Willis V. McCall

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Willis Virgil McCall

Photo of Willis McCall taken in 1951 15 minutes after he claimed he was attacked by Shepherd and Irvin
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Willis Virgil McCall

Photo of Willis McCall taken in 1951 15 minutes after he claimed he was attacked by Shepherd and Irvin

Willis Virgil McCall (July 21, 1909–April 28, 1994) was a sheriff of Lake County, Florida, serving seven consecutive terms from 1944 until he lost his bid for an eight term in 1972. Known for his harsh attitude towards enforcing the law, several racial incidents during his career made national headlines. During his 28-year tenure as sheriff McCall was investigated multiple times for civil rights violations, inmate abuse, and murder, but was never convicted.[1]


Early years

Willis McCall was born in Umatilla, Lake County, Florida, son of Walter (born c.1877) and Pearl (born c.1886) McCall. His father was a farmer/businessman from Alabama.[2]

The Groveland Four

On July 16, 1949, Norma Padgett, a 17-year old Groveland, Florida woman, accused four black men of rape, testifying that she and her husband were attacked when their car stalled on a rural road near Groveland, Florida. The next day, 16-year-old Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Walter Irvin were in jail. Ernest Thomas fled the county and avoided arrest for several days until a Sheriff's posse shot and killed him about 200 miles northwest of Lake County. McCall was in the area when Thomas was killed, but a coroner's inquest was unable to determine exactly who killed him.

McCall himself was out of the state for the initial arrests of Greenlee, Irvin and Shepherd, returning to Lake County the following day. As word spread about the accusation of rape and subsequent arrest of three of the "Groveland Four," an angry crowd gathered at the county jail. The crowd demanded that McCall turn the men over to them. Just moments before, McCall had hidden Shepherd and Irvin in a nearby orange grove, then had them transferred to Raiford State Prison. After allowing Padgett's husband and father to search the jail, McCall promised the mob that he would see that justice was done and urged them to "...let the court handle this calmly."

With Shepherd and Irvin out of harm's way, the mob looked for a new target. They turned on a black section of Groveland, a small town in South Lake County where two of the accused and their families lived. The men drove to Groveland in a caravan and once they arrived, shot into the tavern owned by the mother of Ernest Thomas, and hurled insults at any blacks they found. On the third day, fearing an escalation of mob and Klan violence, McCall and several prominent businessmen in the area warned most of the black residents to leave town until things settled down, which most did. McCall called in the National Guard, then pulled troops away from the black section of Groveland, and the mob moved in and proceeded to burn Shepherd's home and two others to the ground. [3] Once the mob had blown off steam by burning down targeted black homes, order was gradually restored in Groveland.

A grand jury indicted the three remaining rape suspects. Shepherd and Greenlee told FBI investigators that confessions were beaten out of them at the hands of deputies. Irvin refused to confess, despite being severely beaten. An FBI investigation concluded that Lake County Sheriff's Department deputies James Yates and Leroy Campbell were responsible for the beatings, and agents documented the physical abuse with photographs. The Justice Department urged the U.S. Attorney in Tampa to file charges, but U.S. Attorney Herbert Phillips was reluctant, and failed to return indictments. Once the trial began, the prosecution did not bring the alleged confessions into evidence, fearing that a higher court would overturn guilty verdicts on the grounds of coerced confessions. Shepherd and Irvin, claimed they were in Eatonville, Florida drinking that night. Greenlee claimed to be nowhere near the other defendants on that night and stated that he had never met the other defendants until he was arrested and taken to the same jail in Tavares, Florida. The physician who examined Norma Padgett was not called to the witness stand by the prosecution, and Judge Truman Futch did not allow the defense to call him. A forensics expert for the defense testified that the footprint casts were fraudulently manufactured by Deputy James Yates. (Yates was indicted years later in another footprint case when another deputy admitted that Yates had fraudulently manufactured shoeprint evidence and an FBI investigation confirmed the plaster casts were faked. But before Yates could be tried, the statute of limitations had expired.) Shepherd and Irvin were sentenced to death. Greenlee, because of his age, was sentenced to life in prison. Greenlee never appealed his conviction, as he faced receiving the death penalty in the future should another jury find him guilty again. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Lake County's verdict on the grounds that blacks had been improperly excluded from the jury. But Justice Robert Jackson was more critical of the prejudicial pretrial publicity and McCall's trumpeting the coerced confessions to the press. In his concurring opinion, Justice Jackson wrote, "The case presents one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice."

In November 1951, McCall was transporting Shepherd and Irvin from Raiford to Tavares for the retrial, when he pulled his car off the state road leading into Umatilla, a small town in Lake County, claiming tire trouble. McCall swore in a deposition that Shepherd and Irvin attacked him in an escape attempt when he let them out of the car so that Shepherd could relieve himself. McCall claimed that he pulled his revolver and shot both prisoners who were still handcuffed as they attacked. Shepherd was killed, but Irvin played dead and survived, despite being shot three times. The next day in his hospital room, Irvin told FBI investigators and the press that McCall shot them without provocation, and that Deputy James Yates, arriving at the scene, observed that Irvin was not yet dead. Irvin claimed that it was Yates who fired the sixth and last bullet into his neck, while Irvin was laying on the ground. Irvin's story was verified by author Gary Corsair in his 2010 book Legal Lynching: The Sad Saga of The Groveland Four. In his book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, author Gilbert King examined the unredacted FBI files from the case and revealed that the FBI located a .38 caliber bullet buried ten inches in the ground beneath Irvin's blood spot—evidence that supported Irvin's version of the shooting.

