Seaman’s 1984 murder nearly sparks Israeli invasion of Galveston

The front page of The Galveston Daily News declares a verdict in the Kedem murder case.

The front page of The Galveston Daily News declares a verdict in the Kedem murder case.

Eliyahu Kedem left the cargo ship docked at Galveston’s Pier 41 on June 20, 1984, and walked into town to buy gifts for his wife and two children. Despite the heat, the 41-year-old Israeli seaman refused to spend money on a taxi, preferring to save the cash filling his pockets for his family. After making his purchases, he headed back to the 645-foot General Makleef, on which he served as the chief radio officer.

As he walked down 37th Street at about 10:30 p.m., a bag in each hand, he passed a group of men standing outside a lounge near Church Street. A few minutes later, two teens on bicycles rode past. Not long after that, a car drove by, its headlights illuminating a struggle near the train tracks just a block from Harborside Drive. In the yellow glow, the men standing outside the lounge saw three men struggling. One man fell to his knees and the other two hopped onto bicycles and rode back up 37th Street, carrying two bags.

The men watching thought they had just witnessed a robbery.

But Pete Kovacevich, the car’s driver, realized it was much worse than that when he reached Kedem. The sailor, staggering near the train tracks, screamed hysterically as blood gushed down his face. Nearby, a foot-long 2×4 gleamed with fresh blood. Kovacevich called police, and two officers rushed Kedem to John Sealy Hospital. He died six hours later.

When Kedem’s shipmates learned what had happened, they held a meeting to discuss what they should do. Someone suggested marching into the city armed with submachine guns. According to The Galveston Daily News, a local rabbi helped diffuse the tension by holding a service with the crew. Several members of Galveston’s Jewish community also met with the men to explain how the U.S. justice system worked. Attorney David Jameson called Kedem’s widow, Shalomith, in Rehovet, Israel, to give her updates on the investigation.

Two days after the attack, Galveston police arrested 18-year-old Emanuel Calvin Williams. A few days later, 19-year-old Ira Dean Stanley turned himself in. Prosecutors charged both men with capital murder, which carried a possible death sentence. They reduced the charge when the grand jury indicted the two men together, possibly because they knew it would be hard to get a conviction without definite proof of which man delivered the fatal blow.

Williams and Stanley pleaded not guilty.

The trial, before a 10-woman, two-man jury, began May 14, 1985. Medical examiner William McCormick testified Kedem suffered “torrential blood loss” from four or five blows to the head. Police believed robbery was the motive, noting the two bags Kedem carried had disappeared. But the attackers made off with much less than they could have: Kedem still had about $700 in his pockets when he arrived at the hospital.

On its second day, the trial unexpectedly ground to a halt when eyewitness Melvin Petteway refused to enter the courtroom.

“I was told I wouldn’t have to testify, and I don’t want to,” he told District Judge Ed Harris.

Petteway, one of the men standing outside the lounge the night of the murder, said he was scared to testify. For hours he refused and declared he would go to jail rather than put his life at risk. Harris called in another lawyer to advise Petteway, who eventually agreed to testify. Despite the drama surrounding Petteway’s testimony, the most detailed account of what happened that night came from Patrick Jones, 19, who testified he was standing outside the lounge with Petteway and another friend when Kedem walked past them.

Shortly after, Williams and Stanley rode past on their bicycles, Jones said. After the attack, Williams rode back by the lounge and went into his house nearby. He came back out to meet Stanley, holding a pair of shorts, and the two parted again, Jones testified.

Defense attorneys attacked Jones’ credibility, claiming he just wanted to get his name in the newspaper. They asked why he didn’t initially report what he saw to police.

“I didn’t want to get involved,” Jones said, later adding, “What you want me to do? Go down there? I witnessed a robbery. I didn’t witness no murder.”

Defense attorneys suggested the police at first thought Petteway and Jones might be involved in some way, but prosecutor Jim James insisted investigators never considered them suspects. While the witnesses might have had credibility problems, James faced a bigger challenge to his case. Petteway and Jones claimed to have witnessed the attack from four blocks away, a distance at which defense attorneys insisted they could not have seen what happened.

Lawyer G. Michael Cooper III urged Harris to allow the jury to have a “controlled viewing” of the scene, which would be better than having them go to the site themselves.

“The probabilities are that they will. You can’t resist it,” he said.

James said he would love for jurors to make the trip but feared an appeals court might find a trial error in such a stunt and reverse any future conviction. He called Cooper’s request a “clever ploy” designed to free his client after the fact. Harris denied the request.

Investigators had other damning evidence, but no smoking gun. An FBI special agent testified blood found on the murder weapon and on Williams’ bicycle came from a human, but she couldn’t provide a more detailed analysis because the evidence had been “contaminated.”

Stanley declined to testify, but Williams took the stand in his own defense. He said he and Stanley had ridden their bikes through the neighborhood the night of the murder but denied any involvement. They were going to a friend’s house when they passed the lounge where the witnesses saw them, he said. When prosecutors showed him photos of the victim, Williams didn’t flinch.

“It looks like a bad sight,” he said. “I would hate to be in that position.”

The jury sat through nine days of testimony but didn’t need to deliberate long. They returned guilty verdicts after considering it for just two and a half hours. Stanley and Williams sat impassive as jury forewoman Flora Jones read the decision. Several members of their families began to cry. Jones later told Harris several jurors feared reprisals, a possibility he deemed unlikely.

After the conviction, Jameson called Kedem’s widow to tell her the news. He also announced a fund for Shalomith and her two sons, 9-year-old Oded and 2-year-old Ofem.

“The killers are the ones who are responsible, but there’s enough responsibility to be shared by the town,” he said, adding whoever killed Kedem is “a Galvestonian who created orphans, and I don’t like that.”

A month after the trial ended, Harris sentenced Stanley and Williams to 60 years in prison. Williams earned parole on Feb. 24, 2010, and Stanley followed on March 9. They each served 25 years.

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