GROVELAND — Until he "snapped" and entered the public eye by way of a gunbattle with California Highway Patrol officers Saturday in Oakland, almost no one had heard of the town Byron Williams called home — and almost no one in town had heard of him.
Groveland is a small community. Local merchants sell a shirt that reads: "Where the hell is Groveland?" Many of its 1,500 residents leave each year when the tourist trade that serves as the town's economic engine dies off after Memorial Day. Its altitude is around 3,000 feet; it's about 130 miles east of where Williams was shot by 10 CHP officers after police say he began shooting at them.
Though Williams has an extensive criminal history, the Honolulu native had not been much of a presence near home, local residents and sheriff's officials said.
Williams, 45, was arrested near his family's Groveland home in 2001 for drunken driving, but never turned up for his court date, said Sgt. Jeff Wilson of the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department. Outside that, Wilson said, local law enforcement had never heard of the man.
After that, Williams was wanted on a warrant for seven years, Wilson said.
The man was such a hermetic presence in the town that almost no one noticed when he was arrested for robbing a bank in Chowchilla in 2002 and went to prison until his release three years ago. Sheriff's deputies finally found him and served that failure-to-appear warrant in 2008 and didn't
"He got drunk, got in a fight with somebody, and he got his butt whooped," Wilson said. "He's not very good at this stuff."
Williams came in alone the night of the fight, a bar employee said, and was banned from the premises for becoming aggressive with a bartender.
Williams was hospitalized after the shooting with gunshot wounds that were not life-threatening, and was arraigned Tuesday in Oakland on multiple felonies, including several counts of attempted murder. Investigators said he'd been drunk and on his way to San Francisco to kill liberal activists at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Tides Foundation when he was pulled over.
In his neighborhood — a rural mountain community speckled with sheep farms, horse paddocks and log cabins — neither Williams nor his mother were known to many. One next-door neighbor said she hadn't even realized there was a house tucked back into the property where Williams lived with his mother.
Another neighbor, 55-year-old Thomas Funk, said he had seen Williams drive by a few times but had never heard him speak. Williams didn't stay quiet, though, after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.
"He was (angry) about the new president," Funk said. "He said the world's going to hell in a handbag because we have a black president and he didn't think black people deserve to be president. He was just bitter."
Williams screamed in anger so loudly, using curse words and racial epithets, that Funk's wife had to close the door to keep her son from hearing, Funk said.
His apparent racism, combined with comments his mother has made to the media that she owned the guns he took from her because she believes a "revolution" is near, may paint a picture suggesting Williams was part of a white supremacy group and could have been acting on their behalf Saturday, but local sheriff's deputies said they've seen nothing to suggest he was connected to such a group. Authorities in Oakland believe he acted alone.
"There are no well-established, organized white supremacy groups in Tuolumne County," Wilson said. "We get occasional street gangs related to that, but they break up easily and don't last long."
Williams' mother, Janice, remained a similarly withdrawn mystery to neighbors. The only neighbor she appeared to have ever visited is Dorothy Wothe, an 89-year-old widow living a few hundred yards from the Williams' home.
Wothe said she has known Janice Williams for about a decade but never met her son. Janice Williams is a bookkeeper and former llama farmer, Wothe said, and a private person even with her friends.
"She's very quiet and likable," Wothe said. "She's a loving mother. She babies him."
On Sunday, Janice Williams told the San Francisco Chronicle that "something snapped" in her son. "His life is over. He will go back to prison for the rest of his life. Our lives are over."
Aside from Wothe, no other neighbors said they'd spoken with her. After a host of television news vans arrived at the home, a sign appeared at her driveway reading, "No media."
On Monday, someone went a step further: Funk said he saw a woman, far enough away he couldn't be sure who it was, chain-sawing down a couple of trees on the road to the Williams home in an apparent effort to stop vehicles from getting close.
That effort failed, Funk added, when officials arrived shortly thereafter, moved the trees and sheriff's deputies and FBI agents swarmed the property.
Back on the small commercial strip of Groveland on Tuesday, many residents and merchants said the same thing of Byron Williams: "We've never heard of the guy."
Tammy D'Antonio, a former Groveland resident who had returned on vacation, said she was dismayed the tiny former mining town had come to notoriety in such a way.
"It's sad, very sad. This is one of the nicest places you could live," D'Antonio said. "Now everyone thinks this is where people go to hide in the woods and wait for the revolution, and nothing could be further from the truth. This is God's country up here. It's just beautiful."
Staff writer and photographer Jane Tyska contributed to this story.