Watergate guard's fleeting fame leaves bitter taste Arundel organization plans to help

October 13, 1993|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

Twenty-one years ago, Frank Wills discovered tape on the latch of a door in the Watergate office building that helped bring down a president.

Today, the 46-year-old South Carolina resident says he is so destitute that he couldn't afford to bury his mother.

A small Anne Arundel County organization is sponsoring a dinner tonight to raise money for Mr. Wills, determined to see that the former security guard be more than a mere footnote in history.

James Kilby, president of Treat Every American Right (TEAR), an organization he formed last year, said he decided to help Mr. Wills after reading about his plight in Jet magazine earlier this year.

That article described how Mr. Wills lives 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.

Mr. Kilby believed Watergate's unsung hero deserved better.

"He did what was good and right, but he just got punished," said Mr. Kilby, who organized the $25-a-plate dinner at the Annapolis Dinner Theater. The guest speaker will be Annapolis City Alderman Carl O. Snowden. About 125 sympathizers are expected to attend.

Mr. Wills was only 24 when he 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Wills called the police.

In searching the building, police and Mr. Wills discovered the Watergate burglars wearing suits and ties and hiding in the offices of the Democratic National Committee. But Mr. 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," Mr. Wills said in an interview yesterday in Mr. Kilby's Crofton home.

In the days that followed the break-in, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

He believes he was denied a security job at one university because officials feared 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 Mr. 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 was sentenced to 12 months in jail -- more time than many of the Watergate conspirators received.

For most of the 1980s, Mr. Wills worked for comedian-activist Dick Gregory as a spokesman for a diet product.

That job ended in 1990, and soon thereafter Mr. Wills was called back to South Carolina to take care of his ill mother. They lived off her monthly $450 Social Security check until her death last November.

Mr. Wills said he could not afford to bury his mother and donated her body to science.

Since his mother's death, he has been working on the house she left him and trying to put her affairs in order. After the Jet article appeared, donations of food, money and clothing started coming to him. He said he hopes to use the donations to buy a car and fix up his house.

Mr. Wills is uncertain what he will do next. He has had job offers in the Washington area and is thinking about returning to the city that once brought him fame.

Mr. Kilby said his organization wants to help. "He deserves an opportunity," he said.

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