One of my most tragic/horrifying cases

Back in Compton, California in 1977, a house with a woman and four children inside caught fire and burned to the ground in the middle of the night. When the flames were doused, firefighters found the body of Earlene Williams, 32, inside by the front door. A later autopsy would show she’d been strangled. The four children were missing and there was no trace of them in the ashes. They were Earlene’s three daughters, Ivy Matory, Violet Matory and Yolanda Williams, as well as Sir-Kristopher Marshall, a neighbor boy who was spending the night. Authorities later determined the fire was arson and had been set in the room where the children slept.

They didn’t have to think very hard to find a suspect: Earlene’s husband, James Williams. Twenty years older than his estranged wife, he was already facing serious charges. Back in 1976, James allegedly sexually assaulted his then eleven-year-old stepdaughter Ivy and was charged with child molestation and rape. Earlene, quite sensibly, separated from him when she found out. But that wasn’t enough to keep James from further victimizing her family.

When the police picked up James the day after the fire, he had a bad cut on his hand. Probably it was him that made the trail of blood that lead from the Williams/Matory house to a nearby alley. But he said he cut his hand trying to fix his car. He had been on his way to Bakersfield that night, he said, but his car broke down and he wound up sleeping in it. He knew nothing about the fire, Earlene’s death or the whereabouts of the four children. The cops had nothing they could pin on James, so they released him. He was promptly rearrested after Earlene’s autopsy results came back proving she was a homicide victim. A month later, he was facing five murder charges: Earlene, and each of the four children, one of them his own natural daughter.

This I found out through articles on Newslibrary today. The fire, the missing children and James’s arrest received pretty scant press coverage. There were articles in several local papers, but they were not very detailed and all were on the inside pages. An arson, murder, and four missing (and probably murdered) children apparently wasn’t good enough to make front-page news back in 1977, perhaps because the people involved were black and poor. I know that James was convicted of Earlene’s murder eventually and is now dead. I don’t know how the homicide prosecutions for the children turned out, though.

I do know that they remain missing to this day — over thirty years now.

21 thoughts on “One of my most tragic/horrifying cases

  1. emma l February 11, 2010 / 2:46 pm

    How poignant that you should post this exactly 20 years to the day that Mandela was released.
    Poor kids.

  2. Sara February 11, 2010 / 9:20 pm

    Very, very sad case. Terrible, too, that it wasn’t more publicized at the time.

    What I always found strange was the sighting of Williams and the children at a Denny’s on the morning after the fire. Do you give any credence to that?

    • Meaghan February 11, 2010 / 9:58 pm

      No idea. The articles I found didn’t say it was a confirmed sighting, just that they may have been seen.

      I wonder how James was able to get rid of four bodies in such a tearing hurry.

    • forthelost February 12, 2010 / 1:57 am

      The police told me about it when I asked, so I’ll assume it’s credible, but I don’t know if it’s genuine.

      I’ve wondered about the bodies as well. If he wanted to kill them all, why not do it at home?

      • Meaghan February 12, 2010 / 1:59 am

        Maybe he had special things in mind for the children. Or possibly he only planned to take the children, but Earlene interrupted him and he had to kill her.

        I think this thing was probably planned. Possibly he dug the graves in advance.

      • Sara February 12, 2010 / 7:43 am

        Hmm, so I was google-mapping the locations, and according to Google, Compton and Grapevine (where the Denny’s was) are almost 100 miles apart. If the fire was set at 4:30, it seems like it would be very difficult for him to get there by 5:30, especially dealing with four frightened, traumatized kids. I wish there were more details about this sighting, and about the rest of the day. For example… Riverside (where Williams was picked by later that day by friends) is further away from Compton than Grapevine was, so he would have had to come back from the Denny’s and go past Compton to get there– why? What time was he picked up? Was his “broken-down” car ever found and processed?

        I guess this is all pointless speculation since Williams is dead (and good riddance), but it would be so great if those kids could be found one day and given a proper burial.

  3. donde February 12, 2010 / 1:34 am

    Maybe I’m just a optimist…maybe I just see the world through rose-color glasses. But I can’t help but think of how much worse this case COULD’VE been. I mean, after all, they could have been WHITE kids.

    • Meaghan February 12, 2010 / 1:45 am

      That’s really not funny.

  4. Kat February 13, 2010 / 4:20 am

    Hoping that was sarcastic, but over it. Anyway, does this remind anyone of the Brown (I think) case in GA(?). Guy most likely killed his wife and three kids and not hide nor hair has ever been found, he died in prison? HOW in the world, then or now, does the vanishing of a whole family not call to arms the whole damn LE system. Makes me wonder. I think I’m done for the night.

    • Meaghan February 13, 2010 / 4:45 am

      The family was from Florida, but Dad was picked up in Georgia. He didn’t die in prison. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and later released. He’s still alive, as far as I know.

      The problem is, if a whole nuclear family disappears, who’s going to report them missing? In that case, both parents were schoolteachers who vanished during the summer vacation. If they weren’t close to their extended family, it might be some time before anyone realized they were missing and hadn’t just gone off on a vacation or something.

  5. Justin February 14, 2010 / 7:05 am

    Did James Williams die in prison, or was he paroled? I think you could be up for parole after seven years if you were given a life sentence back then.

    • Meaghan February 14, 2010 / 8:18 am

      I do not know. I certainly HOPE he wasn’t paroled.

      I wish his name wasn’t James Williams. If he didn’t have such a common name it might be easier to find info on him.

    • Justin February 14, 2010 / 9:26 am

      You mentioned on this blog last January 11th that you had signed up for and were finding people through their public and criminal records. I’m pretty sure that you already tried that route. It is a pretty common name after all.

      I had hoped you would have been able to narrow it down to a black man born with that name in the 1920s (20 years older than murdered 32 year old wife) who was charged with murder in California in August 1977 in Los Angeles County. But I guess that isn’t enough to go on to confirm who he is. I’ve never used that website, but it has it’s limits.


      • Meaghan February 14, 2010 / 9:29 am

        The website does definitely have limits. I suppose if I were an expert in genealogy I might be able to find something. Ironically enough, the library I patronize has one of the best genealogy research facilities in the country. Maybe one of the librarians there could help?

        I kind of doubt it. This is your classic needle in a haystack. There must be tens of thousands of James Williamses in the world.

    • forthelost February 20, 2010 / 1:22 am

      I don’t even know what his sentence was; the investigators never told me what he got, just that he was convicted and is now dead.

  6. Sarah February 15, 2010 / 4:57 pm

    Scratch that. Got the DOB wrong. It’s 9/26/1924, and per the SSDI, there are two James E. Williamses who fit the bill: one died in Ohio on November 8, 1980; the other died in Alameda (Oakland) California on January 25, 1998.

    • forthelost February 20, 2010 / 1:22 am

      The second might be him. I doubt it’s the first because there’s very little chance of him getting out then.

    • Meaghan March 23, 2012 / 11:57 am

      Can anyone who is a registered member already help me out, and send me those articles? Pretty please with a cherry on top?

  7. Linda Potts May 2, 2019 / 2:59 pm

    I don’t know if this site is still active. Just happen to run across it when I was looking up Earline Williams and missing children. I knew Earline Williams and children. We attended the same church . I have a friend who lived on the same street as James. He only did 7 years for Earline murder. Married a younger woman when he got out and had a child. Yes he is dead now. For many years. Don’t know the circumstances of his death.

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