Frank Wills: Watergate Security Guard
On June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, an $80-a-week security guard for the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C., stumbled upon what was later called a "third-rate burglary" taking place in an office leased to the Democratic National Committee. His life, as well as that of his nation, would never be the same.
Frank Wills, a native of Savannah, Georgia, visited Washington D.C. in 1971 and decided to stay. Later that year, a security services firm called GSS hired him to man the midnight-to-7 a.m. shift at the Watergate office complex.
About an hour into his shift in the early morning of June 17, 1972, he noticed a piece of adhesive tape covering part of the lock mechanism on a door between the basement stairwell and the parking garage. At first, Wills suspected the cleaning crew - which had left by this time - had taped over the door latch to prevent it from locking. He removed the tape and went on with his duties.
James McCord, the leader of the buglers and a former security officer at the CIA, noticed the tape was missing but rather than calling off the escapade, he simply retaped the door. Had he not, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Richard Nixon would have served out his second term with all of the abuses of power of his administration simply speculated upon rather than prosecuted.
At around 1:55 a.m., Wills again made his rounds and discovered the lock had once again been taped over. He called the D.C. police and they arrested five men wearing surgical gloves and carrying bugging equipment in the sixth-floor offices of the Democratic National Committee. During their arraignment the following day, it would be discovered that some of the burglars were former CIA personnel.
Frank Wills: Movie Star
As the importance of the burglary became apparent, Wills began receiving recognition for his efforts. He received an award from the Democratic Party and the Martin Luther King Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - its highest honor. He even played himself in the movie "All the President's Men" starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman and written by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
For a brief time after the break-in, he was "in demand" amongst the Washington press corps. He hired lawyer Dorsey Evans as his agent and charged reporters as much as $300 for interviews. Some reporters paid the fee, but his plans to work the lecture circuit met with apathy and were soon abandoned.
Forgotten and Bitter Man
With all the awards, press attention, and the appearance in the movie, he began to believe far more rewards awaited him. But it was not to be.
In 1973 - before the Watergate saga had played itself out - he left GSS due to their unwillingness to provide paid vacations. He had trouble finding full-time employment after that and told the Washington Post: "I don't know if they are being told not to hire me or if they are just afraid to hire me." By the late 1970s, he was living with his ailing mother.
Frank Wills hit a low in 1983 when he was sentenced to a year in prison for shoplifting a pair of sneakers.
Wills was largely forgotten at the time of the 25th anniversary of the break-in in 1997. Nevertheless, a number of interviews at the time revealed an embittered man. In a Boston Globe interview, he said: "I put my life on the line. If it wasn't for me, Woodward and Bernstein would not have known anything about Watergate. This wasn't finding a dollar under a couch somewhere."
"He's the only one in Watergate who did his job perfectly," said Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward to The Post. "...Calling the police was one of the most important phone calls in American history, and it was so simple and so basic."
Where Are They Now?
Frank Wills died penniless on September 27, 2000 at age 52 in a hospital in Augusta, Georgia. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. A very sad end for a man who helped protect the integrity of a system he later become so disillusioned with.
The Watergate complex was once again mentioned frequently in the context of a presidential scandal when it was revealed that Monica Lewinsky lived there while working at the White House under Bill Clinton.
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