Murder of a Preacher's Wife: Rebecca, Daniel

A Tragedy Witnessed by Children
Dr. Phil narrates this remarkable story, while Rebecca and Daniel take themselves back in time to remember their childhood tragedy:

It was the 1970s in a small, rural community in North Carolina, where a preacher, Robert Nichols, was being terrorized by the most powerful man in town.

Rebecca remembers, “Horry Watts did not like our dad. Some of the things that Mr. Watts was doing in secret, my dad brought to light,” she says.

Watts had started a war of terror against the Nichols family that lasted for years. Phone lines were cut, shotgun blasts targeted the home.

“By the time I was 4, I had bullets flying past my head,” Rebecca says.

Dynamite started going off around the parsonage and church.

“One of the worst ones went off by my parents’ bedroom, where my little brother, Daniel, was sleeping. The force blew out three windows. My mother was so terrified,” she says.

Daniel says, “I believe it was likely that explosion damaged my hearing a little bit. I still have ringing in my ears today.”

There were 10 bombings in all.

[AD]Horry’s direct words were that he wanted to make us leave Sellerstown, walking, crawling, dead or alive,” Daniel says.

There was no doubt Watts wanted the preacher dead.

“My father said that if God wanted us to leave that town, that he wouldn’t send a devil to bring the message,” Daniel says.

Little did he know, Watts would stop at nothing. March 23, 1978. It was Holy Thursday, three days before Easter. The Nichols family was saying blessings at the dinner table when a friend of the family barged into the house with three loaded guns.“When he walked in, just this absolute shock came over us,” Rebecca recalls. “He had an angry look on his face.”

The gunman was Harris Kelton Williams, a man who often drank, had trouble with the law and was having difficulties in his third marriage. Harris has been led to believe that his wife was having an affair with the preacher. It was a tragic and terrible lie that originated with Horry Watts.

For days leading up to the shooting, Harris had been drinking hard. His wife, Sue, was fearful of her husband, and she and her young son had taken refuge with the Nichols family to avoid her drunken husband. At the time, Harris was a member of the church and considered the Reverend and his wife close friends. So, it was a total shock when he entered their home with three loaded guns to confront the preacher. Seven-year-old Rebecca watched the horror unfold.

“Harris pulled out a gun and shot my dad in his right shoulder. And it was just absolute chaos after that,” Rebecca says. “Harris said, ‘If you take another step, I’m going to shoot you again,’ and then he shot him in his hip, which knocked my dad to the ground. My big, 6-foot, 3-and-a-half ex-Navy dad, my hero, was knocked to the ground, and he could not save or help anybody at that moment.”

He then turned and shot the preacher’s wife in the chest. The bullet clipped her heart.

“Everyone was screaming, so I ran under the kitchen table,” Rebecca remembers.

The preacher’s wife, Ramona, stumbled away down the hall to her bedroom to call for help. She died on the bedroom floor, minutes later, phone in hand. Meanwhile, Harris had taken his wife and his own son hostage in Rebecca’s room.

“And the house goes from absolute chaos, screaming, panic to an eerie silence,” she says.

[AD]“I followed my mother down the hall to the bedroom,” Daniel says. “I was asking her to hold me, and obviously, she wasn’t able to at that moment.”

“I’m sitting there, talking to my dad, and he said, ‘Becky, I need you to go check on your mom.’ And I said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to go check on Mom.’ He said, ‘You have to go check on your mother,’ and I reached down, and I shook her leg, and I said, ‘Mommy, Mommy.’ I was whispering, trying to be so quiet. And when she didn’t answer me, I turned around and came back down the hallway, and I told Dad, I said, ‘Daddy, Mommy didn’t answer me,’ and at that point, he just broke and started crying. In my 7-year-old mind, I didn’t want to believe that our mom didn’t make it,” Rebecca says.Rebecca then ran for her neighbor’s house and called for help.

“I said, ‘Mom and Dad have been shot! Please call the police!’” Rebecca remembers.

The neighbor, Pat, recalls that night. “There stood Becky, and she was screaming, ‘Aunt Pat, Mom and Dad’s been shot!’ I brought her into the house and called 911.”

