GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) - Kenneth Williams Jr. still thinks about the day his dad died, although not as much as he once did. He’s 82 now, living in a house in the Cross Keys retirement community, far outliving his father’s 66 years that were cut short by one gunshot.
It was the country’s bicentennial. His two children, now grown with children of their own, were in elementary school. He and his wife, Alice, had only been married about five years.
It was a long time ago, as Williams puts it. Forty years, to be exact. Forty years since someone shot Kenneth Williams Sr. during a robbery at a roadside fruit stand 8 miles west of Gettysburg.
After four decades of interviews and dead ends, Pennsylvania State Police still do not know who killed Williams Sr.
As with all unsolved homicides, the case remains open, passed on from one generation of criminal investigators to the next, in hopes that someone might, some day, decide to share that crucial piece of information that reinvigorates the case.
Williams Jr. and his family still hold out hope for that day - although, they admit, that hope wears thin after 40 years.
Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Scott Denisch has a folder of case notes and yellowed newspaper clippings predating his tenure with police by about 20 years.
Denisch has worked for Pennsylvania State Police since 1995, most recently in the criminal investigation assessment unit in Harrisburg. His job is to connect troopers with the resources they need to solve cases, including the cold ones.
The story told in this particular folder is simple but confounding.
On Oct. 13, 1976, as peach season slipped into apple season, Kenneth Williams Sr. went to work at Ken Kane’s Orchard Market on Route 30 west of Gettysburg. He had only worked at the fruit stand for a few months, tending the register, after he retired from a job maintaining roads for the state. Before the state job, he spent most of his life as a tenant farmer.
Williams Sr.’s life ended behind that fruit stand between 3:45 and 5 p.m. Customers arriving to buy apples found him lying in a pool of blood, shot once in the face.
He likely saw the flash of the gun but never heard the final crack, the coroner later told the family.
The shooter stole $200 from the cash register but didn’t touch Williams’ wallet, which still held more than $100 when police found his body.
“I can only assume they didn’t want to spend a lot of time searching him,” Denisch said. “They were happy with what was in the register and went.”
A gentle man
Ron Parr fondly remembers the brief time he spent working at the fruit market with his grandfather. He was, in fact, the one who helped Williams Sr. get the job.
Then 18, Parr ate lunch with his grandfather almost every day, sharing sandwiches and the occasional sticky bun.
In Parr’s memory, his grandfather, always a calm man, was especially introspective during their last lunch together, just hours before he died.
“His last words were, ‘You’re the cream of the crop,’” Parr recalled. “That was his ‘I love you.’”
He was a man who quietly held their family together. His death rippled through the family like a stone on peaceful water.
“You can’t imagine somebody hurting my father, as kind and gentle as he was,” said Ruby Parr, Ron Parr’s mother.
Ruby Parr’s father loved his 10 grandchildren more than anything, cherishing the days she took her five children over to visit. He looked forward to family reunions, she recalled, where there were “always new babies to see.”
Her youngest son, Ken Parr, barely remembers that love. His grandfather died when he was just 6 years old. He grew up wondering what his life would be like had his grandfather lived.
“Especially being a kid, you think; ‘We could have done this together, we could have done this together,” he said. “You just don’t know.”
Ron Parr, Ken Parr’s older brother, was old enough to remember more. And it changed the course of his life.
Since he was 12 years old, he had felt a divine call to devote his life to Christian ministry. By October 1976, he was planning to join the Army and become a chaplain.
That changed when someone killed his grandfather.
“When this happened, I got mad at God for it,” he said. “I decided I wouldn’t do it simply because of what happened.”
Williams Jr. hopes his own son and daughter were too young to remember the worst of the grief the family experienced when his father was ripped away from them.
“It didn’t just go away after he was buried,” he said. “It drug on. And we were scared.”
A bullet, a body, a witness
The stretch of Route 30 where Kenneth Williams Sr. briefly sold apples and peaches is a rural highway now, with cars passing through at 60 mph between Gettysburg and Chambersburg. A few small businesses dot the roadside, including the fruit stand itself, which is still open but under different ownership.
Denisch imagines the road looked similar 40 years ago - a busy thoroughfare through the heart of apple country. That makes it all the more remarkable that the shooter was brazen enough to rob Williams Sr. during the day, and even more so that no one directly witnessed the crime.
A hitchhiker using a payphone down the street told police he heard the shot. Another person saw a blue and white Buick with a white license plate drive away from the scene. But no one could corroborate either account, Denisch said. Checkpoints searching for the car turned up no leads.
