Final Acts: The Story Behind John Williams’ Tragic End

The Salt Lake City firemen could hear a man desperately screaming for help from the fourth floor of the mansion in Capitol Hill, one of Salt Lake’s oldest neighborhoods.

A neighbor had made the emergency call; firemen arrived on the scene at 1:28 a.m. on May 22, 2016.

john williams
John Williams’ house after the fire.

But flames had already consumed a spiral staircase between the third and top floor bedroom—the fire was so intense that immediate rescue was impossible.

By the time they got to him 45 minutes later, 72-year-old John Williams, owner of the house, was dead, suffocated in his smoke-filled bedroom.

From the beginning, it was evident to detectives that the fire had been deliberately set and fueled by accelerant from a paint thinner can near the entrance. They were still sorting through the debris when a man in his mid 40s, clearly high and disheveled walked up to the scene. He asked about damage to the house, then said, “Is my husband in there?”

Craig Crawford had been John Williams’ partner for 20 years and husband for six.

Two weeks later, he was charged in Third District Court with the murder of John Williams.

Few homicides in recent times touched the citizens of Salt Lake City quite as much as Williams’ did. A publicly reserved but privately life-loving restaurateur, known as a developer and renovator, Williams was also a LGBTQ community benefactor and advocate and passionate booster for the Beehive capital city’s architectural past and commercial future. He was also a famous host, known especially for his Christmas parties. They were always lavish affairs for family and close friends, with dinner on a long glass dining room table seating 30, followed by singing Christmas songs round the piano in what Williams called “the ballroom” upstairs, with its spectacular city views.

With his partners Tom Sieg and Tom Guinney, Williams put Salt Lake City dining on the regional, if not national, map in the 1980s and ‘90s—the trio opened 10 restaurants under the umbrella of Gastronomy Inc., including the New Yorker, the benchmark for fine dining in Salt Lake, and the Market Street Grill and Oyster Bar, which pioneered fresh seafood in the city. Williams was well-known and beloved in Salt Lake City. Hundreds of people—politicians, business associates, friends and relatives gathered at his funeral service at Abravanel Hall, paid their respects to his closed casket and joined the motorcade to City Cemetery where Williams was buried.

An Odd Couple

Craig Crawford and John Williams.

John Williams and Craig Crawford had much in common, including growing up in homophobic faiths, but with one fundamental difference: When Williams came out to his Mormon family, he received love, compassion and support, says Stephanie Larsen, wife of one of Williams’ nephews. Crawford faced rejection from his born-again parents when he came out at age 16. His mother and father viewed a homosexual, he says in a prison interview, as akin to a heroin addict.

Through interviews, police and court records and an audio recording of Crawford’s three-day sentencing hearing in late summer 2017, a picture emerges of Williams’ and Crawfords’ initially happy May-December love story that soured as marital dysfunction, drug addiction, mental illness and domestic violence took their toll. More than two years after the murder, Crawford adjusts to the rest of his life in Utah State Prison, while perhaps the most emotionally resonant legacy of his partner—the celebration of familial love over faith-driven prejudice—is set to re-emerge in the form of a house on a backstreet in his beloved downtown Salt Lake City. 

Blind Date

John Williams grew up in Grace, Idaho, a small agricultural community, one of six siblings. “It was this large, tumbling Mormon family just as solid as they could be,” says Judy Cullen, who worked more than three decades for Williams, first as a server at New Yorker, then up through the ranks of Gastronomy.

Craig Crawford and John Williams met on a blind date in 1996 in San Francisco. By that time, Williams had become a man of wealth and influence in Salt Lake City.

He went to Utah State University (USU) in Logan to study architecture, then completed a two-year LDS mission in Birmingham, England. On his return to USU, his struggle to reconcile his faith with being gay left him suicidal. His sister brought him to live with her in Salt Lake City. When the family learned he was gay, “They didn’t care,” Stephanie Larsen says. “They just wanted him to be happy. John got to be John, instead of dealing with shame.”

The third of three children, Crawford grew up in Virginia, “White trash, a redneck,” he says, in a prison interview. Dressed in a white corrections tunic and pants, Crawford is calm and dispassionate, yet still displaying, if in subdued tones, the trademark charm that made him a well-regarded salesman.

Court documents recount in detail a bloodline marked by a deeply troubled history of multiple suicides, drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. His father abandoned the family on Crawford’s 12th birthday. When he was 16, his mother caught him in bed with a man 10 years older and Crawford left home. He finished high school and attended college in Florida, only to fall ill with severe symptoms from AIDS. In the wake of his diagnosis, “Mom and I reconciled,” Crawford says.

