Skip to main content

A killer's remorse, a survivor's generosity

Terror in a small town
Last of four chapters:
By Wayne Drash, CNN
Harris Williams was convicted of second-degree murder in the killing of Ramona Nichols.

Fair Bluff, North Carolina (CNN) -- I've come to meet a killer.

My car makes its way down country roads shaded by giant swooping oaks and thick pines into one of those out-of-the-way places where dogs are more likely to chase your car than police.

Harris Williams -- the man who most everyone in Columbus County whispers about but with whom few dare speak -- has agreed to talk. The meeting spot: the house of his grown son, Scotty in Fair Bluff, North Carolina.

I turn onto the gravel drive. My car kicks up dust.

A doublewide sits amid more than 100 acres of farmland. Williams' son welcomes me and says to feel at home while he fetches his father. Within minutes, he drives off.

Clara newspaper
Harris Williams and his son still live near the Sellerstown community.

Construction equipment lies all around the property: a Mack truck, backhoe, tractor, dump truck. I notice cameras spying from various angles of the home.

The knot in my stomach grows. I've never met with a convicted killer, let alone with one on his own turf.

Some 20 miles away, in Sellerstown, stands the church parsonage where Williams, armed with three revolvers, killed Ramona Nichols and wounded her husband, Robert, in front of their two young children.

The killing, on March 23, 1978, was the culmination of six years of terror against the preacher and his family: death threats, dynamite bombings, drive-by shootings.

Williams was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life. As far as prosecutors were concerned, the killing was a lone act unrelated to the yearslong campaign of violence.

The mastermind of that campaign -- a rich and powerful former county commissioner, Horry Watts -- eventually went to prison on conspiracy charges. He is long dead. Williams, who served 21 years in prison, has been free since 1999.

The events of more than 30 years ago were mostly forgotten in Columbus County, home to 55,000 people in eastern North Carolina. Then, the little girl who saw her mom get killed penned a book about the terror campaign. Rebecca Nichols, now 41, spoke not of hate, but of love.

She's forgiven those responsible for targeting her family for so many years. Her book, "The Devil in Pew Number Seven," focuses on Watts -- for his evil actions and, ultimately, for reaching out to her and seeking forgiveness.

She told me she has forgiven Williams, too -- although she's never heard from him since her testimony, as an 8 year old, secured his conviction. "I've never gone through life expecting an apology," she said. "He has his own choices to make. I hope he gets right with the Lord."

I'm thinking of that conversation as I wait for Williams. I wonder what he has done with his life these past 12 years. What's it like to kill a person and live with that guilt? How has it changed him?

Most of all, I want to know: Why did he do it?

I glance up to see a truck pulling into the drive. Maybe it's the influence of Hollywood, but I expect Williams to look like a gruff lumberjack who chews tobacco and eats beef jerky for breakfast.

He's just the opposite. He has slicked-back hair like a well-kempt barber, a job he held inside prison. He's decked out in his Sunday best: an orange-and-blue plaid blazer, tie and pressed orange dress shirt.

He's 68 now, cordial and even gracious. He's never talked to a reporter and, after all these years, he's got plenty to say.

Like so much of what happened to the preacher and his family, Williams says, his story revolves around Horry Watts.

"That was one evil man," he says.

We talk for a couple hours. He blames alcohol, he blames himself, he blames Watts for setting things in motion. He apologizes again and again, saying he's not sure he's able to put into words how sorry he is. At times, it seems he wants to tell me more, but he stops -- as if some things should remain in the past.

Watts hated the preacher. A small-town feud that began over money collected from the church offerings escalated into full-blown terror.

Investigators say Watts would often use his power to influence others. He'd make up stories and tell local men the preacher was sleeping with their wives. "It's none of my business," Watts told one Sellerstown resident, "but I've been watching your trailer, and I've seen the preacher go across there and stay with your wife."

Williams tells me he wasn't paid to carry out the killing -- that he was preyed upon by others wanting to harm the preacher and his family. That Horry Watts and one of his main henchmen knew he was susceptible when he was drunk.

And he'd been on a heavy drinking binge. At trial, Williams told the court he'd consumed two and a half gallons of liquor, mostly Canadian Mist, in the days leading up to March 23, 1978.

"You asked me about the 23rd," he tells me. "I think about it often and I think when it gets close to that (date), it seems like for a few days I'm just completely changed with it on my mind and thinking about what happened -- that I was responsible."

A distant look comes over his eyes. "These were friends of mine, and there is no reason they should have been shot by me -- no reason whatsoever."

But they were.

On the morning of that fateful day, Williams says, a visitor stopped by his trailer on Vinegar Hill. It was David Fowler, a ruffian he says Watts used to carry out a lot of his dirty work.

