Editor's note: Retired special agent Harry W. Trombitas has agreed to write a series about prominent central Ohio cases he investigated during his FBI career. The first installment is about the 1997 murder of Renold Williams.
It was Wednesday, Nov. 26, 1997, the day before Thanksgiving.
Renold Williams, a 44-year-old Columbus resident and a veteran who recently had returned from Bosnia, where he served his country with distinction, kissed his wife and kids goodbye and left for his job at the Metropolitan Armored Car Co.
Williams, a 19-year employee, had risen through the ranks of the company and was a trusted supervisor.
Certainly, plans for how he and his family would spend Thanksgiving Day together were running through his mind as he made his way to work. They had a lot to be thankful for, and Thanksgiving was a special day.
Within hours, those plans would be shattered.
When Williams arrived for work, he learned that another employee who served as the messenger (delivery person) in an armored truck slated to make deliveries that morning had called in sick. Williams volunteered to fill in.
The truck left the facility and began making deliveries and pickups without incident. At about 11:30 a.m., the truck approached National City Bank at 2594 E. Main St. in Bexley. Because the parking lot was full, the driver had to park the truck a little farther back in the lot than usual and was not able to see the front door of the bank.
Williams exited the back of the truck by himself, picked up the white canvas bag for National City and walked toward the front door to make the delivery. Inside the bag were $10,000 in personal and business checks to be deposited into various accounts and $2,000 in cash.
Just as Williams was about to enter the front door, witnesses observed a man wearing dark clothing approach Williams. Without warning, he raised a dark-colored semiautomatic pistol and fired one shot into Williams' chest.
As Williams collapsed, the shooter reached across Williams' body, grabbed the bag and then ran toward a waiting blue Ford Escort driven by a larger male. The shooter jumped into the passenger side and the car fled at a high rate of speed. Several witnesses attempted to follow the getaway vehicle, which had a temporary tag, but lost it in traffic.
Back at the bank, witnesses called police. Several citizens, including bank employees, tried to provide medical assistance and comfort to a dying Williams until police and medical personnel arrived. Williams, the veteran who served in dangerous places outside this country and survived, died in his homeland at the hands of one of his own countrymen for a measly $2,000.
I remember the page over the loud speaker in our FBI office like it was yesterday: "There's been a 91 (bank robbery) at National City Bank, 2594 E. Main St. in Bexley. At least one person shot. Suspect fled in a blue Ford Escort northbound from the bank." I ran back to my desk, grabbed my sport coat and headed for the door.
Bank employees are instructed to contact their local police agency first, then contact the FBI. Local police agencies also are asked to contact the FBI office on any federal crime after dispatching their officers. This process ensures that at least someone contacts the FBI to assist in the investigation.
As police and FBI agents responded to the scene and descriptions of the getaway vehicle were broadcast over police radios, a motorist at a stop sign not far from the bank suddenly saw a blue Ford Escort with two men inside it coming from behind at a high rate of speed.
The Escort swerved to go around the stopped vehicle on the right but struck it, scraping blue paint onto the stopped vehicle. The motorist noticed the Escort had a temporary tag in the rear window. Unable to catch up with the Escort, the motorist drove to the Bexley police station and reported the hit-and-run accident, unaware of the incident at the bank.
As I arrived at the bank, officers and detectives with the Bexley Police Department were doing their best to cordon off the crime scene and identify eyewitnesses.
I approached one of the officers, identified myself and asked who was in charge of the scene. The officer pointed to Detective Bryan Holbrook, one of the men interviewing a witness. I approached Holbrook and said, "I'm Harry Trombitas with the FBI." Holbrook smiled, rolled his eyes and said in a sarcastic manner, "Great." I knew immediately we would get along.
The murder of Renold Williams received significant media attention, and at least 348 tips were received and diligently followed through the course of the investigation, but not one tip positively identified the shooter or his accomplice -- until Dec. 18 at 9:12 p.m.
That night, the girlfriend of Tinotchy Ward contacted the Columbus Division of Police and reported her boyfriend had struck her and threatened to kill her and her 6-year-old son. Describing the events that had led her to call the police that evening, she revealed a bombshell that changed the course of the Williams murder investigation.
She said Ward had told her -- and even bragged about -- killing the armored-car guard in Bexley. She further revealed that the getaway vehicle, the blue Ford Escort, was parked behind her house.
Columbus officers contacted investigators on the Williams case and relayed what the girlfriend had said. Detective Holbrook and I conducted a more thorough interview of the girlfriend. She said that on the day of the homicide, Ward came home at about 12:30 p.m., flipped on the TV and began watching news accounts of the shooting. At one point, Ward told his girlfriend, "I did that."
He provided additional information about the homicide, such as how it happened and how much money was in the bag.
Upon hearing the news accounts that witnesses had observed the getaway vehicle as a blue Ford Escort with the temporary tag in the rear window, Ward went out back to his Escort and cracked the windshield, flattened the tires and broke the gas lid cover to make it appear as though the vehicle had been disabled for a long time.
Ward was arrested on the domestic-violence charge Dec. 18 as he was hiding out at a relative's house. He was taken to police headquarters, where he thought he was about to be interviewed on domestic-violence charges. His jaw dropped to the table when Detective Holbrook and I entered the room and questioned him about Williams' homicide.
Ward lied to us and said he had nothing to do with the murder, but he gave conflicting information as to his whereabouts on the day Williams was killed.
Investigators continued to build their case against Ward. A 9-mm spent shell casing that had been recovered at the murder scene was compared with a spent shell casing recovered from Ward's residence, and a firearms examiner from the Columbus crime lab was able to positively say the two were fired from the same weapon.
Paint scrapings recovered from the vehicle that was hit by the blue Ford Escort during the getaway were compared to the paint found on the Escort parked behind Ward's residence. An FBI examiner was able to say the paint on Ward's vehicle was consistent with the type left behind on the car hit by the getaway vehicle.
Also, after Ward was identified as a suspect, witnesses to the homicide saw photographs of Ward and positively identified him as the shooter.
Because we were concerned about the safety and well-being of Ward's girlfriend and her children, Detective Holbrook and I, with assistance from the U.S. Attorney's Office, were able to secure a covert apartment in the greater Columbus area where we hid the girlfriend and her family until after the trial. Detective Holbrook and I would meet daily at the apartment to check on the girlfriend and make sure she and her children were safe.
The routine would go something like this: Detective Holbrook and I would knock at the door, see the drapes of the apartment lift up in the center and one of the children would pop up with a big smile on his face as he yelled at the top of his lungs, "Mom, it's the PO-LICE!"
Ward was convicted of aggravated robbery and aggravated homicide in Franklin County Common Pleas Court on Jan. 27, 2000. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole on Feb. 2, 2000, and currently is incarcerated in the Chillicothe Correctional Institution.
To this day, investigators have yet to identify the driver of the getaway vehicle and want to hold him accountable for Renold Williams' death. Anyone with any information should contact Bexley Police Capt. Holbrook at 614-559-4458.
Harry W. Trombitas is a retired special agent for the FBI. He currently is a senior consultant for Armada, a security consulting company, in Powell.