Sunday, December 16, 2012

Pamela Powers was murdered by an escaped mental patient who was hiding at the Des Moines YMCA.

One the afternoon before Christmas, 1968, Pamela Powers, 10, was sitting with her family, watching her older brother compete in a wrestling tournament at the Des Moines YMCA.

What the blue-eyed blond did next would set off a string of events that would have lawyers and legal scholars arguing for years.

She excused herself to go to the bathroom, left the gymnasium, and vanished.

Soon after her disappearance, the Y’s desk clerk, John Knapp, spotted a man leaving the building with a large bundle, wrapped in a blanket. The man, registered as Robert Anthony, had been staying at the Y since October. Knapp assumed Anthony, who had fallen behind on his rent, was trying to make off without paying.

Knapp called out and asked him what was in the bundle. “A mannequin,” was the answer. Then Anthony slipped through the door, got to his green Buick, and tossed the bundle in the car.

A 13-year-old passerby noticed a pair of “skinny white legs” sticking out from under the blanket.

Despite efforts by Knapp and the Y’s athletic director to stop him, the man took off. Knapp called police, gave them a description of the car, including the license plate, and identified the runaway boarder from an Associated Press wire photo.

The picture was of a man known as Anthony Erthell Williams, but that was just one of the aliases he had invented during a half-dozen years of criminal activity. His real name was Robert Anthony Williams, 24, and his most recent arrest had been in 1965 for raping two young girls in Kansas City, Mo. Instead of jail, the attacks landed him in a mental hospital.

In July 1968 he simply walked off the premises and became a fugitive.


Williams settled in Des Moines and was soon working two jobs, as a billing clerk for an insurance company and as an assistant pastor at a Baptist church. Congregants knew him as extremely congenial, soft-spoken and polite, exhibiting talents in singing and playing keyboards.

There was no hint that this self-described “vagabond minister” might be a dangerous criminal.

On Christmas Day, a janitor at an interstate rest stop near Grinnell, 40 miles east of Des Moines, found a bundle of bloodstained clothes, including the orange stretch pants and white bobby socks Pamela had been wearing.

The next morning, Williams surrendered to Davenport police, on advice of Henry McKnight, a lawyer he had met in Des Moines.

Williams had called McKnight and asked him what he should do.

“We had a little friendship built up through church work together,” McKnight told United Press International. “I’m as shocked over it as anybody else.”

Des Moines detectives Cleatus Leaming and Arthur Nelson were sent to Davenport to pick him up. McKnight warned Williams that he should say nothing on the 150-mile drive and wait until he arrived in town to make a statement in the presence of his attorney.


Leaming started to chat, stroking Williams’ ego by calling him “Reverend,” and musing about religion.

Leaming’s words would keep the case bouncing around in courts for years. Its progress through America’s legal system inspired a book, not one of the true-crime yarns that are spun around so many murders, but a textbook — “The Christian Burial Case,” by legal scholar Thomas N. McInnis.

With the snow coming, Leaming said Pamela’s body would be soon buried. No one would find it, and several people might get hurt trying, unless Williams told them where she was.

“I feel that we could stop and locate the body, that the parents should be entitled to a Christian burial for the little girl who was snatched away from them on Christmas Eve and murdered,” the detective said. “I don’t want you to answer me. I don’t want to discuss it further. Just think about it as we’re riding down the road.”

Leaming’s comments convinced Williams to lead him the place, a culvert 10 miles east of Des Moines, where he had left the girl’s half-naked frozen corpse. An autopsy found that she had been sexually assaulted and smothered.

Williams went on trial on April 30, 1969, charged with first-degree murder. His attorney had tried to bar Leaming’s testimony, insisting that the detective violated the prisoner’s rights by questioning him in the car without his lawyer present.

But Leaming was permitted to tell his story. The verdict was guilty, and the sentence, life without parole.

Thus began a series of appeals with Williams’ lawyers arguing that the “Christian burial speech” had violated their client’s rights on several levels. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Williams had been unfairly convicted because he was questioned without a lawyer present.

In a new trial, which started on July 8, 1977, the jury again found Williams guilty.

For the second time, the case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that even tainted evidence, such as Leaming’s questioning of his prisoner, could be admitted in court if there is a likelihood that the evidence will be discovered in a lawful manner.

In this instance, more than 250 searchers were looking for Pamela and were getting close. It was more than possible that they would have found her body without guidance from her killer.

After 15 years of legal wrangling, Williams was finally locked up for good. He remains in prison to this day.


Pamela Powers (Des Moines Register file photo)


Pamela Powers was murdered by an escaped mental patient who was hiding at the Des Moines YMCA



Robert Anthony Williams, in handcuffs attached to a lead chain held by Deputy Sheriff Jack Hilsabeck, leaves Polk County Jail in April 1969 for his murder trial in district court.

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Body of 10-year-old Pamela Powers is removed from a ditch along 58th Street in eastern Polk County in December 1968, after killer Robert Anthony Williams led investigators to the spot.


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