Father of suspect in Christina Williams' murder faces grand jury over e-mail to victim's parents

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services -- Unrestricted - November 24, 2009

Shame, sympathy and military solidarity forced an aging father before a federal grand jury last week to testify about his son's suspected crimes.

Robert Lee Holifield, 73, said tears streamed down his faced as federal prosecutor Jeff Nedrow "hammered me and hammered me and hammered me" about an e-mail he sent this summer to Sgt. Michael Williams.

Williams is the father of 13-year-old Christina Marie Williams, who was abducted and killed on Fort Ord on June 12, 1998. Her body was found seven months later, concealed by brush beneath an oak tree near Imjin Road.

In the e-mail, Holifield said, he expressed his sympathy for the Williams family's loss and his shame at being the father of Christina's suspected killer -- Charles Holifield.

The younger Holifield has long been the FBI's lead suspect in the case, and the U.S. Attorney's Office has impaneled at least three grand juries to hear testimony. To date, none of them has returned an indictment.

Charles Holifield, 48, is serving a life sentence for the attempted kidnapping at gunpoint of a woman in Marina in September 1998, three months after Christina Williams disappeared.

That conviction was his third strike. Holifield was convicted of sexually assaulting or raping two teenage girls, and suspected of raping a third, between 1979 and 1983 on Fort Ord.

No knowledge of crime

In a recent three-hour interview with The Herald, Robert Holifield said Nedrow and FBI agent John O'Brien believe

his belated message to Williams shows that he has new information that led him to conclude his son was guilty of Christina's murder.

But Holifield said he has no information about the case and his son has always denied involvement. He said he wrote the e-mail in a moment of shame and compassion after O'Brien assured him over the telephone that he had enough evidence to convict Charles Holifield.

"If I had anything that Charles said or had written that indicated he was guilty in this matter, I would not hesitate to turn him over," said the 28-year Army veteran.

"I still don't know if Charles is guilty," he said. "He may be, in which case, if you can prove it, 'Yes, he's my son, but give him the death penalty.'"

At this point, however, he said, the FBI's pursuit of Charles has become harassment of his older son, Robert B. Holifield. The elder son was subpoenaed before the same grand jury about two months ago and his house was raided in June by agents looking for evidence in the Williams case.

His father said the FBI believes Charles Holifield wrote a letter to his brother asking him to provide an alibi for the night of Williams' abduction. He said he doesn't know if agents found one. Robert told him he never read his brother's letters from prison.

Agents did allegedly find an indoor marijuana-growing operation for which Robert B. Holifield is facing felony cultivation charges. His lawyer has suggested that the marijuana belonged to his roommate.

Secret meetings

During last week's grand jury session, the older Holifield said, Nedrow suggested there was something else found during the search, or something one of his sons said regarding the raid, that prompted his e-mail to Michael Williams.

Grand jury proceedings are secret, and Nedrow and O'Brien have declined comment on the case.

Holifield said he believes his e-mail to Williams was sent before the search. Regardless, he said, it was not sparked by any new knowledge of the case.

Rather, it was triggered by a call he placed to O'Brien to complain about the "harassment" of Charles' brother, who lost his home and his job after the June raid. He demanded to know what evidence the FBI had against Charles and whether prosecutors planned to charge him. O'Brien shared no details but assured him there would be an indictment, Holifield said.

"He said they have very convincing evidence, and they're going to prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law," Holifield said. "Mr. O'Brien convinced me that they had the evidence, although I still don't know what evidence. But that day he caught me at the right time and convinced me, and I said, 'My God.' So I sent an e-mail to the Williams family ... sending my condolences. I should have kept my fingers off the keyboard."

A veteran of Korea and Vietnam who retired as a sergeant major, Holifield said he told the grand jury the message was motivated by nothing more than shame and compassion for a fellow military man.

Peering through thick bifocal glasses propped beneath bushy gray eyebrows and a U.S. Army cap, Holifield said: "The men in the military I've known, I couldn't have asked for a brother to do more for me. Sgt. Williams could have been standing next to me (on the battlefield). Sgt. Williams could have saved my life.

"I feel grief for the loss of his daughter. It didn't have anything to do with finding out my son had done something."

Extreme depression

Often staring off as though lost in memories, Holifield returned repeatedly to abuse he said he experienced as a child at the hands of an alcoholic stepmother. He's been on his own since he ran away at the age of 12. The experience left him "hard-hearted."

Still, the weight of the suspicion directed at his son, the possibility he killed a little girl, has been almost unbearable for him.

"I'm extremely depressed," he said. "I've shed quite a few tears, outside walking and back in the bathroom alone."

The pain is even worse for his wife, he said. He throws away Charles' letters from prison because they are too painful for his mother to read.

"Christina was not my daughter, but I can imagine my granddaughter," said Holifield, whose youngest son lives next door to him with his family in Enigma, Ga. If someone killed her, "I would have no qualms ... about picking up a rifle or handgun and killing him."

Like any parent, he said, he would hate to hear that his child has done something so horrible.

"I can't begin to comprehend that someone's child would do this," said Holifield. "Unfortunately, the federal attorney and FBI seem pretty sure they can prosecute my son and find him guilty."

Virginia Hennessey can be reached at 753-6751 or vhennessey@montereyherald.com. To see more of the Monterey County Herald, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.montereyherald.com. Copyright (c) 2009, The Monterey County Herald, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

Virginia Hennessey