John T. Williams, shot and killed by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk, came from a long line of wood carvers. But alcohol and violence also were in his family.
The police officer’s bullets tore into his body, taking the last thing John T. Williams had left to lose: his life.
Nothing, in the end, saved him. Not the drugs prescribed for seizures and mental illness. Not the stint at Western State Hospital. Not the skilled staff at the home for chronic inebriates, where he lived. Not the people who fed and befriended him at the Chief Seattle Club. Not the apartment he received in an out-of-court settlement after a driver plowed into him — one of two times Williams was hit by a car while walking, leaving him limping for life.
Not even his brothers and sisters who took him in when he tried to quit drinking — too many times, they say, to keep count.
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By the time he was shot, many in his family, including his mother, had long since lost track of him. He has two teenage children, a daughter in Duncan, B.C., and a son, but family members aren’t sure where he is living.
Williams had been a chronic alcoholic drifting in and out of homelessness, detox centers, hospitals and jails for decades. From Des Moines to Sedro-Woolley, police officers dealt with Williams time and again. He was arrested and charged more than 100 times in the city of Seattle alone since 1985, for a slew of misdemeanor offenses: disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, drinking in public.
From the record of those offenses, a portrait emerges of Williams as sometimes volatile when drunk, but mostly falling ever deeper into an abyss. By 2006, records show, Williams couldn’t reliably spell “Seattle.” By 2009, he couldn’t always spell his own name.
Williams was shot dead Aug. 30 by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk, who fired from a distance of about 9 feet on the corner of Boren Avenue and Howell Street, near downtown, after yelling at Williams three times to drop a knife — his carving knife, as it turned out, a legal knife with a 3-inch blade. On Thursday, the Police Department’s Firearms Review Board reached a preliminary finding that the shooting was not justified.
Williams’ death was shocking — but his troubled life was surprisingly common.
More than alcoholism
On any given night in Seattle and King County, hundreds of people, most of them men, wander the streets, public inebriates carrying far more than a bottle. Typically, they also carry physical disabilities brought by the ravages of chronic alcoholism: seizures and cognitive disorders that make them slow, incoherent and inappropriate in their interaction with other people, said Jim Vollendroff, substance-abuse coordinator for King County.
While he could not talk about John T. Williams in particular, Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which runs 1811 Eastlake where Williams lived, said residents there typically suffer not only from late-stage chronic alcoholism, but also a whole suite of difficulties, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and the underlying trauma of childhood abuse.
“We hear very sad, tragic stories,” Hobson said. “The vast majority [of residents] come from backgrounds of extreme deprivation, frequently characterized by all forms of abuse — physical, sexual, emotional.”
Their lives, which start out so badly, often end even worse. At least 14 members of the Chief Seattle Club, which serves Native Americans in Seattle, have died since the beginning of the year — three just since Williams’ death. All of them were living in poverty. Most of the 14 died because of issues related to alcohol. One was beaten to death over a beer, said Jenine Grey, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club.
Only one of those 14 deaths made headlines. Not because Williams’ death at age 50 was untimely. But because he was shot by a cop — under questionable circumstances.
A 2009 encounter
Birk had encountered Williams at least once before: The police officer showed up on a disturbance call at the facility where Williams lived in June 2009, after Williams grabbed another resident around the neck — laughingly dismissed by the resident as a bear hug, records show. But it scared staff who said Williams had been acting erratically lately, and they called the cops. Birk and another officer arrived to find Williams drunk, slurring his speech, his head rotating backward as he was wracked by a seizure.
In May 2009, he was charged with a felony for exposing himself to a staff member at 1811 Eastlake. In July, he punched another resident in the mouth and was booked for misdemeanor assault. In August, he belted a female staff worker at a Skagit County detox center hard enough to raise a lump on the side of her head. The police arrived to find him in an isolation room, where he had been smashing the wall with a chair. He raved about Nazis and people having their brains removed.
Later that month, he slugged the supervisor at a Seattle sobering center, who had him charged with assault. A Seattle Municipal Court judge in September dismissed both assault charges against Williams after psychiatrists found him incompetent to stand trial. The judge didn’t order treatment, finding it unlikely to work.
By the end of July, police were being called repeatedly to take him away from Dick’s Drive-In on Capitol Hill, where he was wandering around with no pants, smeared with his own filth.
He had recently moved back in at 1811 Eastlake after another bout of homelessness. Just weeks later, he was killed.
The shooting rocked the community and has tormented Williams’ family members, who say John was just walking home that afternoon, carrying his carving tool as he did every day of his life.
He was deaf in one ear, and wearing headphones, family members say, and no threat: He was crippled from a life on the streets, diabetes, mental illness, and likely didn’t even hear the police officer, they say. The 27-year-old officer had been on the force about two years and had his police cruiser and backup available, had he sought help.
Instead, less than 15 seconds after ordering him to drop the knife, Birk shot him dead, according to two sources familiar with the investigation. An autopsy report would later show every shot was fired in Williams’ right side, raising even more controversy about whether Williams was in any way confronting Birk.
