On June 17, 1972, Frank Wills discovered burglars in the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel, setting off a sequence of events that led to President Nixon's resignation.
Frank Wills’ job at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. was fairly dull and didn’t pay that well. But in June 1972, that job suddenly thrust him into the spotlight of history and transformed him from a 24-year-old security guard to a main player in the Watergate scandal.
On the night of June 17, Wills noticed that someone had taped over the lock on one of the hotel’s stairwell doors. He alerted the police, who discovered five men in the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They had bugging equipment with them — and White House phone numbers.
Wills’ chance discovery knocked down the first domino of the Watergate scandal and eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August 1974. But for Frank Wills, notoriety came at a heavy price.
From South Carolina To Washington, D.C.
Born on Feb. 4, 1948, in Savannah, Georgia, Frank Wills spent most of his childhood in South Carolina, raised by a single mother. Black Past reports that he dropped out of high school at 17 and joined Job Corps, which sent him to a federal employment-training program in Michigan.
There, Wills found work at the Ford Motor Company and at Chrysler Motors but lost his job in the 1968 recession. At the suggestion of friends, he decided to try his luck in Washington, D.C. And in April 1971, he secured a job at the Watergate Hotel as a security guard.
There was nothing glamorous about the job. It paid $80 a week, and Wills worked the midnight-to-seven a.m. shift which involved methodically checking each of the hotel’s floors. But Frank Wills’ job at the Watergate would change his life — and American history.
Frank Wills’ Critical Part In The Watergate Scandal
On June 17, 1972, Frank Wills was about 30 minutes into his shift at the Watergate Hotel when he noticed something odd. While on patrol in the parking garage, he found gaffer tape holding down the lock on a stairwell door. Wills removed it. At first, he thought nothing of it.
“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 later said, according to The Guardian.
But after he briefly left the hotel to get an orange juice across the street, Wills came back and found the tape back in place. Suspicious, he called the police and made an official note in his security log: “1:47 AM Found tape on doors; call police to make [an] inspection another inspection.”
A team of plainclothed detectives arrived, and Wills followed as they made their way through the hotel. On the 6th floor, where the Democratic National Committee had its headquarters, they found men hiding in the dark. “One person, then two persons, then three persons came out, and on down the line,” Wills recalled, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The five men were James McCord, Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Sturgis, and Virgilio Gonzales. They were dressed in suits and ties and carried bugging devices, $2,300 in crisp dollar bills, and phone numbers that connected to the White House.
As it soon became clear, McCord was the security director of the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) and he and the others had ties to an informal group of White House aides known as the “Plumbers.” Loyal to the president, Richard Nixon, their job was to staunch leaks.
But in the moment, neither Wills nor the detectives knew what they’d found. Wills certainly didn’t know that that moment would change his life.
“We didn’t have any idea about who these people were and what they were up to…[and] what this was connected to,” Frank Wills later said according to the Los Angeles Times. “I had no idea.”
Before long, the whole world would find out.
The Aftermath Of Watergate
As the nation untangled what had happened at the Watergate Hotel, Frank Wills became something of a minor celebrity. He gave interviews, made speeches, and even got a raise. But as the clamor around Watergate, the White House, and Nixon increased, Wills faded into the background.
His campaign to improve working conditions for guards fell upon deaf ears, and offers he received to become a Capitol Police officer withered because of Wills’ lack of high school degree. Wills landed a small part playing himself in the Watergate film All The President’s Men (1976) but even his cameo passed in the blink of an eye.
“If you went to sleep for a second,” Wills later said, “you missed it.”
After leaving his security gig, Wills struggled to find another job. He came to believe that he’d been “blackballed” and grew bitter about his minimized role in the Watergate scandal.
“I put my life on the line,” he said on Watergate’s 25th anniversary, according to the Washington Post. “I went out of my way… If it wasn’t for me, [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein would not have known anything about Watergate. This wasn’t finding a dollar under a couch somewhere.”
What Happened To Frank Wills?
In the years after Watergate, Frank Wills’ life took a dark turn. He struggled to find work, and was convicted of shoplifting sneakers in 1983 (though Wills always insisted upon his innocence). He briefly worked for the comedian Dick Gregory, helping to sell health supplements, but eventually made his way back home to South Carolina, where Wills moved in with his mother.
Wills worked odd jobs, but he and his mother mainly lived off her social security payments until her death in 1992. Unable to afford a funeral, Wills donated her body to medical research. He died eight years later on Sept. 27, 2000, and though many outlets reported that he’d had a brain tumor, Wills had actually died of AIDs.
“This was a taboo topic,” Adam Henig, author of Watergate’s Forgotten Hero: Frank Wills, Night Watchman, told WOTP. “[E]ven though it was running rampant within poor, rural, Southern Black communities.”
By the time of his death, Henig added that Wills had become a footnote in the Watergate saga, even though he’d played a crucial role in uncovering the conspiracy. Some accounts didn’t even mention Wills by name.
“It was always ‘the security guard,'” Henig explained to WOTP. “And in some cases — and this was by award-winning writers — they would call him ‘a custodian’ or ‘the Black janitor.’ I mean, they couldn’t even get his job title right. But again, that’s historically how we’ve treated people of color. It’s only been recently where we’ve finally recognized it and come to a reckoning.”
Frank Wills also saw a connection between his treatment during Watergate and his race. “When you’re Black and you do something wrong, everybody’s always criticizing loud,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1973, “but when you’re Black and do something good, nobody pays any attention.”
Though some — like Woodward — suspect that the Watergate scandal would have come out one way or the other, Wills played an indisputable role in uncovering the conspiracy. His diligence in June 1972 snowballed into one of the biggest scandals in American history and led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon two years later.
Despite this, Frank Wills never got his due. Nixon was pardoned for his role in the Watergate scandal; Wills was condemned.
After reading about Frank Wills and the Watergate break-in, discover the stories of other main characters in the Watergate scandal, like G. Gordon Liddy, Nixon’s bizarre and loyal henchman, ex-CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, or Martha Mitchell, the wife of the Attorney General who blew the whistle on Watergate.