it, take no action or send it back to the full parole board for further review, Patino noted.
Norma Williams now says that if Voltaire Williams is in fact released, her family's safety may be at risk. She and her two children were under police protection for several days following the detective's murder. She expressed concern that Voltaire Williams is still loyal to Daniel Steven Jenkins, the detective's convicted killer and instigator of the murder plot. Voltaire Williams admitted during his parole hearing last year that he took part in the plot largely to win favor with Jenkins, but he denied that he is loyal to Jenkins any longer.
Jenkins, Voltaire Williams and a third man were convicted and sent to prison for the murder and plot to kill Detective Williams. Only Voltaire Williams is eligible for parole. Jenkins has been on California's death row since 1988 and Reuben Antonio Moss is serving a sentence of life without parole. Moss was Jenkins' second in command in a violence-prone robbery gang and helped Jenkins with the murder plot, according to evidence presented at the murder trials.
What began with Detective Williams arresting Jenkins for a 1984 garden variety street robbery escalated into a near-fatal "hit" on the robbery victim and ended with the detective's murder during Jenkins' robbery trial.
Testimony and other evidence presented in the murder trials of the three convicts showed that Jenkins engineered the plot to kill Detective Williams in a desperate effort to escape a prison sentence for the robbery.
The plot was designed to sabotage Jenkins' robbery trial, according to testimony in the murder trials by former Jenkins henchmen. Detective Williams was the lead investigator on Jenkins' robbery case.
Initially, Jenkins hired Voltaire Williams to kill Detective Williams. In his 2014 parole hearing, Voltaire Williams admitted that he recruited a friend, Aladron Hunter, to be the actual triggerman and was supervising Hunter at the time of the intended hit. Hunter, however, backed off when he saw Detective Williams with his young son.
Voltaire Williams urged Hunter to try again, but his friend refused. After the detective was murdered, Hunter went to the police and became a prosecution witness. Voltaire Williams kept quiet, both before and after the detective's murder, largely out of loyalty to Jenkins, Voltaire Williams admitted in his 2014 parole hearing.
If Voltaire Williams had called police before the actual hit, it would have saved Detective Williams' life, said Michael Thies, who was the lead investigator on the murder case and a longtime member of the LAPD's elite Major Crimes unit before he retired. Voltaire Williams did not call police nor did he become a witness against Jenkins.
Until Detective Williams saw the hitman - Jenkins in a disguise - the victim never suspected that he had become Jenkins' target.
Jenkins was convicted of carrying out the murder after Voltaire Williams and Jenkins' other hired hit men failed to kill the detective.
In a letter opposing parole at a previous hearing for Voltaire Williams, Riverside Police Chief Sergio G. Diaz, a former LAPD deputy chief, wrote: "...The victim in this case was not just one man. The integrity of the entire criminal justice system was the target."
Detective Williams, right, was a fraternity brother of mine at Cal State Northridge back when it was called San Fernando Valley State College. In June of 1985, he arranged for me to interview the victim and key witness in the Jenkins robbery case for a Daily News story. I was a reporter covering crime and the LAPD for the Daily News then.
At the time, the victim, George Carpenter, a North Hollywood theater manager, was recuperating from a near-fatal "hit." Carpenter had been shot and nearly killed several months after Jenkins' robbery arrest. Jenkins came under suspicion for the hit but did not match the description of the gunman, who never was publicly identified and charged.
Four months after my story ran, Detective Williams was shot to death. It occurred on the day before Jenkins' robbery trial ended, which happened to be Halloween. Jenkins was free on low bail at the time.
A movie about the life and death of Detective Williams aired on NBC in 1994. I co-produced the movie with the production company and Norma Williams served as a technical adviser. Voltaire Williams wasn't portrayed nor named in the movie, but Jenkins was.
Today Jenkins, 60, is one of some 750 death row inmates. The California Supreme Court recently denied his habeas corpus petition, but he continues to appeal his conviction and sentence.
Even though the diabolical plot and killing amounted to an attack on the justice system, the public's memory of Jenkins, let alone Voltaire Williams, has faded amid the crush of more recent accounts of other, heinous criminals. Indeed, Jenkins and Williams may not have joined the ranks of California's most notorious killers. They never will be as infamous as Charles Manson.
But with parole now a reality for Voltaire Williams, it's a time to reflect on the severity of the crime and his fitness for release.