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Sharon Williams never got along with her father, Milton Reddick. Not that he was around all that much when she was a child. Reddick always seemed to have something more important to do than tend to Sharon or her half-siblings.
His absence may have been for the best. According to his daughter and grandson, Reddick enjoyed gambling more than he enjoyed working. He was never much for paternal guidance, either; the nieces and nephews who saw Reddick at family gatherings remember a quiet bachelor who rarely invited anyone into his thoughts. His greatest attempt at familial bonding was to give the children some change for candy on the holidays and send them off to the corner store.
His daughter has a hard time recalling even those occasional moments of kindness. To Sharon, her father was a street hustler and a short-tempered thug. When she played hooky one day during junior high, he caught wind of it and beat her with a clothes hanger until she could hardly sit down. For other indiscretions he would sometimes whip her with an electrical cord, she once told a psychiatrist. According to Sharon’s son, Theodore Williams, Reddick ran poker games out of his house with an unusual authority, demanding that everyone deposit all their money with the host up front. In case a dispute arose at the table, he kept a gun nearby to defuse it.
“The man wasn’t nothing but 5-foot-5, 130 pounds soaking wet,” says Theodore, “but everybody was scared of him.”
Sharon was no exception: She was intimidated by him even into her adulthood, and yet she visited and sometimes even lived with him. “She was around him all the time, no matter where he was,” says a cousin. “The thing about it was, it was really strange. She was over his house all the time, staying with him. It was sad that she was actually with him.”
But Sharon didn’t have many choices. In the mid-’90s, when a fire at her Southeast D.C. apartment put her out on the streets, Sharon had few friends and family she could turn to for a bed, aside from her father. She had been dealing with bipolar and schizoaffective disorders for years, having gone in and out of St. Elizabeths Hospital around a dozen times in her adult life; her first visit was at age 17, when she attempted suicide after learning the father of her child was cheating on her.
As a homeless 44-year-old, Sharon did what many other mentally ill folks in D.C. do each day: She knocked on shelter doors. She argued with other women in the shelters when she didn’t take her meds, and sometimes the administrators had no choice but to kick her back out onto the streets. Her condition got worse. When she was barred from city shelters, she sometimes showed up at her father’s place.
By then an old man, Reddick lived alone in the Asbury Dwellings, an apartment building for senior citizens in Shaw. He struggled with gout, which was sometimes so crippling that he could hardly get around. But when Sharon came by in December 1997 and asked him if he could put her up for the night, he was in decent enough shape to convert his modest sofa into a bed for his daughter. As Sharon would later tell detectives, she didn’t sleep there for long.
When family members unlocked Reddick’s apartment door two days later, they found his frail body sprawled on his bed. There was blood splattered on the walls. According to court documents, a medical examiner would determine that Reddick had been stabbed 32 times.
Detective Ben Collins didn’t think Sharon was insane. After all, if she had come off as mentally unhinged, he wouldn’t have formally questioned her at the station to begin with. Collins says Sharon gave off the impression of someone who merely “had some issues.”
Sharon had signed a visitors’ log at the seniors home the night she stayed with her father, so Collins knew she had been one of the last people to see her father alive. He asked her to come in for an interview just so he could hear more about Reddick and whom he associated with. Collins had learned that Reddick sometimes entertained prostitutes, so that was the angle he was working. He was surprised when Sharon confessed almost immediately to the killing. “She pretty much came out [with it],” says Collins. “She told us her opinion of him from the very beginning.”
Sharon said that the lifelong abuse wasn’t limited to beatings, and that the night he died he’d made sexual advances on her as she slept. They struggled; he punched her; she picked up a knife.
“When we talked to her, initially she was OK,” says Collins. “But she couldn’t hold her guards up to mask the fact that [she was unstable]. Her demeanor was calm, but she was rattling. Her conversation was just a little weird—strange from time to time, and she had to be refocused.” Collins says he videotaped the confession, and Sharon took on a dramatic self-awareness in front of the camera. At one point, she addressed the camera and spoke as if directly to her dead father.
According to an affidavit, “Ms. Williams told police that her father had been sexually abusing her since she was a child. That night, she said, she decided that she ‘was not going to go through that hell again.’ She admitted that she could have left the apartment, but instead, she said, her mind snapped, and she stabbed the decedent repeatedly.” Afterward, she waited with him until he died.
