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Feds charge man in murder-for-hire cold case from Sterling Heights


Detroit — Federal prosecutors Wednesday unsealed a murder-for-hire case accusing a former Sterling Heights resident of being involved in an unsolved killing five years ago.

James Deshawn Williams, 48, was charged in connection with the death of Nikolla Berishaj outside a Sterling Heights condominium in November 2016. His exact role in the cold case was unclear but the indictment accuses Williams of using a phone and a vehicle while allegedly committing the murder-for-hire.

The indictment had been sealed for more than three years to protect an ongoing investigation and Williams has been in custody since a year after Berishaj's shooting. Williams was in custody after being arrested, convicted and sentenced in 2019 for another shooting and is serving a 15-year federal prison sentence.

Federal court records portray Williams as the central figure in at least three crimes across Metro Detroit that left Berishaj dead, a Detroit nightclub caked in blood and a victim recovering from bullet wounds only to be hunted down on the Lodge Freeway during a high-speed chase nine months later. In that case, the victim tried to flee on a motorcycle at speeds topping 90 mph, but ended up a paraplegic after Williams shot him in the back.

“Murder for hire is a particularly treacherous offense because the individual commissioning the killing seeks to escape justice by employing another to commit the crime. The indictment unsealed today brings us one step closer to identifying all of the individuals responsible for this murder and bringing justice to this victim and his family,” Acting U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin said in a statement.

Williams made an initial appearance in federal court Wednesday in Detroit where a not guilty plea was entered.

His lawyer Mike Rataj declined to comment.

The Berishaj homicide was a rare killing in the Macomb County suburb.

Berishaj was sitting in a vehicle parked in the Golfpointe Village Condominium complex at about 3:20 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016, when someone fired a gun inside, striking him in the chest, investigators reported.

The 33-year-old was taken to Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Township, where he later died.

Williams, meanwhile, has a criminal record dating to the early 1990s, including convictions for weapons, attempted larceny and drunk driving.

In October 2014, Williams allegedly tried to kill a man by shooting him in the head at The Whitehouse Nightclub in downtown Detroit, prosecutors said.

The man was shot in the face and neck but survived after being rushed to the hospital.

Nine months later, in July 2015, Williams spotted the man riding a motorcycle in downtown Detroit. Williams, driving a red Pontiac Bonneville, chased the man along the Lodge.

"As he got close enough to (the victim), Williams discharged a firearm from his car, striking (the man) in the back, causing him to crash the motorcycle," Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Tare Wigod wrote in a court filing.

Williams pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and discharging a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. He is not scheduled to be released from prison until September 2030.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews