LONG BEACH, Calif. — Kenneth Nevada Williams dreamed of living in the big city.
When the California 15-year-old left his family’s La Puente home in the fall of 1977, they assumed he had gone to follow that dream. Williams’ family never saw him again.
“Once he hit puberty, he just kind of started to want to go out and be on his own,” Williams’ older sister, Roxanne Jones, told the East Bay Times. “We lived in the suburbs, and my mother, father and stepfather all worked. We had responsibilities. But he didn’t want that life.
“He didn’t want to go to school; he wanted to find something fun to do.”
The Williams family hoped Kenny would have a long, happy life. On Wednesday, however, authorities in Long Beach announced that they have identified the teen as a John Doe homicide victim found 30 miles from home, lying on a sidewalk, the summer after he ran away.
Williams’ cause of death was not made public.
Jones told the Times there were mixed emotions when a Long Beach detective and FBI agents knocked on the door of her San Bernardino County home.
“There’s that grief that immediately hits you, and sadness knowing that he never really was living that life we thought he was living,” Jones told the newspaper. “There’s a relief in knowing what happened. It’s not the news we want to hear, but it’s news.”
Donald Alway, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, credited genetic genealogy and “dogged investigators” with determining Wiliams’ identity.
“Justice delayed doesn’t have to be justice denied in this case,” Alway said in a statement. “Kenneth Nevada Williams is now a known victim, and identifying his killer is the next step in solving this case.”
‘John Doe 1978′
Long Beach police officials said that it was in the early morning hours of June 3, 1978, when the body of an unidentified teen was found sprawled on the pavement on Division Street near Corona Street. The boy, estimated to be between 15 and 19 years old, had been there less than 24 hours.
The boy was about 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed about 130 pounds. He had hazel eyes and freckles, wore his hair just below his ears and had a small scar above his right eyebrow.
“He was found wearing a light blue T-shirt, blue jeans, a brown leather belt, blue socks and blue and white (Redwing) tennis shoes with brown soles,” the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children said. “The John Doe also had a faint stamp on the back of his hand that read ‘PAID.’”
The teen had no identification, and fingerprints failed at the time to produce a name. For many years, authorities suspected he may have been a victim of Randy Kraft, a serial killer who was convicted in 1989 of 16 murders in Southern California. Known as the “Scorecard Killer,” Kraft is believed to be responsible for as many as 67 murders of young men and teens between 1971 and 1983.
Authorities said for years, circumstantial evidence potentially linked Kraft to the murder of Long Beach’s unidentified victim, who became known as “John Doe 1978.” Kraft has since been ruled out as the boy’s killer and, now 77, he remains on death row at San Quentin State Prison.
“Over the last four decades, several generations of LBPD homicide detectives diligently worked the case, even expanding the investigation internationally to other countries in their attempt to identify the victim,” a police statement read. “Despite their hard work, all investigative leads were ultimately exhausted, and the case went cold.”
The unsolved case gained new life over the past several years as genetic genealogy became a powerful new tool for cold case detectives across the country. Long Beach police officials said last week that partnerships with state and national organizations allowed investigators to submit John Doe 1978′s genetic material for a full DNA profile suitable for genealogical purposes.
The material was given to Othram Inc.
“Badly degraded and chemically damaged skeletal evidence was sent to Othram’s lab in The Woodlands, Texas,” according to a statement from the forensics company. “This skeletal evidence had failed prior attempts, but Othram was able to develop a suitable DNA extract for testing.”
Othram then used genome sequencing to build a comprehensive DNA profile from the skeletal remains. The profile was turned over to FBI agents, who conducted the genealogical search that led in September to a close relative of Williams.
Investigators learned the teen had run away from home several months before his body was found. School records indicated that he’d been a student at Sierra Vista Middle School but was enrolled in October 1977 at Fairgrove Academy.
He attended his new school for nine days before he ran away.
“Williams was never reported missing,” police officials said. “Homicide detectives were successfully able to locate and contact Williams’ family members and subsequently confirm his identity.”
Jones, who described her brother as a funny, sweet boy, told the Times he ran away often, though it wasn’t because of discord in the family.
“He just wasn’t meant for the suburbs,” she said. “He wasn’t happy.”
At one point, Williams ended up living for a while with their father in Oregon. Eventually, he returned to La Puente. He regularly ran away to places like Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles.
Typically, the family would learn where Williams had gone within a week.
“They would bring him back home, and he’d be depressed and unhappy for a while and he’d run away again,” Jones said.
When that didn’t happen the last time he left, the family hoped he’d found happiness elsewhere. The siblings’ father, who died of cancer in 2010, hired a private investigator to find his son but had no luck.
Jones said she was shocked when police knocked on her door but knew immediately that they had found her long-lost brother.
“As soon as they said there was a familial DNA match, I knew who it had to be,” Jones told ABC 7 in Los Angeles.
Listen to Roxanne Jones talk about her younger brother, Kenny Williams, below, courtesy of ABC 7.
In her interview with the Times, she said she had no clue what connection Williams could have had to Long Beach. Though she said she has little information about her brother’s death, she knows one thing for certain about his life.
“He was more of a free spirit, but he was loved and we were looking for him,” Jones said.
Investigators ask that anyone with information regarding the 1978 murder of Kenneth Nevada Williams or his whereabouts from Oct. 27, 1977, to June 3, 1978, contact the LBPD Homicide Detail, Missing Persons Section at (562) 570-7246. Anonymous tips may be submitted through LA Crime Stoppers by calling 800-222-TIPS (8477) or downloading the P3 Tips smartphone app.
Tips can also be submitted by visiting lacrimestoppers.org.
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