June 27, 1939 – March 7, 2020
In 1979, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger P. Williams led the prosecution of Robert C. Hoag, then the president of the Seneca Indian Nation. Hoag was accused of illegally using federal funds to buy votes in a tribal election. After a very hard-fought trial in federal court, a jury acquitted Hoag on all charges.
“Roger and I went after each other as adversaries, day after day, for more than a month. It was a tough trial,” recalled Hoag’s defense lawyer, Paul J. Cambria. “But when the verdict came in, Roger shook my hand and was a complete gentleman. There were no hard feelings. That’s the kind of man he was – a total professional.”
Cambria was one of many prominent Buffalo attorneys who sing the praises of Mr. Williams, a long-time federal prosecutor who died Saturday in Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Amherst, following a long illness.
Mr. Williams, an Amherst resident, was 80. He twice served as the acting U.S. Attorney in charge of federal prosecutions in 17 counties of Western New York.
During a legal career that spanned five decades, Mr. Williams was a boss, friend and mentor to dozens of young lawyers, including many who became judges or high-profile defense attorneys.
The many attorneys who worked with him, battled against him in court or simply admired him included Salvatore R. Martoche, a former U.S. Attorney and state appeals judge; Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III; defense attorneys Rodney O. Personius, Daniel C. Oliverio, Patrick J. Brown, Joel L. Daniels and Terrence M. Connors; former U.S. Attorneys Kathleen Mehltretter, Denise O'Donnell and Dennis C. Vacco; and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Guerra.
“During all his years in the federal courts, including many prosecutions, I never knew Roger to make one enemy,” said Personius, who worked under Mr. Williams in the 1980s and became one of his closest friends.
“Many of the top attorneys in this community learned their skills from Roger,” said Oliverio, who also worked under Mr. Williams in the 1980s. “He inspired loyalty because he always looked for justice, and always backed the people who worked for him.”
And although he oversaw hundreds of investigations that put mobsters, scam artists, arsonists, drug dealers and other criminals behind bars, Mr. Williams took no joy from sending people to jail, according to his wife of 53 years, the former Patricia Ingavo.
“That was the worst part of the job for Roger, seeing people sentenced to prison,” Patricia Williams said. “He always said there was some good in every person, even though it’s not so easy to find it in some people. Even if he was not a fan of one of the criminals he prosecuted, he always felt bad for their families.”
Mr. Williams grew up in the City of Tonawanda and was a 1957 graduate of Tonawanda High School. He also graduated from the University of Buffalo and UB Law School before becoming an attorney in 1965.
He worked for Buffalo law firms for nine years before getting hired as a prosecutor by the late John Elfvin, who was then the U.S. Attorney in Buffalo, in 1974.
Mr. Williams served in many of the top positions in the Buffalo office, including two stints as acting U.S. Attorney in the 1980s and a stint as Martoche’s top assistant. He was known for his soft-spoken nature and sense of humor, and earned a reputation for hard work, honesty and fairness.
“Even as an adversary, his goal was justice,” Connors said. “And it was never personal with Roger. It was always about a fair outcome.”
In 1993, Mr. Williams moved to Washington, D.C., to finish his career as general counsel to the U.S. Department of Transportation. He retired in 2004, returning to Western New York.
He enjoyed sailing, spending time with his six grandchildren and reading about history, especially World War II.
“In his retirement years, Roger read hundreds of books,” his wife said. “He was also a romantic, much more than I am. He took me to see ‘The Sound of Music’ for our first date.”
Aside from his wife, Mr. Williams is survived by two daughters, Erika Murphy and Greta Suneson; a brother, Rowland; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 14, in Perna, Dengler, Roberts Funeral Home, 1671 Maple Road, Amherst.
On the day before he died, Mr. Williams was visited by four close friends – Personius, Oliverio, Murphy and Guerra – and had a telephone chat with another, Martoche.
“There he was, in his last hours, sitting, smiling and talking with his friends … joking about the old days, with no bitterness,” Oliverio recalled. “That’s how we will all remember Roger. He will be missed.”
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