Sharon was arrested the day she confessed and charged with second-degree murder. Theodore, who says Reddick would beat his mother and then beat him for trying to help her, couldn’t even go through the perfunctory rituals of grieving for his grandfather. When he saw his aunt and cousins, he felt some of them resented him, even blamed him. He didn’t care. “If it was up to me, would I have killed him? Yeah,” he says.
Sharon’s cousins, however, didn’t consider the alleged murder a matter of self-defense nor a just reward. While most of them say they loved Sharon because she was family, some also say they felt she was always “capable of anything,” duplicitous, even “wicked.” As for the abuse, some say they never bought it. “I never heard that,” says Louis Sanders, one of the cousins. “And I’d hesitate to believe that.”
The murder and its back story were particularly devastating for Reddick’s sister, then-73-year-old Frances Sanders. Frances and Reddick had grown up together down South and grown old together in the District. She watched after her brother in his later years, sending her children over to his home with groceries or dropping meals off that she prepared for him herself. She was one of the family members who found his body. She’d grown worried after not hearing from him for a couple of days and had taken a spare key over to his apartment.
“They were like two peas in a pod,” says Anna Dreher, their 63-year-old sister. “She couldn’t get over…what really happened.”
Frances was particularly stung by the fact that her brother had been left for dead after the stabbing. “She told [Sharon], ‘You don’t just let a man lie there. You could’ve called and said something was wrong. Almost two days went by…. You could’ve picked up a phone and made an anonymous call.’ We were all upset about it,” says Dreher. Frances grieved to Dreher over the phone until they both decided it was too painful and uncomfortable, given the “sore point” of Sharon’s alleged involvement. They decided they would no longer speak of it.
It turns out that prosecutors, too, were deciding to drop the issue. They would have had little hope of a guilty verdict through trial, even though they had motive, the log book, and a videotaped confession. A group of 12 citizens can be awfully forgiving when a defendant takes the stand and tells of a lifetime of physical and sexual abuse. “Could you imagine a jury in this city hearing that?” asks Collins. And no one involved—among the victim’s family or the defendant’s family—would have wanted to see the whole lurid story aired in public by lawyers.
Prosecutors quickly downgraded their charge on Sharon from second-degree murder to manslaughter. Months passed, and Collins heard nothing about the case. In less than a year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office dropped the charges altogether. The way Collins remembers it, the office relented out of compassion for Sharon’s situation: “There was some sympathy for her. I believe that was the basic decision of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, not to pursue it.”
When a mentally unstable homeless woman confesses to stabbing her sexually abusive father to death, intense counseling seems like a compassionate alternative to a lengthy prison term. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office isn’t in the business of rehabilitation; it could either prosecute her for the crime or not. So when Sharon skated on the murder, she went back to a life of homelessness and unreliable self-medication. Her resources were even thinner this time around, given that she was effectively ostracized by everyone in the family but her own children. “Her mother’s side wanted nothing to do with her,” says a cousin.
As for her father’s side of the family, the consensus was that Sharon had gotten away with patricide.
Frances was getting the calls every day after the murder. The caller wouldn’t say anything; only light breathing was audible through the receiver. After a while, one of Frances’ daughters bought her an answering machine so that she could screen the calls. But the machine wasn’t necessary once Sharon started speaking.
According to Frances’ daughter Shirley Elliott, Sharon’s repeated yet unfulfilled offer to her aunt Frances went something like this: “I’ll tell you what happened to my father.”
Frances had helped raise Sharon when her mother was heavy into drinking. Theodore says it was her aunt Frances whom Sharon often implored for help, more or less unsuccessfully, when Reddick was beating her. “My aunt would be upstairs praying to God, saying, ‘Help those who are disadvantaged,’” says Theodore. “But how can you help those who are disadvantaged when you close your door and pray?”
Many of Frances’ eight children feel as if Sharon never quite stopped seeing her aunt as a mother figure. They sensed something like envy in Sharon for the relative stability their side of the family enjoyed, for the early-widowed matriarch who spoiled her children and grandchildren with round-table feasts in her Stanton Park home. “Sharon basically had an obsession with our family,” says Elliott, “as far as the closeness of our siblings. [My mom] being a single mom and a widow, she’s always been there for us. She was the one that kept everyone together. Sharon seeing this and being around it, then looking at her life and her family and everything around it…”
Frances didn’t want to see Sharon after Reddick’s murder, and her banishment from the 8th Street NE house devastated Sharon. “For my aunt, it was very hard to believe that her own niece could have possibly killed her brother,” says Theodore. “But [Frances] didn’t look at why she would do it.” Then Sharon began making the strange phone calls—maybe to re-establish a connection, maybe just to hear her aunt’s voice. One time she even told her aunt that she was dying and wanted life insurance. According to Elliott, Frances arranged a sit-down with her insurance carrier, but Sharon took the man in circles and eventually backed off of her story. Maybe she just wanted attention.
