Rossie murder victim recalled as friendly man of empathy

May 6—ROSSIE — Those who knew the late William M. Freeman say the same things about him — he had an unusually sharp sense of empathy and left lasting impressions on those who met him.

Mr. Freeman, Bill to those close to him, was murdered in his Rossie home on March 1. He was 67. A Lake Placid man who also has a Gouverneur residence, 46-year-old Adam W. Smith, has been indicted in the killing. He's also charged with stabbing and killing 72-year-old Ronald E. "Huck" Durham on Feb. 11 in East Riverside Cemetery in Gouverneur. Smith has pleaded not guilty and continues to be held in the St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility in Canton without bail.

Prosecutors say Smith killed Mr. Freeman while robbing him. He's accused of stabbing Mr. Freeman multiple times and then stealing his truck, a firearm and his debit and credit cards. He has been incarcerated at the county jail since March 2. Earlier that day, he was arrested driving Mr. Freeman's stolen 2018 Chevrolet Silverado. He was apprehended near the Bradley Street exit on Interstate 81 heading north near Watertown. Police charged him with felony fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property and booked him into jail. He was charged with the two murders the following week.

Mr. Freeman's brother, Michael J. Freeman, and friend, Julie A. Holt, spoke with the Times and shared their recollections and impressions of a man whose departure from this world leaves a gaping hole in their lives.

"He was a nice guy, really nice guy. Outgoing, really friendly. He could pick up a conversation with a perfect stranger," said Michael Freeman, who goes by Mike. "Everybody knew him. He got a response from everybody."

He recalls his brother as "a good family man. He worked hard so his family didn't go without. It was hard, at times."

"He was always trying to do the right thing, and was loyal. He was very loyal," Mike Freeman said. "If he could, he'd drop whatever he was doing to come help you or he'd set a date."

"He didn't care about himself so much," he added. "He cared about other people. He didn't care how he looked. If he could put a smile on your face, leave you with a kind thought, that was his main objective. Once you talked to him, you didn't forget about him for a while."

"He made an impression," he recalled, then grew silent and stared into the distance for a moment.

Mike Freeman said his brother Bill liked to go down Route 11 and stop in veterans clubs along the way just to have a beer and chat with people.

That's how Ms. Holt met Bill about a year ago. She is the head bartender at the Gouverneur VFW.

"I was kind of down on myself. He comes walking through the front door, hops up unto the barstool right ahead of me, leans forward and says, 'What's a beautiful woman like you doing in a place like this?' It's the biggest line that's ever been used, but he made be feel good," Ms. Holt said. "He introduced himself as William, but said, 'You can call me Bill. You can always remember my last name because I am a free man, Freeman.'"

From there, he became a regular at the Gouverneur VFW, making visits to socialize and have his preferred drink, a can of Busch Light.

"He seemed to have a knack about him. If I was having an OK day, it was just the two of us chit-chatting. If I was feeling bad, he always had a line that made me feel better," she said. "He just loved being there. He loved being around people."

Bill Freeman was a veteran, and proud of it. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1975, right out of high school. He served a total of 12 years between then and his honorable discharge in 1994. He started out in communications, operating radio equipment. By the time his military days ended, he had received honors including a Navy Service Medal and a medal for marksmanship.

"In his final years, he was a recruiter. He was a sergeant," his brother said. He said that part of his brother's life was a significant experience. "He was definitely proud to be a veteran."

Following his time in the Marine Corps, Bill Freeman took a job in fabrication at Stebbins Engineering in Watertown. He worked there for 15 years, retiring in 2020. He was responsible for maintaining a machine called a hydromobile, designed to lift bricklayers as they build upward. He wasn't content to do a bare minimum or average job.

"It had to be perfect, being in the military," Mike Freeman said.

The brothers grew up to become history buffs. It was a frequent topic of conversation and source of friendly debate between them.

"We'd go back and forth, talk about history and one of us would be wrong and one of us would be right," Mike Freeman said.

He said his brother was a steward of local history. He recalled a time in 2015 when Bill heard about a project going on in the town of Philadelphia to restore old headstones and clean up the Quaker cemetery from an 18th-century settlement. It includes a headstone for a man who was a courier for George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

"The stones had gotten quite bad," Mike Freeman said. "I mentioned it to him, and he came down and helped me and the people there clean the headstones. He thought it was important, just like I do."

That cemetery now has a monument showing the names of everyone who's buried there.

"He helped build that" around the same time as the cemetery project, Mike Freeman said. "If it was something worthy, he would do it."

Bill Freeman's biggest passion was outdoor sportsmanship, being in nature and enjoying the woods.

"He was a naturalist. He loved to fish and hunt and take people fishing," Mike Freeman said, adding that Bill spent a lot of time at a camp he had in Martinsburg and also enjoyed the company of family and friends while outdoors. "He would be up there a lot more than I would ... he loved going for walks in the woods to see what he could see out there."

Mike and Bill had started making regular trips on Lake Ontario fishing charters and would occasionally bring someone along so they could share the experience with someone new.

