In a roomful of the best and brightest newspaper and TV reporters from Mobile and Pensacola, no one dared ask the one question weighing on everyone’s mind.
No one put State Attorney Bill Eddins, State Attorney Investigator Allen Cotton, Medical Examiner Andrea Minyard or Pensacola Police Department Crime Scene Investigator Nicole Heintzelman on the spot in the hour-long press conference about the investigation into Willie Junior’s death.
I waited and waited for one of the less comatose members of the local press to pose it. One rule of press conferences among the media is to hold back your most important question, unless you have no choice.
So, I popped the question to Cotton when I cornered him afterwards, as the other press members began flipping their notebooks shut and shuffling slowly away.
Even though the authorities ruled Junior, 63, killed himself by drinking antifreeze from a Heineken bottle, I still wanted to know once and for all: Was former Florida Senate and Escambia County Commission kingpin W.D. Childers involved?
The unflappable Cotton grins and says he’s surprised no one has asked him that before now. He answers in the negative and emphatically says all indicators point to suicide, not murder.
Still, Childers was interviewed by the FBI about Junior’s whereabouts and he denied any involvement with Junior vanishing.
QUESTIONS FOR W.D.
Two days before Junior’s skeletal and decomposed body turned up Dec. 9 under the Strong Street home of 89-year-old Benjamin Dudley, a former employee of Junior’s, Childers spoke with the FBI’s Joseph Murphy.
It was mainly Junior’s testimony that Childers gave him a stainless steel collards green pot stashed with about $100,000 to vote for $6.2 million in county land deals that led to Childers’ bribery conviction and a 3 1/2-year jail sentence.
Murphy questioned Childers, while the 72-year-old former political powerbroker was spending the first two weeks of December locked up in Escambia County jail to serve the last 11 days of a 49-day sentence for Sunshine Law violations.
Childers told Murphy he understood the public’s rumors that he had something to do with Junior’s disappearance in the one-page FBI transcript obtained by the Independent News. Childers denied any involvement and said he could not conceive of anyone harming Junior.
But in his Dec. 7 interview with the FBI, Childers also said then that he did not believe Junior had committed suicide.
While he opined that Junior never displayed suicidal tendencies during their tenure together on the county commission, Childers claimed the last communication between the two happened prior to the May 2002 indictment in the county land grab scandal. The corruption case led Gov. Jeb Bush to remove Junior, Childers, Mike Bass and Terry Smith from the five-member board.
Childers said he last saw Junior during his April 2003 trial in Crestview on bribery and other charges, stemming from the county land purchases from developer Joe Elliott.
Before finishing the interview, Murphy reports that Childers stated he wished he knew where Junior was located so Junior could complete “a few parts of the puzzle.”
“Childers explained that Junior would tell that Childers/Junior were consummating a loan/purchase but never finalized the transaction,” Murphy writes.
But Junior won’t be able to clear anything up anymore, or more likely confuse them.
As the State Attorney’s star accuser in the scandal, the prosecution tried to revoke his plea agreement at one point because he offered new evidence that Childers’ had written down on paper 100/100, indicating they both would make $100 grand if the county bought the former Pensacola Soccer Complex and a shutdown Jack Lee Buick car lot.
Okaloosa County Circuit Court Judge Jere Tolton excluded Childers’ defense attorney, Richard Lubin, from questioning Junior about the State Attorney trying to have his plea agreement nullified. Tolton ruled the February 2003 action was irrelevant.
The ruling is the center of an appeal in the First District Court of Appeal by Childers to have his conviction overturned. The court heard oral arguments in November and is likely to rule soon in the case, which is the last one involving the riveting Escambia County scandal.
If the state appeals court rules in Childers’ favor, Childers will go free because Junior obviously cannot testify and be cross-examined, the State Attorney’s Office explains.
But Assistant Attorney General Trisha Pate, who argued the state’s case in the appeal, and Assistant State Attorney John Simon, who prosecuted Childers in trial court, both express confidence Childers’ conviction will stand.
Although Lubin argues the jury was entitled to hear the not guilty verdict from Elliott’s bribery trial and that the state questioned Junior’s integrity, Pate says rules of evidence prevent opinion testimony about a witness’s character; Childers’ defense was able to question Junior about prior inconsistent statements; and that the State Attorney’s allegations that Junior had failed to comply with the terms of the plea agreement did not make Junior change his statement because Junior revealed the additional statements Childers made before the state tried to take away his plea deal.
“We feel very strongly that case law is on our side,” Pate says in the high-profile case that has garnered statewide fascination.
But Fred Levin, who represented Childers in his Sunshine Law violation case, says he’s counting on the former legislator to go scot-free.
“I think legally, Childers’ has an excellent, excellent chance at reversal,” he says. “(Junior) changed his testimony, after the (State Attorney’s Office) threatened him. I think that’s pretty strong. I hope it’s reversed and (the state) doesn’t try it again. We need to get beyond this and get on to the development of the Trillium property and those kind of things.”
For now, though, rumors and conspiracy theories continue to swirl around Junior’s death.
They continue despite Eddins admitting the death investigation took more than two months because authorities wanted to make sure their investigation was thorough to squelch any more speculation by the community.
“All the facts indicate a suicide,” says Eddins. “But we’ll keep the matter open in the event we have additional evidence to consider and evaluate. We’ll never know exactly what went through the mind of Mr. Junior before this event happened.”
Jim Witt, a longtime Panhandle political observer, says the conspiracies will die out eventually when attention on the high-visibility case ends.
