William Sayles was looking forward to the end of his shift on that rainy Saturday. It was August 29, 1931 and William was just about finished with his shift as a conductor for the Interurban railway on School Street. It was 11:30p.m. when William spotted a young man running alongside the car. He brought the car to a stop so that the teenager could climb aboard. William had no way to know that he only had a few minutes to live.
The young man fumbled around in his pockets as though searching for change when suddenly he pulled out a long barreled pistol. He pushed the gun right into William’s face and demanded all of his money. William only had about $13.00 on him but he handed it over willingly. The man ordered the eight passengers to turn over their valuables as well. They gave the man what they had but that only brought his take to $14.00.
The man then commanded the passengers to walk to the rear of the car while he told William to open the doors of the car. The passengers looked on in horror as the young man struck William and then opened fire with his pistol and shot him five times at close range.
The interurban car was parked close to the intersection at School Street and Forest Avenue. The young man left the car and ran to his vehicle parked a block away. He jumped into the car and raced away. He hadn’t gone very far when he wrecked his car on Jefferson Street by Fairgrounds Park. The desperate man, his face now smeared with blood from an injury he received in the accident went door to door to try to gain entrance into a house or an apartment. He was planning to steal a car and kidnap the owner to use as a driver. He finally knocked on Miss Juanita Columbus’s apartment. Juanita and her boyfriend had just returned from a night out and had no idea about the murder that had just taken place a few blocks away.
The man forced them into their car and the three of them drove off into the night. The man directed them to drive into Freeport. Once there, he waited until they were stopped and then he slipped away. The couple immediately drove to the police station. The young bandit was next spotted at a service station. He approached the attendant to ask if they could take the tow truck to the location where the stranger’s car had stalled. The attendant doubted the young man’s story but agreed to tow the car. The attendant had other plans in mind and drove to the nearest police station where the police, alerted by the young couple, arrested the stranger.
The young man was quickly identified as Russell McWilliams. McWilliams was a 17 year old boy who lived in Rockford with his parents. He worked a steady job and as far as anyone knew, had never been in trouble with the law before. Once Russell started talking, police soon realized that this had not been the boy’s first robbery. In fact, McWilliams had been on a six-week crime spree in Rockford. He robbed other interurban cars, stores, and gas stations. When the police discovered that McWilliams held down a steady job with good pay, they asked him why he was committing these crimes. McWilliams shrugged his shoulders and said that he like to buy booze and guns. He also needed money to entertain the women in his life though he wouldn’t share any of their names with police.
The police were stunned that someone so young could be so callous about murdering a man. Sheriff Bell mentioned that McWilliams showed little emotion when notified that he was being arrested for the murder of William Sayles.
In October of 1931, McWilliams was sentenced to death in the electric chair. Everyone was surprised that Judge Arthur E. Fisher would sentence a mere boy to death. Almost immediately protests against the death penalty sprang up. Eventually Chicago juvenile agencies and concerned Rockford citizens joined together and contacted the famous Clarence Darrow, a defender against the death penalty. By 1932, Darrow was staying at the Nelson Hotel in Rockford and gathering facts to defend his client.
The trial was held in Springfield and William Sayles’ widow, Alice attended every day of the trial. Darrow argued that McWilliams could not be held responsible for his actions because he was so young and had come from a rough upbringing. “Given the proper treatment and encouragement, he can be reclaimed into society.” Darrow argued. All that witnessed Darrow’s speech called it “conversational eloquence.”
Illinois Governor Henry Horton agreed with Darrow. He commuted McWilliams sentence to 99 years to be served at Joliet Penitentiary. In a sense, Russell McWilliams proved Clarence Darrow right. He learned to grow flowers and vegetables while in prison. McWilliams was released in 1950 after serving 19 years of his 99 year sentence. He was issued an out of state release. McWilliams moved to Massachusetts where he married and grew orchids.
The newspapers from the day covered the story and spoke of all the young men that Clarence Darrow had saved from death row. Some of the newspapers shared the stories of those left behind by those young men who killed. The Rockford Register Republic wrote an article in December of 1932 that spoke of Alice Sayles’ grief. While others considered Darrow’s win of the McWilliams case a victory for human rights, Alice had received a life sentence of her own.
Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events