Family's plea in cold case: 'Lord, let her be alive'

TAMPA, Fla. — For nearly half her life, Ruby Williams has prayed for her daughter, Brenda: "Lord, let her be alive."

She's repeated this prayer tens of thousands of times, starting in the mid-1970s, when she lived in a four-bedroom apartment with her husband and 12 children. Now 89 and a widow, she prays in a modest home near downtown Tampa, where she lives with two of her children.

Brenda, Williams' third child, has been missing since 1978. Her family has subsisted on slender threads of hope: Maybe Brenda just walked away. Maybe she found a new life, with a different family. Maybe she'd had a mental break.

Nearly 40 years later, on a hot August day in Florida, the Williams family was summoned to the Tampa Police Department.

"It must be news about Brenda," Williams thought. But she didn't accompany two of Brenda's sisters to the police department. She stayed home to pray once more: "Lord, let her be alive."

Sharon Scott and Sheila Williams came to their mother's home hours later to deliver the news.

Ruby clasped her hands in her lap. Her children and grandchildren surrounded her. Most everyone sniffled and wiped away tears. They waited for the sisters to speak.

"Lord, let her be alive."

___

The police had given up, if they'd ever been interested — at least that's how it seemed to Sharon Scott.

But her sister prodded: "Let's go!"

A local TV news segment had caught Sheila Williams' attention: Law enforcement and other officials would soon gather for a cold-cases symposium. Maybe, she thought, they could talk about Brenda.

Scott wasn't convinced, but her sister won. They dug up a faded picture of Brenda to show police.

Once there, however, it became clear the event wasn't open to the public. They stood out — they were among the only black women there.

All around the sisters were detectives, scientists, lawyers — and lifelike sculpted busts of the missing and the dead, carved to draw attention to 19 cold cases.

As speeches began, a bust caught Sheila's eye: an African-American woman with a short afro and big, haunted eyes. It kind of looked like her — and Brenda.

Sheila gasped and glanced at the photo. She elbowed her sister, then nudged an officer next to her: "Don't they look the same?"

The officer shushed her.

Sheila walked to the sculpture. She held the photo to the face. Sharon glanced from her sister, to the photo, to the bust and back again. Sheila sobbed.

A detective ushered the women into a room. He swabbed their cheeks for DNA. Perhaps, detectives said, there'd be a match. The body was found in a patch of scrub brush used as a trash dump in 1985 just outside downtown Tampa. Detectives didn't know her name.

Could it be Brenda?

___

Brenda grew up in the family's crowded housing-project apartment. At 15, she had a baby girl. Her sisters said that didn't stop her from "being wild."

She had brushes with the law and was incarcerated. At 22, she had another girl. But to her family, she was getting her act together. She rented an apartment nearby.

Sheila looked up to Brenda. Perhaps it had to do with their birthdays — Brenda was born Feb. 1, 1955; Sheila, nine years and 364 days later. Or maybe it was how Brenda loved high heels and became the first Williams girl to drive.

By 11, Sheila was eager to spend the night at Brenda's to escape the chaos at home. But things weren't always calm at Brenda's. She dated a man who could be violent. When Sheila saw him beating her sister, she ran home to tell the family.

In April 1978, 22-year-old Brenda headed out for the night. Sheila cared for Brenda's daughters, 7 years and 9 months old.

Brenda met up with Susanie "Cookie" Austin at a party. Austin remembers Brenda bursting in and asking if she wanted to go out on the town.

"I said no," said Austin, now 61. "I never saw who she was with."

Austin didn't give much thought to Brenda's question until days later, when Brenda's daughter knocked on the door, asking, "Have you seen my mama?"

Brenda hadn't come home. "It disturbed me so bad," Austin said.

Everyone figured Brenda was just in trouble again, but soon the family worried. Officers said that because Brenda was an adult, there wasn't much they could do.

Brenda had seemingly vanished into the humid Tampa air.

___

Over the years, Sharon's done some detective work. She knocked on the door of a woman who shares her sister's name, combed through news articles, looked into a tip that Brenda was at a hospital.

She got nowhere.

That never surprised Sheila.

"My sister was black. My sister was in and out of jail. My sister took drugs. Now that I've grown up and I've lived life and I see how they treat skin color, and we were poor, it didn't make a difference," she said recently in her apartment in a different housing project, not far from where she and her siblings were raised. "Brenda was a nobody to them." (Tampa police say they have no record of Brenda Williams reported as a missing person in the 1970s but that they would have handled it with care as in any other such case.)

Sheila was convinced Brenda was the woman from the bust — a woman who, they would learn, had been buried in a pauper's grave in a cemetery a stone's throw away, the one where their father and grandmother are buried, the one filled with names familiar across Tampa's black community.

The first time detectives called the family, about a month after the event, Sheila learned her feeling was wrong; it wasn't Brenda. The DNA tests ruled her out.

The family was no closer to the truth.

But in August, detectives called again, and the sisters rushed to the police department. There, detectives talked about the science behind cold cases while the sisters wondered: Why are we here?

Then, the news: The sisters' DNA was a match with a jawbone found in a Tampa field in 1986.

Brenda Williams had been found.

___

"Lord, let her be alive."

Ruby Williams' prayer still ran through her mind hours after the meeting as children and grandchildren filtered in and out of her home.

Brenda's two daughters were there, now grown women, stunned.

Police said they don't know how Brenda died. All they had is the jawbone, which they released to the family. Brenda's loved ones used it to hold a funeral service Sept. 10, even as Hurricane Irma threatened the state.

Brenda had waited 40 years, and they wouldn't let her wait any longer.

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