On December 5th, 1987, the body of seventy-nine-year-old Lonnie Laws was found in his Chicago home. The elderly man had been strangled and robbed. Mr. Laws had a belt around his neck and a piece of clothing gagging him. The apartment, in the Chicago housing projects that cater to senior citizens, had been ransacked. There were no signs of forced entry, however, leading detectives to believe that the robber and murderer was someone Mr. Laws knew and trusted. Unfortunately, there were few clues in the case other than some fingerprints lifted from the crime scene.
The autopsy of Mr. Laws revealed that the 5’5” man weighed just 97 lbs at the time of his death. He had suffered hemorrhaging in both eyes and had several abrasions to his face and nose. The cause of death was strangulation by the belt as evidenced by hemorrhaging in the neck, throat, esophagus, and tongue as well as fracture of the thyroid cartilage. Lonnie did have a small amount of alcohol in his system, but this was well below the legal limit to drive and certainly not fatal. It was clear that Mr. Laws suffered a brutal death, but it wasn’t clear whose hands inflicted the injuries.
Almost one year to the date later, on December 6th, 1988, an officer was summoned back to the senior citizens housing project. Inside, the decomposing body of sixty-four-year-old Caesar Zurell. Mr. Zurell had suffered multiple stab wounds. His autopsy showed three stab wounds penetrated his chest and lacerated his lung. He was left to die a slow painful death on the floor of his apartment. A latent fingerprint was found as well as a palmprint on a bottle. The prints didn’t match anyone in the system. There were no signs of forced entry, and the motive appeared to once again be robbery.
On July 15th, 1989, authorities were called to yet another apartment building in the senior citizen housing projects of Chicago. Inside, police found the body of eighty-nine-year-old Mary Harris on her bed with a bandanna around her neck, knotting in the front. There were no signs of forced entry, but the apartment had been ransacked and Mary had clearly been robbed. Mary’s daughter noted that a stereo set she recently purchased for her mother was missing.
Mary’s autopsy revealed ligature marks around her neck, a fractured hyoid bone, and black and blue bruising to her face and eye sockets. The coroner determined the cause of death to be ligature strangulation after being physically beaten. Mary was 5’3” tall and weighed just 99 pounds at the time of her death. Was there a serial killer targeting the elderly in Chicago?
A resident of the same apartment building approached officers following Mary Harris’s death. He said that he was standing at his window the say Mary was killed and saw a woman leaving the building alone and carrying a stereo. He has seen the woman in the building several times and described her as a black woman who often wore a white nursing uniform. Another resident had also seen the woman that day. On September 6th, 1989, the resident saw this woman again and called authorities.
On September 6th, 1989, officer Betty Woods responded to the resident who reported seeing the woman in the building that he believed stole Mary Harris’s stereo and likely killed her. He said that the woman hadn’t been in the building much since Mary’s death, but she came back that September day. The resident also told officer Woods that he had seen this woman assault other residents of the building in the past. He pointed officer Woods to the woman.
Officer Woods approached the woman and identified herself. The woman was thirty-five-year-old Deborah Williams who was with another woman at the time. Woods asked the women to come to the station and they readily agreed. At the station, officer Woods left the women in the care of detectives on the murder case. The main detective on the case, Edward Schmitt, spoke to Deborah for about ten to fifteen minutes that day. They did deliver her Miranda rights, ensuring any testimony provided would be admissible in court. Williams denied knowing Mary Harris or having anything to do with her murder.
The detectives asked Deborah to sign a consent to search her apartment, which she did without hesitation. In the apartment, police located Mary Harris’s missing stereo system. Upon questioning Deborah, she claimed she “bought it hot off the street”. Deborah was cool, calm, and collected throughout the interrogation. She even agreed to a polygraph examination, which she failed. She agreed to provide her fingerprints as well.
At 8:30 pm that night, Deborah was formally arrested for the murder of Mary Harris. Not only was Deborah in possession of the stolen stereo, but her fingerprints also matched latent fingerprints at the scene of the crime. Multiple witnesses placed Deborah in the building as well, stating she was alone that day with the stereo. She was also known to frequent the senior citizen housing projects, often stealing from and abusing the residents.
Following her arrest and confronted with evidence against her, Dorothy Williams continually changed her story. Finally, she admitted to going to Mary Harris’s apartment looking for money to buy heroine. She said that Mary gave her two dollars to go buy her some milk, but when Mary turned her back, she attacked her. To silence the elderly woman’s scream, Dorothy used Mary’s “rag” as she called it to strangle the woman. She then dragged Mary’s body into her bedroom, stole the stereo, and left. Dorothy Williams was charged with first-degree murder.
Dorothy Williams was born December 12, 1954, in Chicago. Her parents split before she was born, and Dorothy was raised by her mother. She had very little interaction with her father. She had two sisters, one of which Dorothy was particularly close to. Dorothy struggled in school and dropped out when she was fourteen years old. Dorothy had trouble with literacy, not being able to read or write at her age level. Her sister helped her a lot with tasks that required reading or writing. Dorothy became pregnant and had her daughter at the age of fifteen. The father of her daughter was not involved in his daughter’s life and died in 1978. Dorothy became pregnant again and had a son at age seventeen. Her son’s father was not providing her with any support.
