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Obituaries

Frank Wills; Guard Discovered Watergate Break-In

September 29, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six months after the break-in, in early 1973, he quit. His boss said it was because the attention was too much for him. Wills said it was because he wanted a better job with more benefits.

He flirted with the idea of pursuing work with the FBI or Secret Service. But he found a good job elusive.

By the end of 1973, he was angry. He had gotten another guard job with a realty company but was fired after taking two days off to visit family members. After that, he said no one would hire him because of his connection with the Watergate affair. He was living in a one-bedroom apartment on $65 a week in unemployment compensation.

The NAACP honored him and bought him a truck. The Democrats gave him a plaque but took it back when they realized they had engraved the wrong date for the break-in on it.

He played himself in the 1976 movie, "All the President's Men," based on the book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But the part was so brief, he said, that "if you went to sleep for a second, you missed it."

Over the next two decades, he was out of work for years at a time, moving between Washington and cities in the South. In 1982, he was convicted of shoplifting a pair of $16 sneakers for one of his four out-of-wedlock children.

He eventually moved to South Carolina to care for his ailing mother, attempting to live off her meager Social Security checks until her death in 1992, when he had to donate her body to medical research because he lacked the money for burial.

In 1993, he made a desperate plea for financial aid to the readers of Jet magazine, which published a short article detailing his struggles. Recently, he was living in a rural Georgia shack without electricity or telephone. His pastor, the Rev. Nathaniel Irvin, sometimes bought him food and paid his bills.

"He became disillusioned after Watergate," Irvin said Thursday. "Somehow he felt he was put down because of . . . what he did. Society somehow turned on him. This is what he expressed to me. He felt what he did was not appreciated by people. He felt betrayed."

Over the years, Wills sometimes blamed race for his troubles. "When you're black and you do something wrong, everybody's always criticizing loud," he told The Times in 1973, "but when you're black and do something good, nobody pays any attention."

On other occasions, he said he was simply a victim of fate.

In 1992, on the 20th anniversary of the break-in, he was asked if he could have ignored the burglars' tape over the door lock and not called the police, if he would react differently if he had it to do again.

Wills replied with annoyance.

"That's like asking me if I'd rather be white than black. It was just a part of destiny."

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