BY AMI WORTHEN
On July 2, Jai Lateef Solveig “Jerry” Williams was shot and killed by Asheville Police Department Sgt. Tyler Radford. Since then, the circumstances of his death and what led up to it have been discussed at length in the media and among Asheville residents. But the full breadth of any life can’t be found in police reports or interviews with public officials. It can be said that who we are depends on who is looking at us. This piece looks at Williams’ life through the eyes of those that knew him best.
From Jai Lateef to ‘Jerry’
Williams was born on July 12, 1980, at Memorial Mission Hospital in Asheville. His mother recollects how she came up with his name.
Najiyyah Avery, mother: Basically, I just put some syllables together to make his name.
[The name] “Jerry” came from his dad Jerry’s friends. When he was a baby, they’d say, “Let me see Little Jerry, bring him here so I can see Little Jerry.” All of the kids started calling him Little Jerry, and the teachers started calling him that in school. So that’s how Little Jerry came about.
Sandra Pearson, godmother: I remember one time, it was so funny, Mama Hester didn’t know Jerry’s full name. I said, “Little Jerry, tell Mama your name.” He reluctantly said, “Jai Lateef Solveig Williams.” Mama said, “Huh? That’s your name for real?” He said, “Yeah, but Jerry is my name.”
Childhood and high school
Williams lived in Asheville until he was 13 years old and then moved with his family to College Park, Ga. He attended Head Start, Vance Elementary, the former Aycock Elementary and Asheville Middle School in Asheville, and Westlake High School in Atlanta. During high school, he played football for the Waccamaw Park Youth Football Association.
Avery: Little Jai, when he was a baby, he liked me to play music loud. That was the only way that he would sleep was if the music was loud.
When he was about 1 1/2 years old, he could play Pac-Man. He could clear the whole board! I had a lot of people telling me I should call the news. That was just Little Jerry. He did things.
Pearson: He was an old, wise man. He was always older than his age. And he was deep, Jerry was deep. You wanted to go deep, he would go there.
Avery: I remember when he was in the third grade. He didn’t go to the fourth; they skipped him from the third to the fifth. At the time, I wasn’t sure if that was what I really wanted ’cause I didn’t know how much he would be missing by not going to the fourth grade, but he did OK.
He had this wild imagination. Little Jerry would tell us these long, drawn-out stories — it was entertainment for a barbecue or party. He was a hilarious kid.
In high school, Little Jerry was a star on the football team. I remember the coach telling the other kids, “Just throw whatever direction Little Jerry is in.” He would always catch it, make touchdowns. I would scream, “That’s my baby, that’s my baby!” He was so good that even other moms in the bleachers would yell, “That’s my boy!”
‘He loved his family’
Williams’ friends and family describe a loving man who was loyal to those he cared about.
Avery: Jerry had his kids early — it was almost like he grew up with them.
Terrie Williams, aunt: He was a family guy. He loved his family, he loved his friends. If he loved you, he loved you — he’d be there for you, he would take up for you in any kind of way.
Ervinia Petty, special friend: We were together 15 years. We had our ups and downs, but he always made sure his household was taken care of.
He took care of his kids. He took care of me. He took care of my friends, my family, his friends, his brothers, cousins. His cousins would say, “Jerry, let me hold $20,” and he would. Later, I’d ask him if they paid him back, and he’d be like, “Naw, I’m good.”
Jayla Williams, daughter: He would always buy me new shoes and new clothes when I wanted them.
Avery: It was rough on my birthday. … Jerry would have showered me with everything — love, kisses, cards, money, flowers.
Petty: When she was 5, he’d walk my oldest daughter to school because I had to work and couldn’t. You don’t find many dudes that young who would take on that kind of responsibility.
When our daughter Jayla was born, he was holding her, and I had to be like, “Jerry, can I hold my baby?” I was in the hospital for three nights. There was a little couch in my room, and he laid there with Jayla. He worked at Arby’s at the time. He would go to work, go home, get some clean clothes and be back to hold Jayla.
Jayla Williams: Me and my daddy had this dance — it’s called the Bankhead Bounce — and it made my mom mad because she could never do it.