Crawford and Williams met on a blind date in 1996 in San Francisco. By that time, Williams had become a man of wealth and influence in Salt Lake City. Gastronomy was asset-heavy in its renovated real-estate holdings and the New Yorker restaurant was one of a number of jewels in the group’s crown.  But Williams had adopted Vancouver and San Francisco as second homes where he didn’t have to maintain the public reserve he felt his conservative home state demanded.

When they met, Williams told 28-year-old Crawford he was 45, shaving seven years off his real age, and a maitre d’ at a restaurant, a subterfuge he maintained for eighteen months. “I think he worried people dated him for his money,” says Crawford, then a salesman of security systems to large corporations. Williams fell “madly in love with him,” Williams’ niece Laura Forsgren told the court at the sentencing hearing. Crawford “was fun, witty, intelligent and successful.”

“[John] had more taste in his finger than most other people did in their whole body.” — Craig Crawford.

Crawford’s life with “Johnny” was a whirlwind of travel and dining. They’d fly to New York for a week of theater and dining at top Zagat-rated restaurants. Williams was always hunting for ideas for décor, design and marketing. “He had more taste in his finger than most other people did in their whole body,” Crawford says.

In 2009, Williams and Crawford, by then a high-earning salesman for network systems giant CISCO, pulling in over $200,000 a year, married in Vancouver. After the wedding, Williams’ increasingly alarmed family spied abusive changes in Crawford’s behavior towards his husband, although Williams did his best to keep the tensions from them. The couple traveled a lot, but their home was in Williams’ 1931 house above the Utah state capitol, replete with stone walls on the lower floor and copper-siding on the upper floor.

In April 2011, the police were called to the house. Crawford dismisses the “incident,” as an altercation between two inebriated men that left confused cops without a case. In court, Forsgren said Williams told her Crawford punched him in the face, knocked him to the ground several times and kicked him in the face. Crawford was charged with assault, but Williams had the charges withdrawn and expunged from the system.

Gay men, especially someone as high profile as Williams, face unique challenges when reporting domestic violence, says Stan Penfold, executive director of Utah AIDS Foundation. “There’s just so much stigma about men reporting someone domestically abusing them,” he says. “I don’t think cops hear about it until it’s pretty serious.”   

In Need of Help

A skiing accident in British Columbia in February 2012 left Crawford with a badly fractured ankle and facing multiple surgeries. His defense attorneys later argued that another consequence of the accident was an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury that significantly diminished his mental capabilities. “He couldn’t keep up with time zones, he couldn’t find the places he’d been to many times before,” defense witness Dr. Mark Cunningham testified. For a man covering sales territories in the U.S. and Canada, this was disastrous. After the accident, he lost two jobs in a row, “because he was non-productive,” Cunningham said.

The Saturday night he died, Williams went to the Utah Symphony, then invited friends he met there for dinner at the New Yorker.

By then, Crawford’s four-year marriage to Williams was faltering. Sex had ended a year after their low-key wedding and in the summer of 2014, Crawford started dating an interior designer in Vancouver. He also began using methamphetamine after trying it at a party.

“It grabbed me and just pulled me under,” Crawford says. “In three months it destroyed our relationship and pretty much destroyed everything around me.” Initially, meth brought Crawford a sense of normalcy. In late December 2014, he told a psychiatrist that it had helped give him his pre-accident brain back. “He wishes to mend and save his marriage and get his brain back,” the psychiatrist wrote. Crawford believed Williams “thought less of him” because he didn’t have a job.” But the more he used meth, the more delusions and violence rapidly took over. The drug was akin to Drano on his damaged brain, one doctor noted in court documents.

A friend Crawford made in 2014, veteran nurse Melanie Semlacher, helped get him into a Vancouver rehab, earning Williams’ gratitude. They could still be loving to each other, Semlacher recalls. The second time Crawford attempted rehab, “Craig massaged [Williams’] back with lotion, calling him ‘old man,’” she says, in an affectionate reference to their age difference.  “He said, ‘You always turn me on, I still love your body,’” Semlacher says

Williams’ relatives were critical of Crawford’s “old man” in their court testimony, painting it as cruel and disparaging, alongside dark references to inheriting his husband’s estate. When Williams was battling some health issues, “Craig would always joke with no concern at all that John was just an old man and was going to die, and he would be rich when John died,” another of Williams’ nieces, Amy Zaharis, told the court.

Crawford’s descent into meth-induced psychosis escalated. Court testimony revealed a string of calls to the Vancouver police about Crawford’s bizarre, threatening behavior, along with multiple ER visits, from January 2015 into early 2016.

