The Sheriff is a new, six-part podcast series from The Northwest Florida Daily News and The Gannett Company. The complete first season is currently available to download on Apple, Spotify and Google.
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PART 1 OF 6: THE WHEELS OF JUSTICE
Killing a man on the Ides of March held no significance to the men who stalked toward the house on Long Drive on the night of March 15, 1940.
Had they been well-read men — educated men — they would have understood the history of the day. They would have understood its dangers as well as its implied powers.
They were neither of those types of men.
They hid around the house, shotguns in hand. They waited in parked cars on darkened parts of the street. Then they carried out their attack.
They murdered a good man in his own home in front of his wife and children. Then they ran.
It would be 18 years before anyone caught up with them.
From July through November 1958, people around the nation waited breathlessly on morning papers and radio updates about a murder mystery unfolding in the Florida Panhandle. At that time, the story was as captivating as any of the shows they were beginning to tune in to nightly as television sets came into American homes en masse for the first time.
The irony would be, several years later, the story of what happened was actually turned into an episode of television — "Memory of a Murder" — which ran on CBS on Dec. 7, 1960, as part of The Armstrong Circle Theatre, an anthology series that aired from 1950-1963.
The description of the episode in that week‘s TV Guide gave few specifics: “The fact-based story of a new sheriff’s battle to restore justice in a lawless Florida town.”
The description on the episode's IMDb.com page does much better: "Based upon the 1940 murder in Crestview, Florida, of former City of Crestview Police Chief Lester Wilson that was solved by his son, Okaloosa County Sheriff Ray Wilson in 1958."
There was one glaring error to the initial reporting of the murder of Okaloosa County sheriff‘s candidate Lester Wilson on March 15, 1940: that he died instantly from a shotgun blast to the head.
Lester walked through the front door of his house shortly before 8 p.m. and was greeted by his wife, Bama, who was warming herself by the fire and talking with her father, J.W. Miller.
Lester got home around the same time every night so he could listen to Elmer Davis report the news on the radio, with Americans aware that World War II was just over the horizon.
That night, only two of the Wilson children were home — 16-year-old Velma, the only girl, and 12-year-old Ray, their youngest child.
Lester listened to the news on the radio next to the front door, sitting in a chair and surrounded by his children‘s school books. As the broadcast ended, a man walked up the front porch with a double-barrel shotgun and Lester stood up in the same moment the man fired.
The impact of the blast hit Lester just above his left eye, essentially blowing off the entire top left side of his head with such force it left skull and brain matter embedded in the walls and ceiling.
Bama turned, saw Lester fall and ran to the front door to turn on the light, but didn't see anyone. When she turned back and saw what was left of her husband's head, she began to scream.
Ray, lying in his bedroom, was the first one into the room after the shotgun blast. He went directly to his father, who looked at him, blinked his eye and desperately attempted to speak as Ray got down on his hands and knees and frantically tried to put what was left of his father‘s brains back into his skull.
And, by all accounts, from Ray and those who came upon the scene right afterward, Lester lived for at least 10-15 minutes after he was shot.
"There's a long history of people surviving after traumatic head wounds ... for minutes or hours or even days," said Dr. Joe Patroni, who works as an emergency room physician in Pensacola and Gulf Breeze. "The brain is so complex and its parts have so many different functions, that even if one part is badly damaged, another can still be going strong .... and you can still have cognitive recognition of what's going on around you.
"In this case, yes, (Lester) could have very well lived after being shot ... I'd say 10-15 minutes is within that realm. More than likely he passed out from the pain pretty quickly.“
Lester was dead within an hour.
Lester Wilson moved from rural Holmes County to Okaloosa County around 1915 when Okaloosa County was first founded.
He'd heard about the booming area, with a pipeline of money connected to the picturesque beaches on the Gulf of Mexico and decided this place was where he would make it in the world.
Lester brought his entire family with him — his wife, Bama and their oldest son, J.D., the first of six children; both sets of their parents; Lester's younger brother, Fox; their younger sister, Sharon Hutto, and her husband, Alfred Hutto.
The Wilsons didn't waste much time doing what they‘d set out to do.
They opened gas stations and grocery stores, first in Campton and then Laurel Hill, and had a lot of of success. They got involved in real estate, with Lester and Fox cutting deals with the people who worked at the train station in Crestview to direct anyone who got off the train looking to buy land toward them. They brokered the deals for commissions.
They did well enough that their businesses were being bought out for big profits, and after Bama gave birth to their sixth and final child, Ray, in 1927, Lester announced they were buying a new house and moving to Crestview, the county seat.
Bama wrote about the move in her 1949 memoir.
"Lester said he wanted a better life for the kids, to be where there were better schools and more opportunity," she wrote. "I wonder now, all these years later, that if we'd just stayed in Laurel Hill we could've avoided everything that happened later."
The move to Crestview didn't go the way the Wilsons hoped.
Mainly because they didn’t anticipate the clash they would have with the town’s culture, one that at the time was centered around the permission of illegal vice.
In Crestview, the Wilsons discovered, if you wanted to open a gas station, you had to agree with the powers that be to let someone take bets out front.
If you wanted to open a grocery store in prohibition-era Crestview, you had to be willing to let someone sell bootleg vodka or whiskey out the back.
And when you saw prostitution occurring, you looked the other way.
Lester refused to abide. The Wilsons were people who set their values in the order of God, Family, Country — they built their lives around the church and each other and followed the laws. They considered themselves patriots and Lester‘s older brother, Oscar, had been killed in action in World War I.
To the people of Crestview on the other side of things, they were now the enemy.
Lester had been in Crestview for about one year when a series of events began to unfold that would eventually lead to his murder.
