We begin with the obvious: There is a special place in hell for cop killers.

Presumably, that eternal hotspot will someday be occupied by John D. Williams. Police say he confessed to a friend that he shot Somerset County Sheriff’s Cpl. Eugene Cole in cold blood early on April 25 and then led a small army of law enforcement officers on a four-day manhunt that ended Saturday in the woods of Fairfield.

John Williams’ booking photo, at left, and a photo widely circulated on social media showing him shortly after his arrest.

You’ve likely seen by now the two photos taken by police after Williams’ arrest.

In one, taken in the woods moments after searchers finally caught up with him, a shirtless Williams lies prone on his stomach, his head pulled up by a hand grasping his hair, his eyes staring slightly off-camera, a fresh welt visible just below his left eye.

In the other, Williams’ official booking photo, the welt has blossomed into a full-blown black eye.

Police say the first photo – eerily similar to a snapshot of a freshly bagged deer in hunting season – was needed to confirm Williams’ identity with the brass back at the search command post. Because Williams wouldn’t lift his head, they say, an officer simply, ahem, lifted it for him.


Left unexplained is how, within just a few hours, the ghastly photo ended up on social media, where it subsequently was picked up by news organizations far and wide.

As for the shiner so visible in the second photo, police say only that Williams sustained the injury after putting up “limited resistance” during his capture.

Interesting choice of words there.

If Williams’ resistance was indeed “limited” and, as reported, he was apprehended by a seven-member search team of officers from federal, state and local police agencies, why the black eye?

Which brings us to a more troublesome question: If, as many suspect, the black eye was actually payback from some overwrought officer who saw an opportunity to blow off some steam and took it, didn’t Williams have it coming?

Part of me – the grandson of a longtime Boston police detective – says hell yes.


Still, another part of me – try as I might to ignore it – says hang on a second.

Let’s be clear here. If you’re looking for the defendant in this case to be cast in anything even approaching a sympathetic light, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Eugene Cole

The more I hear about the late Cpl. Cole’s good humor, big heart and commitment to serving and protecting his community, and the more I hear about Williams’ reported cellphone confession to a friend that he’d just shot Cole, the more readily I confess that I’d have been sorely tempted to take a swing at Williams myself.

Along the same line, if I’d spent the better part of four days slogging through the Central Maine woods looking for the one and only suspect in the slaying of an officer of the peace, plastering his dazed mug all over the internet might feel more like just desserts than cruel and unusual punishment.

But here’s the rub: From the moment police took Williams down last weekend, this cruel tragedy was no longer just about a 29-year-old miscreant charged with mindlessly taking the life of a dedicated public servant.

It’s now about how we as a society impose justice on the worst among us. How we, confronted by bloody anarchy, remain civilized.


Do we take to our keyboards and cheer on the police as they rough up a purported police murderer, yank him by a fistful of his hair and then plaster his image across cyberspace like a 10-point trophy buck?

Or do we temper our blood lust, shift our gaze to an honorable life cut short, and trust in the criminal justice system to follow its due course?

Consider the statement released through police by Sheryl Cole only hours before the search for her husband’s killer ended. Pleading for Williams to turn himself in, she promised that he would be treated with “dignity and respect” if he surrendered – just as Cpl. Cole would have treated Williams if given the chance.

Sheryl Cole’s stunning promise was rooted far more in her husband’s legacy than in Williams’ apparent depravity. Still, for too many, she set the bar impossibly high.

As Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and co-director of the NYPD Police Studies Program, told Portland Press Herald reporter Eric Russell, “Killing a police officer in the line of duty is a very emotional and stressful event for all brothers and sisters in blue. … Treating his killer with ‘dignity and respect’ is not a realistic expectation.”

Fair enough. But shouldn’t professionalism, if not dignity and respect, still be the mark by which search parties set their ethical compasses?


Yes, police are human just like the rest of us. And yes, those of us who have never served in law enforcement cannot begin to grasp the anger and anguish that all officers share when one of their own is cut down simply for doing his or her job.

But out there on the street – or in the woods – a fine line separates protection from punishment. One is the sworn duty of police. The other, at least in a civilized society, falls to the courts.

Thus, it’s important to know exactly what happened during those adrenalin-charged moments last weekend: Why not stand Williams up for a photo? Exactly how and why did his eye get blackened? And who decided, albeit in the heat of the moment, to turn him into click bait on social media?

Honest answers to those questions likely won’t change Williams’ future. He’s well on his way to spending the rest of his life behind bars and, prison being prison, suffering a few more bumps and bruises along the way.

But a true, transparent accounting of what happened last Saturday will help pull us all back from a dangerously slippery slope, where our tolerance for bare-knuckled justice inches upward with the severity of the crime.

So, enough chest-thumping. Enough talk about how lucky that SOB is to have walked out of those woods alive. Enough praise for behavior so contrary to the quiet ways of Cpl. Gene Cole.


In due time, our justice system will decide John Williams’ fate for as long as he remains on this Earth.

What awaits him beyond that, God only knows.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:


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