When Homeschoolers Turn Violent: Benjamin Matthew and James Tyler Williams

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Series note: “When Homeschoolers Turn Violent” is a joint research project by Homeschoolers Anonymous and Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. Please see the Introduction for detailed information about the purpose and scope of the project.

Trigger warning: If you experience triggers from descriptions of physical and sexual violence, please know that the details in many of the cases are disturbing and graphic.

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Benjamin Matthew and James Tyler Williams

Benjamin Matthew Williams (31) and James Tyler Williams (29) were brothers who believed in white supremacy. On July 1, 1999, motivated by self-professed hatred of gay people, they murdered Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, a gay couple living in Redding, California.

On July 1, 1999, motivated by self-professed hatred of gay people, Benjamin Matthew Williams (l) and James Tyler Williams (r) murdered Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, a gay couple living in Redding, California.

On July 1, 1999, motivated by self-professed hatred of gay people, Benjamin Matthew Williams (l) and James Tyler Williams (r) murdered Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, a gay couple living in Redding, California.

Benjamin and James grew up in Palo Cedro, a small community in Shasta County, California. Their parents were fundamentalist Christians who kept to themselves. A neighbor described them as “heavy Bible thumpers, really into that stuff.” The Williams family briefly attended a Baptist church in Palo Cedro, but they left when the church refused to kick out a bi-racial couple. The Williams’ parents were apocalyptic survivalists who grew their own food and homeschooled their children until they reached high school. In highschool, Benjamin and James were prohibited from participating in extracurricular activities, though they were honor students.

The family eventually moved to Redding because their father believed he received “God’s orders” to do so. After high school, Benjamin briefly served in the military and then attended  University of Idaho. In Idaho, he joined a a local Charismatic church and become interested in “purification diets,” hoping to achieve “perfect bowel movements.” He eventually left the Charismatic church and immersed himself in literature from the internet on white supremacy and anti-Semitism. This literature led him to the Christian Identity movement, a fact seemingly relevant since “proponents of that movement advocate death to homosexuals.”  James was also interested in white supremacy.

Benjamin and James knew their victims — Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, who had happily been a couple for 14 years — through involvement in the local landscaping industry. The brothers began planning the murders 2 weeks prior, when met Gary and Winfield at the Redding Farmers Market. Both Benjamin and the couple had booths at the market. Benjamin specified to James the couples’ homosexuality as reason for targeting.

On the night of the murder, the brothers used their father’s vehicle to drive to Gary and Winfield’s home. Gary and Winfield were already asleep. Benjamin personally shot both men, emptying an entire clip from a .22 calibre handgun. He then reloaded and fired 5 more shots. When asked later about the murders, Benjamin said he was “not guilty of murder” but rather “guilty of obeying the laws of the Creator.” He called other Christians gut-less, declaring that, “So many people claim to be Christians and complain about all these things their religion says are a sin, but they’re not willing to do anything about it. They don’t have the guts.”

2 years after the murders, in September 2001, both Benjamin and James pled guilty to numerous charges unrelated to the murders: setting fire to three Sacramento synagogues and an abortion clinic in 1999. For those charges alone they were sentenced to prison: Benjamin for 30 years and James for 21 years. The following year, 1 month before his murder sentencing was scheduled, Benjamin committed suicide in prison.  Several months later, James pled guilty to his role in Gary and Winfield’s murders and was sentenced to an additional 29 years to life in prison.

View the case index here.

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