Voices From the Grave: One of Rockford’s finest
By Kathi Kresol
There is a saying that life can change in an instant. This story is definite proof of that. In 1972, Charles J. Williams must have felt that he was a lucky man. Just 28-years-old, he was married to a lovely woman named Mary and had two children; Suzanne Marie, who was 2-and-a-half years old, and Jeffrey Allen, who was just 6 months old. Charles’ parents didn’t live in Rockford but were still close enough that he could help his father with the family farm in Apple River.
Charles graduated from Warren High School in 1962 and joined the service. He served his country in two tours in Vietnam. Charles was seriously injured during his service and his father worried about him while he was so far away.
In fact, his father was still worried about him and felt that Charles had traded one danger for another since he had become a Rockford Police Officer. Charles’ father and his wife Mary would both beg him to be careful when he left for work. Charles would flash his big grin that he was known for and say, “Nothing is going to happen to me.”
Charles couldn’t know that his luck was about to run out and that one instant would change his family’s lives forever.
On May 31, 1972, Charles left to meet his partner, David Henrekin. They both loved being policemen. David would later state that they were more like brothers than partners.
The two officers were on patrol and they were sent to Forest Avenue for a call when the received another one sending them to the Lantow Drug Store on 7th Street. They had just been advised it was an armed robbery when they spotted a car that matched the description given over the radio.
Charles stepped from the car to approach the suspect’s car while David picked up the radio. One man walked toward Charles as the radio squawked out the description of the man involved in the robbery report. David looked down for an instant at the radio to turn the sound down. When he looked back up the suspect had drawn a revolver and was pointing it at Charles.
When David saw Charles start to move right he thought he must be diving out of the way so that David could return fire. That is when David heard the gunfire. The suspect fired four times and David returned fire. David saw Charles on the ground and gave chase to the fleeing suspect.
David lost the suspect in the West State and Waldo Street area. By the time he returned to the scene, policemen were rushing to the area to assist him. Charles was sent to the hospital as police began their manhunt. They recovered what would later prove to be the weapon that was used to shoot Charles from a front yard on Forest Avenue.
Police began questioning everyone. They were given a tip about a man holed up in an apartment on South Main Street. When they arrived, they arrested 22-year-old Leon G. West.
Shortly after the arrest of West, Charles’ was pronounced dead at 12:33 a.m. on Thursday, June 1.
Charles J. Williams’ funeral was held at the Apple River Methodist Church and he was buried at Warren Cemetery. Over 1,000 people attended the services including over 200 police Officers from the Rockford Police Department. Other policeman and state troopers from as far away as Chicago and Indiana attended.
Newspapers would later report that his lovely wife, Mary, remained stoic until the part of the ceremony when she was presented with the American flag that was once draped over her husband’s casket. Her sobs echoed along with the sounds of the song Taps across the little cemetery.
At the trial in November 1972, it was brought out that Leon West was on parole for a former armed robbery conviction when he shot Charles. West was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 100 years in prison.
The people of Rockford showed their appreciation for Charles’ sacrifice and support for his family by donating $30,000 in his memory. Hopefully, Mary and Charles’ parents could take comfort that all the men who served with Charles would later describe him as one of the best men they ever knew.
Charles J. Williams is one of the fallen officers that will be honored by the 911 First Responders Memorial at West State Street and Kilburn Avenue. The memorial completion and grand opening ceremony will be held this Sunday at 8:30 a.m. at 650 West State Street at the west end of the parking lot. The public is invited to this momentous occasion.
This event will mark the 15th Anniversary of 9/11. This special memorial will honor emergency responders from Winnebago County who have fallen in the line of duty and all who sacrificed on September 11, 2001. Three bronze statues will be unveiled and dedicated and the memorial will contain some of the steel girders from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from the World Trade Center. Other officers that will be honored include fallen officers from the Winnebago County Sheriff Department, Rockford Police Officers and Firemen, and the lost members of the 2012 REACT Helicopter Crew.
The Rockford Historical Society will also be there with a table with information about some of the fallen officers supplied by local historian, Kathi Kresol.