"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Sally Williams was sitting in the visiting area of the Shasta County Jail,
peering through the thick plexiglass shield separating her from her eldest
son and trying to reassure him.
“Um, I don’t, I don’t think you did what they say you did,” she told
31-year-old Benjamin Matthew Williams.
“What do they say I did?” her son asked through the telephone handset.
“They say you took out two homos,” she said in her soft whisper.
“Huh!” he shot back in a strong and certain voice, as if to boast. Then he
asked: “Why wouldn’t you think I’d do that?”
Why wouldn’t anyone? Since Williams’ arrest in early July along with his
younger brother, James Tyler Williams, 29, the two young Northern
California men became poster boys for the summer of hate this country just
endured. Both men have been charged in the July 1 double slaying of Gary
Matson, 50, and Winfield Mowder, 40, a prominent gay couple who lived near
Redding in the rural community of Happy Valley, about 180 miles north of
The men also are the prime suspects in the wave of arsons that hit three
Sacramento-area synagogues two weeks before the killings, and caused more
than $1 million in damage. And they also are being looked at as
potential suspects in an arson at a Sacramento-area abortion clinic two
weeks after the synagogue fires.
The pair, both of whom are known by their middle names, have pleaded not
guilty to the murders, the only formal charges they currently face. The FBI says it is still investigating the brothers’ ties to the arsons, but there seems to be no hurry to file charges — perhaps understandably, since the brothers could face the death penalty in the murder trial.
Matson and Mowder, the murder victims, were widely admired in this
conservative area for their civic good deeds and the many hours they spent
sharing their knowledge of gardening with anyone interested. Their deaths
were grisly: First, one was apparently forced to record a new message for
their answering machine, claiming they were sick and had gone to San Francisco
to see a doctor. The voice on the machine feigned illness, investigators
say, but sounded distressed. In the background, another voice could be
heard saying, “Just calm down.”
They were then forced into their platform bed, which rose seven feet above
the floor of their bedroom. From the way the bodies were found and the
bloody mess left behind, investigators said the killer or killers stood on
chairs at the end of the bed and blasted away at the men. Their nude
bodies were discovered by Gary Matson’s brother, Roger, who had been
dispatched to their home by their father after he heard the odd-sounding
telephone message and became worried.
When the Williams brothers were arrested a week later, one was wearing a
bullet-proof vest and both were heavily armed. They also happened to be
picking up a crate of ammunition re-loading equipment that had been shipped
to a mail drop, and paid for by Matson’s credit card, within hours of the
shootings. Searches of their homes and storage sheds turned up a notebook
in which one had practiced signing Matson’s name, according to documents filed
by prosecutors in the case, as well as a treasure trove of
white-supremacist, anti-gay and anti-Semitic literature.
Investigators also found a “hit list” of 32 prominent Jewish and civic
leaders in the Sacramento area, apparently compiled after the synagogue
fires. Then, after a Jewish businessman offered a $10,000 reward in the
arsons, one had written a note that read: “Yidbizman, $10,000 on us.”
Unlike in Littleton, Colo., where investigators say they may never know why
two high-achieving teenagers killed 12 classmates and a teacher and hoped to
blow up their entire high school, Matthew Williams is still alive and
seems eager to explain his beliefs.
“My brother and I were captured by occupation storm troopers while we were
on a supply mission,” he wrote in a letter from jail that was part of a
credit card application. “We are now incarcerated for our work in
cleansing a sick society.”
The Williams brothers now are part of a nationwide FBI probe into whether
there was a larger conspiracy among hate groups to launch violent attacks
over the past few months. Was there a connection between the brothers and
Benjamin Smith’s murderous July 4 weekend rampage through the Midwest after
leaving the World Church of the Creator, for instance? Or to Buford Furrow Jr.’s
attack on a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles?
Though no direct link has been established, the men all subscribed to the
same general white supremacist views — a belief that gays, Jews and other
minorities are subhuman and must be eliminated if the white race is to
continue to flourish.