Homeless after her father’s death, Sharon’s physical and mental health continued to deteriorate. “When Sharon was young, she was a very sophisticated dresser, with the jewelry and makeup, the smallest little petite shape,” says Tina Sanders, a cousin by marriage. “Right after her father’s death, she really changed. She was more confused—she just wasn’t the same.” Sharon gained weight and stopped looking after her appearance, gradually melding into the city’s streetscape of haggard faces.
“I had bad things happen to me, like rape,” says Sharon. “I was hospitalized. No one was prosecuted.”
More than once, Tina ran into Sharon, clutching a Bible, “speaking in different tongues,” hopping into the road to praise God. “I knew she was far gone,” says Tina.
These were the years that Sharon calls the “Silent Years”—a period where she bounced between shelters, visited doctors without progress, and kept her family in the dark as to her condition. According to Theodore, “the only thing my mother wanted was a place of her own again”—something like the modest bedroom she had had on Good Hope Road SE before the fire, “her own piece of the world,” where she waxed the floors and slept away the afternoons.
Out on the streets, she’d be devoted to her meds sometimes, doped to the point where she felt she might walk out into traffic; sometimes she’d be completely off her regimen, combative and suffering from hallucinations. “I’d hear voices, see these big pretty angels,” Sharon says. She’s told a psychiatrist that a voice once commanded her “to go buy marijuana and sell it. You got the money.” She’s also told the doctor that she believes she can read minds, that other people can insert thoughts into her head, and that the television speaks directly to her.
Theodore once got a call from some cops who picked her up for sleeping at Union Station. They did what most cops do when they find someone who’s mentally ill disturbing the peace: They dumped her at a shelter.
Sharon estimates she’s made at least 30 visits to either St. Elizabeths or outpatient facilities during her lifetime. The stays have ranged from a couple of days to a few weeks, and over the years she’s been given a slew of overlapping and sometimes conflicting diagnoses by different doctors. Among them: Psychotic disorder, mood disorder not otherwise specified, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. She found all the jargon confusing.
“All they’d tell me is I’m bipolar. But what is bipolar? What does it make you do?” she asks. “I didn’t know what kind of treatment I needed. I thought whatever was wrong with me, they’d fix it….I’d wait outside of the room [while] the doctors would talk. They’d tell me I was all right, that I could go home in a couple of days.”
As her health slid, she had more brushes with city cops. Since the murder of her father, she’d been arrested for unlawful entry and two separate assaults, including one against a U.S. marshal. In late 2001, she was locked up for allegedly trying to stab her ex-husband. According to a police report, Sharon smashed out some windows in his Southeast D.C. home and pulled a knife from her waistband. He warded her off with a lawn chair as she lunged at him. “I’m going to kill that motherfucker,” she said from the back of the police cruiser. “I’m going to kill him dead as a doornail.”
While she served her time in the D.C. Jail, her attorney lobbied for a reduction of her sentence, noting that before her most recent arrest, “Ms. Williams had never received any counseling related to her history of abuse. Although Ms. Williams has had extensive contact with the criminal justice system, [a psychiatric case manager] pointed out the direct relationship between Ms. Williams’s history of abuse and mental illness, and her criminal conduct.”
Still, most of her rehabilitation came in the form of a six-month jail sentence. Inside, she continued handing her problems over to God. She read the Bible and each weekend took part in the prison ministry program, where one day she was relieved to see a volunteer she knew from the outside world: her aunt Frances. It was a coincidental meeting, and Frances, a devout Christian who prayed several times a day, was impressed with her niece’s dedication to the faith.
After Sharon finished her time, her psychiatric case manager at a local nonprofit, Community Connections, told her that she’d be going into a staffed group home for other mentally ill residents; the nonprofit asked Theodore to find her a place to stay for the weekend as they squared away her room. But more than a week passed, and the agency never came through, says Theodore. A case manager with Community Connections declined to comment.