A Lake County Coroner's inquest, however, never saw the FBI reports and concluded that McCall had acted in the line of duty, and Judge Truman Futch claimed that he saw no need to impanel a grand jury. The re-trial of Irvin was moved from Lake County to Marion County (just north of Lake County)and began in February 1952, after Irvin recovered from the shooting. This time, prosecutor Jesse Hunter offered Irvin a deal that if he pled guilty to the rape of Norma Padgett, the state would not seek the death penalty. Irvin refused, stating that he did not rape Norma Padgett and he would not lie, even if it saved his life. NAACP lawyer (and future Supreme Court justice) Thurgood Marshall represented Irvin in the re-trial. The trial became a pawn in the Cold War as newspapers in the Soviet Union pointed to the trial as evidence that American blacks were not free. New evidence was presented, but the jury again found Irvin guilty after a deliberation of 90 minutes, and Judge Futch once again sentenced Irvin to death. The case was appealed again, but the conviction was again upheld by the Florida State Supreme Court, and in early 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the case.

After promising Irvin's mother that he would not let her boy die in the electric chair, Thurgood Marshall continued to seek relief outside the courts. He organized a committee of religious leaders to apply pressure on newly-elected Governor LeRoy Collins who ultimately commuted Irvin's sentence to life in prison. After conducting his own investigation, Collins stated that "the State did not walk that extra mile--did not establish of Walter Lee Irvin in an absolute and conclusive manner." Irvin was paroled in 1968. He died while visiting Lake County in 1970. Greenlee was paroled in 1962.

The Harry T. Moore bombing

Harry T. Moore, an executive director of the Florida NAACP, demanded that McCall be indicted for murder following the Groveland rape case, and requested that the Governor suspend him from office. Six weeks after calling for McCall's removal, Moore and his wife were killed when a bomb exploded under their bedroom in Mims in Brevard County on Christmas night. Rumors alleged that McCall was behind the bombing. However, an extensive FBI investigation at the time and additional separate FBI and Justice Department investigations have failed to produce any evidence linking McCall in any way.

In 2005, a new investigation was launched by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to include excavation of the Moore home in a search for new forensic evidence that may assist with the investigation.

On August 16, 2006, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist announced his office had completed its 20-month investigation, resulting in the naming of four now-dead suspects, Earl Brooklyn, Tillman Belvin, Joseph Cox and Edward Spivey. All four had a long history with the Ku Klux Klan, serving as officers in the Orange County Klavern.

The Platt children

In 1954, McCall again brought national attention to Lake County when he was asked by the school board to uphold their decision to ban five children from a white public school in Mount Dora after parents and teachers suspected them to be "Negro". Birth and school records from their native state had the Platt children listed as caucasian, and State Attorney Jesse Hunter represented the Platts in a case before Judge Truman Futch. McCall was accused of making speeches about this incident to the National Association for the Advancement of White People.[4] But threats and violence against the Platts forced the children to enroll in the Mt. Dora Christian Home and Bible School, a private school not subject to segregation laws in place at the time. On October 18, 1955, a court ruled that the children could attend white public school. By then the Platt family had decided to move away from Florida.

Vickers incident

McCall was later indicted by a grand jury for beating and kicking to death a black prisoner named Tommy Vickers in the county jail in April 1972.[5] Governor Reubin Askew suspended McCall during the trial, but McCall was acquitted by an all-white jury in Ocala in neighboring Marion County after a lengthy trial ended with 70 minutes of deliberation. Critics have argued that the all-white jury never seriously considered the charges. Supporters claim that the charges made against McCall were fabricated and based solely on politics. The presiding Federal Judge stated that the charges brought against McCall appeared to have been false.

Later years

McCall narrowly lost his re-election bid just days after the trial ended in November 1972 and retired to his home on County Route 450A (CR-450A) in Umatilla, Florida. The Lake County Board of County Commissioners named the road after McCall in the 1980s, responding to a request from the black and white citizens living on the road. In October 2007, the Lake County Commission changed the name of Willis V. McCall Road back to County Road 450A.

McCall published a memoir about his experiences, The Wisdom of Willis McCall, in which he defends his long career as sheriff and responds to his critics. He died on April 28, 1994 at the age of 84.


  1. ^ St. Petersburg Times - A Southern sheriff's law and disorder[dead link]
  2. ^ 1910 U.S. Census record
  3. ^ PBS - Freedom Never Dies: The Story of Harry T. Moore - Florida Terror - Groveland - Introduction
  4. ^ "Look at Your Own Child" Time Magazine 12/13/1954
  5. ^ "Wrong Turn: A Southern sheriff's law and disorder" by John Hill St. Pete Times 11/28/99

Further reading

External links