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Body of Black man found burning in a ditch in Iowa

The body of Michael Williams was found in a ditch near Kellogg, Iowa KCCI CNN Affiliate

Kellogg, Iowa – Police discovered the body of 44-year-old Black man Michael Williams of Grinnell, Iowa, when they arrived at the scene of an active fire reported burning in a ditch near Kellogg, Iowa.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Safety, at the request of the Jasper County Sheriff, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation dispatched agents and crime scene personnel to the area. Upon further examination of the scene, investigators collected evidence that let them believe the victim died as the result of a homicide. Williams’ body was wrapped in cloth and plastic, which was secured with rope and tape, then transported to rural Kellogg on September 16, where he was dumped in a ditch near Kellogg and set ablaze.

Police acknowledged that the killing of Williams, who was Black, led members of the community to fear he may have been targeted because of his race, but no official motive has been released at this time.

Sources for The Independent report that four people have been charged in Williams’ fatal strangulation. Steven Vogel, 31, of Grinnell, who was already in jail on unrelated charges, is now being charged with first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse. Investigators said that they believe Vogel strangled Williams on Sept. 12 but have not released a possible motive. CNN obtained an affidavit supporting a criminal complaint against Vogel; a Grinnell police officer wrote that a witness alleged that Vogel told him he had strangled Williams and showed him the body stored in the basement of Vogel’s house in Grinnell.

Others charged in the case are Vogel’s mother, Julia Cox, 55; Roy Lee Garner, 57; and Cody Johnson, 29 — all from Grinnell. Cox told investigators that she helped Vogel take an object wrapped in a brown blanket out of the back of a pickup on Wednesday, Sept. 12, before Vogel put it in a ditch, the affidavit says.

Garner said he drove the truck and dropped Vogel off in another town, then he and Cox drove to a rural area where they dumped items from the back of the truck in a ditch, according. Police located the dumpsite and found plywood, carpet, bleach bottles, rubber gloves, plastic, socks and a receipt with Vogel’s name, the affidavit alleges.

According to the affidavit, Johnson, the fourth person arrested, is accused of abuse of a corpse and accessory after the fact. Johnson told police that he went to Vogel’s house on September 13 and they tried to move the body from the basement, WHDH News 4 reports.

Garner and Johnson are charged with abuse of a corpse, destruction of evidence, and accessory after the fact. According to police statements, Williams and Vogel, who is white, were well acquainted, and court documents state that they knew each other for several years. The police investigation has not revealed additional evidence to show the acts against Williams were motivated by his race nor that his death was the result of a hate crime.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said during a news conference with police on Tuesday that based on the evidence, she also believes there is no indication that Williams was targeted because of his race. However, she said she will evaluate additional evidence as it becomes available, according to WHDH News 4.

“Given that the current climate where racial justice is on the front burner for so many …we understand the fear this kind of incident evokes,” Andrews said.

Janalee Boldt, Williams’ ex-wife and mother of his five children, told a broadcaster at KCCI that her ex-husband was “a family person” and that “his kids were always important.”

“My daughter will not let me outside in the dark by myself because she’s afraid of losing another parent,” Boldt said.  

Grinnell College staff made the decision to cancel its classes to memorialize Williams and provide a period of reflection for its faculty, staff and student body to “recommit ourselves to equity and inclusion and to recognize the violent loss of one of our community.” Their statement ties this most recent incident into the broader social-psychological dynamics of violence towards Black people in the wake of  George Floyd‘s death in claiming that “national context has become a local experience.” 

“This stark and brutal murder in the national context of racial injustice has struck intense fear for the safety of our Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) colleagues, friends, and families,” Grinnell College president Anne Harris wrote in a statement.  

“We live in a predominantly white community and work in a predominantly white college. The murder of Mr. Williams is an incident that is rare in the experience of most Iowans. But for many people of color, this incident is the most recent in an accumulated history of prejudice, mistreatment, and murder,” Harris said.

In canceling classes, Harris hopes to spur students to think of actions that can be taken to build the community and prevent further suffering.

Friends of the Williams family started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help pay for any expenses the family might incur from the investigation, to cover costs of the burial, as well as for living and transportation expenses for his children.

The initial $10,000 goal was met in less than 24 hours and has now been raised to $35,000.