Loss haunts family, 5 years after Detroiter's slaying

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

For several years, as other Metro Detroit families gathered on the Fourth of July, Constance Williams-Spann made sure she traveled elsewhere.

It was too overwhelming to stay in the area where, on the same day in 2013, her only son, Justin, joined festivities for the last time. The 24-year-old was fatally shot while attending a west-side neighborhood fireworks display.

This year, Williams-Spann marked the occasion with family and friends at her son’s gravesite in Redford Township, releasing teal, crimson, violet and silver balloons to honor his memory.

Five years after Justin Williams' slaying at a Fourth of July party in Detroit, tips still are sought to solve the case.

Though the act was intended to be a celebration, it served as another painful reminder: answers in the slaying are no closer and the quest remains.

“I’m not getting ready to sit down,” his mother said. “As long as I have breath in my body, I'm going to continue to advocate for justice for my son.”

On the fifth anniversary, Crime Stoppers of Michigan is offering a $2,500 reward for tips leading to an arrest, a gesture officials say could spark more interest and those who knew Williams best hope brings closure.

“If we could just get someone to speak up and say: ‘Hey, I saw it, because I know who did it,’ ” said his grandmother, Mary Williams. “I don’t know how they’re living with themselves.”

Justin Williams, also known as Jay, was among scores of people who attended the holiday party at Diack Park near Curtis and Stansbury, not far from his paternal grandparents’ home, where he parked.

It had long been a tradition for Williams, who even declined working overtime to attend with his younger sister as he promised, relatives said.

“If you saw Justin, you saw JaLeah,” Mary Williams said. “He took her everywhere.”

What unfolded next remains unclear. Williams’ family eventually learned from Detroit police detectives that a commotion had unfolded earlier that day between other attendees.

His sister couldn’t glimpse who pulled a gun or where, and “everything happened so quickly,” her mother said. “All she knows is that her brother ended up shot.”

Williams-Spann learned just before midnight that her son had been rushed to nearby Sinai-Grace Hospital. She arrived to staffers informing her that he had died.

The loss rocked a tight-knit family bound by a 6-foot-3 “gentle giant” who rarely courted conflict, loved his mental health assistant job and attended Detroit’s Third New Hope Baptist Church.

“If trouble was going on, my son was going in the exact opposite direction,” Williams-Spann said. “My son had a quiet strength. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, it was impactful.”

After graduating from Murray-Wright High School, Justin Williams attended Wayne County Community College District and worked at Samaritan Center in Detroit.

Co-workers recall his easy rapport with them as well as the patients, said his grandmother, a professor who has brought her nursing students to the facility. “The people on the job thought very highly of Justin. When he passed, they made a plaque of him and everybody just wanted to tell me what a nice guy he was. … He was a wonderful person — very lovable, willing to help out anyway he could. I just can’t understand: why him?”

That question haunted loved ones as time passed with little evidence, and detectives chased leads that went nowhere, relatives said.

“It’s very disheartening,” Williams-Spann said. “It makes me look at society differently, because I don’t know how anyone could keep this secret for five years. I understand fear and all of that, but I don’t get it. It’s too much.”

Dead-ends are not uncommon in such violent incidents in an urban setting, said Anthony Jones, media and family relations specialist at Crime Stoppers of Michigan. “Our culture seems to shy away from the police, which is unfortunate.”

That’s why his group guarantees anonymity for those with information who come forward. Tips sent through its website are not tracked to IP addresses, staffers never record names or conversations, and informants cannot be identified, Anthony said. “We’re serious about this.”

Anyone with information can anonymously reach Crime Stoppers at 1-800-SPEAK-UP or https://www.1800speakup.org/ 

Meanwhile, relatives strive to keep Williams’ memory alive: joining rallies, serving banana pudding on his birthday, adorning a tombstone.

For them, milestones would be easier knowing “someone is brought to justice,” Williams-Spann said. “The fact that they can’t do it to another family and have them go through the hell my family has gone through.”