Willie Junior

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Willie Junior
WillieJunior.jpg
Born June 21, 1942
Lowdnesboro, Alabama
Died November 2004
Pensacola
Occupation Funeral director, politician
Spouse Abbie Gail Junior
Parents Willie & Louise Junior

Willie J. Junior (1942 - 2004) was a prominent African-American businessman, founder of the Junior Funeral Home, and the first black member of the Escambia County Commission since the Reconstruction era. He was removed from office in 2002 for his part in the soccer complex corruption scandal, in which he took a $90,000 bribe from fellow Commissioner W. D. Childers to vote on a County land purchase later deemed inappropriate. He was convicted on corruption charges, but disappeared before being sentenced. His body was discovered on December 9, 2004 under the home of a former employee.

Contents

[edit] Early life

Born in 1942, Junior grew up in a segregated Pensacola. He joined the Army, but was honorably discharged two years later. He then enrolled in the University of West Florida, where he began the school's first black student union.[1]

Junior met his future wife, Abbie, while working at a local hospital. They married in 1966 and had a daughter in 1970. In 1975, Junior was hired by the non-profit Community Action Program to help distribute food to the needy, for which he became known as "The Cheese Man."[1]

[edit] Career: politics and funerals

The "drive-through" window at the former Junior Funeral Home

Thanks to a 1977 lawsuit by the NAACP, the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners was forced to hold district-specific elections for seats, giving black politicians a better chance of getting elected. Junior ran for the District 3 seat in 1983 and was elected, becoming the first black member of the Commission since Reconstruction.

In 1986, Junior and developer Jim Cronley purchased an old church on Alcaniz Street and converted it into the Junior Funeral Home. The business became famous for its "drive-through mortuary," allowing mourners to view the deceased through a window without leaving their vehicle. Junior later purchased Cronley's 49-percent share.[2]The building has since been converted back into a church known as the Mission Anglican Church.

Junior lived outside his means: he leased Corvettes, bought expensive suits and took frequent trips. The line between his government career and private life began to blur. He was criticized for sending boxes of government food to the elderly with a card that read, "In the event of my death, please notify Junior Funeral Home."[1] He had extramarital girlfriends on whom he lavished expensive gifts he could not afford. One woman claimed he found her a job with the County, then had her fired when their affair ended.[1]

[edit] Corruption scandal

On October 4, 2001, Junior added an item to the Escambia County Commission agenda, proposing to negotiate a purchase price for the old Pensacola Soccer Complex, which was approved unanimously. The Commission voted 3-2 on November 1 to approve the $3.9 million purchase from real estate salesman Joe Elliott and his wife Georgann. Junior voted in the majority with fellow commissioners W. D. Childers and Mike Bass. On January 10, 2002, the Commission offered $2.3 million for another property owned by the Elliotts, the defunct Stalnaker Mazda dealership. Both votes were passed without any public discussion. The properties were later appraised well below the amount paid by the County.

Junior came under public scrutiny when his financial disclosure reports were found with numerous discrepancies and unexplained revenue. A grand jury subpoenaed Escambia County Supervisor of Elections Bonnie Jones for Junior's records on February 6. It was eventually disclosed that many of Junior's business debts were erased with a single payment of $291,542 on October 2, 2002 — two days before he voted with the Commission to purchase the soccer complex.[3] During this time, Junior incurred heavy legal costs from attorneys Charles Liberis and Michael Griffith, forcing him to mortgage his funeral home.[4]

Junior, along with the Elliotts and fellow Commissioners Childers, Bass and Smith, were indicted on April 30, 2002. Governor Jeb Bush suspended the commissioners by executive order on May 1.[5] Marie Young was appointed to fill Junior's District 3 seat.

On September 17, 2002, Junior pleaded no contest to political corruption charges and agreed to testify against Childers. Junior might have faced a maximum sentence of 125 years for the felony bribery and money laundering charges, but his plea agreement ensured a sentence of no more than 18 months.[6]

In his testimony, Junior admitted to accepting a $10,000 bribe directly from Elliott and another $90,000 from Childers, who delivered some of the money in a "collard green pot" with notes alluding to future payments.

[edit] Disappearance and death

Junior went missing on November 9, 2004, the day before he was to be sentenced. Many assumed he had fled town to avoid imprisonment, and the Independent News ran a mocking cover story entitled, "Where's Willie?"[7]

On December 9, Junior's decomposed body was discovered under the home of Ben Dudley, a former employee of the Junior Funeral Home, after one of Dudley's neighbors complained of an odor. He had $60.76 in his pockets, and Heineken beer bottles and an empty pill container were discovered nearby. Dental records confirmed Junior's identity the next day. Pensacola Police Department Chief John Mathis told reporters, "The results of the autopsy revealed that there were no obvious signs of foul play."[8] It was later determined Junior died from ingesting anti-freeze, and the death was ruled a suicide.

Considering the circumstances, many have expressed skepticism that Junior committed suicide, noting that he was last seen getting a haircut at the Me & Mom's Family Hair Care Center. "How many people you know go get a haircut, then go lay down and die?" said barber Charmane Jordan. "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."[1]

The NAACP offered to pay for an independent autopsy to confirm the conclusion, but Abbie Junior declined.

His remains were cremated and interred at Barrancas National Cemetery.

[edit] References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 "State: A dubious demise." St. Petersburg Times, January 23, 2005.
  2. "Political scandal casts shadow on the future of a man with three jobs." Pensacola News Journal, May 11, 2002.
  3. "New financial details raise more questions." Pensacola News Journal, February 9, 2002.
  4. "Legal woes put commissioner deeper in debt." Pensacola News Journal, April 28, 2002.
  5. State press release
  6. "Escambia commissioner enters corruption plea." Associated Press, September 18, 2002.
  7. "Where's Willie?" Independent News, November 18, 2004.
  8. "Missing Escambia commissioner's body found under house." Associated Press, December 11, 2004.
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