Sharon says she did what the agency suggested: She went to the shelters. She even tried her aunt’s house. Frances kept a bench in her front yard, where the neighborhood’s homeless were sometimes welcome to sit with sandwiches she’d made for them. According to Elliott, Sharon would come by the house, in spite of her banishment, and sit on the bench, waiting for her aunt to relent.
About five years after her brother’s murder, Frances Sanders welcomed Sharon back into her home. Frances’ children all considered it a reflection of their mother’s magnanimity. As Tina Sanders says, “She knew Sharon was just lost.” Sharon wasn’t allowed to live at the house permanently, but she could visit during the day, when she was put out of the shelter. Soon she was spending the occasional night at the house, sleeping in a basement bedroom. The kids objected almost unanimously, but their mother thought of forgiveness as a sacred rite, and as more than one of them have said, “There was no stopping her.”
To Frances’ children who lived at the house, Sharon looked to be unstable, perhaps even dangerous. In jail, Sharon at least had had someone who prodded her into taking her meds. On the outside, where she was her own responsibility, she felt chronically depressed. “I wasn’t outgoing like I’d always been,” she says. “I was sad and lonely. I had all of these different things going on….I knew I needed some kind of help.” Her mother died from heart disease while Sharon was homeless, and the incident “really pushed her over,” according to her youngest son, Andre Williams.
Sharon’s sleepovers made for some fitful nights at Frances’ house. “I used to get up at all hours of the night to check where she at,” says Thomas Wills, Frances’ son-in-law, who lived in the basement at the time. “Wasn’t nobody wanted to spend nights where people gonna go to sleep around her.” Sharon wasn’t exactly a model parolee, either. She failed her drug tests, she never paid her court-ordered fines, she ignored appointments with her parole officer, and she gave an address and phone number that didn’t check out. Still, no one tried to revoke her probation.
When Sharon wasn’t bunking at Frances’ place, she went to the House of Ruth, just a few blocks away. When she left the shelter in the morning, Sharon would while away the hours at her aunt’s house, smoking cigarettes and watching television, sleeping in the basement, and cleaning up around the house. “Sharon was almost trying to bait her,” says Tina. “Sharon came and she brought fruit and washed dishes, asked if she could dust anything. I said [to Frances], ‘You be careful with Sharon, you watch her.’ She said, ‘Sharon’s changing.’”
But for all of Sharon’s conciliatory efforts, Frances still pressed her for answers on Reddick’s last days; in fact, she often discussed the murder openly in front of Sharon. Elliott believes her mother may have brought Sharon back into the fold expressly to find out what had happened between her and her father. “It was really eating at my mother,” says Michelle Davis, one of Frances’ daughters, who overheard these conversations. “She would ask [Sharon], ‘Why did you do it? Why did you kill my brother?’” Sharon always grew uncomfortable under such questions. She’d go silent, shake her head, look confused. “She’d either squirm her way out of it or leave out the back door and not come back,” says Wills.
Apparently the murder still bothered Frances enough that she wanted to see something done about it more than five years later. As Wills remembers it, he and Frances got to questioning Sharon on the murder before a Sunday dinner in early 2003. Sharon had spent a few nights sleeping at the house, though her aunt still wouldn’t allow her to live there for good. The discourse that night turned accusatory. “It’s kinda funny how you can kill somebody and then get away with murder,” Wills remembers saying. As usual, Sharon pleaded ignorance.
But then Wills made an unusual offer to Frances, and he had the gall to air it in front of Sharon: “I said I had friends, some detectives in Homicide that I could talk to.” Wills said he’d call them the following day to see about having the investigation reopened, and Frances gave him her blessing. Sharon “didn’t take to it too kindly. She had a strange expression on her face, I guess like she was in shock or disbelief,” says Wills.
As everyone turned in for bed that night, Sharon asked something of her aunt that no one in the Sanders family had ever heard her ask before: Sharon, then 49, wanted to know if she could sleep in her aunt’s room with her. Frances said no. “Maybe she thought if [my mom] allowed her to sleep with her, that would’ve made her feel closer to her,” Davis says. If Frances had acquiesced, she adds, Sharon “might never have done what she did.”
The following day, Davis and her sister Nancy Sanders told their mother they felt uncomfortable around Sharon and wanted her out of the house.
But apparently Sharon planned on leaving anyway. That afternoon, she walked to the corner store up the street and bought three containers of lighter fluid, according to a police report. She headed back to the house and doused the first floor.