Those appear to be the views of Matthew Williams. But before the arrest
of the two brothers, many who knew them had no idea of the hatred that
authorities say the two harbored against people they considered different
or inferior. And until law-enforcement began describing the evidence
officers had seized — everything from the purported murder weapon,
complete with Tyler’s palm prints on the barrel, to handwritten notes
boasting of being sought in the synagogue fires — few could have believed
either man stupid enough to leave behind such a compelling trail.
“You would like to have your daughter go out with this guy,” said Dennis
Williams (no relation), who manages the Redding farmer’s market where the
brothers as well as Matson and Mowder frequently sold organic vegetables.
“I would trust him, I’m serious. It’s too day and night. He had a bunch of
Unlike the Buford Furrows and Benjamin Smiths of the world, the two boys
were not misfits or loners. There is no evidence of past mental illness in
either, and no one can point to any incident that could explain a hatred of
Jews or gay people. On the surface, their friends, customers and neighbors
knew them simply as friendly lawn boys.
The two operated a landscaping and lawn service out of their parents’ house
in Palo Cedro, Calif., a picturesque enclave of homes on large lots that
back up to Cow Creek, about 20 miles east of Redding. Residents there say
the boys were unfailingly polite and friendly.
Matthew “brought over a silver dollar for my son’s 13th birthday and
taught him how to read the silver prices in the paper,” said Debbie
O’Connell, who lives next door to the Williams home, which is shielded
from the street by a fence and steel gate with a “Keep Out, No Trespassing”
Tyler Williams would stop by to borrow O’Connell’s computer to check gold
and silver prices on the Internet, she said. The family itself was always
gardening, and the boys could make anything grow. Their lot is studded with
fruit trees and vegetable patches, and they prided themselves on the fact
that between their produce and their ducks and chickens they were largely
“They’re self-contained,” O’Connell said. “They eat their own chickens
and ducks, grow their own food, their own eggs. It’s almost like they’re
burying themselves in there,” she said, noting the dense shrubbery that covers
What made the family stand out, neighbors say, was the noise that would
come blaring from inside the house at all hours of the day and night.
Sometimes it would simply be religious music. Other times recorded sermons
would echo through the quiet neighborhood.
“They were heavy Bible
thumpers, really into that stuff,” said neighbor Don O’Connell. Religion
was a lifelong passion for the two boys, who grew up in a household that
valued it above all else. Their father, an eccentric, religiously devout,
retired U.S. Forest Service employee, raised the brothers to live off the land
in anticipation of the coming apocalypse.
Before they moved to the Redding area, the family had lived in the small
Butte County farming community of Gridley, about 40 miles north of
Sacramento.They lived on a narrow country lane in a small, modest home that
faced a field and had a one-acre backyard filled with fruit trees. During
the day, Matthew Williams would wander the neighborhood communing with his
“He used to walk up and down the street carrying a staff and preaching
to no one,” said David Anderson, a Live Oak high school teacher who bought
the Williams home three years ago. “That does something to kids, raising
them up in that environment.”
“I always felt sorry for those boys,” added a longtime neighbor in Gridley,
who asked not to be named. “The parents didn’t allow them to associate
with anyone other than people from their church. They were just held down
that way. They never went to parties. Only with the church. I asked the
father many times what church he belonged to and he would never tell me.”
That may have been because the family had changed churches a number of times, associates say, in an apparent bid to find just the right fit.
“They were zealous in their faith, but that’s what pastors encourage people
to be: zealous in their faith,” said Craig Cook, their former pastor in
Gridley at what he described as a mainstream evangelical Bible church. “But
they were far from kooks. They were not cultish, as people would make them
out to be.”
And, Cook added, they were not anti-Semitic. “I find it
extremely hard to believe concerning the anti-Semitic bit because the
family are Semitic lovers — they love the Jews because our Christianity
finds its roots in Judaism. And the entire family was high supporters of
the Jewish faith, so I find it very hard to connect them to that.”
