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 6 OF 6: CORAM NOBIS
An Okaloosa County jury returned verdicts of not guilty for William Dorace Brown and guilty for Jesse Cayson and Doyle Cayson on Nov. 23, 1958, in the first-degree premeditated murder trial for the killing of leading Okaloosa County sheriff‘s candidate Lester Wilson on March 15, 1940, in Crestview.
The jury recommended mercy for the Caysons, sparing them the death penalty.
On his way out of the courtroom, Sheriff Ray Wilson was asked by a reporter if he felt a sense of vindication. Ray was Lester's youngest child and in the house with him the night he was murdered.
In July 1956, Ray became the youngest sheriff in Florida history at 28 years old, winning the office his father was the favorite to win when he was killed.
"We got who pulled the trigger," Ray said. "Now I'd like to find out who paid them to do it."
Six decades later, there is still a prevailing sense of doubt among those in Crestview whether justice was truly served in the case.
"It was what I heard growing up, all along, that they got the wrong guys," said Penny (McArthur) Janowski, the daughter of former Okaloosa County Sheriff Alta McArthur and niece of Murray McArthur, who Lester killed outside a bar in 1939. "That was what I heard growing up, whenever this came up. That they weren't guilty."
Richard Wood is a local historian who runs a website, judgingshadows.blogspot.com that focuses on Depression Era crimes in Northwest Florida. He believes the Caysons were wrongly convicted.
"The story that seemed to make more sense to me, all along, was that Lester Wilson was threatening to shut down a lot of the illegal activities happening (in Okaloosa County)," Wood said. "And there was enough money and people involved that someone from out of town was brought in to kill him. That it was a hit.
"I mean, they find these guys guilty of first-degree murder and they only do ... seven years or something? How did they get out? It doesn't make any sense. Someone knew they hadn't done it."
The Caysons‘ guilty verdict was the just the beginning of a labryntine legal battle — one that encompassed 10 appeals, 10 judges and nine attorneys over the next decade.
After being found guilty on Nov. 23, 1958, Circuit Judge Erwin Fleet on Dec. 1 sentenced Jesse Cayson and Doyle Cayson to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
That same day, Fleet denied requests by defense attorney Thomas Beasley for new trials and for the Caysons to be let out on bond while they were appealing their verdicts.
Fleet, however, wouldn't be in office for much longer, having lost the 1958 election for First District Circuit judge to Judge Charles A. Wade, who took over on Jan. 1, 1959.
On Jan. 17, Wade granted the Caysons a release from prison on appearance bonds, pending their appeal — $30,000 for Doyle and $25,000 for Jesse.
The brothers stayed out of prison until April 1960 — 15 months — before the Florida Supreme Court finally upheld the verdict and the Caysons were sent to Raiford Prison — now known as Florida State Prison — to begin serving their sentences.
In 1961, Jesse Cayson contacted Tampa Tribune reporter Duane Bradford and gave him the results of lie detector tests administered to him and his brother in prison. They both had passed.
The news brought Ray Wilson and Pensacola Police Department Investigator Walter Steinsiek back into the spotlight.
Steinsiek pointed out there were only eight men certified to run a polygraph machine in the United States; he was one of them and the man who administered the tests to the Caysons, David F. Allison, was not. He also pointed out polygraph tests lost some validity over time — ignoring the fact the tests he'd administered in 1958 to Doyle Cayson and William Dorace Brown, which they‘d failed, were done 18 years after the events in question.
Ray simply said if the Caysons were really interested in telling the truth, he'd come to Raiford Prison with a doctor, administer doses of sodium pentathol (truth serum) to each of them and they'd get to the bottom of it.
This offer was declined.
Bradford also went to DeFuniak Springs to meet with the Caysons' sister, Gertrude Sullivan. Sullivan arranged an interview for Bradford with the Caysons’ defense attorney, Thomas Beasley, who was now a Walton County circuit judge.
Beasley admitted to Bradford and Sullivan he'd had another client, before the 1958 trial, who'd told him he'd been involved in Lester Wilson's murder. Before taking on the Caysons as clients, he'd gone to the Florida Bar Association for advice on if, ethically, he could even still keep the case.
He was told he was obligated to protect attorney-client privilege, but if he wanted to take the case with the Caysons he could — as long as he disclosed to them what the other client had said without identifying the client.
Beasley said he would, possibly, "when the man died," but not before then.
On April 4, 1962, one year after Beasley met with Bradford, the new attorney for the Caysons, R. Worth Moore, filed a writ of Coram Nobis in the First District Court, saying the Caysons "got a fairer trial on television," referring to the 1960 episode of Armstrong Circle Theatre.
