The gunman strode casually through the light blue double doors to the 41st Precinct station house, drew a Sig Sauer 9mm pistol, and began shooting just before 8 a.m. on a sunny Sunday in the South Bronx.
He was wearing a gold and deep purple jacket, but he was almost certainly the same man who had been wearing a black coat when he attempted to assassinate two police officers as they sat in a marked van four blocks away less than 12 hours before. The acid wash jeans appeared to be the same, as did the absence of any rational motive.
In the earlier shooting, the van was parked with its roof lights flashing to deter drug dealing and possible drug dealing at two known trouble spots in a neighborhood that has otherwise been transformed from the days when the precinct was known as Fort Apache. The cop on the driver’s side rolled down his window when the man in the black coat asked directions. The man then suddenly produced a pistol and fired.
The driver was struck in the chin and neck but managed to pull away. The gunman raised his pistol and extended his arm, and kept shooting. Expended shell casings on the pavement indicated that he fired a total of three times. His pistol apparently jammed at one point, perhaps because he had not kept it clean or maybe because it had on previous days suffered what is known in the Bronx as “a Brooklyn bounce,” hitting the sidewalk when it is discarded at the approach of police, to be retrieved afterward. The gunman left two unexpended rounds from when he tried to clear it.
One bullet he did fire punched a hole in the door post on the driver’s side. Half of the window was covered by a bulletproof panel such as were installed in NYPD patrol vehicles after the December 2014 assassination of Detective Wenjian Liu and Detective Rafael Ramos as they sat inside a parked radio car in Brooklyn.
The gunman in that case had tweeted about putting “wings on pigs” and walked a considerable distance across Brooklyn with a gun in an otherwise empty styrofoam food container before murdering the officers. He had then killed himself.
After that attack, many cops believed that the killer must have been influenced by anti-police demonstrations that preceded it. Many of the same chants were shouted this year by demonstrators who gathered on Jan. 31 to protest recent police action in the subway.
“Pigs!... Fuck the police!... How do you spell racist? N-Y-P-D! … How do you spell murderer? N-Y-P-D!”
A number of cops at the scene noted that the chants were all too familiar and worried aloud that spewing such hate was liable to inspire an unstable individual with a gun to imitate the 2014 attack.
That may well be what happened just before 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, though the gunman’s odd calm in surveillance video gives no hint as to his emotions beyond being intent on shooting police officers.
Immediately after the shooting, he ambles around the corner, then nonchalantly returns to the scene. He does break into a run while crossing the street, but with no more apparent urgency than if he were simply avoiding traffic.
A moment later, he is again the personification of calm, ambling into a Chinese takeout spot and placing an order. He then eats as if it were just another night in a life that had been adrift since a long prison term for attempted murder.
“Who does that?” a senior police commander later inquired.
The gunman remained equally calm when he entered the stationhouse just before 8 a.m. Sunday. A childhood friend named Liza Valdez drove him there in a white BMW and sat outside with the engine running, the emergency lights flashing as he sauntered up the eight cement steps at the station house entrance.
Video shows that one of the cops glanced up as the gunman entered, but then looked back down. The cop apparently saw no cause for concern in this seemingly relaxed figure who approached the desk, right hand in his pocket.
The hand then produced a pistol. The gunman began firing and hit a uniformed lieutenant in the arm. The blood was a vivid red on the white shirt such as supervisors wear.
The other cops dove to take cover as they are trained to do first when encountering gunfire. The gunman entered the complaint room on the right, holding the gun in both hands. However many times he may have fired, he hit nobody.
The empty gun was in his left hand when he emerged. He for some reason wiped the top of it with his right sleeve as he started toward the double doors. He switched the gun to his other hand as he took six slightly hurried but still unusually calm steps. A couple more would have gotten him to the street, where the woman still sat in the BMW with the engine running, perhaps having been duped into believing he had gone on some innocent errand.
But the officers had begun to return fire and the gunman was clearly not someone seeking to commit suicide by cop. He dove onto the floor, scooting further forward to get to the cover offered by a desk. He pushed his weapon away from him so it skidded away like a shuffleboard puck. He who had just tried to kill these cops because they were cops was trying to show them he was unarmed. He was now banking on their restraint just as he had banked on their willingness to help when he approached the van as if needing directions the night before.
In the next moment, the gunman was arrested. Police identified him as Robert Williams Sr., age 45, date of birth 11/13/1974. His criminal record includes nine felony arrests and six felony convictions. He had been paroled on Dec. 21, 2017, after serving 15 years for attempted murder and carjacking.
At 7:39 p.m. on July 21, 2002, Williams had shot a 26-year-old fellow Bronx resident with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, quite nearly causing his death. He fled with gun in hand and forced his way into a passing car. The woman at the wheel leapt out and he took her place, driving at what records describe as “a high rate of speed… in the direction of on-coming traffic.”
He sideswiped an occupied police radio car and came to a halt. The officers ordered him out of the car. He pointed his gun at them and there ensued what police would describe as a “gun battle.” Nobody was hit. Williams was arrested.
