Seeing Bobby Brown back in the news due to his daughter’s medical travails
has brought to mind a crime in which his music played a starring role.
It’s not, as you might expect,
a 1990s rap beef over publishing rights or dis tracks—the victim in the case was a teenage New Edition fan,
and after her murder her killer tortured her family via telephone by playing her favorite song. Or did he?
As soon as Mrs. Alicia Blake awoke and exited her bedroom on the morning of April 11th, 1986
she knew something was amiss—the front door was wide open, the television blared, and the family’s two dogs, usually free, were corralled in the garage.
Mrs. Blake lived in the home on the 1500 block of Oleander Avenue in Chula Vista, California
with her husband and three children—a quick head check revealed her younger daughter Rickie Ann,
age fourteen, was missing.
The last time Mrs. Blake had seen her daughter was 9:30pm;
Rickie Ann had been in the living room watching the Padres game on television when Mrs. Blake retired for the evening.
At approximately midnight Rickie Ann’s older sister had answered a phone call
from a man who identified himself as “George;”
he asked to speak to Rickie Ann, and when her sister went to bed a few minutes later
Rickie Ann was still on the telephone.
An 8th grader at Bonita Vista Junior High school,
Rickie Ann was a late bloomer who still played with Cabbage Patch dolls and feared the dark—her family knew she hadn’t run away, and immediately contacted the Chula Vista Police to report her disappearance.
Each moment that passed without news of Rickie Ann was a torment for the family,
and by the time the sun fell Mrs. Blake knew the worst had come to pass.
As she later told a reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune,
“By the time it got dark, I kind of knew I’d never see my baby again because Rickie was so afraid of the dark.”
At 10:10pm that evening a motorist spotted a figure sprawled near an I-5 off-ramp
approximately six miles from the Blake home; Rickie Ann’s body had been dumped on the roadside like freeway detritus.
An autopsy later revealed she’d been raped, strangled and beaten;
injuries to her mouth and gums indicated her assailant had bashed a bottle against her lips
and poured beer down her throat—although strangulation was Rickie Ann’s primary cause of death the liquid in her lungs was a contributing factor.
Due to the lack of struggle at the scene the Blake family was positive Rickie Ann had known her killer.
“She wouldn’t answer the door unless she knew who was at the door. She’d come get you in the shower,”
Mrs. Blake told The Sand Diego Union Tribune.
As the last person known to have spoken with Rickie Ann
George became an immediate person of interest, but try as they might detectives were unable to ascertain the midnight caller’s identity.
It was unclear if George and Rickie Ann had ever met in person,
but they’d conversed on numerous occasions;
although his oratory was occasionally obscene the socially-awkward teen was too polite to refuse his calls.
George seemed to know many details about Rickie Ann’s life and social circle, detectives learned,
yet even though he’d also called several of her friends
he’d never revealed any personal information that would lead police to his door—in the pre-caller ID era local calls weren’t logged by the phone company, and George remained a cypher.
Hours after her daughter’s body was found Mrs. Blake received a phone call from an unknown man who claimed to be Rickie Ann’s abductor:
“I freaked and threw the phone across the room,”
she told The Sand Diego Union Tribune.
“My husband grabbed the phone and no one was there.”
Rickie Ann’s funeral at the Little Chapel of the Roses
was so crowded that nearly a hundred mourners milled outside the church, unable to gain entry.
At the altar her well-worn Padres baseball cap rested atop her closed casket,
which was draped with a sash reading “We’ll always love you Banana,” the Blake family nickname
for their younger daughter.
Rickie Ann had been an avid fan of the R&B group New Edition,
and the music for the service featured the band’s song “With You All the Way,” her favorite slow jam:
♪ ‘Cause I’m with you all the way
I’ll never give up this dream
Although it may seem ♫
There’s no way out today (Oh, girl)
In the days after her death some of Rickie Ann’s traumatized classmates swore they could see her spirit flashing on a billboard off the I-5 in Chula Vista,
and this wasn’t the only eerie occurrence in the aftermath of the teen’s murder—someone began phoning the Blake home and playing New Edition’s “With You All the Way,”
leading investigators to speculate the killer had attended Rickie Ann’s funeral.
