‘I can’t bring her back’: parents of girl killed by California police speak out


Family of Hannah Williams, 17, tells the Guardian the high schooler should be remembered for her kindness and passion

Benson Williams clutched the bright pink shirt in his hands. It helped him feel close to his daughter as he struggled to process the reality that he would never hold her again.

The 46-year-old sat beside his wife in their Anaheim living room on Thursday afternoon, trying to make sense of how their bubbly and energetic 17-year-old girl had left the house on Friday with a smile on her face, and wound up shot dead by a police officeron a busy southern California freeway.

The authorities so far have told the parents very little. Why she was fatally shot remains a mystery to them.

“It’s unbearable,” the father said, holding the shirt that she wore the day before her death and still smelled of her perfume. “We don’t have any answers.”

Hannah Williams was shot and killed on the evening of 5 July in Anaheim, a city 25 miles south of Los Angeles. Police have offered few details of what happened before the shooting or why the officer opened fire, and are still investigating the incident.

Benson Williams and Pilar Looney, parents of Hannah, and her sister Nyla. Photograph: Lee Merritt/Courtesy of Williams family

The Orange county district attorney’s officesaid that the policeman was a local officer with the Fullerton department and was driving on the freeway when he observed the 17-year-old driving at a “high rate of speed”, adding that the two vehicles “made physical contact” at some point.

Authorities also claim a “replica gun” was “recovered at the scene”.

Fullerton police said in a statement on Thursday that the department was still investigating the shooting, but that the incident was caught on body-camera footage and that the agency would release the video in the coming days.

A local highway was closed for hours after the shooting. Anaheim police said in a statement following the incident a “female suspect” had died at the hospital.

Learning to save lives: ‘She was so proud’

Originally from Arizona, the Williams family moved to Orange county about a year ago, after Hannah’s mother got a new job at a health insurance company.

Hannah, who turned 17 in April, loved to swim and was excited about the move to southern California, living not too far from the beach, her parents said as they sat with the Guardian.

Hannah excelled as a junior in her new high school in Anaheim, they continued. She loved math, art, writing – and Spanish class, where she could outsmart the teachers, having grown up speaking the language with her mother, Pilar Looney. She became captain of the soccer team, refusing to give up the sport even after hurting her back.

Ahead of the start of her senior year in the fall, she was overjoyed to get her first real paying job this summer as a lifeguard at Knott’s Berry Farm, a popular theme park near Disneyland.

Hannah Williams got her first job as a lifeguard at Knott’s Berry Farm, a southern California theme park. Photograph: Courtesy of Williams family

“She bought notecards so she could write down the different ways to do CPR … She loved this job,” her father said. It was immediately rewarding: within days of starting, Hannah helped save a woman in a wheelchair who had fallen into a pool and also helped a young girl who was lost in the park.

After she got her first check, she insisted on taking the family out for Chinese food and paying, her mother recalled: “She was very generous.” She spent her second check buying snacks for the family’s Fourth of July holiday.

“She was always there for you,” said Nyla Williams, Hannah’s 19-year-old sister, who is in the US air force. “No matter if she was feeling bad, she would try to make us laugh. She was the kindest person I’ve ever met.”

In her spare time, Hannah had a YouTube channel with her cousin where she would post videos playing soccer in the park and celebrating her team-mates, tributes to her siblings and cousins and footage of herself “doing nothing” when, as she narrated in one video, she was “so bored” and had “nothing to do and nothing to post”.

She recently bought a small electric keyboard and was teaching herself piano by watching YouTube videos – and teaching her father and younger sister how to play at the same time.

She was also preparing to take her driver’s test after she got her next paycheck. She never got a chance.

‘We deserve respect’

The night of Hannah’s death, relatives were in town and the whole family was supposed to go out in Hollywood. Her parents said they don’t know why she took their rental car out without them. She never came home.

At around 3.30am on Saturday morning, a group of police officers showed up at their door and asked a series of confusing questions: did Hannah have any problems? Had she gotten into an argument with anyone earlier? Was she mentally unstable? Were there weapons in the house?

Finally, they broke the news: “‘There was an accident on the freeway, she got out of the car. There was an argument,’” the father recalled an officer saying, before adding, ‘“And she passed away on the scene.”

The family struggled to comprehend.

“He said that she got shot,’” Hannah’s mother recalled. “I said, ‘Is she in the hospital? Is she OK?’”

The couple later learned Hannah had been shot by a uniformed officer from the neighboring Fullerton police department.

On Tuesday, the family demanded answers at a press conference outside Anaheim city hall. Shortly before the news event began, the Orange county district attorney’s office, which is responsible for investigating whether the shooting was justified, released a vague statement about the killing – claiming that a “replica handgun” was found.

The family was blindsided by the allegation. They had shown up prepared to tell the media about Hannah’s life.

Hannah Williams, right, with her sister and father. Photograph: Courtesy of Williams family

Instead, reporters shouted questions about what she did in the moments leading up to her death, some asking if she was armed, others reading the prosecutors’ statement and holding up a photo of the apparent toy gun found at the scene. Stunned, the family walked away from the sea of cameras, unable to process the spectacle.

Looney said she wished the authorities would at least have given the family information before blasting it to the news: “We deserve the respect, to be informed before everybody, just as a simple courtesy,” she said.

The family said on Thursday afternoon it had not seen the body-camera footage authorities plan to release, and had not had a chance to view Hannah’s body.

The Orange county prosecutor’s office told the Guardian on Thursday the replica gun was “found near her”, but declined to comment further on what led to the shooting.

‘She’s an angel now’

At the family’s house in Anaheim, there has been ongoing “wailing” and “screaming” as everyone comes to terms with the loss, said Lynn Williams, Hannah’s grandmother.

She said her granddaughter was supposed to visit her later this summer back in Arizona, and that she had talked about wanting to follow in her older sister’s footsteps and join the air force: “She was a real hard worker.”

Nyla and Hannah Williams. Hannah talked about following in her sister’s footsteps and joining the air force. Photograph: Courtesy of Williams family

Looney said she was having a hard time explaining the death to Hannah’s youngest siblings, ages five and nine. Zoe, the nine-year-old, has struggled to accept that her older sister is gone, the mother said: “She was telling me, ‘Well, just bring back Hannah. Why can’t you bring her back?’ And I was telling her, ‘Baby, I can’t bring her back.’ And she was like, ‘Why not? Just bring her home.’”

Hannah’s youngest sibling, her five-year-old brother, is still coming to terms with the fact that Hannah is an “angel” now. But he doesn’t yet know how she died, said Looney.

The mother said she kept thinking about a recent conversation they had on Mother’s Day. At church, there was a moment where everyone was told to pray and think about what they want.

Looney later asked her daughter what she had prayed for. “She was like, ‘I asked for a boyfriend, or a girlfriend. Either!’” the mother recalled, with a smile.

“And I said, ‘Oh good. It’s gonna come soon.’”

Read more: www.theguardian.com


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