On July 16th, 1966, Harry Sutliffe and his wife left their Sparta, Michigan home for a few hours. When they returned, they realized their thirteen-year-old daughter, Laura Jo, was missing. That Saturday afternoon changed the lives of the Sutliffe family and small town of Sparta forever. By Tuesday, the National Guard and Michigan State Police had joined the widespread search for the girl, but to no avail. Tips and leads flooded in, but it was as if Laura had just vanished. The community lived in fear.
Laura Jo Sutliffe was born in 1953. By 1966, she was your average thirteen-year-old girl. She had not discovered boys yet and still played with dolls. Her friends and family described her as a good person. She was last seen by her parents that Saturday morning wearing a red, white, and blue pullover sweater and cutoff jeans. The community of Sparta feared the worst when the girl couldn’t be found, a fear that was justified.
On the morning of September 19th, 1967, more than a year after Laura Sutliffe disappeared, seven-year-old Sonya Santa Cruz readied herself for her day and set off to Stocking Elementary school. Once she reached school, Sonya realized she left a book at home that she needed for the day. Her teacher sent her back home to retrieve the book, but Sonya never arrived back at school. Sonya’s mother, Edith, and the entire community of Grand Rapids began a full-scale search for Sonya, praying to find her safe.
Sonya Jeanne Santa Cruz was born November 10th, 1959. Her mother was a single mom with three little girls. While Edith searched for her seven-year-old daughter in 1967, she left her other two girls with a family friend and her husband, Theodore Williams. “I can remember this man, Theodore Williams, sitting in my kitchen, during the month Sonya was missing, and it was speculated someone had kidnapped her. He said to me ‘If I could get my hands on the one that took her, I’d kill him!’” Sonya’s mother recalls (Agar, 2014).
In October of 1967, two young girls were horseback riding in a rural area outside of Grand Rapid when they found the deceased body of a young girl. Detectives identified the victim as seven-year-old Sonya Santa Cruz. Sonya had been buried in a shallow grave, but animals uncovered her remains (Daily News, 1967). Sonya’s mother was able to identify her clothing and books as her body was too badly decomposed to be recognizable. When excavating the grave, police found an estimate book belonging to a house painter. The name inside was Theodore Williams.
Based upon this information, Theodore Williams was brought in for questioning. The twenty-seven-year-old man was the husband of Sonya’s friend, the babysitter who watched the other girls while Edith searched for Sonya. He was a house painter from Wyoming, Michigan, a suburb of Grand Rapids. Under police questioning, Williams admitted to kidnapping, raping, and strangling Sonya on September 19th. Police then asked if he was involved in any other crimes, to which he responded, “I got a girl in Sparta” (Agar, 2014). Williams then led police to the body of Laura Jo Sutliffe about forty miles from Grand Rapids. She had also been kidnapped at knifepoint, raped, strangled, and buried in a shallow grave in a rural part of Michigan.
Theodore Williams was charged in Allegan County with the murder of Sonya and in Newaygo County for the murder of Laura. Edith lived in shock as she realized that the man who murdered her daughter had babysat her other children while she searched for Sonya. Per the other two girls, they were not harmed by Williams in any way while under the care of him and his wife. The audacity of the man to assist in the search and act as if he was upset about her disappearance appalled Edith and everyone who knew Sonya and Laura.
Following his confession, Williams was given a court-appointed attorney who in December of 1967 filed a motion to have Williams evaluated to determine if he was a criminal sexual psychopath. “If the petition is granted, proceedings on the murder charge will be stayed and three psychiatrists will be named by the court to examine Williams. If the experts find he is psychopathic, a hearing will be held in circuit court without a jury unless he requests one. If Judge Ray (or a jury) finds on the evidence submitted that Williams is a criminal sexual psychopath, he would be committed to the state hospital at Ionia until it is determined he is cured and is ‘no longer a menace to society’” his lawyer explained to the press in 1967 (The Herald-Press, 1968).
