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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Case of decade-old Spokane killing gets major break as medical examiner rules Kala Williams’ death a homicide

The body of Kala Williams, 20, was found in 2012. Her death recently has been ruled a homicide.  (Courtesy photo)

For the past decade, Martine Maggio has suffered nightmares in which her daughter, Kala Williams, is being tortured. Kala screams when she realizes she’s about to be killed. And that’s when Maggio wakes up.

Maggio, 65, had that recurring dream last Wednesday. When she awoke, her phone was ringing. It was Spokane Medical Examiner Dr. Veena Singh on the other end delivering news that she had just changed the finding on the cause and manner of her daughter’s death in 2012 from “undetermined” to “homicide.”

“I started crying,” Maggio said. “This is a great victory for us. I kept thanking her profusely. (Singh) said she was sorry it had taken this so long to amend the cause of death.”

The updated finding comes 10 years after Williams’ remains were found stuffed in plastic bags and a sleeping bag. Williams’ body had been cut in two.

Someone had tried to conceal her discarded body with twigs and leaves, but Williams’ remains were found on May 13, 2012, near the intersection of 14th Avenue and South Lindeke Street.

Spokane Police detectives obtained multiple samples of DNA. Some of it was taken from a pair of boxer shorts in the sleeping bag; more from electrical tape partially on Williams’ neck; and some from material under her fingernails. All came back as a match to Robert G. Davis.

However, former Spokane County Medical Examiner Dr. John Howard, who retired in June 2021, listed the cause of Williams’ death and the manner of death as undetermined. He noted that she had methamphetamines in her body.

Davis, 52, now a prisoner in the Idaho Maximum Security Institution in Boise after being convicted of attacking a woman in Coeur d’Alene in 2014, has never been charged in connection with Williams’ death.

After Howard’s “undetermined” finding on the cause of death , Maggio said she and her sister visited Howard at his office.

She recalls Howard explaining that with drugs in her system, it was possible that she had died of an overdose and then someone mutilated her remains.

Maggio said her sister asked Howard: “If this was your daughter, would you still stick with an undetermined report? He said, ‘This conversation is turning argumentative’ and he terminated the interview.”

Second review

Former Spokane Police Detective Mark Burbridge took over the case in 2013.

According to police records, he “noticed what he suspected to be numerous injuries which were not detailed nor included in the autopsy report. These injuries included sharp instrument injuries, abrasions, pattern injuries, and possible hematomas not described by Dr. Howard.”

Burbridge also noted what appeared to be a “ghost mark” on Williams’ wrist “consistent with a restraint having been tightly tied on the wrist.”

The detective then tried to contact Howard several times, without a reply, Burbridge wrote.

After several months of no responses to calls or emails, Howard finally met with Burbridge and other police officials.

“Dr. Howard told them I had been rude to one of his staff and was no longer allowed (in the) Medical Examiner’s Office,” Burbridge wrote.

Efforts to reach Howard Monday were unsuccessful.

Burbridge then hired Dr. Carl Wigren, a forensic pathologist with a private practice in Renton, to review the autopsy results.

In his review, dated Dec. 31, 2013, Wigren found more than 60 injuries on Williams that Howard did not list.

“The number of contusions and sharp force defects … to the lower arms and legs are consistent with defensive measures employed by the victim to fend off her attacker during the assault,” Wigren wrote. “Based on my review of the autopsy report … the cause of death is consistent with homicidal violence.”

In an interview Monday, Wigren said he remembers reviewing the Williams file.

Wigren also recalled traveling with Burbridge to personally visit the place where Williams’ remains were found.

“The death of a previously healthy young woman, with subsection processing of her remains and disposal in a remote site, is homicide until proven otherwise,” Wigren said, reading from his report.

He noted several wounds that had evidence of bleeding, which strongly suggests that Williams suffered stab wounds with a sharp object while she was alive.

“I’m glad this is finally getting rectified,” Wigren said. “It’s obvious it was a homicide from the beginning.”

But the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office never filed charges, even after Wigren’s second review.

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell said in 2017 that the case remained under investigation. He did not respond to phone messages left Monday.

The lack of prosecution has only made dealing with her daughter’s loss worse, Maggio said.

“There were so many people blaming other people,” she said, “and nothing was really getting done.”

That was until Singh took another look at the case at the request of the Spokane Police Department, said Jared Webley, spokesman for Spokane County.

Speaking for Singh, Webley noted that she changed the manner of death from “undetermined” to “homicide” and that the cause of death, or what action killed Williams, from “undetermined” to “homicide by unspecified means.”

“With regard to the Kala Williams case, the original certification of undetermined cause/undetermined manner was made because the body was too decomposed to determine the exact cause of death, and there was insufficient information about the circumstances of death to assign a manner at that time,” Webley wrote, quoting Singh. “Since that time, new guidelines for handling these types of cases have been published in the forensic literature, and these guidelines allow for updating the manner classification in this case.”

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said he learned Monday about Singh’s upgraded manner and cause of death in the Williams killing.

“We are very glad that they re-evaluated the evidence and we think that was a good decision,” he said.

Decade of pain

Maggio’s efforts to move on from her daughter’s death have mostly failed, she said.

Her daughter’s body was found two days before Maggio’s 55th birthday.

“I didn’t go through depression this year, because I made it a celebration of what her life would have been,” Maggio said. “She would have been a nurse by now. She would have had several kids.”

Maggio went to grief counseling for several years.

“It broke my marriage up,” she said. “It’s just awful when these situations arise, even for the good. It’s like open-heart surgery without the anesthesia.”

Sherri Cook, 74, went to police in 2012 after Williams’ body was found to tell them that her son, Davis, had told her that he had been involved in the 2010 disappearance and apparent killing of Heather Higgins. She has never been found.

Higgins disappeared on Sept. 20, 2010. She was last seen accepting a ride from Davis, according to police records.

Not long after, Cook remembered her son, after much coaxing, told her about how two men killed Higgins, who was 39, and “they forced him to dispose of the body.”

In a 2017 interview, Cook said her son told her that he had put Higgins’ body in two sleeping bags, which were dumped somewhere north of town on the way to a ski resort.

Then in 2012, when Cook heard about the death of Kala Williams, especially the part about how her remains were found in a sleeping bag, she started to suspect her son was involved.

“The body was close to where he camped. The sleeping bag was stolen from here,” Cook said from her house in 2017. “His underwear was at the bottom of the sleeping bag.”

Reached on Monday, Cook said she was pleased to hear that the medical examiner had reached a new finding.

“I’ve been waiting for this to happen,” Cook said. “I’m glad that they finally made that decision. I feel that this is good for Williams’ family.

“I also feel it’s good for Robert, my son, in that if they press charges and he goes to court, it will give him an opportunity to clear his name if he is innocent,” she said.

Davis remains in custody after he twice choked a woman to unconsciousness in an attack in 2014 in Coeur d’Alene. Davis was later convicted of burglary and battery with intent to commit rape in connection with that attack.

According to the state website, Davis’ next parole hearing is in June 2024.

Jed Whitaker, the former Kootenai County deputy prosecutor who convicted Davis, said he was glad to hear of the development in the Williams case.

“I am delighted that Ms. Williams and her family may finally find the justice that they have been seeking and that the person responsible for her death is brought to justice,” Whitaker said.