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NEWS FEATURES | Vol 5, No. 27, July 14-21, 2005
(Save Our City!)

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Solving the Willie Junior Mystery

by Rick Outzen

It's a Thursday night and about two-dozen people crowd into the small Center of Social Justice office on North Davis Highway in Pensacola. Friends and neighbors of former Escambia County Commissioner Willie Junior gather to hear Dr. Michael Berkland's independent analysis of the autopsy and crime scene investigation. They all have doubts about the community leaders apparent suicide in November.

Junior was found dead under the Strong Street home of a former employee, Benjamin Dudley, on Dec. 9, 2004. The former funeral home owner and chairman of the Community Action Program had disappeared one month earlier. Fingerprints and dental records were needed to identify his badly decomposed body. Empty Heineken bottles and butterscotch candies were found nearby.

Medical Examiner Andrea Minyard ruled Junior's death a suicide by antifreeze. She determined his liver and kidneys and a beer bottle contained antifreeze and a swig of about four ounces caused his death.

But Junior's friends and supporters refuse to accept Minyard's ruling. There were too many strange circumstances surrounding his death and disappearance. How did he get under the house? Why did he poison himself by drinking antifreeze? Why did the local law enforcement fail to more actively try to find Junior when he went missing?

That's why Movement for Change, a local civil rights group, interceded to hire Berkland, a former assistant medical examiner, to do a thorough independent investigation into Junior's mysterious death.

"After we heard that Commissioner Junior was found dead," LeRoy Boyd, Movement for Change president, tells the audience, "our office received several phone calls asking for an independent investigation.

"Several persons, who have asked to go unnamed, stepped forward and offered to pay for this investigation by Dr. Michael Berkland. Our hope for this meeting is that Dr. Berkland's report will help bring some closure on Willie Junior's death," he says in his opening remarks.


MORE QUESTIONS

Instead, Berkland only raises more questions.

In his opening comments, Berkland doesn't hesitate to question the experience of Minyard and her investigators. Berkland is a certified forensic pathologist and former assistant medical examiner in Okaloosa County.

"The medical examiner investigators here are very novice," Berkland says. "It's not meant as a negative criticism. It's just a fact. They've taken a few college courses, but don't have much experience seeing bodies.

"When Commissioner Junior's body was first found, Minyard reported that he had been dead about a week. When I heard that, I was thinking just like you. If he had only been dead one week, where had he been hiding for the other three weeks. That caught my attention right off the bat."

Berkland adds: "I'm not sure whether law enforcement pointed out to her the discrepancy or that she discovered the timing problem on her own. Suddenly, the time frame for his death got lengthened. The final statement at the press conference was we don't know how long he had been there."

For Berkland there's a very good reason why they didn't know. Minyard's investigators failed to do what they needed to during their very first time at the scene.

Three days after Junior was found dead, Berkland did his own examination of the crawl space under the Strong Street residence. He took samples of the beetles, flies and larvae from under the house and sent them to a forensic entomologist. Based on the insects' development, the entomologist determined the body rotted there for four weeks.

This is the type of investigation Minyard and her staff should have done, Berkland insists.

"None of these samples where collected by the Pensacola police or the medical examiner. You have to be smart enough to collect it," he quips.

Although the site hadn't been preserved by the police, Berkland didn't find any footprints or other signs of entry under the house other than those from the one opening that Junior used to crawl there and from which law enforcement removed his body. There was no sign of a struggle.


INDEPENDENT REVIEW

Berkland's investigation was done without the help of Willie Junior's family. Junior's wife, Abbie Gale, refused to allow him to perform a second, independent autopsy. Berkland had to rely on his investigation of the crime scene where the body was found and review the M.E.'s autopsy and toxicity reports.

Berkland was further hampered by State Attorney Bill Eddins' decision to keep the Junior case open. Because it's still an active investigation, Berkland didn't have access to any of the police investigation reports or photographs.   

"Usually when the medical examiner declares a death a suicide, the case is closed," Berkland says. "This is one of the few times I've seen the state attorney keep an investigation open, when the medical examiner has literally slammed the door shut.

"Usually the police and state attorney are sitting on pins and needles waiting for the medical examiner to make a call," he says. "I don't know why Eddins is keeping it open."

Berkland also explained to the curious group how antifreeze (also known as ethylene glycol) works on the body. Antifreeze is not a rapid toxin. After ingesting it, you become unconscious and go into a coma. Renal failure, acidosis and hypocalcemia may follow the intake of ethylene glycol. There can be widespread tissue injury in the kidney, brain, liver and blood vessels.

Junior probably was unconscious and may have gone into a coma from drinking the antifreeze, but he didn't die a quick death. It was awhile before his body shutdown, Berkland explains.

