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Steven Vogel sentenced to life for 'cold-blooded' murder of Michael Williams, whose body was found burning in a ditch

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Kate Payne / IPR
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The Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma.

Thirty-two year old Steven Vogel of Grinnell has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for the brutal killing of 44-year-old Michael Williams, a Black man whose body was found burning in a rural Iowa ditch in 2020. At an emotional sentencing hearing at the Poweshiek County Courthouse on Monday, Judge Shawn Showers gave a blistering rebuke of Vogel, who is white, calling him a "cold-blooded murder with hate in his heart." Though investigators said there wasn’t evidence the killing was racially motivated, Williams’ family members have called it a “lynching."

Michael Williams’ family members remember him as a loving father and grandfather who put down roots in Iowa in order to be closer to his children, even as his extended family urged him to come home to Syracuse, New York.

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Courtesy of the Iowa Attorney General's Office.
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Michael Williams' family members are remembering him as a devoted father and grandfather with a deep love for his hometown of Syracuse, NY.

Williams never forgot where he came from, said his aunt Paula Terrell. She says when his body was found, having been dumped in a ditch beside a country road in rural Jasper County and set on fire, he was wearing a Syracuse sweatshirt.

On Monday, Steven Vogel was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for what Judge Showers described as the heinous and horrific killing of Williams. Last month, an all-white jury in Keokuk County unanimously convicted Vogel of first degree murder and abuse of a corpse. Vogel was also sentenced to five years for the mutilation of Williams’ remains. The sentences will be run consecutively.

“You're a cold-blooded murderer with hate in your heart,” Showers told Vogel. “These sentences are made for people like you who commit these horrific offenses and take others’ lives without any regard for consequences.”

According to court testimony from witnesses and a medical examiner, Vogel beat Williams in the head, hanged him until he was dead and then kept his body in his basement for days, showing it off to friends before dumping it in a ditch and setting it alight.

“Mr. Vogel, you're why Iowa has life without the possibility of parole,” Showers told him. “You don't deserve to be on the streets. You don't deserve to see a parole board. You are a dangerous cold-blooded killer. You'll have the rest of your life to think about what you did, the loss and the pain that you caused, and the precious life that you ended.”

'You dehumanized Michael Williams'

Family members and supporters of Williams had traveled from across the state and around the country to sit in the small, wood-paneled courtroom to hear the sentence pronounced. Williams’ loved ones wiped away tears as the judge formally rendered his sentence and excoriated Vogel for the decades of joy that he robbed from Williams and the utter callousness with which Vogel treated the man’s body.

“You treated Michael Williams like he was not human,” Showers said. "You clubbed him. Strangled him to death. Kept him in your basement like an animal that you would kill. You wrapped up his body, set it on fire. And you dehumanized Michael Williams. And Mr. Williams did not deserve that.”

“You're a cold-blooded murderer with hate in your heart [...]These sentences are made for people like you who commit these horrific offenses and take others’ lives without any regard for consequences.”
-Judge Shawn Showers

Four of Williams’ family members took to the witness stand to confront Vogel directly, voicing their furious grief. Vogel declined the judge’s offer to make a statement during the hearing, only giving brief responses to direct questions.

“You thought you would get away with what you did,” Dante Williams, Michael’s son, told Vogel. “You thought people didn't care enough about him to research and find out what really happened. That is not the case. There's a lot of love behind my father.”

Michael Williams’ father James Byrd-Williams stood at the witness stand to deliver his testimony, towering over the dais at 6’8” tall. He threatened Vogel repeatedly as the defendant listened silently.

“You burned his body. Threw him in a ditch like he was garbage,” Byrd-Williams said. “You’re very lucky that I’m holding myself back from jumping over this thing and breaking your neck.”

“In some ways I'm glad my sister was not able to travel here for the trial. I am sure the state's pictures of her [son’s body and autopsy] would have caused her demise."
-Paula Terrell, Michael Williams' aunt

Paula Terrell’s voice grew thick with emotion as she spoke about how the violent murder of Williams has devastated his mother, Terrell’s sister. Terrell says Williams' mother has fallen into a deep depression and suffered a stroke because of the grief and stress. She’s now living in a nursing facility and relearning how to walk, according to Terrell.

“In some ways I'm glad my sister was not able to travel here for the trial. I am sure the state's pictures of her [son’s body and autopsy] would have caused her demise,” Terrell said. “How do you tell your sister that the graphic pictures we all have seen of Emmett Till pales in comparison to the pictures of her son?”

Family members maintain the killing was a hate crime

Less than a week after Williams’ body was found in September of 2020, investigators and the chair of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP said there wasn’t evidence to conclude that the killing was racially motivated. But Williams’ family maintains that the murder was a hate crime and carries the hallmarks of a lynching.

“Yes it is a lynching,” said Terrell. “And even if the motive was about a white woman, all due respect, think of people like Emmett Till. He died for looking at a white woman. Not touching her, just looking at her. So yeah we stand firm in that we believe it’s a hate crime.”

Yet during the trial, race was not a focus. Prosecutors argued that Vogel’s motive to kill was because of an alleged relationship between his girlfriend and Williams. Questioned after the sentencing hearing about whether the crime was racially motivated, prosecutor and Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown said the prosecution respects the family’s feelings, but said they built the case on the evidence they had.

“We certainly respect those feelings. And we've had discussions with them about what the provable motive was here in the case,” Brown said. “It's one of those things where the motive that was developed with the evidence that we had had to do with the girlfriend of Steven Vogel and that’s why we chose to go the direction that we did.”

“To get the conviction and the highest penalty, we erase race. And by racing race, we erase […] the fullness, the completeness of the story. And that actually puts all of us in danger."
-Luana Nelson-Brown, executive director, Iowa Coalition for Collective Change

Paula Terrell said she tried to convince prosecutors of the importance of pursuing a hate crime charge, bringing in community advocate Luana Nelson-Brown to speak on the issue as well. Nelson-Brown directs the Iowa Coalition for Collective Change, which supports anti-violence and homicide response programs.

“Like the Ahmaud Arbery case, prosecutors had to dance around race in order to get the conviction. Same thing here,” Nelson-Brown said. “To get the conviction and the highest penalty, we erase race. And by racing race, we erase […] the fullness, the completeness of the story. And that actually puts all of us in danger. It makes it unsafe for us, especially as Black people in Iowa, because there's no indication to the public of how really dangerous our state really is.”

Williams’ family members have said they’re thankful for the efforts of the judge, jury, witnesses and prosecution that resulted in a unanimous guilty verdict, but maintain that the case raises questions about Iowa’s hate crimes laws, which they want to see reformed.