Lance Williams fought in the Cold War and the Gulf War, and was called into the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Published in 2022 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on January 13, 2022
Updated on January 14, 2022
Before Lance Williams wore pressed suits as an equity partner and criminal defense attorney at Minick Law in Gastonia, he wore an 80-pound backpack, camouflage fatigues, and was heavily armed as a combat engineer in the U.S. Army.
Williams joined the army after graduating from high school. Trained as a demolition specialist, he was shipped abroad at the tail end of the Cold War in 1988. “I actually functioned as a border guard for a while on the East German border,” he says. “Germany was still divided.”
His unit was one of the first into Saudi Arabia and Iraq during the Gulf War. “I was part of something called Task Force 1-41 Infantry. We were the spearhead of a 1st Infantry Division,” he says. “Combat engineers pretty much fight with the infantry, but then we destroy obstacles, minefields and booby traps.”
When he returned stateside, Williams became an artillery forward observer and joined the Louisiana National Guard. Then he brought his explosives expertise to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office in the greater New Orleans area, where, in seven years, he rose from patrol officer to Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) team leader. Among his assignments: hostage crises and barricaded-persons incidents.
In 2005, his SWAT team was deployed into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city. “I’d been overseas in Iraq and foreign countries, and I couldn’t believe that kind of devastation was going on in America,” Williams says. “It takes your sense of security away completely when your own neighborhood is just destroyed. [There was] no running water, no electricity, no infrastructure, no food. … The military was setting up military rations for people.”
Trying to keep people and what was left of their property safe was a complicated task because no protective structures remained. “Everybody’s walls were open,” he says. “Roofs were gone, people’s properties just laid bare strewn all over the roadway.”
Most emergency health services were unavailable. “Following Katrina, health care and especially psychiatric care dried up,” Williams says. “A lot of people lost their anchor on reality.” His SWAT team was called to safely remove a Vietnam veteran who had barricaded himself inside his home with a stockpile of rifles. The veteran, according to Williams, was suffering from severe delusions.
For hours the team talked to the man and tried to safely enter his home, but nothing worked. After they threw tear gas into the house to force evacuation, the man responded by opening fire on Williams’ team. Two officers were badly injured as bullets penetrated their ballistic shields.
That’s when Williams says he went “full MacGyver.”
“We were in a neighbor’s garage, and they had a picture frame hanging there. I took that and I made a ring out of explosives that went around the picture frame, which I taped to a long pool skimmer so that it would reach to the second floor of the house,” Williams says. “I stuck the pole out of one of the armored vehicles and we backed it up as close as we could. I leaned it onto the house and detonated it, and it blew a giant window out of the house.”
The house was fortified for a gunfight with decoys and weapons staged by doors and windows throughout the house. The end, Williams says, “was unfortunate.” The man died.
His decision to leave law enforcement wasn’t due to its devastating outcomes, but rather because of the encouragement of Walter Amstutz, a former officer turned assistant district attorney. Amstutz, who often worked as the DA in Williams’ police cases, told him: “You’re smart. You can get into law school.”
Williams took his advice, hoping to work for a DA’s office and graduate from Loyola. Except while he was enrolled, back-to-back hurricanes—Ike and Gustaf—hit New Orleans, which kept him busy with National Guard work. “I had to handle anti-looting operations for some barrier communities on the coast,” Williams says. “I was tanking law school because I was so busy running around these communities, trying to coordinate the National Guard to get assets.” His wife, who had evacuated to Charlotte ahead of the storms, decided enough was enough. “She was done,” Williams says. “She found a job, a house and a law school I could transfer to, so we moved the family to Charlotte.”
After graduating from Charlotte Law School in 2011, he became a defense attorney because DA jobs had “dried up” in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
The majority of Williams’ cases are DWI criminal defense. “It was really an easy transition coming out of law enforcement. It takes an investigator, and that’s half the job really—digging.”
He’s also adept at detecting when officers involved in his cases haven’t followed protocol. “God is in the details,” he says. “I kind of consider myself like their quality control: If they skip all those details and get lazy, or if they did something wrong, I’ll find it.”