In 1973, Dorothy got into a fight with another girl and hit her with a wooden milk cart, knocking out two of her teeth. That same year she was arrested following an incident in which Deborah was using profane, vulgar language while at the scene of a street fight on Chicago’s south side. She resisted arrest and kicked the police officer ten to twelve times in the face. On May 10th, 1975, Deborah was arrested for delivery of marijuana. She was given probation and a fine.
As she grew older, she relied on her sister for reading and writing. The two were extremely close, but Dorothy’s sister passed away of bronchial pneumonia in January of 1987. That year, Dorothy confessed, she killed Lonnie Laws. That year, Dorothy started hanging around the senior citizen housing projects. She would sometimes be dressed as a nurse or a plumber, providing a way into their homes. Then, she would steal from her victims. She had on at least two occasions physically assaulted an elderly person during a robbery.
Dorothy had a drug problem. She was addicted to heroine and needed money to support her habit. Elderly people were the perfect target for her, as she was able to easily overpower them. Sometimes Dorothy would verbally and physically attack these people.
On December 4th, 1987, Dorothy later said she had been on a date and had sex with Lonnie Laws, a seventy-nine-year-old man living in the senior citizen housing projects. She said Lonnie was drunk and acting crazy. Dorothy asked Lonnie for money, and he told her that she would have to come back for it. Dorothy wasn’t happy with this and started looking through the elderly man’s drawers for money. With her back turned, she claims that Lonnie Laws stabbed her in the arm. She said that she became enraged and grabbed the 97-pound man by the neck, eventually strangling him with his own belt. She then said she took money from his robe and left. Later, evidence from Lonnie Law’s crime scene was tested and the fingerprints were a match to Deborah Williams.
Dorothy testified that in December of 1988, she got a call from sixty-four-year-old Caesar Zuell. According to Dorothy, he wanted to pay her for sex. She said she purchased some whiskey and went to see Caesar. After having sex, Dorothy said Caesar did not want to pay her, so she wrestled him for the money. Mr. Zuell pulled a knife, demanding that she leave. Dorothy said she grabbed his wrist and pushed the knife into the man’s chest. She said she then took eighty-seven dollars out of Caesar’s pockets and left.
Along the way, she robbed several other senior citizens using verbal and physical abuse and manipulation. Dorothy often wore medical or nursing unforms, or a plumber’s uniform. She would tell her targets that she was there to help them or fix a pipe, gaining access to their homes. One elderly man she robbed and beat, only to be turned in and let loose on bond. She then robbed and attacked the same man on that anniversary of the first robbery. Again, she was arrested, bonded out, and never appeared in court.
When she was arrested in 1989 for the murder of Mary Harris, Dorothy’s luck ran out. She wouldn’t be bonding out of this. In fact, the State of Illinois planned to seek the death penalty against her. After she was convicted of killing Mary Harris, Dorothy Williams plead guilty to murder for Lonnie Laws and Caesar Zuell. She was given life sentences for those offenses. For Mary’s murder, she still faced the death penalty.
During her sentencing hearing, the state presented evidence that Dorothy targeted vulnerable, elderly people. She easily overpowered, assaulted, and robbed several citizens of the senior citizen housing projects. Evidence regarding the murders of Lonnie Laws and Caesar Zuell were presented as aggravating circumstances. The jury heard testimony about her frequent robberies and assaults of elderly people. They also heard about her criminal record.
The defense presented mitigation factors, hoping to spare Dorothy Williams the death penalty. Her mother testified about the circumstances of her birth and her childhood without her father. Testimony was provided about the trouble Dorothy had in school and her low intellect. Her children, now 20 and 18, testified in her defense that she was a good mother and treated them well. After hearing both sides, the judge found that the aggravating circumstances were greater than the mitigating, and sentenced Dorothy Williams to death.
At the time, Dorothy was one of only two women on Illinois’ death row. She continually appealed her case, claiming she was of limited intelligence. Her IQ tests, however, showed she was 73, 3 points above the legal standard. Doctors who examined her noted that she was manipulative and tried to fail intelligence tests on purpose. She lost all of her appeals.
In 2003, former Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted all death row prisoners, including Dorothy Williams, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dorothy was serving her life sentence in Logan Correctional Center. She died on December 19th, 2020. She was sixty-six years old. When you think of a serial killer, it’s statistically most likely to be a white male. Dorothy Williams, a black female serial killer, is extremely unusual in that regard.
After her arrest, Dorothy William’s daughter was arrested for robbing and assaulting an eighty-year-old citizen. I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
O’Connor, M. (1991) 2nd woman sentenced to death row. Chicago Tribune. 19 Apr 1991
Deadly Women (2013) Death Knock. Season 5 Episode 19