Record tainted by false confession

Special
Christine Williams: Woman who was robbed after leaving her fast-food job signed a confession saying she lied about the robbery.

After 15 years working in the fast-food industry, Christine Williams knew the drill to follow during a robbery.

 

Stay calm. Give the thieves what they want. Try to remember as many details as possible. Call the police and company as soon as possible.

Shortly after midnight Nov. 8, she did all of that when two men robbed her.

But that was just the beginning of her troubles. Before the end of that day, she would be the suspect, spending nearly 48 hours in jail, being fingerprinted and photographed, shamed and embarrassed.

Ms. Williams' naivety about police procedures converged with detectives' suspicions. In the end, she falsely confessed to committing a crime.

It started with what she thought was a little white lie.

Ms. Williams was at the end of a double shift at Church's Chicken on Peach Orchard Road. After 15 hours on the job, she wanted to get home, but first she had to balance the receipts. She kept coming up with a $20 difference. It was late on a school night, and her two employees were waiting to leave. One of their mothers kept calling. Letting the employees leave without her violated company policy, but Ms. Williams told the two they could go.

She realized her mistake in 10 or 15 minutes, grabbed her purse and keys, set the alarm and locked the doors. She was halfway to her car when she heard a male voice call to her. There were two of them, faces covered, guns pointed, Ms. Williams would tell police.

"I was trying to be as quick as possible. One stood back and yelled out instructions," Ms. Williams said.

"The one next to me didn't say anything. He was really nervous. He dropped his gun twice, and that's what really scared me.

"They could have whatever they wanted, because I wanted to walk out of there. I have four children at home."

Although it was very late by the time she got home, Ms. Williams had to open the restaurant the next morning. At 1 p.m. she was at the Augusta-Richmond County Law Enforcement Center to meet with detectives.

"When I got down there I became a suspect -- I was the criminal," Ms. Williams said.

"I understand he (the first officer accusing her) was trying to do his job ... but they were looking in the wrong place with me," Ms. Williams said.

By midday, Ms. Williams had falsely confessed to having committed a crime. She signed a statement that read:

"I did not get robbed at Church's Chicken on Peach Orchard Rd."

Ms. Williams falsely told the detectives that she walked out of the restaurant with her two employees but went back inside to get her cell phone and keys, according to the police report.

"If you lie, it's instinct to believe you're lying to cover something up," Lt. Scott Peebles said.

Sgt. Richard Roundtree, who obtained Ms. Williams "confession," believed she was covering up her involvement in a robbery.

In addition, two witnesses saw what they assumed was Ms. Williams casually talking to two men and taking them into Church's. The witnesses didn't see the men's faces or any guns, they told Investigator Shawn Newsome.

The case was closed with Ms. Williams' arrest for making a false statement, a misdemeanor charge that remains on her previously clean record. She wasn't charged with taking part in a robbery or stealing the money because officers had no evidence, Lt. Peebles said.

Richmond County sheriff's investigators learned about five weeks later that Ms. Williams gave a false confession when they arrested several young men for a series of armed robberies. Church's on Peach Orchard Road was one of their first robberies.

"We were like, uh oh, something's wrong here," Lt. Peebles said.

Ms. Williams, who was fired and is now represented by an attorney, was called back to the sheriff's office. A different detective asked her what happened that night at Church's.

"Based on what has been learned, we request this charge be dropped against Mrs. Williams at your earliest convenience," Sgt. Blaise Dresser wrote to the solicitor's office.

Lt. Peebles said officers don't want people to falsely confess, but he said Ms. Williams brought the trouble onto herself.

"Had she not lied, this never would have happened," he said.

Ms. Williams said she understands how the officers saw red flags, but she believes they should have done more investigating. "They took the easy way out instead of going out and looking for these guys," she said.

Suspecting an employee participated in a robbery is reasonable because it happens a lot, Lt. Peebles said. A detective would logically believe that it was more likely when the "victim" lies about something, he said.

Interrogations can be tense and confrontational, but the person being questioned can leave at anytime unless he or she is under arrest, Lt. Peebles said.

Ms. Williams said the three officers who confronted her at the Law Enforcement Center were rude, obnoxious and arrogant. Sgt. Roundtree told her she had two options: arrest for armed robbery and sitting in jail without bond until trial, or a misdemeanor charge of making a false report of a crime, a charge that would be bondable.

Armed robbery meant 20 years in prison. Making a false report of a crime would probably end with a year's probation, Ms. Williams said she was told.

Ms. Williams had never been arrested before and said she didn't know what to do. She said she thought the officers were never going to believe her.

She thought of her children, that it was almost Thanksgiving. She thought of the stories of people exonerated only after years in prison.

"I just needed to get out of there and get with somebody who would be on my side," Ms. Williams said.

She said she asked Sgt. Roundtree what to write in her statement to confess to the misdemeanor charge. She had to write the statement before she could use the telephone, Ms. Williams said.

Sgt. Roundtree denies that. He said she asked about her options and he told her of the different charges. He said Ms. Williams made a call, then wrote out her statement.

Sgt. Roundtree didn't learn that Ms. Williams had falsely confessed until weeks later.

"I really didn't put much thought about it," he said.

In May, Ms. Williams was in Richmond County Superior Court when one of the men who robbed Church's pleaded guilty.

Because of the prosecutor's concern over calling Ms. Williams as a witness after the false confession, he agreed to reduce the charges against the man and recommend only five years in prison.

It was frustrating to see the charge reduced, Ms. Williams said.

The others involved in the robbery received more prison time, because they had participated in other holdups.

"I just kind of let it go, like a lot of people do," Ms. Williams said. "You go back to your regular life and do the best you can."

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

ONLINE EXTRA

Click here to view the original confession.

WHEN QUESTIONED BY POLICE

Richmond County sheriff's Lt. Scott Peebles said that unless you are placed under arrest, you are free to leave at any time.

An officer does not have to read a suspect's rights until the suspect is arrested and has asked specifically about the charge, Lt. Peebles said.

Augusta attorney Charles Lyons said knowing at what point you are under arrest can be tricky. You can always stop talking, however. If you are not allowed to leave, you should consider yourself under arrest, Mr. Lyons said.

However, you can be detained without a charge for 72 hours, Mr. Lyons said.