On Christmas night, 1997, Crumpy’s Comedy Club in North Memphis hosted a party sponsored by a local barbershop, Magic Clippers. The club had opened that spring, attracting popular black comedians like Bruce Bruce, D.L. Hughley and Earthquake. That night, hundreds of revelers came for jazz, blues and stand-up, and the celebration went long past midnight.
But it would end in tragedy. By dawn, a Memphis police officer lay in critical condition, paralyzed by a bullet fired into his neck. Donald Williams, an African-American father of two, was assigned to area schools; that night he was off duty and working as a security guard, when at 2:30 am he was shot at close range in front of the club. Doctors said he would never walk again; community members pitched in to cover his hospital bills, and “one business planned to refurbish his home to accommodate a wheelchair,” according to The Commercial Appeal. But just over a month later, on January 29, Williams died of pneumonia due to complications from his wound. He was 38 years old.
Williams’s death shook the community, particularly Donald Crump, the owner of Crumpy’s. Crump, who also owned a hot wings chain, collected donations at his restaurants and sent food to Williams’s family. “He wasn’t just a guy doing security for me,” he said. “He was a personal friend of mine.”
Around 1 am on the night of the shooting, Crump had ordered a drunken man out of the club. Williams wanted to have him arrested, but in the Christmas spirit, Crump said, he convinced Williams to let him go. Later, Crump was told that this was the man who’d shot Williams. “And I said, ‘If I had just left him alone, stayed my butt out of it, Officer Don would still be alive.’”
Williams was still alive on December 27, when Crump received word that police were arresting the shooter near the South Memphis restaurant where he was working. “I said, ‘Well, I’m on my way.’” A SWAT team had an apartment complex surrounded, and reporters were on the scene. But when he saw the man being taken out in handcuffs, Crump didn’t recognize him. Concerned, he told a police officer this wasn’t the man he had thrown out that night.
Fifteen years later, it still nags at him. “I don’t know who fired the shot,” Crump says, wearing a faded Crumpy’s Hot Wings T-shirt and a weary expression. “But I put one person out of that club. And they said the person I put out of the club was the one that shot and killed Officer Don. But when they brought [the man] out of the house, he wasn’t the guy.”
Crump was never interviewed by police. He still doesn’t know why. But “when it’s a police officer killed here in Memphis, you know, they quick to nail somebody.”
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The man in handcuffs was 23-year-old Timothy Terrell McKinney, on parole for armed robbery, who’d had a hostile exchange with Williams that night. McKinney couldn’t find his car and became convinced that it had been stolen or towed. (In fact, a friend had moved it.) Enraged, he threatened to “blow up” the club, according to Williams’s partner, but eventually he found his car, apologized and was told to leave. Later, he returned. Another police officer, Ronald Marshall, was on duty and was called to the scene. He put McKinney in his squad car, taking his name, address and date of birth before letting him go. A slip of paper with that information was later retrieved from Williams’s bloody jacket.