Searching for clues to the life and death of William Greer.
There’s a quiet stretch of the hike-and-bike trail through downtown Austin, near the water and several feet below the hum of cars on Cesar Chavez Street. During the day, joggers crunch along the crushed granite path. At night it’s even quieter, tucked away from the glare of street lights, beneath the red brick Buford Tower and its bells that chime every hour.
At about 1 a.m. on July 27, 2012, William Greer Jr. came to this serene spot in the middle of the city to spend the night. Greer had arrived in Austin by bus 18 days earlier and, as was his custom, would soon be leaving town. He climbed into his sleeping bag and fell asleep on the grass bank overlooking the jogging path.
Sometime before 8 a.m., Greer was bludgeoned to death with a blunt object. If it’s possible to be thankful for small mercies in such a gruesome incident, police detectives don’t think he ever woke up; there was no sign of a struggle, and it’s likely Greer didn’t even open his eyes to see the horror of what was happening. He was five days from his 50th birthday.
That night a work crew happened to be laying fiber optic cable nearby; a security guard employed by the communications company was parked in his vehicle under the South 1st Street bridge, 30 or 40 yards from where Greer was sleeping. Another homeless man slept in a brick gazebo not 20 yards in the other direction on the grass bank. Yet none of them saw or heard anything. In the morning, a dog walker found Greer’s body.
Police were left with a difficult case to investigate. Homicide 101 states that you start close and work your way out. That usually means looking first at the victim’s partner, then his family. If there are no leads, you look at his business associates, his friends—and his enemies. But what happens when the victim doesn’t have a partner, doesn’t have a job and hasn’t spoken to his family in months, let alone seen them? What happens if for years the only home he has known is the street?
Following the discovery of Greer’s body, Robert Driscoll, a young, sharply dressed detective who was tasked with solving the case, says investigators interviewed numerous homeless people. They passed out flyers asking for information on Greer. They visited the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, known by its acronym, ARCH. Most of the transients they spoke to had never seen Greer. His family didn’t even know he was in Austin.
Among the few clues to who Greer was and where he’d been were the receipts police found in one of his three duffel bags. Greer had arrived in Austin by Greyhound from Houston at 10:50 p.m. on July 9, 2012. Detectives also found receipts showing that Greer had ventured as far north as the bus terminal in far north Austin, and to H-E-B supermarkets in south and east Austin.
The duffel bags yielded a few more details. Unlike most homeless people Driscoll encounters in his job, he says, Greer was more of a drifter than homeless. “He was very organized, very clean,” he told me. “All his clothing was neatly folded and arranged. He had three duffel bags with him, one for his clothes, one for his personal hygiene stuff, and one containing all his business papers and food items.”
Police also found cash and credit cards, and quickly ruled out robbery as a motive. They thought it could have been a case of mistaken identity, or perhaps a random act of violence. What they did know was that the crime bore a similarity to another murder of a homeless man eight months earlier. That man was Max Tucker, and like Greer he was bludgeoned to death overnight. In the early hours of November 22, 2011, a cleaning crew found Tucker’s body between two businesses on Congress Avenue, 50 feet from the sidewalk, about a mile from where Greer’s body would be found months later. Tucker had lived in Austin for some time and was well known in the homeless community. “But all we had was a body laying there,” said Kerry Scanlon, the detective who worked Tucker’s case. “No motive, no suspects.”
The Tucker case had gone cold by the time Greer was killed, but there was a chance the murders were connected, though attacks on homeless people aren’t uncommon. Between 1999 and 2010 there were 1,184 acts of violence against homeless people nationwide, and 312 of those resulted in death, according to a report published by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Many of them, like Greer, died in anonymity, with few people knowing who they were or where they were from.
Greer was born in Houston in 1952 to William Greer Sr., a postal worker, and Freddie Walls, who ran a home daycare for children. Life revolved around the Blessed Hope Baptist Church on the city’s north side, where William Jr. would play piano and sing every Wednesday and Sunday.
After Greer’s parents divorced, his father moved out of the house, and Freddie took a job at Texas Instruments, working long hours to provide for her six children. William was the second-oldest, so he often had to look after his younger siblings. “He’d make sure we were in when we were supposed to be in. He’d help feed us, keep us in check,” says Corey Price, one of Greer’s younger brothers. “We all were pretty close. William used to help me with my homework when I was in elementary. He was a great brother, and he was incredibly kind. He’d do whatever he could for people. He’d also read the Bible a lot and we’d have conversations about different scriptures or he’d suggest a passage I should read.”
At Madison High School, Greer pursued his interest in music and took part in talent shows. That’s where he met Belinda Wills, a year younger and the girl who would become his wife.
