The Sims Family holds a picture of Will Sims.
Five years ago on Friday, November 12, 2016, Will Sims was found beaten and shot dead on Appian Way in El Sobrante, CA, seemingly a victim of a hate crime. Will was 28 years old and a well-liked African American musician who played in many venues around the Bay Area.
The trial for the three men involved with Will's death is underway in Contra Costa County this month. While the grand jury removed the hate crime charge, the charges of murder, assault and robbery still stand. The trial is scheduled to continue into December. Friends will be in the courtroom to support the family.
NIOT sat down with Will's parents, Renee and Bill, and his sister, Stacey, to ask them to reflect on what happened, Will's life and their memories of him. The interview took place in 2018.
How Could This Have Happened?
"Losing Will,” his mother, Renee said, cut me "in a deep place in my heart. So, it's been a daily struggle. No matter how much support you get, it's still really a painful, shocking thing that your son has been murdered. And I don't know if that part of it I'll ever get over. I have my good days and my bad days. ...It's been devastating and totally changed our lives."
"Here's how our day started, on November 12, 2016," Renee said. "We woke up early to drive to San Francisco to participate in a walk to support prostate cancer awareness. On our way, we passed the intersection between San Pablo Dam Road and Appian Way and I said to my husband Bill, ‘Look at that. there's police tape down there. Something must've happened.’ We knew [Will] hadn't come home [the night before]. He didn't come in sometimes when he was staying with his friends. The police were out there with yellow tape and they're measuring stuff as we passed by. Later in the day after, we came home. We got a knock on the door. It turns out it's the Contra Costa Sheriff's department."
"They tell us this horrific story about Will being murdered, and I was in total shock," Rene said. "I mean, I don't know how I will ever get over this. It was something I thought I would never have to deal with. When I heard it — I was going crazy hearing it, because it just was so not something that I was thinking would ever happen. What a nightmare. I thought about my family history. Who would have thought after coming to California when I was little to get away from hate, that one day we would be faced with this horrible crime. I was born in Nashville. My family moved to California to get away from prejudice and hate. We moved to Palo Alto. I was part of a group of blacks in a mostly black neighborhood in Palo Alto. I experienced some prejudice but I don’t recall any hate crimes. Our neighborhood in El Sobrante is a very diverse community. We thought that, if you conduct yourself in a certain way; those attitudes we hoped would be left behind.
”I do recall thinking right before Trump was voted in that I should, you know, just tell Will to be careful because it seemed like right after Election Day (2016) all of a sudden there were all these incidents happening, but I never really got a chance to do that."
Will’s father Bill said, "I did tell him to be careful, and I explained to him — you know, I'm from rural Mississippi. My father grew up there and it's not the kind of place that everybody accepts you for who you are. [Will] liked to go out and sing and be with his friends at the bar, drinking and so forth. And I told him, don't be out so late, you know, I told him don't ever close a bar. I was fearful something like this could happen, because of the climate and so forth."
"Harassments, insults — you know, what's happening," recalls Bill, "[and] not only to Black people. It was happening to many Indians, Asians, people of Jewish descendant. We also heard about how across the country, synagogues were being vandalized. So there seemed to be a rash of these kinds of things happening.
"I didn’t believe it at first. I thought maybe they had gotten the wrong person," Will’s sister Stacey recalled. "Maybe they had made a mistake. I had thought and hoped Will was still alive but they had mistaken someone else for Will. Will was calm and peaceful. He never started conflicts with people. My brother was not a threat to anyone. He was a law-abiding citizen. Will was never involved in a gang. He never committed any crimes. Will would sometimes vet my friends. He would give me advice about how to deal with situations. He would encourage me to do my best in school, work, and life in general. Why was his life taken from him?
"It made me think are we going back to before the civil rights movement, when Emmett Till and a lot of black people were killed because of the color of our skin," Stacey continued. "It was very scary, very scary."
Music Was Will’s Driving Passion
"He really cared about people," Stacey said. "He was not into possessions, like some people like having a lot of shoes, clothes, etc. He was the exact opposite. He was not into any of that. He just cared about people and wanted people to get along. And he wasn't a fighter. He never got into any fights. Will has family and friends of different ethnic groups and races.
"Of course, you realize he's my son. So, you know, we love him," Bill said. “But, he was a very generous kind of kid . . . .If he had something, he wants you to have it, too. He wants you to have some of it or whatever he has. He liked to share and, I really liked that about him."
"He hadn't really experienced any hate that I know of. I mean, he never mentioned anybody was going after him because he's African American or anything like that," said Bill.
