Slain Aiken officer's partner mourns loss, looks ahead

Frances Williams keeps the contents of Car 203 in a little wooden chest that sits on the hearth.

It’s filled with odds and ends – a coffee cup, a pair of ear muffs, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a beat-up ticket book cover and other random items collected during her partner’s 12-hour shifts patrolling the streets of Aiken.

“Look at all this stuff. I don’t know what to do with it,” Williams said. “What can I do with it? I can’t throw it away.”

More memories fill every room of the little house on Redds Branch Road in Aiken.

There’s a glass case crammed with horse figurines, a collection of commemorative beer steins lining the wall in the den and a big blue Ram pickup parked outside.

It’s all she has left of the life she shared with Master Cpl. Sandy Rogers.

When Rogers was gunned down Jan. 28, 2012, while investigating a suspicious vehicle near Eustis Park, Aiken lost a police officer and a dedicated public servant.

Williams lost her friend, companion and lover of 27 years.

“She was my wife,” said Williams, who was never officially married to Rogers. Such a union is not allowed under South Carolina law.

Those who knew Williams and Rogers, however, knew them as a couple – a domestic partnership as intimate and mundane as any other marriage that had lasted for almost three decades.

“We were in the phase where we were talking about retiring in a couple of years,” Williams said. “We would have been in a Winnebago, driving all over the country.”

A year later, she feels lost and alone.

“Sandy was always the driver. I was the co-pilot,” she said. “How am I going to go on a trip now? I don’t know how.”

‘Fine with who she was’

It was 1984 when Williams first saw the energetic young woman wearing an Aiken public safety uniform.

“I kept hearing people say they hired Jack Rogers’ daughter,” said Williams, who had become a public safety officer in 1981.

Rogers’ father was an Aiken business owner who had worked as a volunteer firefighter and a reserve officer with the department for years.

“We had never met, but I saw her somewhere and said, ‘Oh, so that is Jack Rogers’ daughter,’ ” she said.

It took about a year for the two women to get to know each other.

“We were both very sports-oriented,” Williams said. “We both played basketball in high school. We were on different softball teams and we were very competitive. We became friends and kind of doubled-dated for a while and we realized we were soul mates.”

Within a couple of years, they were living together in a house on Sharyn Lane in Aiken.

“In our relationship we had our own little jobs,” Williams said. “She was financial and mechanical. I was more operational.”

“Operational” meant cooking, cleaning and running a home, which included the same frustrations other homemakers encounter on a daily basis.

“She did not know where the dirty clothes hamper was,” Williams said. “You could have the clothes hamper right here and she would put her clothes right beside it.”

Although they kept their relationship to themselves, Williams said it wasn’t easy for two young women working together in what was essentially a man’s world.

“We caught hell at work,” she said, explaining that it was to be expected because theirs was also an interracial relationship in a conservative Southern city.

Williams said she finally left the Public Safety Department in 1996 because of comments and tension over their relationship. She’s now a public safety officer at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

“We were treated badly sometimes,” she said. “A supervisor told Sandy once that as long as she was with me she wouldn’t get promoted – stuff like that. Sandy rose above it.”

Williams said attitudes have changed in recent years.

“I would say today, even before Sandy was killed, Public Safety became more accepting of it,” she said.

Aiken Sgt. Jake Mahoney said Williams was respected as a fellow police officer and considered a family member of the department as much as any spouse.

Even so, friend and neighbor Alethea Spann said that she knows the two women had to endure some difficult times to stay together but that they were committed to each other.

“This was the ’80s. It was not an easy time to be a female police officer, much less in this kind of relationship,” said Spann, who also is the spouse of an Aiken Public Safety officer.

“Sandy never liked labels,” she said. “She said you love who you love. It does not matter who they are, what sex they are or anything else about them. You love the person.”

At the same time, Spann said, Rogers was also intensely private and was not interested in breaking down social barriers or making a public display.

“As a person, she was not very public with feeling or her emotions,” she said. “She was perfectly fine with who she was.”

‘I see that every night’

Williams has two images that stay with her every day.

One that she wakes to every morning is a photo beside the bed. The couple are decked out in formal black and white. Williams stands proudly behind her partner, who stares serenely into the camera.

The other image is one that haunts her every night. When she closes her eyes she remembers her stricken partner, lying wounded beside the road after being shot three times.

“I see that every night,” she said. “Not many people know that I responded to the scene.”

Williams said the morning Rogers died began as a normal Saturday. Rogers rose first and reported to her shift at 6 a.m. Williams arrived at USC Aiken just before 7 a.m.

She recalls that Rogers stopped by briefly to visit with her not long after. They talked about their day and planned to meet for lunch.