In January of 1968, Judge Chester A. Ray ruled that Theodore Williams was a criminal sexual psychopath. He was remanded to the Michigan Department of Mental Health for an undetermined amount of time. The law said that he was to remain confined in the mental hospital until he was considered to no longer be a threat to society. He would not face adjudication for the murders of Sonya and Laura is a court of law, but double jeopardy was also not applied. The judge made this decision with apprehension but cited statements made by Williams in court. For one, he stated a fair punishment for the murders would be 10-12 years. He was noted to laugh at Sonya’s mother in the courtroom when she asked if he has molested her other children. Psychiatrists examining Williams said that he had a mental disorder for which there is no cure at this time.
Five years after Theodore Williams was sent to the psychiatric facility, the Criminal Sexual Psychopath Act was repealed by the Michigan Supreme Court. The Supreme Court further clarified that those who were currently detained under the law were bound by it, meaning they would remain in custody until they were determined to no longer be a threat. In September of 1973, Theodore Williams and 1,200 others hospitalized at the criminal facility were released. Theodore Williams was free for three months before Allegan County refiled the charges against him for Sonya’s murder. Williams plead guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1979, Williams successfully appealed his conviction. However, the judge felt that Williams was improperly released in 1973, as the repeal stated that current perpetrators were subject to the law’s stipulations. He should have been declared “cured” before gaining a release. Instead of life in prison, Theodore Williams was sent back to the custody of the Michigan Department of Mental Health for an indeterminate amount of time.
In 1982, Williams tried to gain his release. At this point, Williams had been held for fourteen years, a sentence he saw fit for his crimes. States Attorney James Batzer said, “The children of the state of Michigan are entitled to better protection than that” (Associated Press, 1982). Alongside him fighting to keep Williams locked up was Edith, Sonya’s mother. She vowed to do everything in her power to ensure her daughter’s murderer never walked free again. Williams was denied release.
In 1994, Williams once again sought release from custody, stating he was no longer a criminal sexual psychopath. Edith, who had moved to California, returned to Michigan for the hearings and to visit Sonya’s grave for the first time in twenty-six years. When Sonya passed, her mother didn’t have the money for the headstone and found it too painful to visit her grave. Charges against Williams for Laura Jo Sutliffe’s murder had been quietly dropped years ago, leaving her family without a sense of justice.
Williams was the last person held under the repealed law by 1994. Psychiatrists testified that Williams has an antisocial personality disorder and pedophilia (Associated Press, 1994). Although Edith attended the hearing, the victims’ families had no impact on the outcome. “Victims technically have no real standing in this case. It’s a pre-victim’s rights act” the prosecutor explained to the press (Associated Press, 1994). Edith shared her thoughts with the press, stating, “It is beyond my reasoning ability that anyone ever would let this animal out to do this again, because that is what he will do. Yet I have known that one day he would be let go because people forget” (Associated Press, 1994).
Williams testified that his father was an abusive alcoholic, citing that as the reason he “acted out” (Associated Press, 1994) and killed two little girls. Three mental health professionals testified that Williams remained a danger to society and should not be released. The experts further explained that Williams had not shown remorse or attempted to explore the fantasies that led him to molest and murder Sonya and Laura. A social worker, however, testified that Williams was not “the same person he was twenty-seven years ago. He has a much higher regard for human life” (Associated Press, 1994).
Family members, including Williams’ daughter-in-law, also testified on his behalf. His daughter-in-law stated she would be comfortable with him babysitting her two small children, Williams’ grandchildren. She said her kids adored their grandfather’s company. Wait… enjoyed their grandfather’s company? How is that you ask?
Edith learned at this hearing that Theodore Williams was granted weekend passes from the state psychiatric hospital in order to visit his family without supervision. Despite the passionate pleas of William’s family and social worker, his release was denied as the psychiatrists still believed him to be a threat to society. Williams filed a petition for a few months later for a new court appointed attorney.