"When he played the piano, he would take different movies and music that he'd heard on movies such as Halloween, Jaws, and other movies and he could play them on the piano by ear. It was so awesome," said Stacey.
"We have a close family," Renee said. "So, a lot of times on the weekends and especially in the summer and during holidays, he spent it with his cousins. They were the ones that are into baseball and basketball and, you know, the whole sport thing. He had his own thing. He had the music. My husband has been a jazz enthusiast for a number of years. He has a collection of records from some of the famous jazz artists. So, he grew up in a house listening to a lot of music."
“Music was his passion," Stacey said. "It was his heart and soul. He loved music and it was just something he'd really enjoyed. It brought him joy. He didn’t want to be praised for it, but I could tell it brought him joy. He would make music. It was something he was naturally really good at. He enjoyed his talent. Will also liked to dance. He would do the moonwalk sometimes. He was very good at dancing also.”
"He knew music was his thing, you know, it was his calling," Bill said. "He had fun entertaining his friends and I'm not only just saying this because he's my son, but he was multitalented. He could move you, he could sing, he could play... He could play piano and played guitar."
“Growing up, he was very mature for his age,” recalled Renee. Will had a wisdom beyond his years. He was mentored by a lot of older jazz musicians at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond. He also loved playing video games and watching action and suspense movies with his sister Stacey. As a child, he was great at impersonating voices. Will could mimic his grandfather’s southern drawl from Mississippi. He was also good at mimicking celebrity’s voices. He mimicked Eddie Murphy, Steve Harvey, and Chris Tucker. So that was like part of who he was. He was the kid that just liked to have fun."
Community Response to Will’s Death
"The aftermath of the tragedy was surreal," said Renee. "After something horrific like this happens, you kind of feel all alone. You don't know where to go with this. Sometimes the worst brings out the best in people and in this case, I could see it happening. The outpouring of care and concern from the community really helped to uplift us. There were a lot of people that just volunteered to do things that we didn't ask them to do. It reminded us that there are really good people and caring people in the world that will try to come together and make a bad situation better."
"It surprised me there was a vigil for Will before we even knew what was going on," said Bill. "I guess they had singers and a chorus out there."
"We didn't feel comfortable at that point going to the vigil because [although] the police knew who they were, they hadn't caught the people and the vigil was right across the street where Will was murdered," Renee said. "For a long time I had this thing where I wasn't going to go anywhere on that street."
"When it first happened, I was very nervous and worried," said Stacey. "I worry about nighttime. That's why, even on my job, I tried to schedule it so that I didn't work at night because I don't want to be out when these people or people like them are out wandering around or wherever they are, you know? But then, the outpouring of caring and love — it made me realize that it wasn't the community. It was just these criminals who had harmed and killed Will. The community was good. We live in a community that seems to be very full of caring people."
"First of all, our neighbors," said Bill. "The neighbors across the street — who we very seldom talked to then— they contacted us right away. Our next-door neighbor, the neighbor up the street here, another across the street — you know, they all were very supportive. I mean, I can't say enough about their support. It was more than I expected. I felt like it was our problem. They didn't feel that way."
"And we have gotten a lot of support from the Sheriff's department and the District Attorney’s which have been assigned to our case as well as victim advocates," said Renee. "I don't know if that's everybody's experience — probably not, but ours was positive."
"We're really thankful for all the people and the organizations that have supported us," said Bill. "Because it makes you feel like you're not alone and that other people understand that this is something that a whole community, actually a whole nation, needs to take a look at. I really seriously believe that in order for us to make it as a species, we've got to make some drastic changes as far as how we treat each other."
"What happens in the community," he said, "no matter whether you're Black, or white, or any other nationality, or any other ethnic group — is a reflection of you. I always think about what happened in Nazi Germany, and what happened in Rwanda. These things happen, and if you allow people to do these things, it doesn't stop. Exposing hate is always a good thing."
"I heard people say they never thought anything like that would happen in the Bay Area, because all of our communities are multi-ethnic, multi-race, etc." said Renee. "They always think of this as a place where everyone gets along and to see something like that help happen here. I think this was a shock for a lot of people."
Five years on, Renee said, "We're not at the same place that we were the day the Sheriff's department knocked on the door, because we've seen, you know, that other people care. [But] it's a process. Someone once said that when you lose your parents, you lose your past, your history. When you lose your child, you lose your future. That's what it feels like."
NIOT El Sobrante is hosting a Virtual Concert 11/14 at 6pm (Pacific Time) as part of the 4th Annual United Against Hate Week, featuring local El Sobrante musicians. The Concert is dedicated to Will's memory. Register here to receive the Zoom link: https://tinyurl.com/tadwrabm