ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Twenty-one years ago, Frank Wills discovered tape on the latch of a door in the Watergate office building. His discovery helped bring down a President.
Today, the 46-year-old South Carolina resident says he is destitute. When his mother died last year, he said, he couldn't afford to bury her.
A small Anne Arundel County organization sponsored a dinner to raise money for Wills. It is determined to see that the former security guard is more than a mere footnote in history.
James Kilby, president of Treat Every American Right, an organization he formed last year, said he decided to help Wills after reading about his plight in Jet magazine.
That article described Wills as living alone in a small home in rural South Carolina, washing his clothes by hand, chopping wood to earn a meager living and lacking the money to pay his bills.
Kilby believed that Watergate's unsung hero deserved better.
"He did what was good and right, but he just got punished," said Kilby, who organized the $25-a-plate dinner at the Annapolis Dinner Theater.
To Kilby, it is the least the country can do to repay Wills for his service.
Wills discovered the break-in on June 17, 1972. Working as a security guard at the high-priced Washington office and hotel complex that night, he discovered a piece of tape on the latch of an outside door. Thinking that the tape had been left by workmen, Wills removed it and put it in his pocket. When he checked on the door an hour later, tape was again covering the latch to keep the door open.
That time, Wills called the police.
In searching the building, police and Wills discovered the Watergate burglars wearing suits and ties and hiding in the offices of the Democratic National Committee. But Wills had no idea who the criminals were until the next day, when he looked out of his window and saw television cameras in front of his rooming house.
"I thought I'd won the lottery," Wills said in Kilby's home.
In the days that followed the break-in, Wills had his picture printed on the front page of the Washington Post, was interviewed by journalists and appeared on talk shows.
His security agency offered to promote him to lieutenant, but Wills, who had fought the company for better benefits, said he refused to accept the promotion unless other officers also received improved benefits. He eventually resigned.
While the criminals involved in the Watergate scandal wrote books and launched new careers, Wills floundered. "I was punished for doing a good job," he said. "There were people on the other side who got rich."
He believes he was denied a security job at one university because officials feared that hiring him would jeopardize their federal funding. He quit another security job to take up speaking engagements. A book and movie deal fell through, although Wills played himself in the movie "All the President's Men."
In 1983, he was convicted of shoplifting a $12 pair of tennis shoes in Augusta, Ga., and sentenced to 12 months in jail--more time than many of the Watergate conspirators received.
For most of the 1980s, Wills worked for comedian-activist Dick Gregory as a spokesman for a diet product.
That job ended in 1990, and soon thereafter Wills was called back to South Carolina to take care of his ailing mother. They lived off her monthly $450 Social Security check until her death last November.
Wills said he could not afford to bury his mother and donated her body to science.