“I would like to know why the policeman shot him,” said Williams’ mother, Ida Edward, 75, of Vancouver, B.C. “I would like to see that policeman that shot my son to be arrested for murder because that pocket knife doesn’t seem like a weapon at all. It was just a little pocket knife that is used for carving totem poles. Not people.”
Generations of carvers
The Williams family started selling carvings to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and other tourist venues in Seattle back when Native people arrived on the Seattle waterfront by canoe to sell their wares.
“My great-grandfather bought from his great-grandfather,” said Andy James, owner of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. In addition to monumental totem poles, the store, founded in 1889, also needed small things for the traveling tourist trade, and so a new genre was born: model totem poles, some shorter than a pencil, carved by the hundreds by the Williams family.
Theirs was just one part of the busy indigenous art trade that once thrived in downtown Seattle. There were leather workers and silver cutters, basket weavers and carvers working on sidewalks, in parks and on public benches. And just about always, there were members of the Williams family, carving totem poles by hand, working with just a pocket knife.
Not long after Williams’ death, a “Duck” amphibious landing craft rumbled past Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market, as the tour guide bawled over the microphone, “Seattle was named for a real Indian chief!”
And much to the gawking tourists’ amazement, bending to their work right in front of them on a park bench, sat two of John’s surviving brothers carving totem poles. John T. Williams, a Nuu-Chah-Nulth member of the Ditidaht band on Vancouver Island, belonged to a major carving family, which today continues its tradition.
Rick and Eric Williams still carve on the streets of Seattle, piling up sweet-scented shavings at their feet as they work designs in yellow cedar. “Put this in big letters,” Rick said, biting off his words for emphasis. “WE ARE NOT WHITTLING.”
Rick Williams, 55, said he has supported himself with his carving all his life, like his father and grandfather before him.
But, “It was never about money,” Williams said. “It is to keep tradition alive. I come here to do what I was taught. I am a carver, I tell stories without words. We are carving the history of our people, our heritage, our life.”
At day’s end, they loaded their tools and totems into backpacks and gym bags, swept up the shavings and headed on the Metro 358 bus to the Seal’s Motel on Aurora Avenue North, where they were living, along with Rick’s three sons, for the moment — another family tradition.
A violent childhood
The abandoned car out back was good for hiding John as a boy, and so was the closet under the stairs. The attic would work, and the cabinet under the kitchen sink, or under the bed — any place small and dark was best, remembered John’s sister Rita Williams, 56, of Vernon, B.C.
As the oldest daughter, she tried hard to hide John from their parents. Because, she said, “When the parents started drinking, someone was going to get hit.”
Ida Edward said Friday she knew the abuse took its toll on her children. “Some of them I noticed it affected them quite badly,” Edward said. “So I take blame to how they are.”
She divorced their father — who is now deceased — 19 years ago. “I am proud of all my children,” she said. “They are my lucky charms.”
School offered no haven to escape what was going on at home. Nancy Williams, 52, of Vancouver, said she remembered she and John — as the only Natives in their school in Victoria — were whipped on their palms with a quarter-inch thick leather strap by the principal when they arrived late one day. It was done “to make us cry, but it was nothing compared to what we got at home,” she said.
“There was no trust for the adults in our life, not the parents, not the teachers, not the principal. We had no chance.”
People are too quick to judge someone like John, said his oldest brother, Harvey Williams, 58, of Vancouver. “It is pretty hard to get people to understand where people are coming from, they are judgmental. If they are able to walk in their shoes one day, would they still be standing?”
All the kids left home before they were 15, to escape physical, emotional and sexual abuse, Harvey Williams said.
Most of the kids started drinking like their parents when they were still small — and some kept it up for decades.
“I grew up around it and it just seemed like something that was normal,” Harvey Williams said. “When I was in treatment they said I should have known better, but when that is the only view you have in the world, that is the only view you have.”
Like some of his other siblings, Harvey Williams eventually attained sobriety, a fight he wages every day.
“I still get flashbacks, frozen tears that come out without crying, because we were told not to cry, it doesn’t hurt,” he said. “I am still working on that part.”
John quit school at the end of second grade, and he left home at 14 to go to Seattle and carve with his father, Ray, living in motels up and down Aurora Avenue.
One of 12 children, John Williams would eventually become the fourth son to die on the streets after a lifetime of drinking — like their father.
Finally at rest
Since Williams was shot, marches, candlelight vigils and storefront memorial placards are testimony to the connection some, especially in his neighborhood, felt with the man they often saw sitting on a bench, carving — and to the outrage many felt over the shooting.
Last month, relatives came from British Columbia to attend Williams’ services at the same Seattle funeral home that buried his father.
In the chapel, John lay in a white casket lined with white satin. He wore a T-shirt that said “Free Spirit,” his hands clasped together below his chest.
There were several gifts in the casket to take on his journey: an eagle feather. Some fresh wood chips. A totem pole carved by his grandfather and painted by his grandmother.
Tucked in his hands was a small carving knife.
A friend offered a song to take his spirit to the other side. Then it was time, one by one, to file past John’s open casket and say goodbye.
Silence weighed heavily as they returned to the pews. Standing to leave, Rick soon broke it:
“John wants us to go carve.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff writer Steve Miletich and Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report