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 2 OF 6: THE NIGHT GUNMAN

The investigation into the murder of Okaloosa County Sheriff's candidate Lester Wilson ran into problems from the start.

The shotgun blast that killed Lester was heard all throughout the surrounding neighborhood in Crestview and frantic friends and family living close by ran toward the house on Long Drive after hearing the screams of Lester's wife, Bama, to find a horrific scene.

Lester was on the floor, still very much alive but missing the top left side of his head, his 12-year-old son, Ray, covered in his brains and skull matter as he scrambled to help his father in the moments immediately after the shooting.

Within an hour, Lester was dead. Within two hours, authorities still had not made their way to the scene of the crime, which had occurred at approximately 8 p.m.

When Okaloosa County Sheriff Johnnie P. Steele and his deputies did arrive, around 10:30 p.m., he was met on the front porch by Woodrow Wilson, Lester's 23-year-old son, and Lester's brother, Fox, who told Steele he wasn't welcome.

Steele and his close group of law enforcement officers and friends had a long-standing conflict with Lester. The feud had already taken one life the previous year, when Lester shot and killed Murray McArthur in self-defense outside of a local bar. Lester was eventually acquitted of manslaughter.

Steele had been one of the pallbearers at McArthur's funeral, along with William H. Mapoles, a former judge and state senator credited with founding Okaloosa County, and Newman Brackin, who ran a successful drug store in town and would go on to become a state senator as well.

Mapoles was also the father-in-law of Murray's older brother, Alta McArthur, and stood as best man in Alta's wedding to Mallinee Mapoles in 1934.

"My daddy always had problems with (Steele)," Woodrow said in his 1958 court testimony. "These boys ... they would jump on my daddy and just say 'We're under the protection of Sheriff Steele, and there's nothing you can do about. It was mainly Murray McArthur, Charlie Powell and another boy, J.Q. Adams."

The headline in the March 16 edition of the Pensacola News Journal the day after the murder was "Sheriff's Candidate Killed By Night Gunman" and gave the only details about the whereabouts of Steele and his officers during and after the murder — they were "serving warrants in the north part of the county" — the same area as Crestview.

•••

The Wilsons held Lester's funeral on the Monday after his murder at their home, with hundreds waiting outside to join the procession to the cemetery.

Florida Gov. Fred P. Cone tried to step in and take over the investigation quickly, sending in State Attorney Dixie Beggs and State Investigator H. Clay Mitchell to Pensacola within a day.

Beggs, who had tried and failed to convict Lester of manslaughter in 1939, convened a grand jury several months after the murder and came away with zero arrests. He was able to confirm a few key facts through family members. In the months leading up to his murder, Lester told his family he'd been offered two separate bribes. One, for $2,000 to drop out of the sheriff's race and another, for $10,000, to move his family out of town.

And they found out that Lester had a lot of enemies.

"He had either unwavering friends or bitter enemies," Beggs told reporters. "There just wasn't any in-between."

In the ensuing years, Lester's family, mainly younger brother Fox, continued to investigate the murder on their own and occasionally, started flare-ups in the press over whether the state of Florida actually had any interest in finding the killers.

Most notably, Fox ran for Okaloosa County's District 3 Constable in 1948 and won, running almost exclusively on the basis he would use his office to investigate Lester's murder but was taken out of office by Gov. Fuller Warren in 1950 on allegations he wasn't doing his part to police illegal gambling in Okaloosa County.

It was the same ouster that saw Okaloosa County Sheriff H. Isle Enzor taken out of office — Enzor had won the 1940 election and been in office for a decade after Lester's murder and was the scion of a wealthy family of doctors led by brothers Olin Enzor and Jut Enzor.

The two had founded The Enzor Brothers Hospital in Crestview, which was the only medical facility in the region.

Fox said he'd been taken out of office for his continual attacks on Warren in the press for not doing more to solve Lester's murder, which seemed to be true after the commission to set up allegations against Wilson found traces of illegal gambling in Okaloosa County, but none prevalent enough in Fox‘s district that he should’ve taken the blame for its entirety.