After the fire, Sharon was standing with the rest of the neighborhood crowd, watching as the blaze smoldered. She had black soot on her clothes and ash in her hair. Later at the police station, she didn’t buckle under questioning until she learned that her aunt, then 78 years old, had died in the fire, never having made it down from the second floor. Asked if she had set the fire, she nodded. “The defendant then spontaneously began to discuss the fact that she had been arrested for killing her father several years ago,” the report says. Then she cried. She was arrested for arson and first-degree murder.
After the fire, it seems Sharon finally got the attention of her probation board. The following day, a supervisor requested a hearing to have her probation revoked. In his hindsighted report, he concluded, “The instant charges reflect the level of risk she presents to the community.”
Much of the next two years would be spent trying to determine whether Sharon was insane or not. Observation started right after the fire, when mental-health clinicians at the D.C. Jail began a roughly two-month evaluation of her. Sharon was paranoid from the beginning. Within two weeks they noted that she was “overtly psychotic,” largely ignoring her observers but “responding to both auditory and visual hallucinations.” She had trouble remembering things, long-term and short-, and she felt she was being persecuted. She’d respond to voices in her head and insist that people were coming into her cell, trying to take everything from her but her mind. “PATIENT EXPRESSES DESIRE TO GO TO SLEEP AND NOT WAKE UP,” notes one report.
She was examined by several mental-health specialists. Two of them concluded nothing, citing in their reports Sharon’s irritability and lack of cooperation in the interviews. A third determined that she understood legal proceedings well enough to stand trial. A fourth, hired by the defense, traced Sharon’s legal problems to her psychotic episodes, her homelessness, and the abuse she suffered in her childhood. The report also noted that she was at the reading level of an eighth-grader and the arithmetic level of a third-grader.
Six days before her trial was to start, Sharon, having been deemed competent, decided to plead guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter. On March 4 the judge gave her a 14-year prison sentence, a term well beyond the suggested four to 10 years for the charge. At the sentencing in D.C. Superior Court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimya Jones stated baldly, “This is a case where the criminal-justice system failed Frances Sanders,” given Sharon’s repeated brushes with the law and the fact that she was on probation at the time of the fire. Like any good prosecutor, Jones kept the motive brief and digestible: “All the signs point to revenge”—that is, revenge for Frances’ intention to have Reddick’s murder case reopened.
But the psychiatrist for the defense had a slightly less malicious theory: “It appears that in her acute states of psychiatric illness, she has expressed her most extreme anger at the people who first victimized her, her biological father who physically and sexually abused her throughout her childhood, and her aunt, who evidently ignored her pleas for help when she was being abused as a child.” Of course, there are those who don’t buy Sharon’s mental illness at all. Bipolar disorder runs in Frances Sanders’ family, and as some of them are quick to point out, they’ve never stabbed anyone or started any fires. “Of course it was [an act],” says Davis, who is herself bipolar. “That’s how she got away with killing her father. That’s why she didn’t feel hesitant to kill again.”
When Elliott considers her mother’s death, she tends to blame the system—though she’s not sure whether it should be the city’s criminal-justice system, its mental-health system, or its social-services programs. “It’s not so much Sharon,” she says. “They’re more responsible than Sharon for what happened to my mother. If they had done something—maybe put Sharon in a mental-treatment center, gotten a house for her, or kept her locked up for a while, then maybe she wouldn’t have been in the state of mind to do what she did. She just fell through the cracks and was allowed to do what she did.” She adds, “But that’s hindsight.”
In a series of interviews with a reporter, Sharon denies ever killing her father and says she can’t remember what happened the day of the fire. Now loyal to her medications, she acknowledges that “this whole experience has been unbelievable. You don’t know how hurt I am about the whole thing.” She expresses frustration with the city’s mental-health system, saying that she sought help for years—walking or riding the bus to fruitless appointments at St. Elizabeths—and that her doctors confused her and her case managers “did nothing.” She says all she ever wanted was an apartment of her own, but social services never found a room for her.
As she waited to be sent to a federal prison, Sharon grew tired of the D.C. Jail and spent much of her day sleeping in her cell. But she did receive a considerable respite from the boredom one day, when she was provided with a lengthy narrative of her life and mental-health history, which was penned by the defense’s psychiatrist. Sharon found the thick packet engrossing, and she compared the experience of reading it to reading a book about somebody else’s life.
In the end, her self-assessment is brief but undeniable. “I’ve had a pretty interesting life,” she says.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Doug Boehm and Darrow Montgomery.