‘Boundless heart, endless positivity’: Santa Rosa stabbing victim memorialized

“No matter what demons chased him,” said Toshiana, William Woodard’s sister, “he chose to see the bright side.”|

A month after he was killed at a converted motel that offers housing to formerly homeless people, William Woodard was remembered and celebrated Saturday by family and friends in a Santa Rosa ceremony.

Around 40 mourners gathered to hear a series of speakers recall the 36-year-old Rohnert Park native’s generosity, joviality and kindness. The best way to honor him, agreed those who spoke, would be to “take a page from his book,” as his sister Toshiana put it, by echoing his laughter and emulating his “unconditional love.”

The viewing and memorial service took place at the Eggen and Lance Mortuary in Santa Rosa, 5 miles north of the Palms Inn, where Woodard was stabbed to death early in the morning Dec. 13.

Skyler Rasmussen, a 27-year-old Petaluma man, was arrested two days later and booked into the Sonoma County jail on suspicion of murder. On Dec. 19, Sonoma County prosecutors charged him with felony murder and a wide range of enhancements that could increase his possible prison time.

The cross section of mourners at Saturday’s memorial included Woodard’s extended family, friends who’d known him since middle school and high school — he graduated from Rancho Cotate High in 2004 — and others who’d met him more recently, including during his periods of homelessness.

Woodard loved cooking, and to the day he died, noted several speakers, he was still enrolled in the Culinary Arts program at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Toshiana recalled her brother as “light personified.” He was “sweet, he was funny, he was protective and comforting. He had a soft, gentle way about him, and a charisma that could charm the scales off a snake.”

To her left, as she spoke, her brother reposed in an open casket, the bottom half of which was heaped so high with bouquets that the flowers seemed on the verge of tumbling onto him. On a screen above Woodard ran a slideshow of his life. There he was on a ridgetop, mid-hike. In another shot he stood, rocking a dapper beret, the ocean behind him. There he was as a little boy in overalls a tad too big for him. While Woodard looked pensive in a few of the pictures, in most of them he beamed the megawatt smile his loved ones kept coming back to.

“I can’t say that Will was a rich man, and he often went without,” Toshiana said. “But what he lacked in wealth he more than made up for with his boundless heart, endless positivity, playful whimsical spirit.”

While some allow “the harshness of life to turn them dark and nasty,” her brother was different, she said. “He chose acceptance. He was grateful for whatever you did. He would gladly give you the shirt off his back, or his last dime” — to a perfect stranger, she said.

“Will learned at too young an age that life was not all sunshine and rainbows. But he also learned he had a choice,” she added. “Time and time and time again, he chose to see the bright side.

“No matter what demons chased him, no matter what shadows tried to dim his light,” she continued, Woodard “was never in short supply of warm hugs, radiant smiles, kind words.”

By several accounts, he also had a bottomless store of deep belly laughs.

“What I wouldn’t give to hear that laugh one more time,” Toshiana said.

Motioning to the deceased, Gerry La Londe-Berg declared, “this is just a shell. Where William is now — he’s in your heart.”

He then read a poem he’d composed in honor of Woodard and Michela Wooldridge, a homeless single mother who was found stabbed to death in 2012 in Santa Rosa. It began:

“I hate what the world has done to you,

Wanderers with no home.

Deserted in your won community

by those who should love and guide and support you.”

Several stanzas down, the poem describes Woodard as,

“A man who only wanted to be good – And was

But lonely and in search of community

He let the wrong person in.”

Woodard had lived at the Palms Inn since September 2021, and has been described by friends and neighbors as caring, highly social person whose room was often filled with late night visitors.

It’s unclear how Rasmussen gained entrance on Dec. 13. He’d found his way to the Palms Inn after he was released from jail six days earlier. Rasmussen had been transported to a court-ordered residential rehabilitation facility in San Francisco, but walked away during his intake interview.

The murder shook residents of the Palms Inn, just south of city limits, and raised questions about conditions at the facility. An innovative “housing first” program when it opened in 2016, the Palms Inn has struggled in recent years with crime, facility issues, and reports of residents feeling neglected by social programming and property management.

Heather Johnson had met Woodard only recently. Despite not knowing her very well at all, “(Woodard) treated me like I was like a sister.”

She recalled his generosity after complimenting one of his possessions — a rainbow body pillow — on a visit to his apartment.

“’Here, take it,’” he had insisted. When she admired one of his stuffed animals, “he just handed it to me and said, ‘Take it home with you,’” she said.

Rebekah Sammet became friends with Woodard in 2004, when she first braided his hair into cornrows. As their friendship matured, he would make this request of Sammet, upon running into her: “I’m so glad I found you! Please, smudge me — clear my chakras!”

And so she did.

Before the closing prayer, delivered by the Rev. Segretta Woodard, Sammet stood once again, and approached the casket, smudge stick in hand. She stood over the body of her friend, and, with a balletic series of arm movements, as the smell of burnt sage filled the room, cleared his chakras one final time.

Editor’s note: this story has been revised to remove quotes from one of the memorial’s speakers, at that person’s request.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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