“Any time something like this happens, you have damn conspiracy theorists out there, particularly, when you have prominent figures like Willie Junior,” Witt says. “I liked him and thought was a great guy. But I don’t think there’s any conspiracy there. The white establishment didn’t kill Willie to get W.D. off. The guy just had enough and killed himself.”
Levin says he has no reason to doubt the Medical Examiner’s and investigators’ conclusion that Junior crawled under the house and drank antifreeze voluntarily.
“I’ve never thought anyone was out to kill Willie,” Levin says. “Going from the heights he had reached to the depths he was in would make anybody depressed. I guess, he got to thinking about everything he’s been through and realized his whole life was screwed up, his family was screwed up and he felt like it was easier to die. Living in that emotional pain that he had lived in for a couple of years, a lot of people under the same circumstances would do the same thing. It just doesn’t surprise me.”
Still, others who knew Junior remain skeptical about his death, including Michael Griffith, Junior’s attorney.
Junior is a rags-to-riches story, a local boy done good. He joined the Army and became a paratrooper to earn money for college. He eventually earned the job as the chairman of the Community Action Program, which provides assistance to the poor, became the first black county commissioner in 1983, and opened a funeral home, which included a drive-through viewing area.
But during the grand jury investigation of the county commission land purchases made in 2001, stories came out that showed another side of Junior. He was accused of strong-arming prominent developers like Dan Gilmore for $10,000 and the late Mike Green for $5,000 and ordering Charles Carlan, of Hatch Mott McDonald, to ante up $500,000 to buy Junior Funeral Home.
Griffith says although it was difficult for Junior to testify against people he considered his friends, he seemed “energized” by all the people planning to testify in his Nov. 10 sentencing. Under his plea agreement, he faced no more than 18 months in jail on four counts of extortion, four counts of bribery, one Sunshine Law violation, grand theft and racketeering.
But after drinking Heineken beers and talking about old times with his friend Nelson Bryant, Junior left about 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 9. He told Bryant he was “going on in,” and “I don’t need a ride. I’ll get a ride. I’ll see you later.” He was never seen again.
“I’m pretty shocked,” Griffith says. “It’s hard to believe. He had a lot of positive things going for him. I want to review the autopsy report before I make any determinations.”
In fact, a former assistant medical examiner, Michael Berkland, says he plans to closely review the autopsy. He says he studied the crime scene and tried to get permission from Junior’s wife, Abbie Gale, to conduct a second autopsy but couldn’t get her consent.
“There’s a number of unanswered questions and it seems a little unusual,” Berkland says. “There needs to be an independent look at this.”
Meanwhile, Minyard says there’s no doubt to her that Junior committed suicide, considering his autopsy and medical and psychiatric records. The Independent News has made a public records request to review the autopsy and toxicology reports.
Although Minyard refuses to comment about Junior’s medical history, a Pensacola Police Department investigation in February 2003 when Junior was found unconscious by his wife in his bedroom, revealed Junior was taking Zyprexa and Remeron, which are used for high stress, mild depression and the “management of psychotic disorder.”
Minyard says she couldn’t determine the exact time of Junior’s death, because of the decomposition of his body which had turned his skin yellow, green and red, except for the back of one knee. His eyes and ears were absent. He was identified by fingerprints and dental records.
Minyard did say drinking as little as 4 ounces of antifreeze can kill a person. First they will feel intoxicated, then go unconscious and die within minutes or hours.
She says although she found antifreeze or ethylene glycol in his liver, there was no other trauma present.
“All evidence indicates to us a suicide,” she says. “I feel we were very thorough in the work we’ve done.”
WILLIE JUNIOR’S LAST DAY?
9:45-9:50 a.m. Junior heads to Me & Mom’s Hair Salon with a $100 bill and $6 from his wife. He’s wearing a gray turtleneck, gray trousers and brown loafers.
10 a.m. Junior’s photo is taken by Pensacola Police Department Sgt. Goldsmith, who was testing a camera at Pensacola Photo Supply.
10 a.m.-10:45 a.m. Junior receives a $6 haircut at Me & Mom’s Hair Salon, near the corner of 12th Avenue and Scott Street. He leaves in an unknown direction and does not return home.
4:30 p.m. Junior and his wife have an appointment with his attorney Michael Griffith. His wife meets with Griffith but Junior fails to call or attend.
5:30-6 p.m. Junior is dropped of at 511 N. Alcaniz St. at his friend Nelson Bryant’s home by a small white Jeep with dark windows and unknown driver. Bryant buys a six-pack of Heineken beer and they drink together.
6:26 p.m. Junior calls Ruth Williams and speaks for about three minutes about a funeral she had to attend of a close relative. Junior then went to the bathroom and stayed there for about 45 minutes. He left legal mail in the bathroom. Bryant says he saw an outline of what might have been a pill bottle in Junior’s pants. They talk about old acquaintances and Junior asks Bryant about “Mr. D” or Benjamin Dudley.
7:30 p.m. Junior leaves with the remainder of the Heineken and a bottle opener. Junior returns a short time later and asks him for a white sheet. He did not indicate the purpose and Bryant did not ask. As Junior is leaving, Bryant asks if he needs a taxi. Junior says he’s “going on in,” and “I don’t need a ride. I’ll get a ride. I’ll see you later.”
Dec. 9 Pensacola Police are called to 1026 E. Strong St. to the home of Benjamin Dudley, 89, because of a strong odor. A body is found laying on its back under the house and is later identified as Junior through fingerprints and dental records.