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A murder, two trials -- and a plea for forgiveness

Terror in a small town
Third of four chapters:
By Wayne Drash, CNN
Rebecca Nichols remembers the night her parents were shot in their own home.

Sellerstown, North Carolina (CNN) -- It was the Thursday before Easter, March 23, 1978. In Biblical terms, it was Holy Thursday, the night Jesus gathered with the disciples before his crucifixion, the night of the Last Supper.

For 7-year-old Rebecca Nichols and her younger brother, it marked the last time they would sit at the dinner table with their parents. Come Easter Sunday, the preacher's kids would bury their mother. Their father, hospitalized with two gunshot wounds, would never recover, physically or emotionally.

For years, the Nichols family had been the target of threats -- phone calls, letters, drive-by shootings and dynamite bombings. Neighbors on Sellerstown Road knew who was behind the campaign: Horry Watts, a powerful player in Columbus County who lived across the road from the Nicholses. He made his disdain well-known after the preacher fired Watts' wife as church clerk.

Sometimes, though, trouble comes from the direction you least expect.

Neighbor Pat Sellers was outside that evening in March when a car came down Sellerstown Road, passed the parsonage, then backed up and pulled into the Nichols' driveway. Out got Harris Williams.

The owner of a battery salvage shop, Williams counted Rev. Robert Nichols and his wife, Ramona, among his friends. Occasionally, he attended service to hear Nichols preach. Twice, he ate dinner with the couple at church outings. When Ramona went to town, she'd often pick up groceries for him and his family. At Christmas, Williams gave the Nicholses $50. Another time, he gave the minister a pickup truck.

Standing in her yard, Pat Sellers watched Williams, a vain man with good looks, run his fingers through his hair and tuck in his shirt. She didn't know it, but he was armed with three revolvers. In his pockets were 61 bullets.

"I'll see you after a while," he told the driver.

The car peeled away.

Stabbed in a fight a week earlier, Williams had begun drinking heavily. While he boozed it up, his wife had taken their young son and sought shelter at the preacher's house. The combination -- a liquored up Williams and a strained marriage -- would prove lethal.

The night before, he'd consumed four half pints of Canadian Mist whiskey, gotten an hour's sleep and fixed himself a drink as soon as he awoke in his trailer on Vinegar Hill.

Late morning, Williams hopped in a car driven by one of his workers. They stopped to get bullets at Steven's Gun and Tackle Shop, then for beer at the Smokehouse.

There were other stops and more drinks.

About 5:30 p.m., an armed Williams entered the parsonage.

Inside, the preacher and his family were at the dinner table, preparing to say the blessing. Williams' wife and young baby boy were at the table, too.

"How are you doing?" the preacher said when he saw Williams come through the door.

"Not too damn good," Williams replied.

'Mom and dad have been shot'

The first shot struck Robert Nichols' right shoulder. He turned and stumbled a little to his left. "I told you to back off," Williams said.

... Bam ...

Williams fired the second shot from just 9 feet away. It cut through the preacher's hip. Then the gunman pointed his weapon at the preacher's wife and fired another shot.

Ramona Nichols was standing with her hands at her side. The bullet struck her chest. She ran down the hall and into her bedroom.

Williams' wife, holding their baby, jumped from the table and rushed to her husband's side and tried to calm him. He directed her to come with him, to a second bedroom. Across the hall, a bleeding Ramona grabbed the phone and crawled under her bed.

Amid the chaos, Rebecca's 3-year-old brother, Daniel, went into his mother's bedroom and saw her bleeding on the floor. In a daze, he made his way back to the main room. Rebecca hid under the dining table; nearby, their father drifted in and out of consciousness.

Daniel got under the table with his big sister. "I saw Momma," he said.

Rebecca's wounded father urged her to check on their mother. Frantic, the young girl ran down the hall and tugged on her mother's leg.

There was no response. She reported back to her father.

"I need you to get help," he said.

Sobbing, Rebecca ran from the home and across a field to Pat Sellers' house. She pounded on the door. She was pale, out of breath.

"My mom and dad have been shot!"

Girl testifies against killer

Williams was holed up in the parsonage for more than three hours with his wife and son. At one point, he asked authorities to check on Ramona. Another time, he asked cops in the house to be silent so he could pray.