It was the first in a series of dead ends. Investigators had nothing but a body, a shell casing and a witness account that could not be verified.
Many of Williams Sr.’s family members, however, have wondered if his death was connected to another homicide that rocked Adams County less than a month later.
Harry J. Brantner shot Robert Witta III, 25; Witta’s girlfriend, Julia Egnatowsky, 27; and their dogs in early November 1976. Witta’s parents found their bodies Nov. 7.
Brantner, a Fairfield man who knew the couple, admitted to the shooting but claimed self-defense, newspapers reported at the time. His defense also argued he had a mental illness that made him prone to paranoia.
He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for Witta and Egnatowsky’s deaths. Police ultimately ruled him out as a suspect in Williams Sr.’s death.
“All guns found on Brantner or at his residence were tested,” said Trooper Nate Hartlaub, the investigator currently assigned to Williams Sr.’s case. “Nothing matched the bullet from Williams murder.”
They were looking for a .30-caliber Plainfield rifle, the weapon used to kill Williams Sr. Police found four or five other locals over the years who owned Plainfield rifles, but all of them had alibis. A gun of the same caliber was used in another crime a few years later, Denisch said, but ballistics testing ruled that one out too.
No new leads have emerged since then.
In 1977, the family even enlisted the help of Dorothy Allison, a self-proclaimed psychic detective who had worked several high-profile cases across the country. She, like the family, suspected a link between Williams Sr.’s death and that of Witta and Egnatowsky, but nothing she said furthered the investigation.
The lack of DNA evidence further complicates the case, Denisch said. If the robbery had taken place today, police would likely swab the register for DNA. But that wasn’t an option 40 years ago, and any DNA left on the register has likely degraded in the past 40 years.
“It’s going to be pretty tough to bring to a resolution unless someone knows something and wants to come forward,” Denisch said.
‘Miracles do happen’
After 21 years of holding a grudge against God, Ron Parr had an epiphany. He needed his faith to fill the void his grandfather’s death left.
Now, he’s a pastor at Mountain Top Ministries in Franklin Township. He shares small parts of his story with congregants who are also hurting from sudden losses, letting them know he can relate. He also tells them how he healed from his pain - by having faith that he will see his grandfather again.
He rarely tells the full story of what happened out of fear of opening old wounds, he said.
“It’s a hole you’ll never be able to fill, except for with the hope that you’ll see them another day,” he said. “You have to decide early on: Am I going to move forward and try to live the best life I can, or am I going to spend the rest of my life totally in grief?”
His mother, Ruby Parr, has found solace in knowing how much pride her father would have had in all his great-grandchildren. Still, she said, October has a way of dredging up the painful memories.
Finding and charging the person who took Williams Sr. away from his family might not dull that pain, but it would be a start.
If you have information
Anyone with information about Kenneth Williams Sr.’s death is asked to contact state police in Gettysburg at 717-334-8111 or the Adams County Crimestoppers at 717-334-8057. Crimestoppers is offering the maximum cash reward. Tips can also be submitted anonymously at accrimestoppers.com.
Alice and Kenneth Williams Jr. don’t expect that to happen though.
“Miracles do happen,” Alice Williams allowed.
Williams Jr.’s life has moved on in uncountable ways since his father died. He and his wife moved from the farmland of Cashtown to their cozy retirement community near New Oxford. Like Kenneth Williams Sr., they have grandchildren, now college-aged, they can’t help but boast about.
Denisch acknowledged cold cases, this one in particular, are hard to crack. But it’s happened before.
Just last year, Adams County prosecutors charged a man, Abraham Cruz Jr., in connection with the 1980 deaths of 17-year-old Deborah Patterson and her mother, Nancy Patterson, in Freedom Township.
“Sometimes it’s not just breaks in DNA or evidence; sometimes it’s just going back through and letting another set of eyes take a look at it,” he said. “Sometime’s it’s just tenacity, if you will. Wanting to stay at it.”
Troopers never close unsolved homicide and missing person cases, Denisch said. The Gettysburg barracks have about six unsolved cases going back to the ‘60s, all of which are assigned to a trooper who occasionally circles back on old interviews, reviews the information and tries to find out what past investigators might have missed.
“The main thing is giving closure to the family,” Denisch said. “We didn’t forget about it, and we’re sill working on it.”
Ron Parr, however, no longer hopes for a conviction.
Of his grandfather’s killer, he said, “I’ve already forgiven him.”
Information from: The Evening Sun, https://www.eveningsun.com
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