2000 September 27

Frank Wills, Watergate Scandal Hero, Dies


Frank Wills, who discovered the break-in at the Watergate Complex the night of June 17, 1972, and for that is the hero of the entire Watergate Scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in disgrace, died on this day.

Wills, an African American, was a night watchman at the Watergate Complex, where the Democratic Party National Committee rented office space. The night of June 17, 1972, between midnight and 1 a.m., he discovered that the latch of a door had been taped open, permitting entry and reentry. He removed the tape and continued on his rounds. About an hour later he returned to the scene to double check the door. Finding it taped open again, he called the police. That call led to the arrest of five men in the building who were placing wiretaps on the phones at the Democratic Party offices. The men were associated with the Nixon White House, and their arrest set in motion the Watergate Scandal and President Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974.

Without Wills’ dutiful actions, the Watergate Scandal might never have happened, and the many abuses of power by the Nixon administration might never have been uncovered.

Despite his pivotal role in the Watergate events, Wills subsequent life was an unhappy one. Although his name was frequently mentioned, he was not celebrated or rewarded personally (as in, for example, being offered better employment). His Watergate employer did not value his great contribution, and Wills soon resigned. He then had a succession of jobs and began experiencing financial and health problems. He died in relative obscurity on this day.

Wills was interviewed by the famous Chicago radio talk show host Studs Terkel, and the interview is included in Terkel’s book American Dreams: Lost and Found (pp. 415-420). In a final indignity, Terkel misspelled Wills’ name, citing him as Frank “Willis.” The interview, however, is a valuable first-hand account of the events of June 17, 1972 and Wills’ later life.

(It might also be said that Wills discovered the taped door latch because of the bungling amateurism of the Watergate burglars. “Tradecraft” (as it is called) calls for taping a door open by placing the tape vertically, where it is less likely to be noticed. The burglars, however, placed it laterally, so that it was readily visible on both sides of the door — and where Wills noticed it).

Learn more about Watergate: Stanley Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (1990)

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