As the Blake family grieved, the oddities continued.
Rickie Ann’s belongings had been packed and stored in the family’s garage,
and items began to mysteriously disappear from the boxes.
Strange offerings materialized at Rickie Ann’s grave site,
including pieces of a man’s shirt stuffed into a vase and a necklace with a heart-shaped pendant;
at times, pocket change littered her headstone.
And through it all, taunting phone calls rang on;
sometimes the caller would recount the comings and goings at the gravesite and the Blake home, evidence he’d been surveilling the family.
When you see me
♫ Your eyes say that you need me
But there’s another feelin’ they can’t hide
And it hurts so deep inside ♬
Though he never identified himself as George
the Blake’s telephone tormentor claimed to be Rickie Ann’s killer, and his calls so unnerved the Blakes they sent their older daughter to live with family members out of town.
Yet for all the trauma they occasioned,
Mrs. Blake admitted that in some ways she looked forward to the phantom calls—they gave her hope her daughter’s murder would one day be solved.
“I won’t change my telephone number, because eventually he’s going to trip up,”
Mrs. Blake told a journalist from The San Diego Union Tribune.
“Eventually, he’s going to say something. It may take me the rest of my life, but eventually I’m going to know who this person is who’s calling. So, I figure as long as he keeps calling I have hope that someday he’ll be caught.”
The calls always arrived
in the wee hours of the morning,
their frequency increasing as the anniversaries of Rickie Ann’s March birthday and the date of her death drew near.
Despite a phone tap
installed by the Chula Vista Police
attempts to determine the origin of the calls were unsuccessful;
authorities have never released the reason for this failure,
but it’s possible the duration of the calls was too brief to be traced.
Year after year Mrs. Blake picked up the phone and parleyed with the man who claimed to be her daughter’s killer—yet he never let slip any personal information, and his identity remained unknown.
Mrs. Blake may have come to look forward to the phantom calls,
but after 1998 even this small comfort would be denied her—ten years after Rickie Ann’s death
the calls began to peter out
and eventually stopped altogether.
The mellifluous tones of “With You All the Way” no longer reverberated over the Blake family phone line,
and like New Edition’s musical career, the investigation into Rickie Ann Blake’s murder grew cold.
Yes, I’m with you all the way
Whatever places love might put us through ♪
Remember I’m with you
♫ With you all the way
The investigation into Rickie Ann’s murder may have stalled,
but advances in technology didn’t;
as the years passed the CODIS databank expanded,
and finally science provided the break in the case that diligent investigation could not—in 2003,
seventeen years after her murder,
the DNA from Rickie Ann’s rape kit was linked to George Williams Jr.,
age forty-seven, an Indiana construction worker and thrice-convicted sex offender.
At the time of the crime Williams lived in San Diego, a short hop down the freeway from Chula Vista.
He was a registered sex offender even in 1986,
on parole after a guilty plea for the December 1984 rape of his six-year old daughter.
On April 18th, approximately a week after Rickie Ann’s murder,
Williams had raped his neighbor and her six-year old child at knifepoint; heavily intoxicated, he fell asleep at the crime scene and was still in the apartment when his victims managed to summon help.
Williams negotiated a seventeen-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea for the dual rapes,
and after serving twelve years in prison
he was paroled back to his hometown of Gary, Indiana in 1998.
Williams’ DNA was swabbed before his release,
but due to the California crime lab’s backlog it took five years to process his sample.
Within a month of his parole for the California rapes
Williams sexually assaulted his thirteen-year old nephew;
had Williams’ DNA been entered into CODIS in a timely manner the boy would’ve been spared.
Williams was subsequently sentenced to four years in prison for sodomy,
and was paroled for the final time in 2001.
San Diego detectives and the Indiana State Police nabbed Williams
during a scheduled visit to his parole officer
on February 10th, 2003.
During an initial interview Williams not only claimed
he’d never met Rickie Ann,
he also maintained he’d never been to Chula Vista.
By the time of his trial two years later,
however, Williams’ story had changed—his memory
he now alleged he’d had consensual sex with Rickie Ann a few days before her murder.
