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Jury convicts Steven Vogel in the killing of a Black man whose body was found burning in rural Iowa ditch

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Kate Payne / IPR
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A jury has found 32-year-old Steven Vogel guilty of first degree murder and abuse of a corpse in the 2020 killing of 44-year-old Michael Williams. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A jury has convicted 32-year-old Steven Vogel, who is white, of first degree murder and abuse of a corpse, in the 2020 killing of 44-year-old Michael Williams, who was Black. Investigators have said the murder was not racially motivated but members of Williams’ family are calling it a lynching.

An all-white jury returned the unanimous guilty verdicts in less than four hours, handing over its decision at the Keokuk County Courthouse Tuesday afternoon. Friends, family and supporters from across Iowa and throughout the country filled the courtroom to hear the verdict handed down.

“I’m ecstatic that the jury did their job. They really did. And I’m grateful to the citizens here,” said Williams’ aunt, Paula Terrell.

“[The justice system] worked here,” said James Byrd-Williams, Michael’s father. “I’m satisfied.”

Williams remembered as big-hearted, caring

Williams, who had lived in Grinnell for more than a decade, is being remembered as a loving father and big-hearted person. The Syracuse, New York native built a home in Iowa, but never lost sight of the importance of family, according to family members. At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Williams is remembered as a gentle giant, and a big hugger who loved his children, relocating to Iowa to be near them, his father said.

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Michael Williams is being remembered as a caring, big-hearted person and a family man. He relocated to Grinnell in order to be closer to his children, according to his father.

Those children are now growing up without their father, after Williams was murdered in what investigators say was a gruesome, premeditated attack.

Prosecutors say that on or around Sept. 12, 2020, Vogel enticed Williams to come to his home in Grinnell, where Vogel beat him over the head at least three times and hanged him with a rope until he was dead, according to testimony from witnesses and a medical examiner.

Vogel kept Williams’ remains in the basement of his home for days. Two witnesses testified he showed off the body and admitted to killing Williams over his alleged involvement with Vogel’s girlfriend.

Prosecutors say that later, Vogel, his mother Julia Cox and her boyfriend Roy Garner traveled with Vogel when he dumped Williams’ body in a ditch in rural Jasper County and set it on fire. Cox and Garner were charged with abuse of a corpse, destruction of evidence and accessory after the fact. Cody Johnson, who testified as a witness in the trial and is alleged to have helped Vogel move Williams’ body within the basement, was charged with abuse of a corpse and accessory after the fact.

The jury was apparently unconvinced by the defense team’s arguments that the killing was not premeditated and was instead the chaotic result of “meth use, jealousy and anger."

Investigators say killing wasn't racially motivated, family members call it a "lynching"

Less than a week after Williams’ body was found, investigators and the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP said there was no evidence that the killing was racially motivated.

But for members of Williams’ family, his brutal death has the hallmarks of a lynching.

“It’s putting that rope around his neck and holding it for over six minutes, causing his death, is the definition of a hanging. A lynching,” said Terrell. “A white man lynched a Black man over a white woman.”

Across the country, white vigilantes used extrajudicial killings to terrorize Black communities for generations. Many of the victims were men alleged to have had relationships with white women.

“The love interest in this love triangle had been with several other people prior to alleging to be with my nephew. Those people were not murdered. Why kill Black Mike, as he was referred to by the defendant? Why did he have to kill Black Mike?” Terrell said. “It was a lynching.”

Byrd-Williams also called his son’s killing a lynching, saying the disregard and disrespect for his son’s body is infuriating.

“The worst part of this though? They threw my son in a ditch. Threw him off like he was garbage. And then burned his body,” he said.

Byrd-Williams says there is also a sickening familiarity to the murder: he says his cousin was James Byrd, Jr., the Black man who was brutally murdered in 1998 by three white men who chained him to a truck and dragged him to death in Jasper, Texas. Byrd-Williams’ son’s body was found in Jasper County, Iowa.

Family members, Iowa-Nebraska NAACP call for reforms to hate crime laws

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Kate Payne / IPR
Michael Williams' father, James Byrd-Williams, and his aunt, Paula Terrell, stand with Iowa-Nebraska NAACP president Betty Andrews, who has faced criticize for not calling Williams' killing a hate crime. Investigators have said there's no evidence the murder was racially motivated.

Members of Williams’ family and racial justice activists have criticized the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP for what they see as "jumping the gun" on saying there was no evidence the killing was racially motivated.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday alongside members of Williams’ family, Betty Andrews, president of the state NAACP chapter, said her organization supports the victim and his loved ones.

“We are always in support of the family in a situation like this,” Williams said. “Going forward, this case does bring to light concerns about hate crimes and Iowa’s weak hate crimes laws.”

When pressed on whether she believed the killing was a hate crime, Andrews said the group was still making determinations.

“Certainly there was hate. We are working through all of the definitions and how we want to present,” Andrews. “Because there are a few more cases that are coming to light, we want to make sure we don’t prejudice anything.”

Andrews did say she would like to see reforms to Iowa’s hate crimes laws. Terrell agreed, saying she would support using Williams’ case as an example to lobby for changes to the laws.

“I am willing to continue, until that change happens, to dedicate all of my time that I have available to working with local politicians, NAACP, and anyone else who is joining that fight to strengthen that law,” Terrell said. “It needs to be strengthened.”

The murder has profoundly impacted Williams’ close-knit extended family. His mother has suffered multiple strokes, which family members believe to be a result of the grief and stress of the ordeal. Her health has been so affected she was not able to attend the trial.

Terrell says the family’s focus now is to care for the children and grandchild that Williams left behind.

“What we really need to do as a family is continue to wrap our arms around his children. No matter what. I lost a nephew that I cared about dearly. But they lost their dad. And they have to figure out how to navigate their lives going into adulthood without their father,” she said.

Vogel is slated to be sentenced on Dec. 13. In Iowa, a first degree murder charge carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.