The time was 12:30 am. The month, June. The date, 17 and the year 1972.
Frank Wills was an African American private security guard who was patrolling the parking garage at the Watergate office complex in Washington.
He noticed during the watch of the complex a disguising tape covering locks on a stairwell door. Thinking probably the maintenance crew taped the doors to keep them from locking, Wills, 24, tore them off.
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“A lot of times we’d have engineers doing work late at night. They’d place something in the door because they’d be coming right back so I really didn’t pay much attention to it,” he stated as captured by The Guardian in its 2000 article.
However, a little over an hour later on another patrol, Wills realized the tape had reappeared. He would then call the police to make a report. It turned out that five men were planning to bug the Democratic headquarters, and Wills’ intuitive thinking led to their arrests, Blackhistory.com reported.
That discovery by Wills triggered the 1972 Watergate scandal and America’s first presidential resignation after it was discovered that President Richard Nixon was deeply involved in the failed attempt to bug the DNC office.
The police discovered James McCord and four companions hiding inside the offices of the DNC on the sixth floor of the building.
President Nixon’s spokesman initially dismissed as “a third-rate burglary”.
Wills enjoyed brief fame including a small part in the film ‘All The President’s Men’, but eventually left him bitter and disillusioned.
“1.47 am Call police found tape on Doore” was Wills semi-literate scrawl on Page 48 of a scrumpled foolscap ledger and it is being reserved as a crucial historical document in America’s National Archives, alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, The Guardian reported in 2000. “But the man who penned it, Frank Wills, has died in deepest poverty at the age of 52,” the paper added.
“I was treated like a criminal myself,” he said. “I got nothing for what I did and I completely lost my faith in the political system.”
Wills noticing the heightening political storm tried to use his unforeseen fame to win a rise for himself and better working conditions for his fellow security men.
He never received the raise and soon found himself without a job.
Although he received an award from the DNC for his “unique role in the history of the nation”, it brought him no benefit, dying a pauper in 2000.
According to The Washington Post: “He gave $200 speeches or interviews whenever an anniversary of Watergate rolled around. But he would never profit, as did other players in the Watergate scandal — even those convicted.”
In an interview in 2017, former Post reporter Bob Woodward said Wills deserved credit for alerting police.
“Being a security guard can be boring and routine and here’s somebody who stepped up to the plate and said something is not right,” Woodward said. “Instead of hesitating, he called the police right away. He didn’t call some supervisor. Not a lot of people would have done that.”
“It would not have been a Watergate that way,” Woodward said. “But Nixon and his crew were up to so much, there might have been another vehicle for disclosure.”
Wills returned South in the late 1970s, to care for his ailing mother. He worked as a guard and as a salesman for Dick Gregory’s nutrition formula, The Post reported in his obituary.
In 1983, he was arrested for shoplifting a $12 pair of sneakers. He, however, denied the charge, saying he’d been hiding the shoes as a present for a teenager who was shopping with him.
Although Nixon had been pardoned for his crimes, Wills was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail.
Wills spent the rest of his life in poverty, living in the North Augusta, S.C., house his mother left him when she died in 1993. He could not afford water or electricity.
When Wills died of a brain tumor on Sept. 27, 2000, at a hospital in Augusta, Ga., he was destitute.