Waging an uphill battle due to their client’s history of predation,
Williams’ defense attorneys proffered an alternate suspect:
George Cárdenas, a teenager at the time of the crime,
who lived a few houses away
from the Blake family in Chula Vista. The defense claimed Cárdenas was obsessed with Rickie Ann’s murder,
and his wife testified he’d often made vaguely incriminating statements concerning the crime.
Cárdenas was friendly with Rickie Ann’s brother, and he had an odd habit of prancing around his home nude—police considered him a person of interest in the early days of the investigation,
but he was cleared when his DNA failed to match the sample from Rickie Ann’s rape kit.
During the course of the trial several witnesses testified to Rickie Ann’s sexual naiveté,
and defense attorneys were able to provide scant evidence of a consensual affair between Williams and the shy teen fifteen years his junior.
The sole witness who buttressed the claim of a preexisting relationship between the pair
was Rickie Ann’s friend Ramyann Forrest,
who testified Rickie Ann had introduced her to Williams at Bonita Vista Junior High School shortly before the murder.
During a previous interview with investigators Ramyann had identified someone else
as the man she’d met that day,
however, and she was unable to point out Williams in the courtroom.
Furthermore, Williams was twenty-nine years old at the time of the crime,
and Ramyann had previously stated the man to whom she’d been introduced appeared to be a high school student.
However, even if Williams had been party to the Bonita Vista Junior High School introduction
Ramyann did not believe Rickie Ann would’ve had consensual sex with him or anyone else;
for Rickie Ann, holding hands with a boy was an event—there’s no way she would’ve been sexually active and failed to share the news with her friends, Ramyann testified.
Both Williams and Rickie Ann enjoyed roller skating,
and prosecutors theorized their paths may have first crossed at the local roller rink;
the course of events that brought Williams and Rickie Ann together on the night of her murder remained a mystery.
Yet even with some pieces of the puzzle missing
the forensic evidence and Rickie Ann’s sexual immaturity proved an insurmountable obstacle for the defense;
on November 8th, 2005, Williams was convicted of first degree murder, rape and kidnapping.
After seven days of deliberation the jury sentenced the lifelong sexual predator to death;
oddly, he became the second man named George Williams on California’s death row—the other George Williams had been condemned in 1992 for a drug-related double murder.
Although justice was appropriately meted out—Rickie Ann’s naiveté and Williams’ predilection for rape precluded the existence of a consensual sexual relationship—the trial left many questions unanswered.
Since Williams was able to lure Rickie Ann out of the house on the night of her murder
they apparently had some type of relationship, but the parameters and origin of this connection remain unclear.
Although Williams has never admitted to being George the midnight caller
he almost certainly was:
the possibility that Rickie Ann was coaxed out of the house and subsequently murdered
by two separate men named George is remote.
Williams may have been George the midnight caller,
but he almost certainly was not the Blake family’s telephone tormentor.
Williams, if you recall, was incarcerated from April 1986 to 1998,
the time span during which the calls occurred—prisoners are allowed only collect calls,
and their phone usage is monitored; surveilling the Blake family
and playing “With You All the Way” at four o’clock in the morning
would’ve been impossible from the confines of a prison cell.
Alternate suspect George Cárdenas was probably not the culprit either;
someone in the family would surely have recognized
the voice of their neighbor and family friend.
So was someone making the calls at Williams’ behest?
Or did a pre-cyber troll decide to harass the family for the 20th century version of lulz?
The identity of the phantom caller seems fated to remain unknown.
Though I know the odds of George Williams’ death sentence being carried out are slim—a recent 9th Circuit ruling has thrown the constitutionality of California’s death penalty in doubt—if the execution should ever come to pass I have devised a fitting farewell for the slayer of Rickie Ann Blake,
an innocent tween forever denied the opportunity to outgrow her terrible taste in music.
In a perfect world,
as George Williams lies strapped to the lethal injection gurney
rasping his last agonized breaths as the gates of Hell swing open to bade him entry,
the crooning notes of New Edition will echo throughout the execution chamber:
Yes, I’m with you all the way ♫
Whatever places love might put us through
Remember I’m with you
♫ With you all the way