When he surrendered around 9 p.m., one officer was struck by his appearance. "You don't usually see him with his shirt tail out," he testified. "I have never seen [Williams] at any time that he was not very neat."

Police said they did not smell booze on Williams' breath when they took him into custody -- despite other reports of his extensive drinking binge.

He was charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Ramona and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill in the maiming of Robert.

A bullet clipped Ramona's heart, liver and right lung. She died under her bed before she could phone police. Her husband, hospitalized for his wounds, was unable to attend her funeral.

The most compelling testimony at Williams' trial a few months later came from Rebecca, who had just turned 8.

"What did you see him do?" the prosecutor asked her gently.

"I saw him pull out a gun," Rebecca said.

Prosecutor: "Pulled out a gun, did you say?"

She nodded her head.

"All right. Now, what did you see him do with that gun, if anything?"

"Shoot Daddy."

"How many times did you see him shoot your daddy?"

"Two."

"All right. Now, after he shot your daddy, did you see him do anything else with that gun?"

"Yes."

"What did you see him do?"

"Shoot Momma."

On August 11, 1978, Williams was convicted of second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.

"I am very sorry for the things alcohol has caused me in my life, especially this event," he told the court. "The liquor has made me do things I am not."

The judge sentenced him to life.

Forgiving the unforgivable

Charles Mercer, a dogged federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, would not let the case go. He'd been investigating the threats against the Nicholses ever since a dynamite blast a few years earlier nearly killed the preacher's son in his crib.

Mercer had focused not on Williams, but on Horry Watts. He had managed to get Watts on tape offering an informant money to kill the preacher. But the evidence hadn't come soon enough.

With the killing of Ramona and the prosecution of Williams, Mercer dedicated himself to making sure Watts would be held accountable for his role in terrorizing the preacher.

The agent's relentless probe eventually led to Watts pleading no contest to two counts of conspiring to bomb the church and parsonage, meaning he neither admitted nor disputed his guilt. The plea has the same immediate effect as a guilty plea. Watts was given 15 years in prison.

A judge reduced the sentence to four years, and Watts walked free after one year behind bars.

By then, Rebecca Nichols and her father and brother were long gone. They'd left everything -- their friends, church, school and moved 700 miles away to live with an aunt and grandparents near Mobile, Alabama.

Rebecca's dad never recovered.

He walked with a limp. He was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. He never mentioned his wife's name again. Once, while sitting at the dinner table, a faraway look came over his face and he jumped to his feet, shouting, "YOU SHOT HER!" He jerked the tablecloth and everything went flying.

A defeated man, Robert Nichols died in October 1984 at 46, just seven years after his wife.

Three years after that, 17-year-old Rebecca got a call from Horry Watts.

He spoke in a deep, gruff voice. "I can't live the rest of my life without knowing you've forgiven me?" he said. "Can you?"

Ten years had passed since Rebecca watched the gunman enter the parsonage. Now, she listened to the man who had ridiculed her father. She wondered why he wasn't still in prison. He had orchestrated a terror campaign against her family. Her heart sank to her toes.

As these thoughts raced through Rebecca's mind, Watts told her he'd found God in prison. He begged for forgiveness.

"Mr. Watts," Rebecca said, "we forgave you a long time ago."

Watts began crying on the other end of the line. "I'm so sorry for everything I put your family through," he said. "Your father was a good man."

Watts then made an unusual offer. He would set up a trust fund with $10,000 apiece for her and her brother, to be awarded when they graduated from college.

Several years later, after earning a degree in interior design at Missouri State University, Rebecca purchased a Mitsubishi Galant with the money. She never saw Watts; he died of cancer in 1991.

His son, Lee Watts, refused to comment on the events of so many years ago.

"It's like a pile of manure -- the more you stir it up, the more it stinks," he said by phone. "This stuff is over and done with, and we need to let it lie." He then hung up.

Never asked: Why?

Rebecca Nichols' book about her ordeal, "The Devil in Pew Number Seven," has done much to stir emotions.

Residents across Columbus County have read it. Many wonder: If that little girl can forgive, can we?

Pat Sellers and others in Sellerstown still cry about what happened. They're proud to read Rebecca's book and to learn the preacher's little girl carries on her father's legacy.

