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.