Grieving Lowndes County prays over loss of Sheriff ‘Big John’ Williams

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Grieving Lowndes County prays over loss of Sheriff ‘Big John’ Williams

Reprinted from al.com

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Sheriff ‘Big John’ Williams

Lowndes County residents gathered in the town square in Hayneville on Sunday afternoon to pray for strength and healing from the loss of a man who they said carried a capacity for helping others that matched his nickname, Sheriff “Big John” Williams.

“Everybody loved him,” Lowndes County District Judge Adrian Johnson said. “He was just one of those rare people that went out of his way to make sure that you knew that he cared about you.”

Alicia Davis, a minister at Greater Mount Zion AME Church in Hayneville, was one of the prayer leaders at the afternoon vigil and was not surprised at the large turnout.

“Big John was one that loved everybody,” Davis said. “When he saw you, he spoke to you. It doesn’t matter what color with him. He loved everybody. He cared for everybody. Young people, he would come pull them aside, talk to them. And he saved a lot of people.”

Williams died Saturday night doing his job. He was shot to death at the QV convenience store, just across the road from the site of Sunday afternoon’s vigil. Williams was a career law enforcement officer who was first elected sheriff of Lowndes County in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014 and 2018. He became the fifth law enforcement officer in Alabama to die from gunfire in the line of duty this year.

About a half-dozen ministers led prayers at the vigil, including Davey Lyon of Hayneville Christian Church, a Lowndes County native. Like Davis, he was not surprised at the outpouring of grief at the vigil and the recognition that the community had a huge void to fill.

“I think it’s a testimony to the man that John was and his years of selfless, faithful service to the community,” Lyon said. “I haven’t heard anybody say an ill word of Big John that I can ever remember. So a lot of people hurting today.”

The ministers urged people to rely on their faith in God to cope with their loss.

“It’s easy to trust God when things are going well,” Lyon said. “But to trust him in the hard times, that’s faith. And I think you see the faith in this community today and we trust that God is good even when we can’t understand what’s going on. We know that he has shown us his love for us in Christ and that he is faithful. So, we trust that.”

The ministers also prayed for the family of William Chase Johnson, 18, the suspect who authorities said surrendered several hours after the shooting. Johnson is scheduled for his initial court appearance Monday morning in Lowndes County District Court.

Lee Griffin, a volunteer fireman with the Burkville Fire Department, said he had known the sheriff at least 15 or 20 years.

“Anything he could do for you he didn’t mind doing it,” Griffin said. “And being a volunteer firefighter, anytime we had an accident or anything that we need his assistance, he’s always there. He always shows up.”

Griffin said it would take time for the county’s residents to cope with the loss.

“It’s going to be hard but you know they’ve got to pull together and get over it,” Griffin said. “It’s not going to be an easy task.”

State Rep. Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville, said in a phone interview Sunday that Williams has been a mainstay in Lowndes County law enforcement since Lawrence was a small child. But Lawrence, 45, said the scope of the sheriff’s service was not defined by his title.

“All these children out here, he knew them by name. And could greet ‘em by name. Knew who their parents are. Knew where everybody lived. Lowndes County is a small place and it’s a close-knit place. I think you’ve seen that out here today from the outpouring of grief and support from everybody throughout the county.”

“He led the procession in every funeral,” Lawrence said. “If it was a family reunion, he was there. So, he just did a lot of stuff in the community to make people feel safe and appreciate the law enforcement here in Lowndes County. He just did a lot of things that you wouldn’t see the average sheriff would do in terms of being visible in the community.”

Judge Adrian Johnson said the response to Saturday night’s shooting showed the level of respect the sheriff earned and the large number of lives he has touched. Johnson said he was on the town square, across from the scene of the shooting, from about 8:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.

“There was probably 200 law enforcement officers from all over the state of Alabama,” Johnson said. “And you could have heard a pin drop out here last night. And I think that silence and reverence is indicative of what people thought of our sheriff.”

Johnson said Williams treated everybody like family.

“If he found out somebody didn’t have a Christmas present for their child, he go out of his own pocket and go buy that,” Johnson said. “I know he would go buy bicycles for children throughout the community. I have gone to early morning meetings, to a deacons meeting at 7 o’clock in the morning and seen the sheriff cutting the grass at the Health Department out there. Because he just did what needed to be done. It didn’t matter to him what the circumstance was, he was going to get the job done.