That stance apparently changed over the years, however, at least for
Matthew Williams, whom authorities call the “alpha dog” of the pair, and
who was able to convince his younger brother to go along with his plans.
Tyler Williams, friends say, always seemed eager to gain Matthew’s approval
in much the same way Matthew was always trying to please their father.
After moving to the Redding area, the two brothers drifted through colleges
and jobs. Matthew served a short stint in the Navy, then ended up at the
University of Idaho at Moscow, where he was drawn into a charismatic
Christian Church in nearby Pullman, Wash., known as the Living Faith
Fellowship. As was his custom, he threw himself into the church 100
percent, but, as was also his custom, became quickly disenchanted and soon
“He made a quick, almost overnight conversion from being a hardcore cultist
to being a hardcore anti-cultist,” said Jeff Monroe, a former church
member and friend. “That’s how it was with Matthew. He’d get into one
thing with his heart and soul then lose interest if those around him
didn’t share his excitement. He’d be depressed for a while and then get
into something else.”
Monroe describes Matthew as a searcher, who moved from one fad to the next — everything from nutrition and exercise to religion and politics — trying to find himself. “After he left the church he went from food-combining to eye exercises
to only drinking tea that was supposed to cure everything to tax
revolting to something else,” Monroe recalls.
But the “running theme,” he said, was “always
about purification. It was always about intense cleansing. He had very low
self esteem and he ultimately wanted to be pure and clean. He tried it
through dietary means and was always looking for something else.”
Eventually, his search for cleansing extended into the realm of the
bizarre, with Matthew exhorting Tyler to strive to achieve the perfect
bowel movement so his body could be cleansed. At times, Matthew would stand
outside the bathroom door coaching his brother’s efforts, said friends who
spent time with both of them when Tyler came out to Idaho to visit his
“Matthew became a tyrannical freak,” said Monroe. “Tyler came out of the
shower and Matthew made him put his feet up on this block so he could
achieve the perfect bowel movement. Tyler came over and told us about it
and he just sat there and cried.”
After quitting the church, Williams found a void in his life and soon
became fascinated with white supremacist and anti-Semitic material he
studied for hours on the Internet. At one point in their friendship, he
gave Monroe a book, “Israel: Our Duty, Our Dilemma,” that Monroe said was
an anti-Semitic diatribe.
“I was appalled,” Monroe said after he read most of the 346-page book. “I
called Matthew and I tried to talk to him, but by the time he got into the
anti-Semitic stuff he was pretty much a convert. That’s how he was … fanatic about whatever he believed.”
The Redding area has been a hotbed of militia activity and a haven for
followers of the Christian Identity movement, which views Jews and other
non-Christians basically as subhuman.
Last January, the area hosted a visit by John Trochmann, founder of the
Militia of Montana and one of the nation’s leaders in militia activity.
Trochmann was visiting to spread the gospel about how to prepare for the
Y2K problems so many people believe are coming, and one woman who attended
his speech said she saw Matthew Williams inside selling literature.
At about this same time, Williams was also developing what friends say were
virulent anti-gay views. One of his closest friends, with whom he shared
camping trips and poetry readings, came out of the closet, and
when he did Williams was horrified, friends say. He developed an active,
outspoken dislike for homosexuality, something that surprised some who knew
him and saw the slender, handsome man as slightly effeminate.
“We had this debate about gays,” said Karney Hatch, who worked as a
computer monitor at the University of Idaho library, where Matthew Williams
would stop daily to tap into the Internet. “He would say the Bible said
they’re evil and wrong and not appropriate,” said Hatch, who now lives in
And 86-year-old Olin Gordon, an Olinda man who considered hiring the
brothers’ to do some landscaping work on his property but said their
$15-an-hour fee was too high, vividly recalls what Matthew said when the
men were making small talk. “I mentioned Gary Matson and asked if Matt knew
him,” Gordon said of one of the murder victims. “They were in the same
general kind of work and I was just making conversation. He said, ‘Yeah, I
know Matson. He’s a homosexual.’ It was a little weird.”
