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Native carver shot by officer was turning his life around, brother says

Rick Williams, right, talks to his brother John T. Williams, left, on a bench a Victor Steinbrueck Park in Seattle about three hours before John, 50, was shot dead by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk.

Eric Williams/Eric Williams

After years of struggling with alcohol, John T. Williams had decided to change his life

His brother, Rick, last saw John - a member of Vancouver Island first nation and a long-time resident of Seattle - strolling away from the park where they were chatting. John was going to pick up his stuff from a home for alcoholics so he could move in with Rick at the motel where his brother lives.

It was Aug. 30. Fifty-year-old John, a carver of formidable talent, said he was going to give up the drinking that had dogged him and start fresh.

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All of Seattle knows what happened next, and it continues to have resonance in British Columbia, given Mr. Williams's native background. Mr. Williams was shot dead by a police officer who saw him carrying a knife that he used for the intricate carvings he sold.

"The day we saw John, he went up to his place to come and move in with us and quit drinking," Rick Williams recalled Sunday, standing outside the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Centre where he was displaying his carvings.

"He said, 'I'll be right back.' I never saw him again."

Born on the remote Ditidaht First Nation on Vancouver Island, Mr. Williams was one of seven children who learned the art of wood carving from their father, Ray Williams.

Just after 4 p.m., John Williams was shot four times on the street by Seattle police officer Ian Birk.

Officer Birk, who is 27 and joined the force in 2007, has said in a statement that Mr. Williams was brandishing the knife in a "very confrontational posture" and that he opened fire because he feared for his life.

Now key elements of the 10-second encounter are on display in a video shot by a camera on the dashboard of Officer Birk's police cruiser.

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The video was ordered released last week by judicial order. It stands to figure in an inquest next month into the case.

The core of the confrontation is not seen on the video. We see Mr. Williams cross an intersection in front of the cruiser. We then see Officer Birk jump out of his car and run after Mr. Williams.

The confrontation plays out off camera, but one can hear the officer yelling for Mr. Williams to drop his knife - and then the shots.

Rick Williams said Sunday his brother was hard of hearing, so much so you would have to lean in to speak to him, so it is doubtful he would have heard the police officer's orders.

"Am I outraged? Yes, I am furious," he said. "I have to constantly control myself."

The Seattle Police Department's firearms review board as well as the city's police chief, John Diaz, concluded in October that the shooting was not justified, The Seattle Times has reported. However, a decision on the point is on hold pending the outcome of the inquest.

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Andy James, owner of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, to which John Williams and members of his family have sold carvings for decades, said he is usually supportive of the police, but that their conduct in this case sounds "a little excessive."

The video of the fate of Mr. Williams, whom he knew for about 30 years, was hard to watch, he said.

And it also leaves questions unanswered.

"It seems clear he was given some kind of warnings. That's as far as it goes," he said.

The matter is the talk of Seattle, he said. "When the subject comes up in a group of friends - yeah, a lot of people know about it."

Brennan Clarke is Special to The Globe and Mail

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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