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Interview With Claude Willis, Jonathan Willis

Aired July 9, 2003 - 19:10   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Want to go to another case we have been following closely the last 24, 48 hours or so. Meridian, Mississippi. A town a lot of people probably hadn't heard of before. They certainly know of it now.
There are concerns that racial hatred may be behind the work place shooting rampage that left six people dead, nine others wounded.

Now police say they don't know if Douglas Williams opening firing with a shotgun at work was a hate crime. They say they're still looking into it. Workers at the Lockheed Martin plant say Williams was an angry bigot, said he made and wore Ku Klux Klan type head piece to work several weeks ago. He apparently walked out of an ethics class at work to get his guns yesterday and that left a community wondering.

One of the victims was Thomas Willis. His son, Jonathan Willis, and his brother, Claude Willis, join me from Meridian, Mississippi.

I appreciate both of you being with us. I know it has got to be just an extraordinary tough time. I'm so sorry for the loss that you have been suffering.

Claude, let me start off with you. I understand you had heard of this man, this Williams man, from your brother. What had your brother said about him?

CLAUDE WILLIS, BROTHER OF VICTIM: Well, I talked to Thomas in December, and Thomas told me that he was -- that Lockheed was having a problem with Mr. Williams and they haven't done anything in the past about what he had been doing.

And he told me that as long as he didn't do anything at his table where he was working at, he didn't have no problem with that. Everyone would just have to step up and do what they're supposed to do as a man or a woman. And he said but...

COOPER: Do you know if your brother Thomas complained to management? Did he bring up his concerns to people in authority there?

C. WILLIS: I don't know. I haven't talked to Thomas since that -- he talked to me back in December about that. Because we just buried his wife a month ago yesterday, and I haven't talked to him since then. But management did know about this man and what he was doing, and they overlooked the fact that something was going to happen eventually if they didn't do anything about it. And they neglected to do anything about it and it did happen.

COOPER: Claude, at this point, what do you want to hear from investigators? I mean, right now the sheriff has come forward and said he doesn't think there's enough evidence at this point to say race was a factor. And yet you something like eight of the 14 victims of this were African-Americans, four of the five killed were African- Americans.

Do you think race was a factor here?

C. WILLIS: Well, you could say race was a factor, but that was one individual did something, and he's taken his own life. Just because of that one individual did what he did and all the people was black, I'm sure race has something to do with it.

From what I understood from Thomas, race did have something to do with it, but to say that everyone in Meridian is like that, no, they is not. I live here.

COOPER: Yes. Well, let me just jump in here and say my dad is from Quicken, Mississippi, right next door and my grandmother owned a general store in Meridian for many years. And I know the town well and I'm not at all saying that it's a racist town or anything.

But clearly, there are a lot of coworkers of this guy saying, you know, he was walking around at one point with a white hood on. A lot of people voicing these kind of concerns. I was just curious if you've heard any of this from your brother.

C. WILLIS: Yes. Not that -- I haven't talked to Thomas about that since December, but just because that one individual walking around with a hood on, that don't mean all the white people in Lockheed are Klansman. That's not true.

Because I know Thomas and if they was, Thomas would have said so. And everyone white in Meridian is not like that. That's one individual. That individual paid for what he done by taking his own life. Now, he took some other lives, too, but all the people here are not racists.

COOPER: And very briefly, Jonathan, if you could tell me what kind of man was your dad?

JONATHAN WILLIS, SON OF VICTIM: He was a great father to me. He was well-known in the community. He was well-known in his job. He was a volunteer fire chief at the fire department in our community. He volunteered with Little League football, Little League baseball. He bowled. He was -- I mean, he was just a great guy.

COOPER: Well, again, we are so sorry for your loss. We're talking about your dad, Claude, your brother, Thomas Willis, killed by this man Douglas Williams in this horrible incident. We appreciate you coming and spending the time to talk about your family member. Thank you very much.


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