A Mothers Hunt for Justice
Sadly, Williams was right—Demetria, 19, never made it home. But for the next several months no body was found, and police had no good leads or clues-and no suspects. Demetria's disappearance looked like it might become just another cold case. But Sharon Williams did not allow that to happen. Only days after her daughter disappeared, she began her own investigation, nagging police, searching for clues and following leads until she found-and confronted-the man she believed killed Demetria. Thanks to her improbable, often dangerous crusade, that man-Joseph Jay Brown, 35-reached a plea deal with Atlanta prosecutors this May 16 and began serving 25 years in prison on charges stemming from Demetria's disappearance. Without her efforts, say officials who worked the case, Brown would almost surely still be free. "We've had victims who were tenacious in looking for their family members' killers, but never one like her," says Fulton County district attorney Paul Howard. "Finding Brown was like finding a needle in a haystack, but she did it."
Williams says she had no choice but to play detective. "The police here were overloaded, and they couldn't give the case a lot of time," says the single Williams, who quit her job as an assembler at an electronics factory to hunt down her daughter's killer. "To them Demetria was a victim, but to me she was my daughter."
Young Demetria and her son DeMarco, now 7, lived with her grandmother in a three-bedroom brick home in Atlanta's working-class west side. Demetria was studying for her GED and hoped to become a forensic technician. On Dec. 3, 2001, according to police, Demetria walked to an Amoco store a mile away to buy a Coke and on the way met a friend, Pam. At the station they met Brown, a hospital lab assistant neither girl knew. Brown gave them a ride in his black 1982 Camaro and dropped Pam off at her house. Pam told police Demetria rolled down the car window and said she and Brown would return in a half hour. Demetria was never seen again. "I have a hard time understanding why she would get into a car with someone," says Williams, who was at her mother's house the day Demetria left. "Dee Dee was too trusting. She thought everyone was a good person."
On Dec. 6 Williams filed a missing-persons report. Fulton County police opened an investigation but turned up nothing. "So I figured," says Williams, "that I better start looking for clues on my own." She began by focusing on the one piece of information she did have-Pam's description of the '82 Camaro. Williams spent weeks cruising through housing projects and apartment complexes, hoping against all odds for a glimpse of the car. Finally, in late January 2002, a friend called her to say there was a black Camaro parked outside an apartment in her housing complex. Williams rushed over and wrote down the license number; police helped her determine that the man who owned it, and who lived in the two-bedroom apartment, was Joseph Brown. Brown denied to police that he had killed Demetria, and without a body or any evidence they had no choice but to let him go. Williams's elation at having found Brown gave way to frustration as the weeks passed without any developments in the case. "The police weren't getting anywhere," she says, "so I decided to confront him."
In mid-April Williams went by herself to Brown's apartment and knocked on his door. "I think I was too angry to be scared," she says. When Brown answered, Williams said, "I am Demetria Hill's mother, and I want to know what happened to my daughter." Brown denied knowing Demetria but Williams kept pushing. He asked her into his apartment and grew more and more agitated. "He was in a rage, telling me I shouldn't come to his house and accuse him of things," she says. "The more he yelled, the more I knew he was the man who had taken Dee Dee."
Scared that Brown might attack her, Williams ran to her car and drove away. The next day she told Fulton County detective Johnna Phillips, the lead investigator on the case, about the confrontation. Phillips interviewed Brown, who this time admitted to having rough sex with Demetria but claimed he dropped her off at home. "The minute he said that," says Detective Phillips, "I knew Ms. Williams had found the right man."
Police dug around and learned that Brown had four prior convictions for attempted strangulations of women. They also learned Brown missed two days of work immediately after Demetria disappeared, then returned with scratches on his face. Still, without a body or hard evidence, they could not bring a case. "It was a frustrating situation," says Phillips. "Every day that passed, the likelihood that we would solve this case was getting smaller." On Sept. 17, 2002, a deacon found Demetria's skeletal remains behind the Poplar Springs United Methodist Church in Atlanta. But her body was so badly burned and decomposed it yielded no DNA evidence.
The big break came on June 29, 2003, when Brown was arrested for trying to strangle his then girlfriend, Chinella Ross. Police questioned Brown about Demetria again, and this time he said he may have assaulted her. Then Ross decided to drop the charges and bail Brown out of jail. Williams sprang into action again. "Ross did not want to testify against Brown," says Detective Phillips. "Ms. Williams talked to her and encouraged her to do it."
In January 2004 prosecutors charged Brown with Demetria's murder. That May a judge ruled his prior convictions could not be entered as evidence. Even so, Brown agreed to plead guilty to assaulting and kidnapping Demetria, though not to killing her. "He maintains his innocence," says his lawyer Phinia Aten. "He had one case too many against him and decided it was in his best interest to plead." At Brown's sentencing on May 16, 2005, Williams stood before the court and addressed Brown. "I hate you and I think you are the scum of the earth," she told him, her voice rising with anger. "I hope you burn in hell." Brown was sentenced to 25 years in prison with the possibility of parole in 16 years. Prosecutors, now investigating Brown as a suspect in several cold cases, believe he'll serve his full sentence.
Brown's conviction, however, has not brought Williams any real peace. "She's become very angry since the murder," says her mother, Elizabeth Hailes, 75. "It has changed her." Sometimes her grandson DeMarco, a straight-A second grader who lives with Williams, still asks her where his mother is. "I think he knows that she's gone," says Williams, "but his heart has trouble believing it." Sometimes her heart has trouble too. "I dreamed Demetria came to see me, but when I looked at her she was a skeleton," she says. "This isn't getting any easier for me."
Still, she is proud her actions likely saved other women from becoming Brown's victims. And she is happy the man she believes killed her daughter is where he belongs. "I knew he would have to pay for what he did in the afterlife," she says, "but I wanted to make sure he paid for it while he was still on earth."
Alex Tresniowski; Steve Helling in Atlanta
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