The University Record, October 1, 1997

An assault on our community


By Jane R. Elgass

The University community awoke to tragedy Sept. 23 with reports of the murder of a Family Housing resident.

Neighbors tried unsuccessfully to stop the knife attack on Tamara Sonya Williams by Kevin Nelson, shouting at him to stop, with one even throwing a baseball bat.

The first Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer on the scene also verbally attempted to get Nelson to stop, and when he did not, fired two shots.

Both Williams and Nelson died in surgery at the Medical Center.

While the vicious assault was directed at one female student, the tragic incident sent shock waves through the entire community, leaving many students, faculty and staff, male and female alike, feeling bereft and vulnerable.

By early morning, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) in the Office of Student Affairs had dispatched teams of two counselors to Williams' scheduled classes and eight to North Campus˜two at Pierpont Commons for people to drop in and talk, with others visiting residents at their request in their homes. Another was sent that morning to Northside Elementary School, attended by many Family Housing children, at the request of the principal. In the evening, counselors from the University Center for the Child and Family went to Northside Elementary and Angell Elementary schools. All of these counselors will continue to be available.

Social workers and psychological counselors answered calls to CAPS' 936-3100 counseling line all day Tuesday and through the rest of the week.

Sessions also were held in the Comprehensive Studies Program for students and staff who had worked closely with Williams.

For other members of the University community, grief was shared, and perhaps diminished, during a candlelight vigil in front of Williams' apartment Tuesday evening and during a memorial service and vigil on the Diag Thursday evening.

There were other identifiable direct victims in the incident, including the DPS officer who fired on the assailant. These were the first shots fired by any officer in the line of duty since DPS became a police force in 1990.

At a mid-week media briefing, DPS Director Leo J. Heatley noted that the incident placed a tremendous amount of strain on the officer. He is receiving help from a police psychologist from a private Southfield firm retained by the University for this type of incident. Also available to him are the services of the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program.

E-mail messages and letters have poured into DPS headquarters expressing concern for the officer and appreciation for the actions he took. One of the messages came on the top of a box of donuts from the residents of Safe House in Ann Arbor, a temporary shelter for victims of domestic violence.

Heatley also said that everyone at the scene of the crime, as well as the DPS dispatchers and Housing security personnel, would attend a "critical incident de-briefing." The session is mandatory, Heatley said. "Everyone must attend; there's no option." He said the debriefing also serves as a counseling session. "Some people may not realize they've been affected and we don't want anyone left suffering when we may be able to help."

Heatley was questioned at the media briefing as to whether the neighbors who tried to help did the right thing, including backing off when it was clear Nelson wouldn't stop. "Law enforcement officials," Heatley said, "are always concerned that we'll have multiple victims beyond the person targeted by the assailant. He was enraged. They did what was right," he adamantly stated.

Since this was the first time a DPS officer had fired a weapon in the line of duty, Heatley also was questioned about weapons training and use policies.

All DPS officers train monthly, "more than the average agency," Heatley said, and must qualify twice a year. The training sessions encompass more than just firing weapons. Much of the time is spent discussing "shoot/don't shoot" policies. Heatley said the policies permit firing of a weapon "under most circumstances if there is an obvious threat to the life of the victim or the officer." Officers would not shoot if the possibility existed of hitting bystanders.

All DPS officers receive training in handling domestic violence and assault cases, and two female officers are available for victims of sexual assault.

DPS recorded 17 cases of domestic violence in 1995, 20 in 1996 and 15 so far this year.

Tamara Sonya Williams, a 20-year-old LS&A senior was attacked shortly after midnight Sept. 23 in her Family Housing apartment in Northwood V.

Her assailant, Kevin V. Nelson, age 26 and not affiliated with the University, was shot by a Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer.

Both died during surgery at University Hospital, Williams of multiple stab wounds, Nelson of gunshot wounds.

According to the ongoing DPS investigation, the assault began in the basement of Williams' apartment and moved upstairs. She was able to flee the apartment and knock on a neighbor's window. This triggered the first of at least 25 911 calls from nearby residents, beginning at 12:17 a.m. She was again chased by Nelson and knocked to the ground in the parking lot.

The first officer on the scene observed Nelson stabbing Williams in the parking lot. He instructed Nelson to put down the weapon and cease stabbing Williams. Nelson continued to stab her and the officer fired two shots.

Williams and Nelson were in a domestic relationship. He was convicted on a charge of domestic assault of Williams in October 1995, and DPS had been called to the apartment on one other occasion in 1995.

The DPS officer is, per standard policy, on paid administrative leave pending an internal review that is mandatory whenever force is used. The internal review results will be turned over to the county prosecutor, who will make a final ruling on the appropriateness of the officer's actions.

Williams is survived by her mother, Yvonne, and her daughter, Kiara. Kiara's father died last year.

Williams will be granted her degree posthumously at commencement ceremonies in May.

The Kiara Williams Educational Support Fund has been started by U-M faculty, students and staff. Contributions to the fund should be made payable to the fund and sent to Bethany Steffke, Office of Student Affairs, 6015 Fleming Administration Building 48109-1340, or to First of America, 505 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor 48104, Attn. Nicole.

Williams received support through the University's child care subsidy program. Remaining funds will be donated to the Educational Support Fund.