• Homicide victim Jessica Williams had one goal: to stand on her own

Her graduation was one of her greatest achievements.

After five years of struggling through special education courses with extensive help from her family, teachers and tutors, Jessica Kate Williams finally earned a modified diploma from Gladstone High School four years ago.

The moment was one of the small victories in the young woman's life one filled with the everyday struggles that came from living with fetal alcohol syndrome.

But tragedy struck last week when Williams, 22, was brutally slain. Her battered body was found early May 23 under the Steel Bridge, near the railroad tracks at the east end of the Eastbank Esplanade.

Rebecca Williams, Jessica's adoptive mother, says that her daughter could barely run or ride a bicycle and would be too weak to fight back against an assailant that night.

'It would be like attacking a sparrow who was lame,' she said. 'She had no fight in her whatsoever. She would not have fought back; she was afraid of so many things.'

Police have made no arrests and say they have no suspects. Homicide detectives have released few details, other than that Williams died of blunt force trauma to the head. Anyone with information is asked to call detectives at 503-823-0400.

Williams' family is devastated and will mourn her loss during a private memorial service Saturday. Earlier this week, family members pored over dozens of photographs of her life, preparing them for a slideshow at the service.

'Everyone was her friend,' Rebecca Williams said. 'She had friends that were in gangs; she had friends that were preachers' kids; she had friends that were elderly and friends that were children, and she didn't distinguish who they were or where they lived or what their lifestyle was.'

She said the disability made her daughter's brain 'like Swiss cheese,' so that she had the mental capacity and judgment of a 12-year-old.

If she was given money to purchase a pair of jeans, she'd come home with neither and not be able to explain what happened to the cash, which she'd have given away. Coming from a Christian family, she'd often take her friends to the family church, Maranatha Baptist in Oregon City, or to New Beginnings Christian Center on Northeast Glisan Street.

Although she has heard rumors, Rebecca Williams said she doesn't know what led to Jessica's death or how her daughter got to the Steel Bridge.

She last spoke with Jessica by telephone three days before the young woman's body was discovered. Jessica told her she was collecting job applications downtown because she desperately wanted to work.

Being developmentally disabled wasn't Jessica's only life challenge. Her family says she endured a great deal of harassment from strangers and peers about her size: She was 6-foot-4 and weighed 220 pounds.

Her last year in high school, her mother said, she had a date for the winter formal. 'She got all dressed up, had a boutonniere and everything, and the guy never showed up. This was Jessica's life.'

Sought independence

Born to a drug- and alcohol-addicted mother on June 23, 1980, Jessica was adopted by Sam and Rebecca Williams in North Carolina. She moved with the couple to a cozy cabin-style home in Gladstone a decade ago.

She grew up in a large, Christian family of 14 children 11 of whom were adopted. Many of the kids who are now ages 8 to 40 also had disabilities, but Jessica's was the most severe.

She was happy at home, her mother said. She was a tomboy, usually wearing jeans and T-shirts, and had just recently begun to get interested in makeup and styling her curly hair. She loved animals and volunteered at the Oregon City animal shelter; she rescued countless strays, bringing home a dog and two cats as pets.

In high school, one of her special education courses taught her to take public transportation, which helped Jessica attain some independence. Shortly after she turned 18, her mother said, she took off on the bus and called a few hours after her curfew, telling her mother she was safe and with a friend. Her mother was so worried, she said, she called police, but they told her they couldn't do anything because Jessica was legally an adult.

She left home for short periods after that, her mother said, looking for places to live because she wanted to be independent. She lived in a downtown group facility, where she had a case worker, but she would come home frequently if she was bored or depressed or didn't like the living environment.

Since February, she had been visiting the employment resource center at Outside In a downtown center for homeless youths to look for a job. She also had taken advantage of some of the agency's other services, such as free lunches, showers, bus tickets and crisis counseling.

Wanted to work

Jessica also tried to find work through vocational rehabilitation programs. She had held seven or eight jobs, most recently working at the downtown Ross Dress for Less store at Southwest Sixth Avenue and Alder Street during the Christmas season.

Her boss, Christian Sjolanver, said she was very pleasant and well-liked by customers and sales associates. She always smiled and continued to visit the store after her position there ended, he said.

Most recently, he remembers seeing her last Wednesday or Thursday.

Although she regularly checked in to share her whereabouts with her parents, she was greatly influenced by her friends, who told her that she was old enough to live on her own and not have to check in, her mother said.

The Wednesday before she died, Jessica visited the Southeast Portland home of a friend, Lance Whitcomb, 17, wanting to borrow a bicycle so she could hang out with friends downtown.

Terrence Whitcomb, Lance's father, said he spoke with Jessica at length, trying to persuade her to speak with her pastor and go back home. 'She promised me she would do it. She left here happy,' he said.

When she went to visit homeless friends downtown, 'I didn't like it,' her mother said. 'We let her know we didn't like it. We didn't think she should be doing it. She knew that; she knew we were afraid. She told me, 'Mom, I know what I'm doing. I can take care of myself.'

'I told her, 'No, you don't. You can't.' '

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