In 1979, at age 15, Belinda gave birth to a daughter, her only child with Greer, and moved into the house he shared with Freddie and his siblings. Two years later, they married at a courthouse in Dallas and rented an apartment in the city. Greer worked for the technology company 3M. The couple separated in 1983 after two years of marriage. That’s when Greer began indulging his insatiable appetite for traveling.
Tangie Arrington, Greer’s daughter, was 4 when her parents split. She has few memories of them together. After the divorce, Greer moved back in with his mother in Houston and took various part-time jobs—as a clerk at Houston Community College and at a bookstore—to fund his travels around the country. “He read a lot of books,” Tangie said when I met her at a coffee shop off Highway 290, a short drive west of Houston, where she lives. “He was a very smart man. But music was his passion, and in addition to singing in church, he’d also begun to perform at weddings.”
When Tangie was younger, her relationship with her father revolved around music. Greer would drive around in a big brown Oldsmobile Cutlass, Tangie in the back, and he’d have her sing along to Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. Tangie says her dad even sounded like Vandross. “I remember when I turned 6, he bought me a full-sized piano for my birthday. Him and mom were separated, and my relatives helped move it into mom’s house. I don’t think she liked it too much.” From 1999 to 2001 Greer took classes in music and law at Houston Community College. Tangie has the school transcripts that show he studied piano, musical theater, jazz ensemble, family law, small business law, and wills and probate. She remembers going to watch him play at a concert at the college. “He loved jazz, R&B and gospel, and he had a very good voice. I really think that was his dream: to get into the music industry. But it didn’t work out for him.”
In the years after his split from Tangie’s mother, Greer began exhibiting signs of the mental illness that would affect him the rest of his life. He began to distance himself from the family. Tangie saw less and less of him. She remembers him leaving her grandmother’s house for a while to stay in a men’s shelter in Houston. I ask why, and Tangie looks away. “There were some mental-health issues. He had been prescribed medicine for manic depression and he had paranoia. Mom kind of knew years ago that things were not quite right, and I remember hearing things from her growing up. … But he never discussed it with any of us. I think he was embarrassed. Everybody knew something was wrong but nobody admitted it.”
Corey Price was still in his teens when he noticed a change in his brother. “I think he was a little depressed at a few things and it sent him over the edge,” he tells me.
Freddie died in 2009 and Tangie says that’s when her father really began to drift away. At family functions he wouldn’t interact, and although the family told Greer he could live in his mother’s house, he chose to leave. Tangie believes his incessant traveling was connected to paranoia. “He wanted to move around. He thought people were watching him.”
His family never knew where he was from one month to the next. One day they’d get a call from Washington, D.C. “What are you doing there?” they’d ask. “Just studying,” Greer would say. He made Tangie a CD of his music and she thought that perhaps he was traveling around to try to break into the industry. “I always thought that could be why he went to the particular places he did: Washington, D.C., Louisiana, San Francisco, Austin. He’d take the Greyhound everywhere. He’d stay maybe two or three weeks in each place, then I’d get a call asking if he had any mail.”
Corey says Greer still managed to take care of himself. “He was an independent person. He hated people offering to do things for him. He wanted to do things for himself.”
Sometime in the late morning of July 27, 2012, Tangie got a call from her half-sister Audria. “I have some really bad news,” she said. “Your dad was murdered.” The detective had called Tangie’s grandfather’s house, and Audria had picked up the phone. Tangie says that in all honesty she wasn’t surprised. She didn’t know Greer was sleeping rough—she thought he was staying in motels—but she knew he was hanging out in downtown areas of big cities with homeless people. “I thought that lifestyle could possibly harm him one day.”
“We were always worried about him,” Corey says of his brother. “My mother was always terrified he was out there like that. I was glad she passed on before finding out what happened to him. He wasn’t just another homeless person. He was somebody with a heart.”
Tangie’s first thought was that her father was killed by another transient. “He had two cell phones and money on him. And he’s so timid. I thought he could have seemed like a target,” she says.
Detectives called Tangie. They asked when was the last time she spoke to her dad. Three months ago; he called to ask if he had any mail. “How are the kids?” he said. “Are you going to church?” It was very short. He told Tangie he was in Houston. Was she aware he was in Austin? No. Did she know he was sleeping outside? No. The police told her they had no leads. It could have been a gang initiation, they said. A serial murder, perhaps. Or a case of mistaken identity.
In the funeral home, William Greer lay in an open casket. Tangie says there were no bruises that she could see, but his face looked like it had been pushed inward and his ear had been destroyed. “The guy who worked on my dad in the funeral home said there had been a lot of trauma to his face.”
