NANTICOKE, Pa. -- Saying he came to pay respects "on behalf of a grateful nation," the top law enforcement officer in the United States arrived in Nanticoke on Saturday to eulogize murdered federal corrections officer Eric Williams.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder praised the 34-year-old Nanticoke man as a dedicated civil servant for the U.S. Department of Justice and read from a letter President Barack Obama penned to the Williams family.
"I want to assure you, all members of America's law enforcement community stand with you -- the Williams family -- today, and an entire nation mourns with you," Holder said during a Funeral Mass at St. Faustina Kowalska Parish. "On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you for allowing me to share this moment with you and stand with all of the Nanticoke community -- including a proud native son, a hero, a patriot."
The hundreds of mourners who crammed into the church listened as the nation's chief prosecutor saluted Williams' selfless service to the country, then vowed to punish the killer and make federal prisons safer.
"This is our promise to you. This is my pledge to you," Holder said. "And it will be our enduring tribute to the memory of Officer Eric Williams. His loss will not be in vain."
A federal corrections officer since Sept. 11, 2011, Williams was beaten and stabbed repeatedly by an inmate at U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan in Wayne County on Monday night as he was preparing to lock inmates in their cells for a nightly head count. He became only the nation's 25th federal corrections officer killed in the line of duty since 1901.
Following his remarks, Holder read from a letter Obama directed to the Williams family.
"Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of your son Eric and we send our heartfelt condolences. As an officer of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Eric dedicated himself to the country and keeping us safe," the president wrote. "Our nation is forever indebted to the brave men and women who place themselves in harm's way to protect their fellow Americans, and we honor Eric for his dedicated service."
The director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Charles E. Samuels Jr., also delivered a eulogy, telling mourners that "the news of Officer Williams' death marked the saddest day in my 25-year career" with the bureau.
"Feb. 25 will forever be a dark day for me," Samuels said.
"Most people in the community know very little about what goes on behind the fences and walls of prisons in this country. They have no idea what it takes for correctional officers to keep our prisons safe, secure and humane," Samuels said. "It's an extremely difficult and challenging job. But Eric embraced the challenges and set an example."
Samuels noted Williams' name will "forever be memorialized and inscribed" in the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and the Correctional Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In other eulogies by loved ones, Williams was remembered on a personal level -- as a devoted Seattle Seahawks fan, as someone who never once tasted mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise or salad dressing, as someone who worked countless hours to turn his new cottage at Lily Lake into a home, and as a nice guy with a quirky smile who tried to make friends with everyone.
Lifelong best friend Todd Hrivnak recalled a trip to Buffalo, N.Y., years ago when Williams spotted legendary Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and other players dining at a hotel restaurant. Williams woke Hrivnak up and brought him down to the restaurant in hopes they could meet the eventual Hall of Fame player.
"It was because of Eric we spent that night hanging out with Jim Kelly and his associates. Not only did we get autographs, but Eric had his personally signed, 'Sorry we beat the Seahawks, Jim Kelly,'" Hrivnak recalled. "But Eric also convinced Jim Kelly and his friends to come back to the room to wake up one of our other friends. As we rode the elevator up, Eric continued to talk to him as if he knew him like anybody else. And as the doors opened, Eric and I got pushed out and the doors closed. Eric looked at me and said, 'What just happened?' I said, 'Well, Eric, ya just got thrown out of an elevator by Jim Kelly.'"