The Christmas package arrived at Roland Miller’s home postmarked from the state prison in Hagerstown. Folded inside were handmade Ravens jerseys and a poem about friendship, gifts from a convicted murderer who blasted Miller with a shotgun nearly 42 years ago.
What happened decades after that murderous ambush is the story of an improbable friendship between a former Baltimore police officer and the cop killer who shot up his squad. It’s the story of how some letters, phone calls and visits made a man reconsider years of hatred, and how an angry teenager grew old in prison but found a new chance before a judge.
After a sweeping decision by Maryland’s highest court erased more than 100 decades-old murder convictions statewide, John Earl Williams faces a new trial Monday in Baltimore Circuit Court for the 1976 shooting rampage that killed Officer Jimmy Halcomb, permanently disabled two cops and wounded several others including Miller.
Plenty of people want to see Williams convicted again. Letter after letter protested his potential release in 2016. Halcomb was 31, a blue-eyed Marine Corps veteran raised in a big family on an Alabama farm. He had a pregnant wife in Baltimore County, and they had two little girls.
Halcomb was shot in his throat.
“No longer would my husband take his daughter to school. There would be no more birthdays, no more Christmas mornings together. He never got to see his girls off to the prom or graduate high school,” his widow, Angela Halcomb, wrote the court in September 2016.
Williams’ case heads back to trial under the so-called Unger ruling, in which the Maryland Court of Appeals found in 2012 that jury instructions were misleading in trials before 1980.
Rather than retrying these old murder cases, Baltimore prosecutors decided to strike deals with the aged prisoners, releasing many of them. Witnesses age and die. Memories fade. Evidence is lost. It’s difficult to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt decades after a crime.
In Baltimore, 125 prisoners have been released in five years, prosecutors said. But they’re scheduled to retry Williams for the bloody “Good Friday Shooting.”
It endures among the most notorious crimes in the annals of the Baltimore Police Department. The 40-minute ambush left officers wounded and lying in the street, their rescuers kept at bay by a teenager with an arsenal of hunting rifles and shotguns. He later pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.
Williams was a slight 18-year-old with eyesight so poor he was legally blind and wore thick glasses. As a boy, his mother left him with a stepfather. His stepfather left him in foster care. He dropped out of Glen Burnie High School and joined the National Guard.
In jail after the attack, he wrote a manifesto titled “The story of a sniper.” In it, he described sniffing glue and dropping acid, while dreaming of “war games.” It’s the tale of a lonely, angry teenager who got drunk on screwdrivers, fought with his girlfriend, then snapped when she left him.
“When she walked away,” he wrote, “I felt I could just start killing everything that moved.”
Near dusk on April 16, 1976, Williams smashed out an upstairs window of his rowhouse on the 1300 block of West Lombard St. in the Union Square neighborhood. He aimed a hunting rifle at a passing police car and fired.
Back then, Roland Miller was a 22-year-old Army veteran just back from a stint in Korea. He finished second in his class of about 35 at the police academy and began running calls in West Baltimore as a patrol officer in a shotgun car; meaning, he carried the shotgun.
It was Good Friday. The night shift was starting. Some officers met on Baltimore Street to pool cash for pizzas from Little Italy. Then pop, pop, pop.
Firecrackers, Miller figured. They all headed toward the bursts and into the ambush.
Halcomb was shot and killed. His partner, James Brennan, was shot through the elbow. One man would lose vision in an eye.
“I really tried to stop myself from pulling the trigger, but something just went in my mind to keep on shooting,” Williams wrote in the manifesto.
The barrage continued with Miller and other officers pinned behind a van. They ran out of ammo. Rounds ricocheted around them.
Then someone screamed “Ceasefire!” Miller looked and saw a young man emerge from the house with his hands up. “Clearly a kid,” he recalled.
A wave of officers crashed over the teen. Some bystanders shouted “kill him.”
At the hospital, a nurse asked Miller about the blood drenching his sleeve. Only then did he realize a shotgun pellet had gone clean through his upper arm.
Williams did not deny the shooting. His defense attorney said he “went berserk,” and it was an attempt to commit suicide by cop. State psychiatrists found him troubled, but sane. The jury took two hours and 20 minutes to convict him of murder and assault with the intent to murder 12 officers.
“I wish I could bring April 16 back,” Williams told the court, crying. “It’s hard for me to understand that I killed a man. I am not proud of what I have done. Something was tearing me apart.”
The judge sentenced him to life plus 60 years in prison.
Other officers wounded by Williams did not respond to requests for comment on his retrial. His defense attorney and prosecutors declined to discuss the case.
The Halcomb family did not answer messages either, but their letters to the court tell of their anguish.
Amanda Nohe, Halcomb’s youngest daughter — the one who never met her dad, wrote the court in September 2016: “I can’t express the sadness I feel of never knowing my father.”
Nohe also wrote of a classmate whose policeman father was permanently disabled that evening.
“This officer has never spoken of what happened to his family because of the emotional trauma,” she wrote.
After Williams was convicted, Miller’s squad broke up. He left for a job with Baltimore County Police.
“I did just hate him,” Miller said. “What a waste. Jimmy’s dead. Brennan’s elbow’s blown up. Some of the other guys never really recovered … I would just like to ask, what the hell?”
More than 30 years went by before he had his chance.
His daughter, Dana, was an English major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County when she came home in 2010 and asked him for a thesis topic. Why not John Earl Williams?
Miller suggested she learn what caused Williams to break. The question still nagged at him, “Why?”
So Miller mailed a letter to Williams in prison. He heard back right away: “I’m so sorry I shot you.”
The correspondence grew over the years. With each letter, more of Williams’ past emerged — neglect, abuse, beatings, abandonment.
“God, he made me cry,” Miller said. “He just had a horrible life.”
The letters led to phone calls then prison visits. Soon Roland, his wife, Donna, and Dana were all writing. Williams became the confidant who listened when Roland Miller was laid-off. Miller said, “Who’s he going to tell?”
In prison, Williams led a furniture shop and personally stained the desk of former Gov. Martin O’Malley, a prison spokesman said. He reads Civil War histories and self-help titles such as “Up from Ashes,” the books sent by the Millers.
The family said they found in him a remorseful and aged prisoner, one who studies sociology and theology, who blushes at profanity and cries easily. He became pen pals with Roland Miller’s 95-year-old mother, too. He’s 60 years old, balding and gray-bearded. Other inmates call him “Pop.”
“I don’t look at him as the 18-year-old,” Donna Miller said. “It doesn’t diminish what happened. I’m not saying that. I do think he has served his time.”
The Millers say they’ve received angry letters for their friendship with Williams, as if they’re uncaring for the victims of his 40-minute onslaught.
“A lot of people very much believe that he should die in jail,” Roland Miller said. “I’d love to testify. We are the only ones who can answer anything other than the 40 minutes. Nobody knows that story.”
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.