While Greer’s death remained a mystery, Tangie began to learn new details about his life. It turned out Greer had been renting a small storage facility in Houston, paid for with his disability check. Everything in the storage compartment was laid out so neatly: there was a pile of shoes, paperwork—every receipt for every meal he had eaten was bundled up in rubber bands—clothes, bags, books, and several Bibles. “There were probably six or seven of those,” Tangie says. “And they were all worn.” Tangie says it helped her, looking through her dad’s stuff. “Everything kind of made sense. Reading some of his writings, seeing the things he had in storage, I realized for the first time that he really was homeless.”
All Tangie Arrington has left of the father she barely knew is the possessions he left behind, possessions that offer just hints about this quiet, unassuming man who loved God and music, and for whom an illness he struggled with most of his adult life meant that life would be spent living and sleeping on the streets. Tangie wanted to know why he died and who killed him.
In the weeks that followed her dad’s death, Tangie drove to Austin three times: once to speak to police, once to speak to reporters, and once to commemorate what would have been Greer’s 50th birthday on July 29. On one of those visits, Tangie went to the spot where her father lost his life. She spoke to a transient named Chris who sleeps nearby and asked him if he had seen anything the night of the murder. She knew detectives had already questioned him—and eliminated him from their investigation—but maybe he had forgotten to tell them something that could prove crucial. “I was playing detective in a way,” Tangie told me.
Chris told her he didn’t remember her dad, but that he did recall another transient sleeping at the same spot before Greer’s murder, and afterward. He gave her a description of the man, and Tangie relayed the information to detectives. But she says they told her Chris wasn’t reliable. “If you interviewed him eight times, you’ll get eight different answers,” a detective said.
Tangie, 34, works as a preschool teacher in Houston, and she has a child of her own. She couldn’t afford the time to keep coming back to Austin looking for clues, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the murder. She was angry. “I know my dad. He didn’t go looking for trouble,” she says. “He was a gentle man.”
One morning in December I visited the spot where Greer was killed and spoke to Chris, who was sitting a few yards away, like he does most mornings. Chris confirmed what he’d told Tangie, that he didn’t know Greer and didn’t remember ever seeing him. But he volunteered more information: that there was another man who he knew had slept there prior to—and after—Greer’s murder. His description of the man was the same one he gave Tangie. Det. Driscoll told me he couldn’t corroborate what Chris had said, and that he thought Chris unreliable, just as he’d told Tangie.
Then, a few days later, I revisited the murder scene. As I paced around the edge of the gazebo, where Chris had slept the night of Greer’s murder, I noticed another man sitting close to the wall of the structure, his legs tucked inside a sleeping bag. He fit the description Chris had given both me and Tangie, and I called Driscoll. Within five minutes, two uniformed police officers arrived to question the man, but it lasted less than 10 minutes, and then they left him alone.
I later spoke to Driscoll on the phone and asked him whether the man had been eliminated from the investigation. “The guy was identified but I haven’t had time to look into his past just yet,” he said. Driscoll’s boss, Sgt. Ehlert, later emailed to say there was nothing to lead detectives to believe the man was involved in the murder.
But I had further questions: How could police determine, six months on, whether this man—or anyone else for that matter—was at the murder scene? Presumably Greer’s DNA would have long since disappeared from any of their clothing. I wanted to see the security footage that Driscoll told me police had taken from Silicon Labs, the building across the street from where Greer’s body was found, and I also wanted to see the medical examiner’s report.
A spokesperson told me the police couldn’t help me any further. It was an ongoing investigation, he said, and they wouldn’t answer those questions. When I asked him why, he said the police like to withhold some information for when they eventually have a suspect. The technique helps them learn whether a suspect has unique, or inside, knowledge of a crime.
But police have no suspects. As the Observer went to press, the Greer and Tucker murders remained unsolved. Detectives apparently have no evidence to suggest the two deaths are related, but they’re not ruling it out either. It’s unusual for the department not to solve a homicide. Nationally, the rate for solving murders hovers somewhere around 60 percent. Austin Police close about 90 percent of murder cases.
Greer’s was one of only two Austin homicides from 2012 that remain unsolved, according to APD.
Eight months on and there’s still no answer to what happened on that grass bank last summer. The police have no leads and there are no witnesses. And there’s still no closure for Tangie Arrington, who says she won’t rest until she finds out what happened to her father. She wants the person responsible to account for what they did. She wants the killer to tell her why. She wants closure.
But she has also come to know her father perhaps better in death than she knew him in life.
A few weeks after we met, Tangie sent me an email saying she’d been through more of her father’s paperwork. She had discovered a post office box registered in his name. In the box was documentation that her father had made repeated donations of $25 and $40 to the Feed the Children charity and to a Houston homeless shelter. “I found this out,” Tangie wrote, “because of the mail in his P.O. box thanking him.”