Seaton: The Misunderstood Mr. Williams

Today, we’re taking a look at one of my favorite places on Earth and a murder that’s fascinated me for years. Before any of you start, none of this has to do with pro wrestling. I have principles, dammit.

Savannah, Georgia is my favorite place in the country besides my mountain home. The architecture is exquisite, the food decadent, and so much history is baked into Savannah you can’t help but be charmed.

The locals are quite hospitable too, and the liquor laws are very lax. It’s the one place I’ve ever visited where you can take the Bloody Mary you had with breakfast in a to-go cup onto a boat cruise where you’ll be offered a margarita.

(As an aside, starting out my criminal defense career would have been ruinous if I hung a shingle in Savannah as most of my early practice involved DUIs and PI cases. Those are practically nonexistent in Savannah.)

The Historic District of Savannah owes a debt of gratitude to Jim Williams, He restored over fifty homes in the district, which if you think about it makes Jim the OG Property Brother.

As Williams’ bank account grew, so did his arrogance and insufferable disposition. He was known for lavish Christmas parties and a distaste for film crews shooting in Savannah. Jim objected to the rude behavior of film crews, the toll they took on Savannah’s residents, and he didn’t care for locals lining up to be extras getting paid minimum wage.

Mr. Williams’ animosity toward film crews reached a boiling point when a CBS crew came to town for a direct-to-TV movie about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. According to Jim, police came to Monterey Square two days prior to the film crew’s arrival and told residents they were forbidden from street parking or leaving their homes at certain hours.

The day of shooting, Williams woke to Monterey Square covered in dust and milling with actors in period dress. Jim wasn’t pleased Mercer House was coated with dust, so he allegedly met with the director and asked him to make a donation to the local Humane Society as a gesture of goodwill. When he blew Williams off, Jim made it his point to ruin the cameraman’s day.

Williams did this by hanging a Nazi flag over his balcony. When the film crew moved to the back of Mercer House, Jim moved the flag to confound the crew once more. Unfortunately Mr. Williams forgot the back of Mercer House faced Savannah’s biggest synagogue.

And Jim Williams might be alive today if it weren’t for two assholes named Danny Hanford and Jon Berendt.

Hansford had a reputation of being a male prostitute and “Hustler” in town. He worked for Jim part time and also was Williams’ occasional lover. We’ll get to Berendt in a moment.

One night in the 80s, Hansford came to Mercer House, pulled a gun on Williams and said, “I’m leaving tomorrow but you’re leaving tonight!” Hansford fired twice but missed Williams, who produced a German Luger from his desk and shot the young man three times.

The District Attorney of Chatham County at the time was a man named Spencer Lawton, who’d risen to the office thanks to generous contributions from another prominent Savannah resident, Lee Adler. Though civil publicly, Lee hated Jim Williams, and Williams would tell anyone who listened he was charged with first degree murder because Adler pushed the DA in that direction.

Williams was tried for the murder of Danny Hansford four times. As of this writing, he remains the only person in Georgia to be tried four times for the same alleged offense. The first two trials resulted in guilty verdicts. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed and remanded both. Apparently, the Georgia Supremes took issue with Lawton introducing new potential theories and evidence after the State rested its case, as well as Lawton’s failure to produce Brady evidence that poked major holes in a key point of the State’s case: Hansford’s hands didn’t have gunpowder residue on them when tested.

According to Frank “Sonny” Seiler, Williams’ lead counsel, this was because police at the scene didn’t properly bag Hansford’s hands as they’d testified previously. A nurse at the ER bagged the hands at the request of the cops. Worse still, the nurse used plastic bags, which made it almost impossible to properly test for gunpowder reside posthumously.

This new evidence, plus one lone holdout juror, resulted in the judge declaring a mistrial at the close of trial three. By this point courthouse observers likened Lawton’s continued failure to that of a bloodied matador unable to finish a severely wounded bull.

Trial four was held in Augusta after all parties agreed there wasn’t a chance in hell of getting a Savannah jury that didn’t already have strong opinions about the case. Augusta was the final trial’s venue. Thankfully, no one in Augusta knew of or cared about Jim Williams.