The fact that Matson was gay was hardly news to anyone in Redding, a
fast-growing city that straddles the Sacramento River and has an economy
based largely on farming and recreation geared toward the river and the
surrounding mountains. Although it’s a conservative community politically,
socially and theologically, Matson and Mowder had managed to carve out an
impressive life together in this small Northern California town of 78,000, one
that led a friend to describe them as “the soul of Redding.” Matson helped start the Redding Farmers Market, as well as a community garden, an arboretum and a natural science museum for children.
Mowder worked for a time as a florist in Sacramento and later at Orchard
Supply Hardware in Redding, where his knowledge and love of plants made him
a match for Matson. Together, the two lived on a large farm where they
helped raise Matson’s daughter Clea. They were frequent guests at the home
of Matson’s father, Oscar, a winemaker and a retired college language
professor. The two had been there the night before they died, enjoying
dinner and conversation until about 11 p.m., the last time anyone saw them
If it hadn’t been for a strong trail of physical evidence left by the Williams
brothers, the FBI might still be knocking on doors of tattooed white
supremacists in Sacramento’s suburbs searching for local arsonists, and
Shasta County deputies might never have found the killers of Matson and
For three weeks after the arsons, FBI agents and Sacramento County
sheriff’s deputies fanned out to talk to potential arson suspects. Anyone
with a link to the white supremacy underworld was considered a lead;
membership in the World Church of the Creator or the National Alliance put
you at the top of the list. Being acquainted with a member got you two or
It got to the point where some of Sacramento’s burlier white supremacists,
the kind who wear Doc Maartens and sport tattoos like “Delenda est Judaica”
(Latin for “Destroy the Jews”) or “RaHoWa” (their abbreviation for
“racial holy war”), began complaining about having their rights trampled.
It also got to the point where the head of Sacramento’s FBI office, James
Maddock, and the sheriff, Lou Blanas, stopped speaking to each
other. Maddock, who already was under extreme pressure from Washington for
his failure to solve the slayings of three Yosemite sightseers earlier in the year, was coming unglued over the leaks of information about
the arson case. He called Blanas on the phone, shouting and accusing the sheriff’s
department of leaking information, cut sheriff’s investigators out of the probe
– and finally had to call and apologize when he determined the leaks were
coming from his own operation.
All the while, the Williams brothers never crossed anyone’s radar screens.
They had no criminal record, and no one had any reason to suspect them of
anything. During this time, however, Matthew Williams’ phone line was
extraordinarily busy. Calls from the telephone were being made to gun
shops, known white supremacists and others all over the country. A firm in
Arizona that makes folding rifle stocks for the Secret Service was called.
A phone call, apparently intended for the Glock pistol firm in Georgia, was
made to a young woman whose phone number was one digit off from Glock’s.
And a Redding-area man described as a militia leader got a call.
But the phone call that set detectives on the trail of the Williams
brothers came from another phone and was made two hours after Matson and Mowder
were found dead. That call went to a company in Scottsdale, Ariz., that
specializes in ammunition reloading equipment. The caller ordered $2,276.09
worth of reloading equipment and gun belts, one in waist size 32, the other
a size 34. The sizes match the Williams brothers, court documents say, and
the person placing the order asked that the equipment be shipped to a
private mailbox firm in Yuba City, Calif., in care of Gary Matson. Matson’s
Visa card was used to pay for the materials.
The credit card activity alerted Shasta County detectives, who traced the
address the materials were being delivered to and headed to Yuba City. By
sheer coincidence, they arrived just as the Williams brothers showed up.
As the brothers were loading the heavy boxes of equipment into their
father’s Toyota hatchback, officers surrounded them with guns drawn.
Matthew Williams was wearing a bulletproof vest and a fanny pack that
helda 9 mm Glock pistol, and he had Matson’s driver’s license and credit
card. He reached for the pack, then turned to his brother and asked,
“Well, partner, what are we going to do?” But for all of the weapons the
two had, they apparently weren’t ready to become martyrs for a cause. They
went meekly, giving up without resistance.
