‘Not a Random Act’: Four Charged in Murder of Iowa Man Found Burning in Ditch

Four people have been charged in connection with the death of Michael Williams, a 41-year-old Black man whose burning body was found in a ditch last week, Iowa authorities announced Tuesday.

Officers said they believe Williams was strangled on Sept. 12, and his death was “not a random act of violence,” as he’d known at least one of the suspects for years.

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said four suspects—Steven Vogel, 31, Julia Cox, 55, Roy Garner, 57, and Cody Johnson, 29—have been charged in connection with Williams’ death. Vogel, who is described as a “known acquaintance” of Williams, has been charged with first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse, while the other three face charges for abuse of corpse, destruction of evidence, and accessory after the fact. All four individuals are currently in police custody.

“Michael was killed in Grinnell on or about on Sept. 12, 2020. Michael’s body was then wrapped in cloth, plastic, and carpet, which was secured to him by rope and duct tape. He was then taken to rural Kellogg on the afternoon of Sept. 16, where he was set ablaze,” Iowa DCI Special Agent Adam DeCamp said during a Tuesday press conference announcing the charges. He added that “no evidence has been found to show the acts against Michael Williams were motivated by his race.”

While the motive behind the gruesome slaying remains unclear, Grinnell Police Chief Dennis Reilly said that at least one of the suspects had known Williams “for years.”

“Our mission from the very beginning and that will continue is to bring justice for Mike and Justice for his family,” Reilly said. “I just want to be clear to say: This was not a random act of violence. Those responsible for this heinous act knew each other.”

Jasper County officers found Williams’ burning body just after 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 16 while responding to a report about a roadside ditch fire in Kellogg, about an hour outside of Des Moines. The medical examiner’s office ruled Williams’ death a homicide, and the evidence was “consistent with strangulation,” DeCamp said.

The news of the four arrests comes just one day after Williams’ family spoke out about his death, expressing their hope for justice and their desire to bury the 41-year-old back home in upstate New York once the investigation is complete.

“All we wanted was for him to come home. Now we have to bring him home in the worst possible state,” his aunt, Paula Terrell, said in an interview with the Des Moines Register. “We will fight for justice. This is our family’s mission, no matter what—we will fight for his legacy to be remembered as who he was: A loving, kind, gentle giant who loved his family, who loved his children.”

Terrell added that Williams moved to Grinnell about 12 years ago from his native Syracuse. Over the last decade, the father of five worked at several fast food restaurants but was recently unemployed after his diabetes worsened.

While Williams would check in with his family on a daily basis, his aunt said he stopped calling on Sept. 12, two days after his birthday. Four days later, authorities found Williams’ body in the 8100 block of North 67th Avenue East in Kellogg.

DeCamp said Tuesday that Williams was held for days at a home on Spring Street before he was murdered and dumped about 20 minutes away in the roadside ditch. According to a criminal complaint obtained by The Daily Beast, a witness told law enforcement on Sept. 17 that “Stephen Vogel killed Michael Williams,” and that they had seen his body “wrapped up in the basement” at Vogel’s mother’s house.

On Sept. 17, authorities executed a search warrant at 1203 Spring Street—where Vogel, Cox, and Garner reside. At the home, investigators found a 1999 Dodge Dakota, which Garner admitted he’d driven one day prior to “a rural area near a bridge that had a guard rail” so he could dump something in a ditch.

“Roy Garner said Julia Cox and Steve Vogel were with him,” the complaint states. “Roy Graner said Julia Cox and Steve Vogel got out of his truck and pulled a roll of carpet out of the bed onto the road. Roy Garner said Steve Vogen then pulled the roll of carpet down into the ditch.”

Garner told authorities he then drove Vogel to Marshalltown and dropped him off at one of his sister’s homes before he and Vox went to a rural area in Tama County to dump some other items in a ditch, including plywood, carpet, bleach bottles, rubber gloves, plastic, and socks.

In a police interview, Cox, who appears to be Vogel’s mother, admitted she was aware there was a “long object covered with brown blanket” in the bedroom in her basement. She said Vogel loaded the object into Garner’s car before the trio went to Casey’s West in Grinnell—where the 31-year-old purchased fuel in cash. The three then went to a rural area, where she said she helped Vogel pull the object out of the truck—and into a ditch.

“Julia Cox said the smell was making her sick,” the complaint states.

On Sept. 18, authorities interviewed Johnson, who said Vogel had asked for a ride back to his home on Sep. 13. At that point, Vogel told him “Michael Williams was in the basement,” Johnson told police.

The complaint states that when the pair arrived at Vogel’s house, they went to the basement and Johnson “observed the feet of Michael Wiliams, who was wrapped up in something.” “Cody Johnson said that Steve told him that he had ‘clubbed’ Michael Williams,” the complaint reads.

“Cody Johnson told law enforcement that a couple days later on Sept. 15, 2020, Steven Vogel came back to his house and wanted to obtain drugs in exchange for help to get Michael Williams out of his basement,” court documents allege.

Another witness later told authorities he had gone over to Vogel’s house on Sept. 18 and saw Williams’ body under a mattress in the basement. That witness also said Vogel had admitted to strangling the 41-year-old, according to the complaint.

Multiple agencies, including the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Jasper County Sheriff’s officer, are involved in the investigation, which prompted a local college to cancel class on Monday to raise awareness for racial injustice.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP State Area Conference of Branches, stressed Tuesday while “it is understandable that having the body of an African American found burning in a small town in Iowa would raise several red flags and concerns,” the organization “sees no indication that Mr. Williams was targeted because of his race.”

“Given that the current climate where racial justice is on the front burner for so many….We understand the fear this kind of incident evokes,” Andrews said.

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