At his trial more than 30 years ago, Williams told the court about Fowler's visit. Prosecutors and the defense never asked why Fowler stopped by or what he said to Williams.

I want to know the answers to those questions.

The killer pauses and looks straight at me. He seems almost pleased someone wants to know about that conversation.

"Your wife is sleeping with the preacher," he says Fowler told him. "I was going down the road a while ago, and I saw your wife in the car with his arms around her."

Williams says his wife had left with their infant son because of his drinking. He knew she was close to Ramona and that she'd taken refuge with the Nicholses.

But this was a different story. Williams listened to Fowler closely.

A real man wouldn't stand for that, Fowler told him, working Williams into a frenzy.

The preacher has to be killed.

Whether Fowler said exactly those words, or whether he simply planted that idea -- the end result was the same. Williams, after more drinks, armed himself: He carried three loaded revolvers and 61 bullets in his pockets. By 5:30 p.m., he was at the parsonage.

Williams shakes his head. His voice slows like sorghum. He says he now knows the infidelity allegations weren't true. "There was nothing to indicate the preacher had any way with my wife."

But, "in a drunken state, I guess I took it from there."

He says he doesn't remember details of what happened.

"It's just hard to explain how I come to that point in my life."

Ramona Nichols was buried on Easter Sunday. Williams wept behind bars.

"It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to deal with in my life. It is really, really hard.

"... I think back and I think back and I try to ask myself, 'Why?' I can't blame God. All I can do is ask for His forgiveness like I have done many, many times."

Reading the book by the preacher's daughter has forced him to come to terms with his actions in ways he'd never done. At times, he'd break down and cry at her words. He'd carried out a heinous crime in front of the young girl and her brother -- ripped apart their lives, killed their mother, destroyed their father.

"It took me back," he says.

"Yet she has forgiven me. That was one thing that I have to admire -- forgiveness." He repeats, "Forgiveness."

"Have you forgiven yourself?" I ask.

"Yes, I've had to," he says. "It's not been easy, and I don't ever guess it will be."

He admires Rebecca for writing the book and for seeking answers. He'd want his kids to do the same.

He says he wishes he could meet with Rebecca and her younger brother, Daniel, to let them know how sorry he is -- "to explain my feelings for what I have caused and knowing how their lives have been shattered by the things I had done." But he's done nothing to make it happen.

Clara newspaper
Harris Williams and his son, Scotty, are trying to rebuild their relationship now that Williams is free.

His 42-year-old son, Scotty, sits near his father throughout much of the interview. At times, the son sobs uncontrollably. He was 10 when his father went to prison.

"You didn't see Scotty run screaming out of the house on the morning after the murder was committed," the boy's mother wrote Williams while in prison. "You didn't run after him and hold him while he collapsed screaming on the ground. He was screaming and crying because he thought they would kill you because you had killed someone."

The boy pedaled his bike around the town of Fair Bluff with a petition for a new trial and better treatment for his dad inside prison. All but one person in the town of 1,000 signed it, he says.

Today, Scotty wraps his arms around his dad and buries his tears in his father's shoulder. "My daddy is a changed man," he says. "He's not the man he's made out to be."

"You asked why Daddy came back to this community where everyone knows what he did. It was because of me, because I needed my father."

Williams has three sons. The others said they could not make this meeting, but I wonder how solid their ties are to their father. Williams says he has tried to repair relations with them, but it has not been easy. Their lives were also shattered that day.

He missed fishing trips, birthdays, sporting events -- those things where a boy longs for a dad. "They know that I will try to be the best father I can be now."

He got a second lease on life, something Rebecca's mother never had. He's well aware of that, and he's cognizant that many believe a killer should never be free.

He's had five bypass surgeries. He doesn't work. No one wants to hire a convicted killer. He lives off disability benefits.

He says he hasn't had a drink for three decades. Officers at the sheriff's office vouch Williams has remained clean since his release.

Helping him turn his life around, he says, was the woman he killed. He says Ramona Nichols appeared to him in a vision in his jail cell in the 1980s. "She said, 'I forgive you. And we'll see each other again.'"

"... It was as though she wanted me to know that there was hope for me."

I don't know what to make of this story. A vision or a self-comforting delusion? I also wonder: Did Fowler, acting at the behest of Watts, really visit that morning and tell him to kill the preacher? Or is it a convenient way to deflect blame?

Fowler and Watts are dead now. Fowler was never charged in connection with the killing or the threats and bombings.

Watts went to trial on federal conspiracy charges in 1981. The government presented more than 50 witnesses -- including those who testified he wanted the preacher gone -- and 70 pieces of evidence.

Watts didn't want to take his chance in front of a jury. He pleaded no contest to federal charges of conspiring to bomb the church and parsonage. He pleaded guilty to separate conspiracy charges against another area resident. He spent a year in prison.

