'Dead man' survives pair who collected his life insurance The strange case of Chuck, JoAnne and the resurgent Willie Dean.

March 20, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

WILLITS, Calif. -- At Judy Bertolucci's Stylin' hair salon, the recent suicides of JoAnne Williams and her lover, Chuck Phillips, are the talk of the shop.

Their deaths, coupled with the reappearance of JoAnne Williams' supposedly dead husband and Phillips' fishing buddy, Willie Dean Williams, have turned this sleepy logging town into the center of national attention.

"People are still talking. They're forming their own conclusions of what happened. It's like some mystery game," said lifelong Willits resident and manicurist, Debbie Curry.

Willie Williams, 36, a Marine staff sergeant believed to have drowned off the Mendocino County coast in 1987 is in custody at Camp Pendleton just outside Oceanside, Calif., on desertion charges. He was tracked down in Michigan by authorities investigating a $500,000 insurance fraud case and the recent suicides of his alleged co-conspirators.

He surrendered to FBI agents earlier this month in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he had established a new life under the alias Jim Harris. He worked as a machinist and had recently remarried.

Willie Williams knew investigators were on his trail and, after learning from the TV show "A Current Affair" that his wife had committed suicide, he turned himself in.

"I can't say anyone around here is terribly surprised Willie showed up," said Peggy Jones, an employee of a Willits greeting card shop -- one of three Phillips owned. "I think there is some relief that this is all over with."

But, for friends and family of Phillips and 36-year-old JoAnne Williams, only bodies have been put to rest. "I can't go on with my life until the answers are in," said Irene Longcrier, Phillips' sister who lives in Willits.

Located 140 miles north of San Francisco, Willits is the kind of town where marijuana busts are common and tickets go fast for female oil wrestling at John's Place, a restaurant and tavern.

The tangled yarn begins on a drizzly Saturday, May 30, 1987. Willie Williams had left his daughter's birthday party to go kayaking near the Mendocino coast. He never returned.

The next day, JoAnne Williams and Phillips found Willie Williams' station wagon in the lot at Russian Gulch State Park, a well-protected cove two miles north of Mendocino. Willie Williams' kayak was found on the rocks on the north side of Russian Gulch, its ribs and decking badly damaged. A search of the park and the beaches failed to turn up any sign of him.

Mendocino County sheriff's Detective Rick Shipley said that, when he questioned JoAnne Williams, she "did not present the demeanor of someone who has potentially lost her husband."

On Aug. 14, 1987, JoAnne Williams asked a Mendocino County judge to declare her husband legally dead.

Police were skeptical from the start after they discovered that, in addition to previous insurance policies, two policies worth $341,000 had been taken out 90 days before Willie Williams disappeared.

And then JoAnne Williams moved in with Phillips four months after her husband's supposed death. Police grew more suspicious when they learned that in June 1989 the Department of Motor Vehicles sent Willie Williams' driver's license renewal to his wife's new address.

But there still was no concrete evidence that Willie Williams was alive.

Then, on Jan. 31, 48-year-old Phillips shot himself in the head with a .357-caliber Magnum. Several Michigan telephone numbers were found in his shirt pocket, which helped lead investigators to Willie Williams in Kalamazoo. A suicide note was also found that said, "I just can't face what I see coming."

Phillips had spent most of the $500,000 in Willie Williams' insurance money on his failing card shops, said JoAnne Williams' attorney, Bernie DePaoli of Eureka, Calif. He also sent several thousand dollars to an address in Michigan.

On Saturday, March 2, DePaoli found JoAnne Williams in a barn (( next to her house slumped behind the wheel of her truck. The motor was running and a garden hose had been connected from the exhaust pipe to a window. Weeks before her death, she had instructed a neighbor to look under her mattress for instructions should something happen to her.

"It said 'Don't go into the barn, you'll be horrified at what you see . . . call Mr. DePaoli . . . call the sheriff's department.'"

Just days before her death, JoAnne Williams maintained that her husband had drowned. In her suicide note, she also called members of the county sheriff's department "witch hunters" for pursuing the investigation years after her husband had been declared dead.

DePaoli, a former Mendocino County district attorney, has denied that his client was ever part of an insurance scam and said he believes a deal was worked out between JoAnne Williams and Phillips to solve financial problems both faced.

He disputed several statements made by Detective Shipley and others that incriminated his client.

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