"The last four or five years, we'd go on a charter and take someone who'd never been on a charter, like a young kid," Mike Freeman said.

On March 6, 2019, Bill Freeman lost his wife of 38 years, Elaine (Booth) Freeman. It caused him pain that Ms. Holt said was still apparent when she knew him during the last months of his life.

"We had talked a lot about him missing his wife. Basically, that really seemed to gnaw at him. He missed her a lot. He was starting to get back into, maybe like the dating scene, and he wasn't quite sure how to go about it," she said.

"He'd come in and talk to me, he met this girl or that one, he hung out with her at the fireworks," she said. "It was more of me taking the standard bartender role, listening to him, offering him an 'OK, maybe approach it this way.'"

"It took him a good year to come back to normal" following his wife's death, Mike Freeman said. "It did affect him a lot, losing his wife."

"During plow season all we did was talk on the phone," he added. Mike is the superintendent of highways for the town of Philadelphia. "After Elaine died there and his daughter moved to Pennsylvania, he was by himself. Two, three times a week I'd stop in, just keep an eye on him."

Ms. Holt is among the last people to see Bill Freeman alive. Mike ended up finding his brother dead. Neither of them know how Bill became associated with Smith.

Ms. Holt said Bill always came to the VFW by himself, "except the last time he came in" about a week before he was killed.

"He came in, seemed real distracted. I got him his beer," she said. "By then, I hadn't seen him in about a month."

It was a busy night, and she wasn't able to stand and talk like they usually would.

"I got called down to the other end of the bar. I kept trying to get back down to him. It wasn't normal for him to have been gone for a month. Maybe five or 10 minutes later, I glanced down and someone came through the back door. It was someone I didn't recognize. They talked for a minute or two and out the back door they went," she said, adding that he had left his beer on the bar still half full.

"At that point I had never seen this person before. He was not a regular," Ms. Holt said. "It really just seemed odd the way Bill got up and left with him. Normally if he was taking off, he'd yell down, 'I'm heading off' or 'I'll see you later.'"

She still isn't sure if the person who came into the VFW that night was Adam Smith. "I got a couple glances at him. I was dealing with people down at the bar. It was really quick," she said.

Later on when she saw Smith's mugshot in the local news, "that's what started to bring it back. Is that who I saw Bill leave with?"

"Basically you end up with so many customers in and out of there. We've got our regulars but we also get people who come in to rent rooms or because of different events there. You deal with so many customers," she said.

Mike Freeman said that on the night his brother was murdered, a state trooper had called and said Bill's phone was found on a Route 11 roadside near the St. Lawrence-Jefferson County line.

"I thought nothing of it," he said.

The next day, he called Bill around 10 a.m. to see if he'd gotten back his phone, but there was no answer. He also heard from his niece asking to contact Bill, that it was important. So he asked his sister and brother-in-law to go check on his brother at his home on County Route 10.

"I said let me know what you find. She called back and said his truck's not there," Mike Freeman said. That's when he got the feeling of "something's just not right. No one's seen him since the day before."

"I ran down there and a friend of mine ... called me and said, 'You're not going there alone,'" he said. "We stopped down and found him inside the house. His truck was not there. It wasn't pretty. I'm glad I found him and not my sister going in there."

Over in Gouverneur that same day, Ms. Holt had heard that something was happening at Bill Freeman's house and it was cordoned off with police tape.

"It wasn't until the next day it come across of who it was that had been murdered," she said. "I just went cold. I just started crying. Even now, it's getting me to tear up. Bill was one of the nicest guys I've ever met. Just a genuinely nice guy."

After losing his brother, Mike Freeman said he kept busy to occupy his mind. It was during plow season, so he was able to focus his energy on that.

"Work was good because of the snow," he said. "That was my best therapy I've had in a long time."

He said that now, two months after the murder, he continues to receive condolences and support from people he knows and total strangers.

"I want to thank the town of Philadelphia. I must have had half the people in Philadelphia call me and offer condolences. There were people who knew me and some who I think didn't know me," he said.

Constantly being reminded of Bill can be difficult to deal with, but he still tries to keep a positive mindset.

"I have to laugh, or else I'll cry. It's every day someone says something to me, which I don't mind. I know they're being nice," he said. "It makes them feel better. It does make me feel a little bit better."

Now that a suspect has been arrested in both Bill Freeman's murder and the murder of Huck Durham in Gouverneur, Mike Freeman is doing his best to ride out the heavy emotions that naturally come with such a tragedy. He attended St. Lawrence County Court for Smith's April 21 arraignment on the murder indictment and said it was a rough experience.

"Once we get this behind us, it will be time to get back to normal, if we can get back to normal," he said. "I've never hated a person, you know? But whoever did this, I hate him."

Ms. Holt said she still is shocked that someone would murder her caring and empathetic friend.

"It's senseless. Basically he was murdered over what, his truck?" she said. "Somebody took Bill's life. And for what? Basically absolutely nothing."