Dorothy Williams was a drug-addicted serial killer who targeted senior citizens for money and valuables to feed her heroin addiction. As her addiction raged, so did her anger, leading Williams to escalate her robberies into murder. Over three years, Williams killed three senior citizens, all of whom lived in the same Chicago housing projects.
On December 5, 1986, the body of 79-year-old Lonnie Laws was discovered in his apartment in a Chicago housing project for senior citizens. He had been robbed and strangled to death, the belt still tied around his neck and a piece of clothing pushed back into his throat. There were no signs of forced entry into the home, leading detectives to suspect he knew his killer.
Laws’ autopsy revealed he suffered hemorrhaging in both eyes and suffered several abrasions to his face.
Unfortunately, clues were scarce, and the case went cold.
On December 6, 1988, police found the decomposing body of 64-year-old Caesar Zurell. Mr. Zurell lived in another apartment in the same housing projects as Mr. Laws. There were no signs of forced entry, although it did appear that the home had been ransacked. Mr. Zurell had sustained numerous stab wounds. His autopsy revealed three of the stab wounds penetrated his chest and lacerated his leg, leading to a slow, painful death.
This time, however, detectives found two fingerprints at the crime scene. The fingerprints did not match anyone in their database.
On July 15, 1989, the body of 89-year-old Mary Harris was found inside an apartment at the same housing projects as the previous two people. Mrs. Harris was lying in bed with a bandana tied around her neck. The apartment had been ransacked, and once again, police found no signs of ford entry. Her face was bruised, black and blue, and an autopsy revealed she had been beaten and strangled to death.
A witness came forward after Ms. Harris’s murder, telling police he saw a woman leaving the apartment that day carrying a stereo. He described her as a Black woman who wore a nursing uniform. She was often at the apartment, the man claimed. Another witness described seeing the same woman at the housing complex.
Less than two months later, police were back at the housing project, this time after a concerned resident saw the mysterious woman at Ms. Harris’ apartment on the day of her murder. The caller told police that he had witnessed the woman physically assault a few residents of the building.
Police identified the woman as 35-year-old Dorothy Williams. She agreed to meet with police at the station. She denied knowing Mary Harris or having any involvement with her murder. She consented to a search of her apartment, which ultimately led to her arrest.
Dorothy Williams Charged With Murder
Police found a stereo stolen from Mary Harris’s apartment. Dorothy claimed she bought the stereo “off the streets,” Her fingerprints matched those found in Mary’s apartment and multiple witnesses identified her as the woman they saw the day of the murder.
Police asked Mary to take a polygraph test to which she agreed. Unfortunately for Dorothy, she failed the test miserably. Police arrested Dorothy, charging her with Mary’s murder.
After her arrest, Williams changed her story several times until finally admitting to going to Mary’s house to ask for money. Mary gave her $2 to buy milk. Unsatisfied with the amount, Dorothy attacked her when she turned around. She stole the stereo and fled the apartment.
She later confessed to each murder and several robberies. She also confessed that she robbed senior citizens in the housing projects because they were easy targets. She would dress as a nurse to gain entry into the home, and then rob them of whatever valuables she could find. When this was not enough, Dorothy would overpower and murder her elderly victims.
Dorothy Williams: A Rare Breed
Dorothy Williams was one of only a few female serial killers and even fewer African-American serial killers. According to the University of Michigan, only 8.6% of serial killers are women. Since 1945, only 90 identified serial killers have been African American.
One trait Dorothy Williams shared with the common serial killer was motive. More than 70% of serial murders occur due to financial gain. Williams targeted vulnerable elderly people whom she could rob for money and valuables to feed her heroin addiction. In three years, she killed three elderly people to rob them. Dorothy pleaded guilty to murdering Lonnie Laws and Caesar Zuell and was given life sentences for each conviction. She was convicted of murdering Mary and sentenced to death. In 2002, former Illinois governor George Ryan commuted all death row prisoners to lifers, including Dorothy Williams. She died on December 19, 2020, at the age of 66.