Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Frank Wills, an unsung hero of the Watergate break-in scandal suffered the consequences of his actions in 1972

Frank Wills
Had it not been for the keen eyes and mental alertness of 24-year-old Frank Wills, Republican President Richard Nixon might have completed his second term. Watergate would not have happened. Despite of him thwarting the burglary that rocked Nixon’s underhanded politicking, Wills is seldom, if ever, mentioned when the 1972 scandal is discussed. 

Wills was not famous, a militant or a civil rights activist. He was a security guard. The 1970s was not a time when African Americans got positive press. Because of his actions June 17, Wills enlarged the target on his back. He became an enemy of the Nixon administration rather than a hero. 

In addition to Nixon and all the players connected to the break-in, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are names you hear about and read about in books and news stories. Neither of them have bothered to mention or acknowledge that Frank Wills is the reason they got the chance to write the hottest investigative story of their careers. It threw them into the national spotlight, and landed a Pulitzer for The Washington Post.

Colbert I. King, op-ed columnist for The Washington Post was surprised in 2005 to discover that the paper completely ignored Wills on the anniversary of the Watergate scandal.

“My goodness. How is it possible that The Post could publish reams of copy rehashing the Watergate scandal, complete with detailed timelines, personal recollections, character sketches and portraits of characters -- living or dead -- related to Richard Nixon's downfall, and not once mention Frank Wills?

“Were it not for Wills's suspicion of a break-in and his decisive action, the world most likely would never have heard the names E. Howard Hunt or G. Gordon Liddy. There would have been no "Deep Throat" and no "All the President's Men" by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. There would have been no Pulitzer Prize for The Post, no image of a disgraced President Nixon waving goodbye before liftoff on Aug. 9, 1974, no President Gerald Ford, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and probably no President Jimmy Carter to sweep into office on the heels of the 20th century's greatest Washington political meltdown.

“But in all the stories written in The Post after Felt's admission, Wills did not get so much as an honorable mention.”


 Frank Wills is in demand and popular for a while after thwarting Watergate burglary 

Wills with his cat
Jet magazine wrote in 2002: “The Black building guard who discovered he tape on the door of the Watergate building in Washington, and touched off the biggest political scandal of the century, was not remembered during the thirtieth anniversary of the event. Frank Wills was not mentioned as the nation recalled the action that brought down the administration of President Richard Nixon.

“Wills died in 2000 in South Carolina, a broken man spiritually, mentally and financially. The Rev. Nathaniel Irvin, pastor of the Stormy Branch Baptist Church, in Aiken, SC was credited with raising funds to give Wills a moving funeral.”


I looked at a number of sites noting the Watergate scandal timeline, and I was surprised that none of them mentioned Frank Wills in the timeline. To name a few: Watergate info—1968 to 1974; Wikipedia —1968 to 2008; Fox News—1972 to1974; The Education Forum—1971 to 1974; American Presidents History—1972 to 1974; the Robinson Library—1969 to 1973.

Here is how the break-in was described in a book titled "The White House Transcripts": June 17. Second break-in at D.N.C. headquarters is interrupted at 2:30 A.M. McCord, Barker, Sturgis, Gonzales and Martinez are captured by Washington police and charged with second-degree burglary. Police confiscate their cameras and electronic surveillance equipment and sequenced $100 bills, part of Barker's $89,000 withdrawals from his April deposits."

Notice there is no mention of Frank Wills. The book's introduction, penned by a writer from the New York Times, does not state that Frank Wills blew the lid off the burglary. The reader is led to believe that the police automatically caught the burglars in the act.   

Los Angeles Sentinel wrote in 2005: “The recent revelation of the identity of the shadowy Watergate figure, "Deep-Throat," and the media saturation with events of the Watergate scandal forces the question--Whatever happened to Frank Wills?

“Wills was the Black security guard who discovered the break-in at the Democratic National headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in June 1972. Mainstream media has not bothered to mention Wills, even as a footnote in the Watergate history. It's as though he wasn't even there, and that is how history is often distorted.”