"What is ironic is that one of the treatments for ethylene glycol is ethanol (alcohol)," Berkland says. "The beer probably slowed the effects of the antifreeze."

Antifreeze has a sweet taste. Berkland hypothesizes that Junior used beer to mask the taste and make it easier to ingest.

The medical examiner did send part of the liver and kidney to a forensic pathologist in Gainesville for testing. The lab did find ethylene glycol in the liver at a fairly low level and ethylene glycol crystals in the kidney.

"What is puzzling is that no urine sample was originally sent by the M.E.'s office to Gainesville for testing," Berkland reveals. "Then about a month later 1 cc of urine is delivered to the lab for testing. And it had no ethylene glycol present, which seemed highly unusual. Why wasn't the urine sent earlier? Is it Willie Junior's urine? The M.E. report says the bladder was empty at the time of the autopsy."


PUZZLE UNSOLVED

It doesn't prove foul play. It's just another inconsistency that bothers these concerned citizens.

Berkland refuses to definitively declare Junior's death a suicide, but he also admits it's unlikely to be anything else.

"As a forensic pathologist, I try to put together the puzzle pieces to determine the cause and time of Willie Junior's death. Some of the pieces are missing," he says. "I go where the forensic evidence leads me. At this point, I really have insufficient puzzle pieces to testify in court that his death was a suicide. However, he did ingest the antifreeze, and it's hard to force someone to drink a poison."

Berkland tells the audience that the police reports and photos would help considerably in completing this puzzle.    

"If the family had allowed a second autopsy, then a lot of the puzzle pieces would have come together," he says. "But since the body was cremated, that is no longer an option. If I had copies of the police reports, photographs and the medical examiner case files, then we could answer even more questions about his death."

Berkland admits that he did not request the reports, photos or case files from the Pensacola Police Department, State Attorney or Medical Examiner.

"I often testify against them as an expert witness," he admits. "I have embarrassed them in court several times. They were not going to release anything to me, while the case is still open."

The room latches on to every inconsistency. They pepper Berkland with questions about the crime scene, antifreeze poisoning and the medical examiner's competency.

It's obvious many don't want to believe Junior killed himself, and Berkland has not addressed all their doubts and concerns.

One person bluntly states, "Nobody ever questions whatever happens to a black man."


CASE CONTINUES

Junior disappeared on the eve of his sentencing on charges of extortion, bribery and grand theft. The charges led to Junior's removal from his commission post, which he had held for five terms. The charges stemmed from the 2001 purchases by Escambia County of a former Pensacola Soccer Complex and an abandoned Jack Lee Buick car lot.

In exchange for a vote on the land deal, Junior admitted that he had taken a $90,000 bribe from fellow commissioner W.D. Childers. Junior cooperated with prosecutors. His testimony that Childers gave him a stainless steel collard green pot stashed with cash to vote for the $6.2 million in county land deals, helped the state win Childers' bribery conviction and a three-and-a-half-year jail sentence.

Under his plea deal, Junior faced no more than 18 months in jail on four counts of extortion, four counts of bribery, one Sunshine Law violation, grand theft and racketeering.

Despite his fall from political power, Junior was still seen has a friend of the poor in the community. He was the first African-American ever elected to the Escambia County Commission. The affable Junior got things done for his constituents—patched pot holes, repaired sidewalks, built parks, etc.

Many felt Junior was a good man seduced by Childers, who was widely recognized as the Panhandle's most powerful politician during his three decades in the state Senate. Newly enacted term limits ousted him from the Legislature and led him to run for commissioner.

After two hours, Movement for Change's Boyd stands and tries to end the meeting. Boyd expresses the group's dissatisfaction with Junior's case.

"Sheriff McNesby did nothing," Boyd charges. "When there were rumors that Commissioner Junior was found hung in Perdido Key, we and the NAACP pushed him to go on camera to say it wasn't true. We both pushed for law enforcement to look for him, even offering a reward for any information."

Still, Boyd proposes letting Junior's case rest in peace.

"There are questions still unanswered," he says. "However, we need to listen to what Dr. Berkland has told us. We need to move on."

But the group isn't ready yet to end the investigation without at least having Berkland review all the information gathered by law enforcement agencies and the medical examiner's office.

Boyd relents and agrees to make public information request of the State Attorney and the Pensacola Police Department of the offense report, all supplemental reports, crime scene report, investigation report, evidence log and copies of the police photos. Movement for Change also plans to request that the M.E. release copies of its case file.

If Movement for Change can obtain those records, Berkland will review them and provide another report to Boyd and the group of Junior's friends and neighbors.

Boyd says if the released information confirms Junior's suicide, then and only then will this group and the entire community finally have the closure it seeks.

rick@inweekly.net