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Remembering legendary Richmond homicide investigator Ray Williams

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Even as he was dying, slipping in and out of consciousness, Ray Williams was still a detective. Propped up in the faux-leather recliner in his hospital room in the cardiac intensive care unit at St. Mary's Hospital, his meaty fingers motioned in the air, taking invisible notes on murder cases long past, murmuring the names and addresses of victims whose silent faces called to him for justice — justice that Ray Williams often brought them.

"That's all he ever wanted to do," says his older brother, retired Henrico County police Capt. Denny Williams. "And I will tell you, it became not what he did but who he was, because he was a homicide detective 24/7. It really was his life's calling. He wanted to help people."

Retired Richmond police Detective W. Ray Williams died Feb. 1 at 68 following a long battle with heart disease, tragically dying on the same day as his younger brother Tommy, a retired American Filtrona factory worker who had long suffered from Alzheimer's.

The gravel-voiced Richmond native had a tough upbringing in the city's Oregon Hill neighborhood.

"You had to fight to exist in Oregon Hill," said Ray Williams, who at age 12 witnessed a neighbor get shot through the neck. Ray was the third of six children, all of whom were placed in foster care as young children for four years. His two youngest siblings would be adopted by another family. Their father, a second-generation bootleg whiskey-maker who once sold his wares to the same undercover policeman twice in a single night, was in and out of the nearby state penitentiary and prison road camps during their early years. Years later, as a young homicide detective, Ray would be called to an abandoned house in Oregon Hill, where his father was found dead on a mattress in the kitchen.

Fresh out of George Wythe High School, Ray Williams joined the Richmond Fire Department at 18 because he was too young to be a policeman. Three years later, the stocky former Golden Gloves boxer transferred to the city police force at age 21. (A sympathetic sergeant counseled him to stand on his toes to gain the extra inch he needed to reach the department's regulation minimum height requirement of 5 feet, 10 inches.)

By the time he was 24, he became the city's youngest member of A Squad, the department's elite violent crimes investigation unit ("The average time to be in patrol was nine years when I first went there. I did it in two-and-half," he noted.) In the 1980s, the FBI selected him for its first class to teach police detectives about using behavioral profiling techniques to capture serial killers.

Over his 25-year career as a homicide detective, Williams worked some of the city's biggest cases, ranging from the notorious Briley Brothers to the deadly Newtowne Gang. As the city's murder rate skyrocketed from drug-related gang violence in the 1980s, he was detailed to the city's newly created narcocide unit. Following his retirement, he worked as an investigator for the city commonwealth's attorney, assisting on cases such as the nightmarish 2006 Harvey family murders.

Most recently, he recounted his work on the city's South Side Strangler case in the locally produced 2018 podcast "Southern Nightmare" and a related series of articles in Style Weekly. Williams was a member of the team that arrested 1980s serial killer Timothy Spencer, the first murderer in U.S. history captured on the basis of DNA evidence. It was a grueling investigation that would result in the end of his first marriage and the suicide of his detective partner, Glenn Williams. (The duo weren't related, but people called them the Williams Boys nonetheless.)

Highly respected in the local law enforcement community, Williams was confident of his investigative skills, which were meticulous. "I'm anal retentive. I write down everything. I get a drunk driver, I write down the socks he had on. I'm just very detail-oriented," he said.

"One time," his brother Denny remembers, "he caught five homicides in one weekend and he cleared four of them before Monday morning. … He worked some very significant cases. He was a hell of a detective. … He was one of the best ever and I'm not just saying that because he's my brother."

"Ray had a good way of connecting with people, getting people to talk, getting them to be cooperative," recalls retired Richmond homicide detective Louis "Boo" Quick, who was Williams' partner in the early 1990s. "Ray was a very likeable guy. He loved to tell jokes. You'd get in the car and before you'd get to the end of the block, he'd tell you three or four jokes — some of them you might have already heard a few times."

An inveterate and irreverent wisecracker, "Ray could [also] be his own worst enemy," Quick recalls. In the 1990s, Williams memorably shot his mouth off to a deputy chief at a crime scene, angrily snapping, "You couldn't find a murder suspect on death row." He was busted down to a patrolman for about a year until he was reinstated by the newly hired police chief.

"Ray said, 'At least I can look myself in the mirror each morning.' … and I said, 'Well, you better get used to it because now you can look at yourself in the rearview mirror of that blue-and-white when you're patrolling South Side,'" his brother remembers, laughing.

In his later years, the twice-divorced grandfather of six was an obsessive racquetball player, an avocation he continued until last year, despite the fact that he had a heart pump installed in 2015. The American Family Fitness gym in Short Pump has renamed its fall racquetball tournament in his memory.

An avuncular raconteur and avid teller of police war stories, Ray Williams yearned for his days of chasing criminals — right to the very end.

"I'd do it again tomorrow if they'd let me," he told Style last year. "It was a great job — challenging at times, but I liked that."

A memorial service for Ray Williams will be held Feb. 16 at 2 p.m. at the Richmond Police Academy, 1202 W. Graham Road. His family has asked that donations be made in his name to the Richmond Police Foundation, richmondpolicefoundation.org, or Apple Dog Daycare, appledogdaycare.com.

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