Apparently, the jury decided the verdict in fifteen minutes and waited another 45 before announcing they’d reached a unanimous decision: Not Guilty. They were damned sure reasonable doubt existed, but didn’t want to seem hasty.

Jim Williams was a free man, and since a jury finally declared him not guilty of Danny Hansford’s murder, an insurance company settled the ten million dollar wrongful death claim brought by Danny’s estranged mother.

During this whole debacle, a New York author named Jon Berendt came to Savannah and started writing a book about Williams, Savannah, and the story of Danny Hansford’s death. Berendt met Williams after the second trial and was present for the third and fourth. That book was originally titled “A Savannah Story” and eventually released by Random House as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Berendt wasn’t thrilled with the movie portrayal of Williams. He told the press years later Kevin Spacey’s performance was abysmal. Apparently Spacey brushed off the author’s offer of taped conversations, saying he’d heard Williams speak on tape. Eventually Berendt deduced which tapes Spacey perused. They were of the third trial, when Williams had been talking Valium to relieve the stress of prolonged litigation.

It’s worth mentioning that four months after Williams got the NG, he collapsed dead in his study. The official cause of death was pneumonia. Locals familiar with the matter say Jim’s body was found in the same place Danny Hansford’s fell so many years before.

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” has sold more copies than one could imagine. People read the book or see the film and then flock to see where it all happened. Today Savannah proudly boasts a booming tourism industry.

But the distasteful part is when those tourists visit town and see Mercer House, they don’t think of Williams as a historical preservationist or his work with the Humane Society. They think of what looks like a scandalous murder.

So today when Scotch-o-Clock comes and we ready our beverage of choice, let’s take a moment to toast Jim Williams, master house flipper, successful antiques dealer and entrepreneur.

He’d probably still be with us if it weren’t for an unfortunate incident with that Hansford fellow.

And he’d rest peacefully if it wasn’t for a fucking book-writing Yankee.

11 thoughts on “Seaton: The Misunderstood Mr. Williams

  1. Gregory Smith

    Amazing story and even more amazing book. I’ve always preferred non -fiction to fiction, because even the most imaginative author is no match for the weirdness we call “reality”. You truly cannot make this shit up.

    1. CLS

      It’s fun when I recommend “Midnight” to people asking for book suggestions. When I tell them it’s a true story almost no one believes me.

      Then on finishing the book they usually apologize for doubting me.

  2. CLS

    There’s something I left out of the post that may be of interest.

    During trial three Siler questioned the officer who’d testified twice previously he’d bagged Hansford’s hands at the scene a little differently. He asked the officer to demonstrate how one properly bagged a hand by attaching a bag to one of Siler’s. Sonny then made a show of how no matter how much the hand moved nothing could disturb the presence of gunpowder residue.

    When the State rested Siler’s first witness was the ER nurse who actually bagged Hansford’s hands. While she testified Siler produced copies of the admitting sheet with written instructions to bag Hansford’s hands on the body’s arrival.

    Siler then produced a blown up copy of the admitting sheet for the jury. A sheet he loudly told the court should have been provided to Defense counsel but wasn’t for the first two trials.

    I really wish I could have been in the courtroom at that moment.

    1. CLS

      No Johnny Mercer this week? I love the selection but I thought either you or GD would spin some Mercer for us.

  3. Random Wine Geek

    Maybe it’s because I live in Atlanta, but I think this is the first story I’ve ever read that mentions Sonny Seiler without identifying him as Uga’s owner. All 10 Ugas, in fact, including the magnificent Uga V known for his valiant attempt to take a chunk out of Auburn WR Robert Baker.

    1. CLS

      I’m quite familiar with Sonny’s role as Uga’s steward.

      It was omitted because of two reasons.
      1. The story is more about Jim Williams’ continued woes over a series of murder trials.
      2. My mountain home contains the University of Tennessee, and we don’t discuss anything related to the University of Georgia around here. It’s impolite.

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