In his May 2016 protective order request, Williams described Crawford’s terrifying surprise appearance at a dinner party Williams had hosted at his Vancouver apartment the prior summer. Patients at Crawford’s first rehab clinic had given him an ax to work off his ADHD chopping wood. He entered the dinner party shirtless, his ax over one shoulder, a can of mace in his hand, a hard hat on his head, and screamed at the five guests to leave. They fled, one woman so panicked she left behind her shoes.

Semlacher says she talked to Williams about having Crawford committed in Utah and getting him the long-term treatment he needed for both addiction and mental health issues. That ultimately did not happen. “He’d lost touch with reality, so other people had to advocate for him,” she says. “Did we do a good enough job? I don’t think so.”

The final straw for Canadian authorities was on Feb. 24, 2016, when Crawford assaulted an ex-lover and another man, brandishing a construction leveler, screaming, “I want my life back.” He was deported to the U.S. at the end of March, holed up in Williams’ San Francisco apartment for a few destructive, delusional weeks, before complaints from condo owners in the building led to him being forcibly evicted by the police.

“Craig has alienated all of his friends and all of his family. I just can’t put him out on the street.” — John Williams 

Crawford had nowhere to go, except Salt Lake City. The family had become increasingly scared for Williams. Larsen asked Williams why he was letting him stay in his mansion. “Craig has alienated all of his friends and all of his family,” Williams told her. “I just can’t put him out on the street.” But then he added, “He’s not going to kick me out of my own home either.”

By the beginning of May, Williams had had enough. On May 4, he filed for divorce. He wrote Crawford out of his will and sought to evict him from his Salt Lake City house. “I think that John was taking his life back,” Larsen says.

Williams, aware that Crawford may have discovered the new will cutting him out of the estate, met with lawyers the day before he died to draw up eviction papers as well as a petition for a protective order. When Williams’ lawyer contacted the court shortly before the end of the working day, a clerk told him all the judges were out of town for a conference, so no one could review it.

The Saturday night he died, Williams went to the Utah Symphony, then invited friends he met there for dinner at the New Yorker. Crawford pestered him with calls and texts, constantly interrupting the increasingly upset Williams. He got home at 12:13 a.m., according to a camera he’d had installed over a south-side door six months before. Fifteen minutes later, the same camera filmed Crawford leaving the house, then returning shortly after. He went to the second floor and the camera caught the reflection of flames glowing, then flickering across the wall.

The tell-tale images left Crawford’s defense team no room to maneuver and their client pleaded guilty on June 27, 2017. Three months later, in a three-day sentencing hearing, expert defense witness Dr. Cunningham testified that Crawford was psychotic before, during and after the fire. Judge James Blanch sentenced Crawford to life without parole, telling him what he did was “an extremely cruel way to kill a person.”

Briefly, Crawford addressed the court. “John was the most stylish, sexy and generous man I’ve ever met,” he said. “I know I’ve took (sic) something wonderful from this world.”

The House That Bears His Name

John Williams
Encircle Utah’s home to support LGBTQ youth and their families will bear John Williams’ name.

The emotional devastation John Williams’ murder left in its wake is evident in the voices and words of those close to him. It’s apparent in the curt refusal of his intimates to talk about Williams and Crawford for this story. It’s audible in Stephanie Larsen’s breaking voice as she says, “I can’t even tell you, it’s still horrible.”

It’s even audible in Craig Crawford’s bitter answer to the question of how he faces the rest of his life in prison. “I pray every day for a heart attack.”

Yet Williams’ legacy lives on, beyond the horror of his death. You can see it in Salt Lake’s architectural heritage that he ensured endures across the city skyline. What’s given it a new life is Stephanie Larsen’s Encircle Utah, which emerged out of her asking a simple question: How is it that fifty years ago when Williams came out, he received love and acceptance from his family, yet in recent years the suicide rates of LGBTQ Mormon youth has only climbed in the face of familial rejection?

Two months before his death, she asked Williams for help opening the first Encircle Utah house to support Mormon LGBTQ youth and their families in Provo. He gave her $100,000 seed-money. 

Larsen plans to open the second Encircle Utah home just off 400 South on 600 East in downtown Salt Lake City, a five-minute drive from the LDS Church’s HQ in Temple Square.

It’s an elegant, cream-colored, three-floor house built in 1891 that Larsen is renovating for a mid-October opening. Williams had said no when Larsen asked him if she could name the Provo house after him. The Salt Lake City house, however, will bear his name.

Crawford’s epitaph for the man he killed is that he led an “authentic life” as a proud, gay man. Williams nevertheless knew that to navigate Utah’s cultural and political waters, a more reserved public image was required. With “The John Williams House” in Salt Lake City, he is, in one final, love-affirming act, coming out.

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Stephen Dark
Stephen Dark
Stephen Dark is a freelance journalist who's worked in London, Buenos Aires and now Salt Lake City.

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