The first of those was his appointment as Crestview police chief in 1929, put in place by a growing group of working-class people who were fed up with the rackets that seemed to control their town.
The second of those was the unexpected death of Okaloosa County Sheriff Peter Jackson Steele in 1930, at just 40 years old. Steele and his political faction had been one of the main impediments to Lester making any inroads in Crestview — part of an ongoing feud between the Steeles and the Wilsons that would continue for a half-century.
When Steele died, Florida Gov. Doyle Carlton, growing more and more aware of Okaloosa County’s growing reputation, moved quickly to put a replacement in place who would enforce the laws.
He picked Lancelot Hughes, an automobile dealer and businessman from Laurel Hill who was on the same wavelength as Lester. Over the next two years, the two went all-out in their crackdown on illegal gambling and moonshine operations — enough so that 800 pounds of copper were sold in Crestview in that period, the direct result of busting liquor stills.
With rumblings prohibition was about to come to an end, the Okaloosa County sheriff’s election in 1932 quickly shaped up as the most important in county history. And it didn‘t go to Hughes or Lester, who ran against each other and essentially canceled out one another’s votes.
It went to someone who already very much hated everything the two men stood for: Johnnie P. Steele, the first cousin of former Sheriff Peter Jackson Steele.
By 1933, Lester‘s enemies mainly consisted of men he put in jail while he was police chief, and mainly for the sale of illegal liquor — brothers Jesse and Doyle Cayson, Charlie Powell, J.Q. Adams and the group’s leader, Murray McArthur.
His enemies seemed to mainly have one thing in common — they were close friends, confidantes or family of the new sheriff, Johnnie P. Steele; Chief Sheriff‘s Deputy J.A. McArthur, Murray McArthur’s father; and Constable Joe Adams, J.Q. Adams‘ uncle.
McArthur, who had bootlegging charges in the county dating back to 1903, died in the line of duty in 1933 when he suffered a massive heart attack after making an arrest.
Adams had multiple business interests that conflicted with Lester‘s, including both men owning taxi services in Crestview that ran out of the same cabstand.
And on several occasions, according to 1958 court testimony from Woodrow Wilson, Steele‘s“protected” group of civilians cornered Lester and beat him to a pulp.
Soon, Lester began to carry two guns with him everywhere. He warned his sons of the growing threat against their family.
"He said, specifically, 'They're out to kill me,' " said Stuart Wilson of Laurel Hill, who is Ray Wilson's son, Lester Wilson's grandson. "There was a plan for the boys that if they saw specific people in town, they were to go into specific stores or just run and hide if they had to. It was very serious."
On Dec. 2, 1934, the Pensacola Journal ran an article about Lester opening a casket-making business — he'd built a warehouse right next to his house on Long Drive.
In March 1935, the warehouse burned to the ground in the middle of the night. Arson was suspected and Lester suffered losses of $2,000 — equivalent to about $40,000 today.
Against the advice of almost everyone he knew, Lester announced he was going to run for sheriff again in 1936 against the incumbent Johnnie P. Steele. He was a huge underdog.
To no one’s surprise, Lester lost again. But to everyone’s surprise it was really close, Lester losing to Steele in a run-off. After the election, accusations started to fly between the two sides that including missing ballot boxes — something that would come up again in the next election.
Lester’s narrow defeat had fired up the people, and soon enough his name began being thrown around as the favorite to become Okaloosa County sheriff in 1940.
About 3 a.m. March 1, 1939, Lester was at the Spur Café in Crestview, an all-night bar and restaurant. And while it‘s not totally clear why Lester was there, his family said he often worked overnight shifts to pick up cab fares while his son, Woodrow, drove the normal day and night shifts.
It's not clear why Murray McArthur and Charlie Powell were there, either, but we do know what happened after the two parties met.
According to Powell, he and McArthur were getting into their truck when Lester began shooting at them from inside of his car, killing McArthur and seriously wounding Powell.
According to Lester and one key eyewitness, Quentin Steele, a much different scenario unfolded.
After leaving the Spur Café, Lester said he noticed Powell and McArthur following him outside.
Lester said he ran to his car, got in the backseat and crouched down behind the seats, taking a handgun out of a brown paper lunch bag he carried constantly and another out of an ankle holster.
Powell approached the car first, began banging on the car windows and trying to open the door on the front passenger side. Lester popped up and began shooting, through the window.
The first shot missed, but the second shot hit. At the same time, McArthur came up on the rear driver’s side door of the car. Lester turned and fired on McArthur, killing him.
McArthur was 27 years old.
Lester was taken into custody immediately. He said it was self-defense and told a story of a years-long beef between himself and the two men, including several incidents related to the last election and stretching back to when he was chief of police in Crestview.
McArthur’s funeral was held just a few days later — among his pallbearers were Johnnie P. Steele and Bob Sikes, the man who owned and operated the paper of record in Okaloosa County, The Okaloosa News Journal, which led the one-sided coverage of Lester’s case that depicted McArthur as a fine, upstanding citizen and Lester as essentially the guilty party — all before the case had gone to trial.
On April 26, a grand jury indicted Lester for manslaughter and set the trial for the the first week of May. The trial was the most sensational in the history of the county to date, and the courtroom was packed to the brim each day — so much so that one man even fainted.
At 9 p.m. May 2, the court handed the case over to the jury to deliberate, with an order from the judge to discuss the case into the night if necessary. The jury verdict at 3 a.m. May 3 — not guilty.
Freshly acquitted of manslaughter, Lester wasted little time announcing he would run for Okaloosa County sheriff in 1940.
PART 2: THE NIGHT GUNMAN