Frank Wills commenced this historical journey in the a.m. hour. He was working the midnight shift at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. He began his rounds on the lower level, working his way up to the 11th floor. It was on the basement floor that he noticed duct tape on a door latch between the stairwell and the basement that led into the complex. He removed the tape and continued his rounds, after which he took a break.

Returning from his break Wills started his usual routine. He checked the door again around 1:55 a.m. The door latch was taped again. He did not remove it this time. He called the police, who arrived in an unmarked car and dressed in plainclothes. They did not want to alarm the burglars—if this was the case-- who were in the Democratic National Committee headquarters on the sixth floor. Inside the office police found five burglars: James McCord, Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Sturgis and Virgilio Gonzales. They were equipped with cameras, film, wiretapping equipment and a few thousand dollars in cash. They were arrested at 2:30 a.m.

In an interview with The Florida Times-Union, Wills said, “When we turned the lights on, one person, then two persons, then three persons came out, and on down the line.”

The break-in eventually led to President Richard Nixon. Reportedly, 30 or m or government officials in his administration were charged with perjury, burglary, wiretapping. Trials for the burglars started January 8, 1973. Nixon was forced to resign in 1974. He did not want to face the embarrassment of impeachment.

Wills said in an interview with The Washington-Star News, “We treat the president like a king, when he should be a man for all the people.”

The Washington Post wrote in 2005, “Nixon and his top aides attempted to coverup involvement in the break–in and in other political dirty tricks and intelligence-gathering operations that were employed in the 19721 re-election victory over Democratic challenger George McGovern. While the media and members of Congress ignored or played down the significance of the break-in, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two young reporters on the metropolitan news staff of The Washington Post, doggedly pursued leads that led to the highest levels of government.”

Wills was given an award by DNC chair Robert Strauss for his role in foiling the Watergate burglary. He said Wills “played a unique role in the history of the nation.” The plaque given to Wills by the DNC was taken back because dates on it were wrong. There are no reports that it was returned to Wills. He got recognition from the Southern Christian Leadership and the NAACP presented him with a truck.

Carl Bernstein (L) and Bob Woodward
Nixon leaving Washington after resigning
Woodward once said of Wills, “He’s the only one in Watergate who did his job perfectly.”

Life after Watergate went downhill for the 24-year-old security guard, who earned $80.00 a week. He did not get an increase in pay, a promotion or paid vacations that he asked for. Wills thought he had leverage to bargain with after thwarting the Watergate break-in. After leaving his job as a security guard it was difficult for Wills to find employment. A few reporters 

wrote that his taking off to do 
interviews was the reason he 
was terminated, as opposed to him quitting. Talk shows and the media were asking to interview him, which meant taking off work.

In the movie “All The President’s Men” Wills played himself. The book bearing the same title was written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Wills did interviews with the media, and supposedly hired an attorney as his agent. He was asking for $300 per interview. Some paid, some did not. Wills fame was short lived. He did not go on the lecture circuit as he intended. He was not able to cash in on his temporary fame. Interest in the scandal faded from the public memory too fast.

After the rush of attention ended he had to find employment. Wills brush with fame proved to be his downfall. He told the Washington Post, “I don’t know if they are being told not to hire me or if they were just afraid to hire me.” He said he applied for a job with Howard University. Personnel was scared to hire him because its federal funds might have been cut. He finally got a job with at Georgetown University, but the job did not last long. Supposedly, he got into an argument with another employee.

On the 25th anniversary of Watergate, Wills’ resentment was loud and clear when he said to the Boston Globe: “I put my life on the line. I went out of my way. If it wasn’t for me, Woodward and Bernstein wouldn’t have known anything about Watergate. This wasn’t finding a dollar under the couch somewhere.” A few critics said he overplayed the danger he faced.

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory stepped in and hired Wills as a spokesman for a diet product that he was selling. Wills had to uproot and move to the Bahamas, where worked as a diet counselor at a health clinic.

