Originally created 08/03/97

Family reflects on life of murder suspect



Innocence displayed in the wide eyes of a pudgy-faced toddler - captured in an old family photo - isn't visible in the stone-faced police mug the public identifies as a murder suspect.

Adopted as a baby by a Baptist preacher and a home-health care worker, that pudgy-faced boy - Bryan Tyrone Williams, now 18 - is charged in the shooting death of Richmond County school security Officer Michael Stephenson, 29, who responded to an alarm last month at Jamestown Elementary School.

"I just think back to when he was a sweet little thing, all dressed up," said Dorothy Williams, Mr. Williams' grandmother. "It was just his fear of going back to jail. In his small mind he was saving himself, when he was really making things worse."

Amid hundreds of mourners, Officer Stephenson was buried July 19 with ceremony befitting a hero. Mr. Williams, jailed since his arrest July 16, has not entered a plea.

Now two heart-torn families are left with the reality that the lives of two young men - both with a positive upbringing - are cut short. Neither came from broken homes, nor did they grow up in mean ghetto streets.

Nevertheless, one is dead and the other is accused in the killing. And their fates are also sharp contrast, as one chose a life of crime and the other a life of fighting crime.

Mrs. Williams has resigned herself to believing that if her grandson was capable of murder, it was because of a genetic predisposition to violence that a loving family and Christian home could not correct.

"We knew something was wrong with Bryan when they brought him home as a baby," she said, noting that the family never met the birth parents."He was just a pitiful little thing. I don't know what had been done to him."

Disappointment was how Dr. Charles Lamback, Officer Stephenson's principal at Glenn Hills High School, described what he felt when he heard that his former student died in the line of duty.

"I was disappointed because I knew Mike was not a rude or disrespectful type of person who would provoke someone to retaliate," the principal said. "He was excited about being a sheriff's deputy and a school security officer. It was something he did because he wanted to do it and not because he couldn't find anything else to do."

Dr. Lamback said he believes the officer's nature for helping young people made him trust that he could place a confused young man in the back of his patrol car without handcuffs.

If the teen did shoot the school security officer, said Lovie Burrough, Mr. Williams' friend, it was because he was afraid of going to jail.

"Cornbread used to say he would rather die than go to prison," Ms. Burrough said, referring to him by the nickname his friends gave him because of his skin color. "To him, prison was like death."

Despite years of chastising and lecturing, Mrs. Williams said, nothing would make him behave.

Before Mr. Williams dropped out of Lucy C. Laney High School at age 16, Mrs. Williams said, his parents had "spent a fortune" to send him to Charter Behavioral Health Systems and private psychologists for counseling. To those around him, it seemed Mr. Williams' attraction to mischief was winning.

Mrs. Williams said his mother quit working while he was young so that she could stay at home with him after he started getting into trouble.

His mother's sudden death last year from a massive heart attack only seemed to worsen his behavior, Mrs. Williams said.

"He screamed and cried over the casket and said, `I'm sorry, Mama,"' Mrs. Williams said of her grandson. "She had such high hopes for him. I'm glad she's not here to see this."

The bitterness and uncontrollable temper that would allow him to pull an unloaded gun on his mother eventually pushed everyone away.

"She loved him so and she was the main one he turned on," Mrs. Williams said. He had some of everything a child could want. He didn't come out of a disorganized home. He didn't have to steal and rob."

Relatives and friends helped him look for jobs, provided him shelter and even bailed him out of jail after he was arrested on a burglary charge. Mr. Williams had completed a few months of a 10-year probation when he was charged in Officer's Stephenson's death.

Most of his family and even his grandmother - with failing health - turned him away.

"I've been blessed with the bounty and I would tell him if he was hungry, I would give him something to eat. But he couldn't stay here," she said.

"Every mother loves her child no matter what they do. It just hurts," Mrs. Williams said, blotting tears from her eyes. "There is a wonderful young man dead. Two boys don't have a father, a wife lost her husband and two parents lost their son. When you know it's because of your grandchild, that's devastating because he wasn't raised that way."

Those who knew Officer Stephenson had similar observations about his family life, but describing a totally different character shaped by a loving, Christian environment.

"He was an all-American boy from an all-American family," said Dr. Lamback. "He was truly a leader. If there was a Mike that everybody wanted to be like, it was this Mike."

Officer Stephenson - who was voted most athletic by his 1985 senior class for excelling in football, baseball and basketball - was a popular student. He told friends he wanted to finish the college degree then become a high school coach.

Dr. Lamback's son and Officer Stephenson were friends and played on the same Little League baseball team coached by the officer's father.

Dr. Lamback said he respected the father of two sons as a loving family man, model citizen and devoted colleague in the Richmond County school system.

Dr. Lamback, who recently retired after 30 years in education, said he has seen many young people like Mr. Williams and Officer Stephenson stray in opposite directions without obvious explanation.

"The parents often wonder what they did wrong, but sometimes peers can sway them," he said.

Mrs. Williams said her grandson started lifting weights because he had been picked on for being small for his age. She said she often tried to convince him that being a crowd pleaser would lead to trouble.

When his family gave up on him, Mr. Williams found sanctuary at the home of Ms. Burrough, the mother of his 16-year-old girlfriend and her six siblings.

"He drew to this family like honey," said Ms. Burrough. "He was very protective of my family. He was polite and respectful. This isn't the Cornbread we knew. He felt safe here and felt he could trust me."

That trust led Mr. Williams to Ms. Burrough's house the night he was arrested, even though his girlfriend was in California.

Tired of running, Ms. Burrough said, he agreed to let her call investigators to come pick him up after Officer Stephenson's death.

"If you had seen the way he laid on the floor and cuddled up next to my son like he was finally safe now, you wouldn't think he was this ruthless, heartless murderer," Ms. Burrough said of the night Mr. Williams sought refuge from police at her home.

She said she couldn't believe that Mr. Williams - who encouraged her 11-year-old son to shy away from fights and to do his homework - was the same person police said shot an officer in the back.

"I saw the fear in his eyes," Ms. Burrough said. "Then this big gush of tears came out of his eyes. He grabbed me and hugged me and said, `You're never going to see me again, Ms. Lovie,' " she said of the moments before police wrestled Mr. Williams to the ground to handcuff him.

Ms. Burrough said before the police arrived Mr. Williams maintained his innocence and told her, "In Georgia, if you kill a cop, you die."

"That still echoes in my mind, him screaming my name for me to help him. All I could say is, `There's nothing I can do for you now.' "

The district attorney is seeking the death penalty. Mr. Williams' arraignment in court is scheduled for this week.

"Here you have one educated black man - dead - and another one like the prodigal son who might die," Ms. Burrough said. "All I see are two beautiful black men gone. And I don't see a reason for it. All we can do now is pray that if they kill him (Mr. Williams), that he knows Jesus will meet him no matter where he is."