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Trooper supports family as he investigates 2010 hit-and-run

Alan Cleaver

April 24, 2010. For Tina Bonaparte and her mother Annie Williams, the day forever will be remembered. Bonaparte was volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Oakland, California, helping to rehabilitate a Vietnam veteran's home when she received the call that changed her world.

The call was from South Carolina and the voice on the other end informed her that her youngest brother, Rodney Allen Williams, had died in a hit-and-run accident. "At the time I didn't even believe it," Bonaparte said, thinking perhaps there had been a mistaken identification. "It just changed my life."

Rodney was voluntarily assisting a single mother in her relocation from Orangeburg to Columbia at the time of the Bluff Road accident. He would not return home. Annie Williams was home alone when there came a knock on the door.

"I went to the door and I saw the coroner whom I knew and the Highway Patrol and I knew it wasn't good when I saw the two of them at the door," Williams said.

"I was just devastated," Williams said. "I was devastated because Rodney was the youngest of three sons."

"I did not know what to do or what to think," Williams recalled. "I just called on family members."

"Rodney was one of a kind," Williams said with a laugh. "He loved video games and cartoons."

"Rodney was a different kind of person," she said. "He would help anybody. He knew a lot about cars and vehicles and getting them cranked and started. He learned the skill of plumbing. He was all about doing all kinds of things."

Twelve years later the crime remains unsolved but amid the uncertainty and grief a light has shown and been a constant beacon of hope in the persons of South Carolina Highway Patrol District 7 Sgt. Judd Jones and South Carolina Department of Public Safety Director of Office of Professional Responsibility Chief Kenneth Phelps.

Jones recently was provided a plaque and publicly acknowledged for his continued support to Bonaparte and her family over the years. The family also honored Phelps for his help in establishing a scholarship -- the Rodney Allen Williams (R.A.W.) Community Service Scholarship -- in 2013.

The men have remained in contact with the family ever since the fateful day.

The family honored the men at the South Carolina Highway Patrol District 7 headquarters on Middleton Street.

Bonaparte said the SCHP, and in particular Jones and Phelps, have always been good about staying in touch with the family and returning phone calls about their concerns and questions.

"Everybody has always been positive and professional in letting us know that they don't have answers, yet they are still looking," Bonaparte said. "Law enforcement kind of sometimes gets a bad rap and, yeah, there are bad officers, but there are more good than bad.

"When they take the time to personalize us and we are not victims or a victim's family, but they treat us as human beings," Bonaparte said. "They treat us with respect and with dignity. That is why we honored Sgt. Jones and Chief Phelps today because they have been instrumental in that."

About 14 students have received the scholarship since its inception, including Williams' niece Ebony Raven Keitt.

The $250 scholarship is given out annually to a deserving student in honor of Williams.

The first student to receive the scholarship was Bethune-Bowman High School's Cynthia Lingard on April 24, 2013, the one-year anniversary of Williams' death.

At first the scholarship was given to students in South Carolina, but in 2019 the scholarship, which centers on community and community service, was expanded to include students outside of the state.

Some scholarship recipients were in attendance at a recognition ceremony. Family and friends also traveled from Georgia and Ohio for the special day.

Bonaparte said despite Jones having challenges in his own family with his mother passing away, he has always been there.

"He actually has stayed in touch with us," she said. "He treats us like family and it was to me no greater honor than to tell all of his colleagues and even higher echelons of management this is what law enforcement and community looks like and this is what it feels like."

"Things work out like they were supposed to work out," Jones said shortly after receiving the award. "It was meant for me to meet this family and stay in touch with this family."

Jones noted that is mother died a few years ago and Annie Williams has helped fill that role for him.

"They have become just like family," he said.

He and the family have gotten so close that just a few weeks ago they called and sang happy birthday to his wife.

"It has been a blessing," Jones said. "Under the circumstances it still has been a positive relationship we have had."

Phelps was speechless and shocked at the recognition. Phelps was among the first to be in contact with the family following the death of Rodney.

"It is amazing to me that all of this is being done and we are getting thanks to our agency and this is still an unsolved hit-and-run," Phelps said. "This family has decided to honor this agency for an investigation that we still hadn't quite closed the book on it. It says a lot."

"I have developed a real personal relationship with them," Phelps said, noting calls are exchanged on birthdays, Christmas holidays, Mother's Day. "This is a genuine concern and appreciation for the job that we do as an agency. We should be honoring you guys."

While the accident has not been solved, both Bonaparte and Jones are hoping there will be a breakthrough.

Bonaparte says what inspires her is hearing a story of a 20 or 30-year-old case being solved.

"It gives me hope," she said. "I believe that it is going to happen."

"We are not going to stop pursuing," he said. "We never know but we remain hopeful."

Gene Zaleski, reporting for The Times & Democrat, Orangeburg, SC.