In 1983 Wills was accused of shoplifting a $12.00 pair of tennis from a Georgia department store. According to an Associated Press story, “Wills said he was going to buy the shoes for his son and was hiding them in a bag so they would be a surprise. The arrest was a mistake, he said.”

Workers World did not take kindly to this charge, as was noted three decades later. “President Nixon’s partner in crime, Vice-President Spiro Agnew, got three years' probation for evading taxes on bribes filched from highway contractors. Frank Wills was sentenced to a year in jail in 1983 for allegedly trying to shoplift a $12 pair of sneakers.

“A victim of racial profiling, Wills wasn’t arrested while leaving the store. He was nabbed just for putting the shoes in his bag. He'd wanted to surprise a friend with his gift at the check-out counter.”

Frank Wills was born February 4, 1948 in Savannah, Georgia. His parents separated when he was a child; he was raised by his mother. He got a GED in Job Corps. While a teenager, Wills moved from South Carolina to Detroit to work in the Chrysler factory on the assembly line. He was laid off and eventually moved to Washington in 1971. Wills got an invitation to come to Washington from someone he met at the Chrysler plant. He took a Greyhound bus to DC, where he landed a job as a security guard with a private company. His work site was the Watergate office complex.

Near tragedy struck in 1990. Wills returned to North Augusta, South Carolina to be a caretaker for his mother, who suffered a stroke, leaving her impaired. He was unemployed, and they lived on her Social Security check of $450 a month. She died in November 1992. Wills was so cash strapped and destitute he could not afford to bury his mother.

Jet magazine wrote in 1993: “Nearly 21 years after his discovery of the infamous Watergate building complex break-in, which led to the downfall of the administration of former President Richard Nixon, Frank Wills, once hailed as ‘the hero of Watergate’, says he’s facing hard times, struggling to feed himself and pay bills accumulated since his mother’s death in North Augusta, SC. Neighbors say the grieving Black man is ‘at the end of the road’ and is desperate for a helping hand.

Wills sitting on step of his house
“He has applied for state disability assistance, but processing the case will take upwards of a month. He has been given food stamps. There are no rugs pm the house floor and cold air rushes between the cracks of the walls.”

Unlike Woodward and Bernstein, who got $5 million from the University of Texas for their Watergate notebooks and files in 2003, Wills was never able to gain a financial footing. Other individuals involved in Watergate also benefited financially from the scandal despite being involved in a crime.

Frank Wills died of a brain tumor September 27, 2000 at the University Hospital in Augusta, Georgia. He was buried in the Mount Transfiguration Baptist Church Cemetery in North Augusta, South Carolina. He was 52 years old.

North Augusta WRDW-TV News 12 wrote in a story June 11, 2012: “In a quiet North Augusta graveyard, you’ll find a quiet hero. His name is Frank Wills, and his tombstone in the Mount Transfiguration Baptist Church Cemetery reads, ‘Our native son in 1972 discovered the Watergate break-in.’ Wills’ discovery is a detail history seems to have all but forgotten.

“We remember Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the famous Washington Post reporters who tied the burglary to the White House and to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. In 2005, we learned the identity of Deep Throat, the man known as the Watergate whistle-blower. After decades of silence, Mark Felt, a retired associate director for the FBI, finally came forward.

“But Wills? Not a lot of people remember the night watchman whose sharp eyes started it all. He says he felt like he was being crucified for doing his job. All he wanted was some appreciation.”

He died three years after the interview. It took the media over 33 years to recognize Frank Wills role in the Watergate scandal. The recognition came too late for him to appreciate the   incensed indignation from the media. 


Anonymous said...

I think I saw him on To Tell The Truth once. He seemed a little bitter that he could not cash-in on what he had done.

Still, not sure what he had to sell?

A few more mentions in the media and awards might have helped him get out on the "rubber chicken lecture circuit" but who knows.

Sad he died so young and forgotten.

Anonymous said...

some people are reluctant to report certain crimes in fear of being falsely connected