The case flared up once again in 1952 when a drifter in North Carolina named Ed Rutland, who'd lived in Crestview in 1940, claimed to have been part of the group of men who killed Lester Wilson.

After Rutland's "confession" a grand jury was convened in Okaloosa County, led by now-Sheriff Alta McArthur. He was Warren's second choice to replace H. Isle Enzor as sheriff after he discovered his original choice, local attorney Ferrin Campbell, was actually H. Isle Enzor's son-in-law after Campbell had been in office for several months.

Alta said initially he was going to arrest Rutland for aiding in a murder, but the drifter's story quickly began to change — Fox called it "fishy from the start" — and eventually devolved to Rutland sitting in the getaway car and asking the hooded man who'd shot Lester who he was.

"I COULD BE ANY ONE OF FOUR, YOU CRAZY BASTARD!" Rutland said the man told him.

Rutland was sent back to North Carolina and, once again, a grand jury came away with no arrests in the murder of Lester Wilson.

H. Isle Enzor ran for sheriff again in 1952, easily defeating Alta McArthur.

McArthur's daughter, Penny, recalled the joy some members of the family felt when her father lost.

"I told him I was so happy he lost and he kind of smiled at me and said 'Well why is that?' " she said. "And I told him I was glad he lost because I didn't want him to get killed."

•••

Without the main bread winner in the household and four out of six children still school-aged, things got real hard, real fast for the Wilsons, who had to come together like never before without Lester there anymore.

That meant everybody had to work, including Ray, who turned 13 years old just a few months after his father's murder.

Bama Wilson showed off a fierce sense of resiliency beginning the night of the murder, when she refused to take sedatives from a local doctor.

In public, she kept a brave face and, when asked, said she still hoped that her husband's killers would be brought to justice one day.

In private, she preached to her family on what she thought was the most important part of their healing — forgiveness. She thought that the need for revenge was as dangerous as anything that could get in a person's heart — that anger and resentment and bitterness would only poison the well.

"She knew that (wanting revenge) would poison the well, so to speak," said Stuart Wilson, Ray's oldest son and Bama's grandson. "Something like that gets into your heart and it changes you, changes who you are. She didn't want that."

Revenge was one thing. Justice was another.

In the years following Lester's murder, at least three people never gave up on trying to find out who did it; Fox, Woodrow and Ray. The three would traverse the county and the region, filling up notebooks full of clues and rumors and talking to whoever was willing.

•••

When Ray Wilson graduated from Crestview High School in 1946, he left home to join the U.S. Army and was stationed in Korea with the Seventh Infantry. He served several years as Military Police then returned home and moved to Port St. Joe, Florida, where he met his wife, Virginia.

The secret Ray had hid from so many over the years — all the people who asked him about his father — was that his whole life from the moment he'd found Lester laying on the living-room floor had been very clear.

The moment had rewired him in ways that weren't easy to understand, as had the conversation he'd heard outside of his window that night between two sheriff's deputies.

"He didn't tell me this until much, much later, but later that night as he was lying in bed, he had to pick granddaddy's skull and brain out of his feet," Stuart Wilson said. "And as he was laying on his bed, traumatized, doing this, two of the deputies stood by his window and said 'You know we'll never catch who did this, right?'

"And the other man answered 'Yes, I know.' And my father heard this."

That was the moment Ray decided to become sheriff. It was something he shared with his uncle and his brother, who told him that if he did all the right things, then one day he could be.

But in 1952, with a new wife and infant son, Stuart, Ray began to waffle on the plan for the first time. Maybe it wasn't in the cards. Maybe this life, with his new wife and child, would be as good as it was going to get.

Why test fate? Why invite that kind of chaos and drama back into his life?

He told Virginia what he was thinking, presumably to get her approval.

"You know just as well as I do you'll never be able to stop thinking about what happened to your father," she told Ray. "And you don't want to spend the rest of your life wondering if you could've done more.

"So whenever you're ready, we're moving back to Crestview and getting you elected sheriff. No matter what it takes, I'm with you."

PART 3: ELECT LESTER WILSON