In order to evaluate the request for a court-appointed attorney, Theodore Williams was required to disclose his income. He reported receiving $600 per month in Social Security benefits. If Williams had been sent to criminal prison instead of the psychiatric facility, he would have been ineligible to receive these benefits. As a patient of a state psychiatric facility, a portion of his Social Security benefits should have been given back to the state to provide for his care. However, Theodore Williams had been collecting these benefits for three decades at this point. A Michigan State Senator, William Van Regenmorter, vowed to make every effort to have these funds given to the victims and taxpayers. The payments ended shortly after, but Williams had received enough to buy property on the upper peninsula of Michigan.
In 2005, Williams once again sought release. He said that he was deeply remorseful and that, “if it was reversed and it happened to my child, I would never want to see the guy get released” (Associated Press, 2005). His lawyer argued that Williams’ detainment under the repealed law was unconstitutional and that the state cannot prove Williams remained a danger to society. Williams testified that he was changed man after receiving decades of counseling. His request was denied.
The next attempt at freedom came in 2014. Williams, seventy-five-years-old, asked the court for a trial to determine if he has recovered from his personality disorder and should be released. His attorney insisted that Williams had recovered from his psychopathic determination. Edith wrote letters to the court, pleading for Williams to remain in custody. She said, “It’s not over until he is dead” (Agar, 2014). In early 2015, Williams withdrew his petition for release. He cited that he could not be given a fair shot in Allegan County due to the press coverage of the case.
In 2019, fifty-two years after Sonya’s murder, Edith got the surprise of her life. Tom and Kurt Postma, brothers who operated Postma Monuments in Newaygo, head read about Sonya and Laura’s murders and felt called by God. Edith had never found the money to place a proper headstone on Sonya’s grave, and the men wanted to fix that. They met with Edith and designed a headstone for her grave at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Grand Rapids. “I just felt in my heart and my spirit that that little girl needed a proper burial” Tom said (Agar, 2019).
In 2019, Edith was now a great-grandmother in poor health. Her kidneys had failed, and she required dialysis treatment several times per week. At that time, Williams was once again pondering asking to be released and for millions of dollars in restitution after spending most of his life in a psychiatric hospital, albeit with weekend furloughs. Edith sought a kidney transplant, vowing to outlive her child’s murderer and continue the fight to keep him from freedom. “I’ve gotta stay alive for Sonya”, Edith said (Woods, 2019).
Edith died March 18th, 2022. Her daughter shared that she gave her mother permission, telling her, “Mom, its ok. We’re all going to be OK here. You don’t have to stay. Go with Sonya” (Agar, 2022). Theodore Williams, now eighty-three-years-old, continues to be in the custody of the Michigan Department of Mental Health, the only person held on a law that was repealed forty-nine years ago.
Petoskey News-Review (1966) Fears mount for safety of lost girl. Petoskey News-Review, 20 Jul 1966
The Pittsburg Press (1967). 2 Slain girls found in shallow graves. The Pittsburg Press, 16 Oct 1967
Daily News (1967). Suspect leads way to 2d body. Daily News New York. 16 Oct 1967
Associated Press. (1967). Grand Rapids man held in 2 slayings. The Herald-Press, 16 Oct 1967
The Herald Press. (1967). May get sanity test in slayings. The Herald-Press, 7 Dec 1967
The Herald-Palladium. (1968). Judge rules Wyoming man criminal sexual psychopath. The Herald-Palladium, 17 Jan 1968
Associated Press. (1982). Williams bases bid for freedom on law repeal. The South Bend Tribune, 24 May 1982
Associated Press (1994). Child killer seeking freedom. The Herald-Palladium. 17 Mar 1994
Associated Press (1994). Confessed child killer gets weekend passes from hospital. The Herald-Palladium, 21 Mar 1994
Associated Press (1994). Convicted killer gets check while living in institution. Detroit Free Press, 7 Sep 1994.
Associated Press (2005). ‘60s child rapist, killer seeks release. The Times Herald, 25 Oct 2005