Pat Sellers explains how the community stayed sane during the months of terror.

"It hurt us, but it didn't destroy us," Sellers says. "Brother Nichols and Ramona always taught love, and we stuck together."

Can she forgive the same way Rebecca has?

"You have to," she says softly.

She dabs the tears from her cheeks. Her best friends, she says, are now in heaven. "The only way for me to make that journey is to have those same traits, of forgiveness, of love, of trying to understand people."

The ATF's Mercer can hardly stomach the thought of forgiving Horry Watts.

"I believe you've got to pay for the horrible things you've done in life, and I'm not sure saying 'sorry' is enough ..."

All these years later, Mercer still gets a fire in his belly about all the questions that remain unanswered.

More than half a dozen potential witnesses to Watts' involvement died mysterious deaths, he says.

One fell from the back of a truck. Another died in a fire. Yet another ended up dead in his home with a laceration to his head. When Mercer got to that scene, he says, Watts was inside with local investigators.

"I went ballistic."

Watts remains the agent's obsession -- and the lightning rod in this tiny community, just as he is the focus of Rebecca's book.

Yet few mention the man who might still hold answers to the questions that haunt them: Harris Williams, who spent 21 years in prison for killing Ramona.

Though Williams took the stand at his trial, he was never asked one key question: Why?

What made him enter the parsonage that day?

I knew I couldn't leave until I talked to the killer myself.

The characters

Harris Kelton Williams

Harris Kelton Williams He considered the preacher and his wife to be friends. But he showed up at the parsonage carrying three loaded guns and 61 bullets in his pockets.

Rev. Robert and Ramona Nichols

Ramona & Robert Nichols They were beloved by their congregation -- except for one man. Yet he was not the killer who entered their home and finally ended a six-year campaign of terror.

Rebecca Nichols

Rebecca Nichols At 7, she watched a man shoot her father and mother. She would later pen a book about the family's ordeal -- and how she chose to live with it.

Horry James Watts

Horry James Watts Ten years after the murder of Ramona Nichols, he would ask her daughter for forgiveness -- even though he was not the trigger man.

Charles Mercer

Charles Mercer The ATF agent put in tireless hours trying to nail the source of the threats against the preacher and his family. After the murder of Ramona Nichols, he would not let the case go.

The crime scene

The crime scene

Sellerstown

Sellerstown

Timeline

1969

Nichols family moves to Sellerstown

August 11, 1974

First dynamite bombing goes off at 4:30 a.m.

July 1, 1975

Third bomb explosion blows windows out of room where 5-month-old Daniel is sleeping

November 1975 to December 1976

Six more explosions rock the church and the parsonage

March 23, 1978

Harris Williams enters the Nichols' home and starts shooting, killing Ramona Nichols and severely injuring Robert Nichols.

August 11, 1978

Williams is sentenced to life in prison in Bladen County Superior Court.

February 20, 1981

Horry Watts is sentenced to four 5-year terms after pleading no contest to two counts of conspiracy and guilty to two additional counts of conspiracy.

March 11, 1982

Watts is released from prison on parole.

October 5, 1984

Robert Nichols dies after a blood clot lodges in his heart.

July 26, 1991

Watts dies at the age of 85 at Columbus County Hospital.

July 9, 1999

Williams is released from state prison on parole.

How this story was reported

Wayne Drash met Rebecca Nichols in September 2010 after reading her memoir, "The Devil in Pew Number Seven."

Intrigued by the terror campaign her family faced in the 1970s, Drash traveled to Sellerstown, North Carolina, where Nichols' home and church were bombed 10 times and where her mother was killed in 1978.

Drash spoke with more than a dozen people in the community, including the lead investigators on the case, current sheriff's office personnel, neighbors and the man convicted of killing Rebecca's mother.

He also met with Rebecca's younger brother, Daniel, and the aunt who raised them.

Among the hundreds of pages of documents Drash examined were trial transcripts, newspaper clippings, sheriff's files and evidence amassed by the federal agent who worked on the case for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

CREDITS: Photographs/multimedia by Jacque Wilson and Robert Johnson. Multimedia development by Sean O'Key. Copy edited by Forrest Brown.
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