Authorities Monday charged two stridently religious brothers with the premeditated murder of a prominent gay couple, calling it a hate crime motivated by the sexual orientation of the victims.
Benjamin Matthew Williams, 31, and his 29-year-old brother, James Tyler Williams, face arraignment today in Shasta County Superior Court on six counts of murder and robbery. Shasta County Dist. Atty. McGregor W. Scott said Monday that a variety of special circumstances in the slayings could lead authorities to seek the death penalty, but that they would not decide whether to do so until after a preliminary court hearing.
Gary Matson and his companion of 16 years, Winfield Mowder, were discovered shot to death July 1 inside their home in Happy Valley, a rustic enclave about 10 miles south of Redding.
The Williams brothers, who are being held without bail, are also suspected of playing a role in the June 18 arson attack on three Sacramento-area synagogues. A joint task force of federal and local law enforcement officials is continuing to investigate the fires, focusing on whether the blazes might have been part of some larger plot by white supremacists nationwide.
Attorneys for the brothers, who have never before been arrested, declined comment Monday.
Scott brushed aside questions about motive and evidence during a packed news conference at the county's Public Safety Building.
Sheriff Jim Pope said that "murder is the ultimate expression of hate" and that he looked forward to the brothers' being prosecuted.
Pope and Scott would not discuss whether the brothers were affiliated with any particular hate group. But other law enforcement officials and experts on domestic terrorism say that they believe the brothers may have been swayed by Christian Identity, a fringe faith favored by white supremacists that considers Jews and people of color subhuman and castigates homosexuality as an unpardonable sin.
Tyler Williams, who like his brother goes by his middle name, distanced himself from the slayings and synagogue fires in a jailhouse interview with a Redding reporter last week. His brother has yet to talk publicly, but friends say that Matthew Williams underwent a profound shift in recent years away from evangelical Christianity to radical beliefs focused on anti-Semitism, racism and unwavering opposition to government.
Officials are still investigating whether the brothers could be linked to the killing of a 69-year-old man in Happy Valley on June 20 or a July 2 arson attack at a suburban Sacramento medical building that houses an abortion clinic.
Sheriff's investigators say that they believe the brothers knew Matson and Mowder because of a mutual interest in horticulture.
Matson, a lifelong Redding resident, was well known in the community as a plant expert and founder of a local arboretum and a Redding farmers market. Mowder helped run the plant department at a local hardware store.
Matthew Williams sold rare edible plants, for a time maintaining a booth at the farmers market, where authorities believe he became acquainted with Matson. His brother had recently joined him in starting a landscaping business.
After the slaying, investigators found no sign of forced entry into the gay couple's home. The victims' small station wagon was the only thing obviously missing.
A week later, the vehicle was discovered in a Central Valley town more than 100 miles away. The same day, law officers arrested the Williams brothers in Yuba City as they picked up an ammunition loader they allegedly had purchased with Matson's credit card.
Officials said a shotgun and two assault rifles were in their car. One brother was wearing a bulletproof vest and both were armed with 9-millimeter handguns, authorities said, but they gave up without incident.