Avery: A week before this happened, I was talking to him on the phone and he said, “You know mama, I got your back, I always got your back.” That was how he always was.
‘A giving heart’
Friends remember Williams’ warmth and kindness.
Damion Bailey, godbrother: When somebody smiles, you can see their heart. That was Jerry; he had a good smile. A smile that would make you smile. It showed a good heart.
Johaunna Cromer, friend: His smile is what I miss.
Petty: He thought about other people more than himself.
Pearson: Jerry had a tight circle. He wasn’t the type that hung out with everybody. Jerry was deep into doing his thing, and his circle was small. Jerry was particular. And that was a good thing.
Cromer: If you needed something, he’d do whatever he could to try and get it for you. If he had a dollar in his pocket, he’d give you that dollar.
Lakeia Mosley, godsister: Jerry was a very smart, kind and respectful person. He always had something positive to say to me; he always encouraged me.
Petty: If I could say one thing about Jerry that people need to know — he had a giving heart, he had a giving soul.
He wasn’t a saint, but he was an angel.
During his adult years, Williams worked in many fields — from food service to construction — and was a dedicated employee.
Petty: Jerry worked. I got with Jerry when he had just turned 21. When he found out I was pregnant, he immediately went and got a job at Arby’s. From that day, Jerry kept a job.
Avery: He worked with a roofing company; he did construction, worked for an electrician and at a warehouse. His last job was with Skyland Distributing.
Little Jai would go to work when he was sick, and I would be fussin’ at him because I thought he needed to be at home, but he went to work.
Petty: Around Christmas, he had the flu, and I’m glad his mama was there because she had to make him stay home from work.
Pearson: He would work, that was his thing.
‘He’d have you laughing’
Williams was known for his upbeat sense of humor.
Jayla Williams: He was funny; he made me laugh all of the time. It would just be something stupid; it didn’t even have to make sense, he would just make me laugh.
Avery: He was hilarious; he was like my therapist. By the time he finished dissecting my problem, he’d have me laughing so hard, there wouldn’t be a problem anymore. It didn’t matter how down you were, he’d have you laughing.
Petty: He would laugh at anything, even when it was something serious. He would break the ice. There was something funny on a daily basis. If I was mad, he would switch it to where I’m laughing.
Terrie Williams: He was very funny and silly, always making people laugh. He was the life of the party. Anytime we had anything, it didn’t really get going until Jerry got there. Once he showed up, everybody knew there was going to be fun and laughing and having a good time.
Cromer: He would always have a joke for you.
Avery: Everybody that Little Jerry was close to, he was always the person that could pick you up if you were down. If you didn’t think you had anything to laugh about, Little Jerry would give you a lot to laugh about.
‘A writer from the beginning’
Creative expression, particularly writing, was a constant in Williams’ life.
Avery: When he was young, he loved to draw. I have drawings now from when he was 6. When he was 8, he would write stories in Little Jerry’s language. He’s been a writer from the beginning, but I didn’t know he really had the skills to write books until he got older.
Petty: If he was here right now, and he had a pen, that’s all he’d need. This whole napkin would have been filled with a story. Receipts, like if we went to the grocery store, he would have filled with writing.
Pearson: He liked to write what was on his mind and get it down on paper. What he was feeling, what that day was like, it was going down on paper. Then what’s on paper he could turn into a song or make into story.
Avery: He wrote songs. He had a friend in Asheville that lived Erskine-Walton Apartments that did beats for him. He would also go to Atlanta to do more serious recording.
Pearson: He’d walk up on you sometime and do a little freestyle.
When he first came and told me he was going to write his children’s book, I said, “How you going to do that?” Then he brought me a copy, and he said, “Read it and tell me what you think.” I read it and I said, “That’s good! You wrote that?”
Avery: He wrote eight children’s books, including The Bug and Animal Book, which he got published. I am going to publish the others.
Pearson: He always had a plan. That was his thing. He had his plan, what we wanted to do, and that’s what he had done.
Avery: He was always writing. He had been working on a novel for the past three years.
He was going to be famous.
A proponent of joy and justice, Ami Worthen is part of a variety of positive projects. She’s lived in the Asheville area for over 30 years.