Then the call came over the radio – two suspicious vehicles near Eustis Park. Two other officers – Jacob Pridgen and Brenton Russo – were dispatched.

Williams said that, as usual, Rogers wanted to be where the action was.

“When the call came out, she said, ‘Let me go back up my guys,’ and she left,” Williams said.

Police say Rogers arrived at the scene and approached one of the cars – a blue BMW driven by Joshua Tremaine Jones, a troubled young man with a history of violence and emotional problems. Investigators said he had come to the park after fleeing the Augusta apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Cayce Vice. Police would later find Vice shot to death in her bed.

Things quickly went bad, Williams said.

“I heard Jacob say, ‘Shots fired,’ ” she said. “Jacob was calling Sandy’s number trying to get her to respond. Then he said, ‘Officer down.’ ”

Williams, along with every other available police officer, was soon responding to the scene. She continued monitoring radio traffic along the way, hoping to hear Rogers’ call number – 203.

“When I was responding, I didn’t really know who was down,” she said. “As I got closer, I heard everybody talking, but I but never heard Sandy.”

Williams said she knew for certain Rogers was wounded when one of the officers at the scene tried to stop her. She would not be deterred.

She went to Rogers’ side and rode beside her in the ambulance.

“While we were on the scene they started losing her and I talked to her and she came back,” she said. “It happened again in the ambulance, and I talked to her and she came back.”

Rogers was pronounced dead at Aiken Regional Medical Centers. Even the doctor was crying, Williams said.

“I thought the worst part was over, but dear good old Sandy was an organ donor,” she said. “Even though she was pronounced dead, she wasn’t for several days.”

She said Rogers was kept on a ventilator and pumped with fluids while doctors harvested her organs. The process only served to prolong the pain of her death, she said.

“I thought getting on the scene and walking around that corner and seeing her on the ground was bad, but this was worse,” she said.

‘A part of that family’

Sandy Rogers’ death – the third killing of an area police officer within four months – drew national attention.

The first was Oct. 23, 2011, when Richmond County sheriff’s Deputy James D. Paugh was shot on Bobby Jones Expressway near the Fort Gordon exit. Police said Army Spc. Christopher Michael Hodges, 26, shot Paugh before taking his own life.

On Dec. 22, 2011, Aiken Master Public Safety Officer Scotty Rich­ardson was killed and another officer was wounded during a shootout on Brandt Court. Stephon Morrell Carter, then 19, of Aiken, was charged with murder and attempted murder in Richardson’s slaying.

Williams said that up until that Saturday in January, her life with Rogers had been acknowledged only among family and friends. Those who knew them knew, she said. But their relationship wasn’t a subject that was discussed, even with family.

For example, although she and Rogers shared an anniversary – Feb. 2 – with some members of the Rogers family, it was never talked about or celebrated.

“They never knew our anniversary was the same as theirs,” Williams said. “We were just very respectful of everybody because some people were not ready.”

With her partner’s death, things changed.

Williams was thrust into the center of a very public coming out – a massive funeral attended by hundreds of officers, city officials and state politicians, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

“This was dealt with very publicly,” Williams said. “Her being an officer, everybody in the U.S. knew about it.”

The public exposure put a strain on everyone involved, Williams said. Her relationship with Rogers’ family quickly deteriorated. Rogers left her property, including the house and truck, to Williams in her will. Not everyone was happy with that.

Now lawyers are involved, she said.

“Things are bad between me and the family,” she said. “I was a part of that family for 27 years.”

There were other slights and hurts when Frances Williams said she felt pushed to the side, as though her relationship with Rogers wasn’t real, such as a posthumous award from the city for Rogers that was presented to Rogers’ father. Richardson’s wife received his award, she said.

There was also the matter of her partner’s personal effects. By law, they go to the next of kin, she said.

“They wouldn’t give them to me. They had to give them to her father because he was the next of kin,” she said. “I’m not saying that I’m not bitter about some stuff, but all in all, that’s Sandy’s family. It is her family.”

Rogers’ older sister, Jenny Johnson, described their relationship with Williams as “estranged,” but declined to elaborate. She said she hoped there was room for reconciliation.

“I’ve opened the door, and my dad’s opened the door,” Johnson said. “We still care about her and we still love her and when she is ready we will still be here.”

Spann said it is was hard to watch someone Sandy Rogers loved so much being hurt. She said it seems some have tried to separate Rogers’ persona as a police officer from her private life, but it's a mistake not to accept Rogers as a “whole, real person.”

“If she taught me anything, it’s that you cannot have Christianity without humanity,” Spann said. “You can’t have humanity without respect and tolerance and love. She loved God, she loved her family and she loved Frances.”

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