Watts also settled a civil suit filed by the preacher for $100,000. The money did little good: Robert Nichols was in and out of psychiatric treatment for the rest of his life.

Years later, Watts asked Rebecca Nichols to forgive him.

The only one left who might hold clues to what motivated -- or provoked -- Williams to kill is the federal agent who investigated Watts and the series of bombings.

Charles Mercer, formerly with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, believes Williams is telling the truth: that he was a pawn preyed upon by Watts to get rid of the preacher. In fact, Mercer wrote the North Carolina Parole Commission just that on August 8, 1982.

"Williams was apparently manipulated by Watts as others had been before," the ATF agent wrote. "Evidence (exists) indicating that Watts using Fowler and others pressured Williams, who had the reputation of being unstable at times, into going to the parsonage for the purpose of harming Robert Nichols."

"... The 'bottom line' here is that a man may have been manipulated into doing crimes that he would not ordinarily have done on his own."

Watts also sent Williams a letter shortly after his imprisonment, saying he'd like to visit. It reads almost like a "thank you" note. "Ask would it be OK for me to carry you a little something. Something to eat. Book to read, fruit or whatever."

Now, I stare at the sorrowful man sitting across from me, still haunted by his own actions.

I stand to leave. We exchange pleasantries, shake hands.

"Let me ask you something," Williams says. "Would you be able to forgive me if I had done that to your mommy and daddy?"

'Crazy to forgive?'

I had a better understanding of why Williams went to the parsonage that day -- at least his version -- but I'd never know why Watts' grudge with the preacher had escalated into such lethal hatred.

His son didn't want to talk. Lee Watts said it was like stirring up "a pile of manure." Nor did Williams' wife at the time, Sue Williams, want to meet.

Rebecca's book has cracked open long-buried memories and forced folks to grapple anew with decades-old events they never fully understood. She's stirred emotions of sorrow, guilt, anger, loss.

But she's also opened a conversation about faith and forgiveness.

After the shooting, Rebecca moved away from all that was dear -- her church, her friends, her school. Her father never fully recovered physically or emotionally. He died seven years after the shooting. Rebecca was 14; her brother Daniel, 9.

They could so easily have been ruined.

Yet Rebecca found strength, in her faith, in her family that remained and in the love instilled by her parents.

"I wasn't going to throw the rest of my life away for anger and bitterness," she told me.

"Just because my parents' lives were over, didn't mean that mine was, too."

I think about Williams' question: Had it been my parents, could I forgive those responsible?

I ask Rebecca: "Are you crazy to forgive?"

"I'll tell you how I respond to that," she says. "If I had not forgiven, I would be crazy in an institution somewhere. My parents had planted the seeds of forgiveness in me as a little girl: Pray for those who persecute you and bless those who curse you.

"Sometimes, when people forgive, they feel like they're saying what that person did was OK. That's not what it's doing. When you forgive, you're letting go of the pain and giving it to God."

Rebecca and her book had spurred my journey to document the effects of a murder long after the fact.

I'd seen a federal agent still wracked with guilt and fuming over what he calls "sham justice."

I'd met friends and neighbors of the Nicholses who still cry about the events of so long ago.

And a murderer who still asks himself: "Why?"

I'd found it to be true that an event as life-altering as murder can crack a community wide open. More than three decades later, it's still doing that in Sellerstown.

But I also learned that what allows people to move on, even from the most horrible events, is their willingness to forgive.

That alone was no longer a mystery.

Fourth of four chapters:

The characters

Harris Kelton Williams

Harris Kelton Williams He served 21 years in prison for the murder of the preacher's wife. But what drove him to do it? His answers are surprising. Are they true or self-serving?

Rebecca Nichols

Rebecca Nichols She has told her story in a memoir, "The Devil in Pew Number Seven." And she says she's forgiven the men who destroyed her family. How?

Rev. Robert and Ramona Nichols

Ramona & Robert Nichols The preacher never recovered from his wife's murder, or the wounds he sustained -- physical and psychological. He died at 46, just seven years after Ramona's death.

Horry James Watts

Horry James Watts Before he died, he asked forgiveness for his role in the terror campaign against the Nichols family. Did he also play a role in spurring Harris Williams to kill?

Charles Mercer

Charles Mercer The ATF agent believes Horry James Watts was ultimately to blame for the murder of the preacher's wife -- that he and others manipulated an "unstable" man. Forgiveness? Mercer can't stomach it.

Pat Sellers

Pat Sellers Her home is still next door to the parsonage where her best friend died. She says she's striving to live the way the preacher and his wife did -- with understanding, love and forgiveness.

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.
Sellerstown
Sellerstown