Even their father, Benjamin Hardaway Williams, seems to be disappointed in
their sloppy work. As he sat in court in Redding recently, listening to
the tape recording that was secretly made by authorities monitoring the
visit between his wife and his son, the elder Williams sat scribbling on
Finally he shook his head and scribbled a new note to himself: “No
critical thinking!” with an exclamation point apparently to highlight his
displeasure. A few minutes earlier, waiting in line to pass through a
security screening after a lunch recess, the elder Williams had been telling a
story to a friend when he broke into an ear-to-ear grin and danced a jig
right in front of the victims’ family members and an astonished
Tyler Williams later told a reporter from the Redding Record Searchlight
that he and his brother simply were heading to a gun range near Yuba City
when they were arrested. He has had little to say since. In court he
appears downcast and depressed, and he told one newspaper reporter he is
content to read the Bible and cast his fate to the will of God.
But Matthew Williams seems to enjoy all the attention the case has been
getting. In court, he smirks and makes eye contact with his parents, who
frequently sit smiling broadly at their sons. For the preliminary hearing
held Sept. 21, Matthew apparently decided to make a special impression: He
shaved his head.
He has maintained his public profile with regular letters to the media.
Sometimes he tries to make himself appear less of a demon. “I do want it
known that i am NOT a Hate-Filled man,” he wrote from jail in a letter to
the Sacramento Bee filled with his own odd punctuation and spellings, three
weeks after being arrested. “My beliefs encompass a deep sincere natural
LOVE for my creator (YAHWEH), my people, my country and all RACES created
by the ALLFATHER!” Whether that love extends to races not created by the
“allfather” remains unclear, and Williams helped to obscure the answer even
further with his postscript to the letter: “I’m Brittanic-Nordic, what is
your racial extraction?”
In another letter sent to the Bee just last week, Williams chided a
reporter requesting an interview with him for failing to disclose his
racial heritage to the accused murderer. “Also, you have failed to inform
me of your race,” he said in a letter illustrated with his drawings of the
Nazi Iron Cross and other hate symbols.
“Race does matter, as one Jew wrote, and is central to most
politico-religious issues. You are cognizant of my race — Aryan-Adamic
Saxon. I need yours. It is a paradigm that cannot be overlooked. Are you
ashamed of your genetic heritage? I’ll still conduct the interview
regardless of your race, even if you happen to be a yid or negro-chaya.
Yes, I am familiar with most racists (lovers of their own race) as I have
a prodigious thirst to research. This does not necessarily imply we must
harmonize our weltanshuang though.”
He complained in a letter to the Redding Record Searchlight that he has been
abandoned by other members of the world of white supremacy. A letter to the
Sacramento Bee was signed “14 words,” a phrase commonly used as shorthand
for the core tenet of white supremacists: “We must secure the existence of
our people and a future for white children.”
But Williams hasn’t been writing many letters in recent days, since a judge
ruled that there is sufficient evidence to try both brothers on double
murder charges. The charges could bring the death penalty, although the
Shasta County district attorney has yet to say whether he will seek it.
That prospect apparently hasn’t hit home for Matthew Williams, who told his
mother during the jailhouse visit that he didn’t expect a lengthy sentence.
“They, they’re not doing the death penalty a whole lot here anymore are
they?” he asked. “Are we looking at 20, 40 years or something? Then I
don’t expect to serve that, though.”
Actually, California has put seven condemned men to death in the last seven
years and authorities are expecting the pace to quicken. But Matthew
Williams apparently is already crafting his defense, telling his mother
that “God has put me here as a witness. I’m going to give them some of the
commandments and I’m going to say basically that it’s a jurisdictional
problem, you know?” he said. “I have followed a higher law … I have to
obey God’s law rather than man’s law.”
Sam Stanton and Gary Delsohn have covered the Williams case for the Sacramento Bee.More Sam Stanton.
Gary Delsohn and Sam Stanton have covered the Williams case for the Sacramento Bee.More Gary Delsohn.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)