A dubious demise

Willie Junior was an advocate for the poor and a committed county commissioner. He also was deep in debt and took $90,000 for a vote. When he was found dead, the questions really started.

Published January 23, 2005

PENSACOLA - Dozens of the city's best-known citizens had squeezed onto benches in room 407 at the Escambia County Courthouse.

Willie Junior, a former county commissioner and funeral home owner, was about to be sentenced on charges of extortion, bribery and grand theft. In exchange for a vote on a land deal, he admitted , he had taken a $90,000 bribe from one of the Panhandle's most powerful politicians.

Junior's friends had a different story to tell the judge. In Escambia County, he was a near-folk hero because of his dogged advocacy for the poor and his ability to bridge the racial divide. As a county commissioner, he was the go-to guy who had the friends - and the tenacity - to fix problems in a flash.

"Junior would have been on that board as long as he wanted to," said Elmer Jenkins, a retired college professor who was scheduled to be the first speaker that day. Even with his troubles, "people still believed in him," Jenkins said.

There was just one problem: Junior never showed up for his sentencing.

One month later, on Dec. 9, 2004, he turned up dead in the crawl space under a friend's house. Empty beer bottles and a pill container were found nearby. Police said it looked like a suicide.

Autopsy results are expected to be released soon. No matter what they show, many friends and associates refuse to believe that the 62-year-old Junior committed suicide.

But there's another question for those who thought they knew the real Junior: How could a man who seemed to have everything fall so far from grace?

Junior's life was as mysterious as his death.

* * *

Willie Junior was the descendant of slaves, his last name a reminder of those times. When freed, his ancestors took the surname Junior instead of the last name of their slavemaster.

As a teenager in the segregated South of the 1950s, Junior knew exactly whom he wanted to be like. The local funeral director was the richest black man in Pensacola. He drove a Cadillac and wore nice suits.

Junior joined the Army. Two years and an honorable discharge later, Junior enrolled at the University of West Florida, where he founded the school's first black student union.

He worked at a local hospital, where he met a pretty young nurse named Abbie.

"Personality just oozed out of him," recalled Abbie. They married in 1966.

In 1970, Abbie gave birth to a girl. But Junior wasn't around much to see his daughter grow; he was too busy working.

Junior didn't devote much time either to the civil rights struggles happening in Pensacola.

In 1972, black students at desegregated Escambia High protested the school's mascot and official song. When the Escambia Rebels played football, the school band played Dixie. A riot ensued.

Two years later, a black man was killed by a local sheriff's deputy. Protests lasted for weeks.

Junior again stayed out of the fray.

In 1975, he was hired at the Community Action Program, a nonprofit organization that helped Escambia County's neediest people with food, child care and housing. Junior became known as "The Cheese Man" because he gave out free food.

In 1977, a group of Pensacola African-Americans, led by the NAACP, sued to replace countywide commission races with single-member districts to improve the chances of a black person being elected. A judge agreed.

Junior was not part of the suit, but he ran and won.

"For the first time, we had somebody in that position who looked like us," said LeRoy Boyd, president of Movement for Change, a local civil rights group. "We were starving for someone we could role model."

* * *

Junior was a natural politician.

He paid attention to details. If someone called about a pothole, he made sure it was fixed within 48 hours.

"He listened to people, touched them and felt them," said Sabu Williams, regional director of the NAACP in the Panhandle. "People just thought he was an honest person."

It paid off: One year, he was re-elected with 80 percent of the vote.

He was always getting phone calls at home from people who needed help.

"I don't think he ever ate a meal without it being cold," his wife said.

In 1985, he achieved his dream of owning a funeral home. A local developer agreed to co-sign a loan, because Junior didn't have the money.

What he did have was a marketing strategy. He opened Florida's first drive-through mortuary: Mourners cruised up to the side of the funeral home and viewed the body through a window. No need to leave their car.

* * *

The first signs of trouble surfaced in the late 1980s. The Florida Department of Community Affairs and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Junior's Community Action Program was disorganized.

He also was criticized by a local black newspaper for placing business cards for his funeral home in boxes of government food sent to the elderly. The cards had Junior's photo and the words, "In the event of my death, please notify Junior Funeral Home."

Junior was not a good businessman. He gave free funerals to the poor and juggled money to make up for it. He illegally put prepaid funeral deposits into other accounts to pay bills.

His lifestyle drove him deeper into debt. He leased Corvettes, flew to New York for boxing matches and never missed an Auburn University football game.

Junior tried to stay afloat by borrowing tens of thousands of dollars from his friends and local businessmen. Sometimes he paid the loans back, sometimes he didn't.

He rankled some African-Americans, who thought Junior was coddling the white establishment. He didn't support a proposal to rename the downtown street his funeral home was on for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because some downtown business owners opposed it.

And in the mid 1990s, when community leaders were considering a name for Pensacola's Civic Center, Junior had a suggestion: Name it after W.D. Childers, a state senator.

"It was ludicrous," snorted Elvin McCorvey of the Pensacola branch of the NAACP.

Childers served 30 years in the state Legislature, including a stint as Senate president. He was a short and scrappy Pensacola native who quoted the Bible and swore, often in the same sentence. Around Tallahassee, he was known as the "Banty Rooster."

Childers was also a white man who had loudly supported Escambia High's rebel mascot.

Junior's proposal failed, but it bolstered his relationship with Escambia's most powerful politician.

* * *

In 2000, term limits forced Childers to leave the Legislature. So he ran for the Escambia County Commission and won.

At the same time, Junior was re-elected for a fifth term. Some people openly wondered whether he had been in office too long.

