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Two defendants sentenced in Michael Williams’ murder; one defendant to stand trial

Michael Williams, orginally from New York, moved from Kearney, Nebraska, to Grinnell in 2002. He is pictured here with his sons Danté and Michael Jr. in 2007. Contributed by Janalee Boldt.

Julia Cox, 56, and Roy Lee Garner, 59, were sentenced to seven and nine years imprisonment, respectively, for their roles in the 2020 murder and abuse of the corpse of Grinnell resident Michael Williams.  

Both defendants pled guilty under a plea agreement in which their respective attorneys requested probation. Poweshiek County Courthouse Judge Shawn Showers, who argued that the defendents’ actions showed a profound disregard for humanity, rejected both attorneys’ requests and sentenced Cox and Garner to the maximum sentence. 

A third defendant, Cody Johnson, 31, also attended the March 28 hearing with a guilty plea. Included in the terms of his plea agreement was the expectation that Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver would recommend the Court to two years’ probation. Judge Shawn Showers rejected Klaver’s recommendation and said he would impose a jail sentence.  

Johnson rescinded his guilty plea immediately after. He will stand trial on Aug. 9, 2022 at 9:00 a.m. at the Poweshiek County Courthouse for the Class D felony of abuse of a corpse and the aggravated misdemeanor of accessory after the fact.  

Klaver did not respond to request for comment on why he recommended only two years’ probation for Johnson. 

Racial justice and trial testimony 

In November 2021, Grinnell resident Steven Vogel was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole at a jury trial for murder in the first degree and abuse of a corpse. Witnesses testified that Vogel admitted to murdering Williams in mid-September 2020 by hanging him with a rope in the basement of Vogel’s Spring St. home. On Sept. 16, witnesses saw flames in a ditch parallel to North 67th Avenue East and reported a fire. Members of the Kellogg Fire Department extinguished the fire and found Williams’ body.

Witnesses at the Vogel trial testified that Johnson assisted Vogel in carrying Williams’ body from the basement, and that Cox and Garner helped Vogel transport the remains to the Jasper County ditch. 

Witnesses also testified that Cox and Garner drove Vogel to Marshalltown to discard of evidence from the murder, like Vogel’s gloves. 

Williams was Black, and his murder sparked outcry from members of his family, residents of Grinnell and activists, who called his killing a hate crime and a lynching. On Sept. 20, 2020, Grinnell College issued a letter calling for students and Grinnell residents to “recognize the connection that this incident has to a long history of oppression of Black Americans.” 

Two days later, at a joint press conference held with the Grinnell Police Department, Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said that the chapter sees no indication that Vogel targeted Williams for his race. 

Still, some activists and members of the Williams family maintain that the murder was racially motivated.  

On Nov. 16, 2021, after the Vogel trial, the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement (DSM BLM) released a letter describing Michael Williams’ murder as “part of the legacy of lynching in this country, where white men feel entitled to murder Black men for whatever reason they see fit.” 

The letter criticized the Vogel trial for having no Black jurors, lawyers, court clerks or judges, and called the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP’s statement “irresponsible and dangerous” for dismissing accusations of racially motivated violence only six days after the crime was discovered.  

The Iowa-Nebraska NAACP did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Johnson’s statement or on if the organization’s position has changed since 2020 in light of evidence presented at the Vogel trial, such as Johnson’s testimony that Vogel referred to Williams as “Black Mike.” 

Appeals and motions 

Cox filed for appeal on the day following her sentencing. Her attorney cited her age and health. As of April 18, Cox’s appeal is pending.  

Garner’s attorney Christopher Clausen filed a motion on March 31 for the court to reconsider or furlough Garner’s sentence due to medical concern. Two days after the original sentencing, Garner was transported from custody to the Grinnell Regional Medical Center due to an unnamed medical emergency. He was then transported to the intensive care unit at the Iowa Methodist Medical Center hospital in Des Moines.  

According to the motion, doctors at Methodist do not believe Garner will survive his illness. Clausen also wrote that he believes the defendant poses no risk of harm to others for the remainder of life.  

Showers denied this appeal on April 5.  


The week of the March 28 sentencing, Williams’ father, James Bird Williams, sent a letter asking that a public memorial be created to honor Williams. 

The Williams family had planned to meet with Grinnell mayor Dan Agnew on March 28 to discuss the proposed memorial, but the meeting was canceled because the sentencing hearing ran longer than anticipated. Grinnell City Manager Russ Behrens said that as of April 12, the family has not requested another meeting.  


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About the Contributor
Nina Baker
Nina Baker, Staff Writer
Nina Baker is a fourth-year Russian major with a Russian, Central European and Eurasian Studies concentration from Lakeville, Minnesota. When she's not reporting for The Scarlet & Black, she loves taking long walks, reading, and learning foreign languages.
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