“The motivation is unknown at this time,” police noted in 2002.
State records from the time of Williams’ imprisonment list his particulars as 5-foot-9 and 192 pounds. He has tattoos on his right arm of a clown, a feather, a scorpion, and a face of some kind. He has no scars. He is American-born and speaks English, and he did not serve in the military. He listed his religion as Rastafarian, though he was raised a Christian.
“Inmate Williams denied having any enemies or psychiatric problems while in the Department of Corrections,” the records state. “He denies his guilt in the I.O. (instant offense).”
That, even though he was arrested at the scene after hitting a police car while fleeing in a carjacked vehicle with a gun that matched the one used to shoot the victim.
“[Williams] claims to be having a satisfactory adjustment to his confinement,” the records further report. “He stated that he would like to obtain his G.E.D. (general education diploma) while incarcerated. He is interested in building maintenance as a vocational program.”
Upon his release, he returned to the tidy Bronx apartment of Mary Williams, the grandmother who raised him since infancy. She describes herself as “a good church person, worked all my life.” She was once employed by Muhammad Ali, helping with whatever was needed at his apartment on Central Park South. Ali gave her a mirror that she keeps in her own home.
As the grandmother recalls, young Robert Williams Sr. was “a good kid” who dutifully went to school and to church.
“No trouble,” she told The Daily Beast on Sunday.
But Robert Williams was just 14 when he was arrested for the first of three times for shooting somebody in the course of a robbery. He was also subsequently arrested for possession of a machine gun. The common theme in his arrests is firearms.
“I don’t know what happened to him,” the grandmother told The Daily Beast. “I guess the street life.”
She also said, “I tried to raise him right. You can only do so much. They listen or they don’t.”
He certainly had a good example to follow.
“I just lived a clean life: go to church, help somebody if they need it,” the grandmother said.
At the time of his release in 2017, Williams had one child, a son. Robert Williams Jr. had been 2 years old when his father went to prison. The son was 17 now and on his way to graduating from Wings Academy.
The son worked for a year to save money before starting college at SUNY Canton. He was two months from enrolling when he was fatally shot while hanging out with a group of friends a block from his home.
Some witnesses to the June 20, 2018, tragedy said the son accidentally shot himself in the chest when he stumbled while playing with a buddy’s gun. Robert Williams Sr. was convinced that the owner of the gun killed his son.
“He said his son shouldn’t be dead,” Mary Williams told The Daily Beast. “He said that boy shot his son.”
The official cause of death could not be determined by The Daily Beast on Sunday. The grandmother does not believe that anybody was ever arrested for the shooting.
“I don’t think they caught the person,” she said.
She has no doubt the death had a huge impact on her grandson.
“That was his only child,” she said. “He took it extra hard.”
She added, “Ever since his son got killed, he has been out of it.”
Robert Williams Sr. may also have been out of it from getting high. He appeared to be under the influence of some substance when he was found pulled over by the Cross Bronx Expressway just after 11 p.m. on Nov. 18 of last year. He was arrested on misdemeanor charges of driving while impaired, possession of a controlled substance, and resisting arrest. His court date was set for Feb. 10, Monday. He may have worried he would be found in violation of his parole.
Even so, Mary Williams did not sense her grandson was in any kind of crisis as she embarked on an overnight trip to New Rochelle and a nearby casino. He was now 45 and she was now 80, but she was still taking care of him. She bought more than $100 in groceries and made sure all the laundry was done, so there was no reason for him to venture out where trouble might await.
“Everything is well set up. You can watch TV and stay in the house,” she remembers telling him. “There’s nothing in the streets. Stay in the house.”
“OK, I’ll be in the house,” he said.
“You coming back tomorrow?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” she replied.
“I’ll see you then,” he said.
She headed off and had reason to think luck was on her side when she won $200 at the casino. She then returned home on Sunday to learn that her grandson had been arrested for allegedly attempting to assassinate two cops as they sat in a van and then striding into a stationhouse and opening fire.
“It’s a mystery,” she said. “I don’t know where his mind went.”
She said she had never heard him speak angrily of the police.
She herself found the detectives to be only pleasant when they arrived to search her grandson’s room. She took an opportunity to show them the mirror that Muhammad Ali gave her.
“They said, ‘You’re so nice. You’re such a nice person,’” the grandmother reported.
She did not grumble about the detectives leaving the room turned upside down. She just summoned some of her other grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“We all pitched in and got it straightened up,” she later said.
Robert Williams Sr.’s motivation is definitely not known this time, at least not yet. NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea suggested during a press conference at Lincoln Hospital that the hate speech against cops was a factor, hate being more contagious than coronavirus.
“You have to be careful about the words you use,” Shea said. “Words matter, and words affect people’s behavior. And here we have New York City police officers, twice in two hours, targeted.”
Meanwhile, the cops keep working in the once hyper-violent 41st Precinct, where there were no homicides last year and none so far this year. That is called saving lives.