"He was entrenched," Boyd said. "He stayed too long and wasn't serving his constituents."

For Junior, and Childers, the fall came rapidly.

At the end of 2000, two commission votes stirred suspicions. A deal involving a soccer complex emerged late at night at the bottom of the agenda. The commission voted to buy the complex for $3.9-million. Three months later, the commission spent $2.3-million to buy an old car dealership. There was no public discussion. Both parcels were owned by a real estate agent who was a friend of Childers'.

The Pensacola News Journal started asking questions. State Attorney Curtis Golden investigated.

In 2002, a grand jury indicted four of the five commissioners on corruption charges. Junior was charged with bribery, extortion and theft.

Gov. Jeb Bush suspended Junior, Childers and the two other indicted commissioners. Junior was fired from the Community Action Program.

Facing 125 years in prison, Junior agreed to testify against Childers. In return, prosecutors proposed a prison sentence of no more than 18 months for Junior.

Two months before Childers' trial, Junior was found unconscious and taken to a hospital. A doctor said Junior likely had had a reaction to medication for anxiety and depression.

At Childers' trial, Junior testified that Childers bought his votes for $90,000 cash, and gave him the money inside a collard green pot. Childers said the money was a loan to the cash-strapped Junior.

The jury believed Junior and convicted Childers.

With the trials, depositions and hearings, the sorry state of Junior's life was exposed.

Yes, he had girlfriends - he bought one a bracelet with some of the money Childers gave him and another got a bedroom set. One woman said Junior found her a job at the court administrator's office, then had her fired when the affair ended.

Yes, he was married, but he and his wife had lived apart for six years.

Yes, he was in debt - to the tune of $300,000.

The revelations were a surprise even to his wife.

"There are questions I never ask my husband because he doesn't answer me," Abbie Junior told prosecutors. "Mr. Junior does what Mr. Junior does and then, you know."

* * *

The Corvette was gone. Junior signed the funeral home over to his lawyers in lieu of payment. He stopped dressing in sleek suits and ties.

When he saw people, he didn't greet them like he used to, with a big smile. Instead, he apologized.

"Greed got in my way," he told LeRoy Boyd.

Although some friends held fundraisers for him, others were disappointed, "totally disgusted with Willie Junior for having that much trust in a white person," Boyd said. "He should have known better."

Junior and his wife reunited and celebrated their 38th anniversary last September, "quietly, just looking at each other," Mrs. Junior said.

* * *

Three months later, someone in a downtown neighborhood not far from Junior's house smelled something foul and called police.

Junior's body was found in the crawl space under a bungalow. It was so decayed that it had to be identified through dental records.

Near the body, police found $60.76, three empty Heinekens and an unmarked prescription bottle.

The owner of the home, a retired schoolteacher named Benjamin Dudley, had known Junior for decades and used to work for his funeral home.

Police Chief John W. Mathis said the 89-year-old Dudley had nothing to do with Junior's death. No suicide note was found, but investigators believe Junior killed himself.

Dudley agrees. "I look at it from this standpoint: When you have problems, problems mounted on top of problems, you might do anything," he said. "Only Mr. Junior and the good master know what happened, and we can't get in touch with either one."

Other associates said Junior was depressed.

"Everything had gone wrong for him," said Fred Levin, a lawyer who was once a friend of Junior's, but called Junior a "rat" for testifying against Childers, Levin's close friend. "He was living at the very top, and now all of a sudden, he was destitute."

The NAACP was skeptical and offered to pay for an independent autopsy. Junior's wife said no.

Two days after Junior was found, more than 250 people met on Dudley's lawn for a memorial service. As community leaders praised Junior's life, people in the crowd whispered conspiracy theories. Maybe it wasn't suicide, they said, maybe it was murder. Junior seemed happier in recent months, some observed. The day he disappeared, he got a haircut.

"How many people you know go get a haircut, then go lay down and die?" said Charmane Jordan, who cut Junior's hair on the day he was last seen alive. "Willie Junior was the type that every time you saw him, he was dressed up. Willie ain't going up under no house like a dog."

Junior's lawyers were not convinced he had committed suicide.

"I think he would have done it with more finesse," said Charles Liberis, one of Junior's attorneys. "The whole thing is just very strange."

A week after Junior's body was found, State Attorney Golden said he wouldn't retry Childers if his appeal is successful; Junior was the state's key witness. Childers, who was sentenced to a three-year prison term, is free pending the appeal.

Childers and his attorney, Richard Lubin of Palm Beach, declined to talk about Junior.

"I really don't have any comment at all on the tragedy that befell Mr. Junior," said Lubin.

* * *

One of Junior's favorite haunts was Soul City, a nightclub in the heart of his commission district.

People sit on red leather seats or comfy black barstools or stand around the pool table. The air is thick with smoke and the sounds of old-school soul: Al Green, Luther Vandross.

Junior used to stop in for a beer - a Heineken, his favorite. He liked to brag about his daughter, a doctoral student in New Jersey.

Everyone in the place knew him.

"I saw him that day, the day he disappeared," said Raymond Simmons, a retired assistant principal who went to school with Junior. "I saw him and rolled down my window. He looked happy, he had a bounce in his step. I yelled, "Hey Willie,' and he gave me the thumbs-up."

When asked if he thinks Junior killed himself just hours later, Simmons sighed. He tapped the end of his cigar into an ashtray.

"You don't know what a man is capable of," he said.

Simmons and others are gently forgiving of Junior's downfall.

"He was a good person," Simmons said. "And he will always be a good person, especially for the black community. He just got caught with his hands in the cookie jar."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or lush@sptimes.com