After a three-hour standoff with police, Harris finally surrendered. Rebecca still didn’t know the fate of her mother.

“You could see red and blue lights flashing, with ambulances and police cars. They’re pulling a body out on a gurney, and it’s covered in a sheet. And that’s when I realized my mom did not make it, and I just stood there in shock,” Rebecca says. “My dad had to have surgery the next day. They let us go to the hospital. I went and sat on his bed, and I said, ‘Daddy, Mommy’s in heaven. And he just wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘I know, sweetheart, I know.’” Rebecca pauses, growing emotional. “I’m sorry,” she says, gathering herself. “Because that was, like, so hard for me to see his pain.”

It has been 33 years since the shooting that forever changed this family. Reverend Nichols survived the shooting but died seven years later. He was a broken man who was damaged both physically and emotionally by the shooting. Young Rebecca and Daniel were placed with their Aunt in Mobile, Alabama, where they grew up.

[AD]Harris Kelton Williams was convicted and given a life sentence for the killing and served 21 years before being released from prison in 1999. At 8 years old, Rebecca was a key witness who testified against Harris during his trial.

“And that’s my last memory of him, sitting in that courtroom, with my knees shaking, pointing at him and saying, ‘That is the man,’” Rebecca says.

It was the last time she laid eyes on their family friend, her mother’s killer.“One thing I’ve learned across time is that time has a way of collapsing when there’s trauma involved,” Dr. Phil says. “This doesn’t seem like it happened so long ago, does it?”

“No,” Rebecca says. She says watching their story unravel on video felt very real. “It showed the house scanning by as I was running. My heart is pounding because I feel like I’m still running. When I found out that my mother didn’t make it that day, I thought, as a 7-year-old, I didn’t run fast enough. If I had just run faster …” Rebecca takes a deep breath. She says she learned later that her mother likely died within three minutes, which eased her pain a little. “It brought relief to me to know that I didn’t have to carry that guilt the rest of my life, but I did feel that way growing up, that I could’ve saved her.”

Rebecca tells the incredible story in her book, The Devil in Pew Number Seven. “Do you think this still haunts you, from an anxiety standpoint?” Dr. Phil asks.

Rebecca says she feels anxiety at dinnertime with her husband and kids, and sometimes if the TV has a program with shooting. “Sometimes, I can feel that panic rush through me again, just like I was there that night. I can still see, in my mind, the gun going off and sparks flying out. I was looking right at him when the gun went off,” she says.

“This was a man you knew. He was a member of the church. His wife was staying with you at the time,” Dr. Phil says.

“That’s right,” she says.

“Since I was so young, these are some of my earliest memories,” Daniel says. Because he was only 3, he says his memories are a lot like photographs. “I remember the man standing in front of our table. I don’t remember the guns going off. I remember seeing my mother lying on the floor, and I heard her sobbing, crying, and she was trying to call for help as well, and I was asking her to hold me. The next thing I remember is being under the table with my sister, and our father was there, leaning up against the kitchen cabinet on the floor, and the blood on his shirt.”

Dr. Phil shows a photo of their dining room area after the shooting. The table is untouched, but a bloodied men’s shirt can be seen on the floor.

Rebecca says she’s studied that photo, to memorize every detail about dinner that night, from the Charlie Brown glasses to the impending pie for dessert. She says she remembers her mother’s friend, Harris’ wife, and their son coming for dinner. She says she realized as an adult that although they didn’t live in a very safe place, her mother wanted to extend help to her friend. That’s the kind of woman she was.

[AD]It’s been 33 years since they’ve seen Harris Williams. He says he wants to apologize. Dr. Phil explains that he wants to meet with Harris first. “I understand post-traumatic stress disorder. I understand the power of memory and emotion, and I don’t know what this guy is going to say. I don’t know where he’s coming from, but I can’t, in good conscience, expose you to him until I look him in the eye and talk to him,” he says. Dr. Phil says he’ll explain to Rebecca and Daniel what he’s heard, so they can adjust their expectations before meeting Williams.