It was also one week after former Okaloosa County Sheriff Johnnie P. Steele died of a massive heart attack on his farm in Laurel Hill. He was 75 years old.
Coram Nobis is an obscure legal order that originated in 16th century courts in England. It’s Latin for "before us,“ and the full meaning of the writ is "which things remain in our presence."
Beasley was deposed and admitted what he'd told Bradford to be true. When asked if Steele had been one of his clients in the past, he said yes. When Beasley was asked if Steele was the one who'd admitted to having a role in Lester Wilson's murder, Beasley declined to answer.
Steele wasn't the only key figure in the case to die in 1962.
Fox Wilson, Lester's younger brother, died in July. Alta McArthur, the former Okaloosa County sheriff and older brother of Murray McArthur, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in October. He was only 55 years old.
In 1966, the Caysons saw the appeal of their convictions turned down by the U.S. District Court in Tampa. The next step was the U.S. Supreme Court, and the brothers vowed to fight the case to the bitter end.
The brothers were approached by the parole board and were told that if they dropped their appeals, the board might be willing to grant them "compassionate release" due to their failing health.
Jesse dropped his final appeal and was released from prison on Aug. 9, 1966. Doyle's final appeal was dropped not long after, and he was released Sept. 21, 1966. Both men returned to Crestview.
Jesse told Bradford over the phone that he received a warm reception upon his return home.
"It feels awfully good with so many people calling," Jesse said.
In all, the Caysons served roughly seven years each for Lester Wilson's murder.
Doyle went first. He died on Aug. 9, 1968, at 61 years old.
Jesse died almost one year later, on July 27, 1969, in a hospital in Pensacola. His death made front-page news.
In May 1960, Ferrin Campbell filed a $100,000 lawsuit against Sheriff's Star magazine, run by The Florida Sheriffs Association. He accused the magazine of libel on behalf of William Dorace Brown after it ran an article Brown stated "presented him as one of the murderers" of Lester Wilson.
The case was settled out of court "amicably" in July 1962, although lawyers on both sides emphasized there had been "no financial considerations to either side."
Brown lived out the rest of his life in relative peace and died in 1997 at 88 years old. His wife, Mertice, who testified in his defense at his trial, died three years later.
Walter Steinsiek retired from the Pensacola Police Department in 1971 and outlived almost everyone involved with case. He died in Pensacola on May 8, 2005, when he was 85 years old.
Buddy Caro, who helped secure the convictions for the Caysons, died in 1982.
Bama Wilson, the widow of Lester Wilson, died in 1974 at Okaloosa Memorial Hospital. She was 81 years old and never remarried after Lester's murder in 1939. Her death also made front-page news.
To this day, Ray Wilson is the longest-tenured sheriff in Okaloosa County history, serving from 1956-1976.
He was re-elected four more times after the 1958 trial until he was defeated in 1976 by Frankie Mills.
"Ray was a good sheriff, a good man," Fleet said. "He was fair and he ran a good department. I always enjoyed working with Ray, except for once."
Fleet charged Ray with contempt in 1975 after he failed to produce a witness for a trial, but the charge was later dropped and Fleet said the absence had been because of "miscommunication" among the departments.
Ray was a hard-line conservative as sheriff. His tenure included one of the most tumultuous periods in American history — the late 1960s — and Ray was very open about his distaste for the counterculture.
In 1969, he and two other members of his department, Deputy George Vilardi and Investigator Martin Canova, won in federal court after they were sued by Peachtree News, a company that distributed pornographic magazines. Ray had instructed Vilardi and Canova to seize several shipments of the magazines because he believed it violated federal law to transport them over state lines.
In 1972, seven African-American men sued Ray, accusing him of racial discrimination after they had applied and been turned down for jobs with the Sheriff's Office.
In October 1973, Ray was found guilty of racial discrimination by U.S. District Judge Clarence Allgood and was ordered to offer the seven men the next seven job openings he had. Allgood wrote in his order "the pattern of discrimination is simple, the defendant has never hired a black deputy. Also, he has never hired a black dispatcher, guard, clerk or other employee for his staff. The pattern and practice or racial discrimination has been established."
Ray won an appeal in circuit court in 1975, and when the appeal was kicked up to district court, Ray's guilty verdict was upheld but the terms of the settlement were changed. Initially, Ray was on the hook for back pay to each of the men, but it was changed and he was ordered to pay each man between $875 to $2,500, plus about $7,500 to the lawyer who'd represented them. He was also ordered to offer three of the men his next three openings as deputy, jailer or dispatcher.
Ray, in the time since the lawsuit was filed, had already hired two of the men as sheriff's deputies.
In an interesting twist, Ferrin Campbell ended up being the attorney who successfully appealed Ray's case and got the settlement money ratcheted down.
In 1975, Ray found his department coming under the microscope of Special Federal Prosecutor James T. Russell from Pinellas County after Gov. Rubin Askew signed an executive order granting Russell full power in the state to investigate Ray and Circuit Court Clerk Cecil Anchors after Tax Assessor Rhett Cadenhead had been charged with 100 counts of tax fraud and embezzlement and then ran off to Belize.
Cadenhead was eventually found guilty of embezzlement, and it was revealed he was changing the values of properties for prominent residents to save them money on taxes, including several buildings owned by Ray. Cadenhead cut the property values in half in some cases, including one of his own which should have been approximately $400,000 and was put in the books at $2,250.
While Ray Wilson was never found guilty of any wrongdoing in the Cadenhead case, he'd drawn the ire of none other than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. When Hoover initially tasked Russell with investigating Ray, according to Ray, he'd come into the sheriff’s office and demanded information without identifying himself. Ray personally escorted him out.
The 1-2 punch of the discrimination case followed by the federally-mandated sank Ray‘s re-election hopes in 1976.
Before he left office but after his loss in the 1976 election, an article ran in the Playground Daily News that revealed Ray would collect approximately $29,000 per year from Okaloosa County, above and beyond any pension benefits, from renting out two of his properties to the Florida Department of Rehabilitative Services and the Florida Probation and Parole Commission for offices for their employees.
Ray wasn't found to have done anything illegal here, either. He'd rented out the properties to the county under a state exemption that didn't require advertisements or competitive bidding for properties under 5,000 square feet.
In 1980, Ray switched parties to become a Republican in order to run against Democratic candidate Larry Gilbert, who had defeated ncumbent Frankie Mills in the primary.
In the weeks leading up to the election, the Pensacola News Journal broke a story that Ray had been named in 10 lawsuits in the four years since he'd been out of office. He'd been ordered to pay back about $200,000, spread out over five local banks, one home remodeling store and one individual — Effie Steele, the widow of former Sheriff Johnnie P. Steele, a man who Ray had been convinced had something to do with his father's murder in 1940.
According to Effie, she signed a contract with Ray in 1973 to authorize him to collect rent from her tenants in a two-story office building she owned in downtown Crestview.
In 1974, Effie said she agreed to sell the building to Ray, with the two parties agreeing on a $3,000 down payment, with the building's value set at around $65,000 — about $375,000 in today's dollars.
She said Ray only paid $1,000 of the $3,000 down payment, and in 1978 she began to sue Ray on the grounds she'd not been mentally or physically capable of understanding the agreement she'd signed in 1973, which Ray was claiming not only had given him authorization to collect rent but also locked Steele into 50-year lease agreements on two spaces inside the building, separate from the 1974 agreement to sell the building to Ray.
The case was set for trial in December 1980. Ray's attorney was Ferrin Campbell, who got a half-dozen witnesses to testify Effie had been competent, including an attorney who'd rented space in the building for 10 years and said he'd seen Ray collect $250-$450 from each tenant and give just $50-$65 to Steele, talked to her about it and said "she seemed to have no problem with it."
Campbell's final witness was Ray, who said the 1973 and 1974 agreements had "ended a feud between the families that dated back to his father's murder in 1940."
When Steele's longtime physician testified to her being senile and "mentally incompetent" Judge Robert Barron called the proceedings to a halt and pulled up a previous deposition by the same doctor, who'd said just months earlier she'd been mentally fit to sign the documents.
Barron halted the proceedings and told both parties to reconvene in three weeks.
On Jan. 23, 1981, Effie Steele died of natural causes. Because she and Johnnie P. Steele had no heirs, the property now belonged to Ray, free and clear.
Ray turned his attention to ministry. He had had a small but loyal following for years, and operated out of a church set up in the office building he'd bought from Effie Steele.
Over the years, his name pops up in dozens of obituaries as the "Reverend Ray Wilson" after having eulogized some dearly departed soul.
Ray popped up on the news again in 1988, when he was the leader of a group of "concerned citizens" who were opposed to a Jewish family who filed a lawsuit over the pre-game prayer before Friday night football games in Crestview.
When asked why he was opposed to the lawsuit, Ray told a reporter from The Orlando Sentinel, Mike Thomas "this is the Bible Belt, and we believe in Jesus Christ."
Stuart Wilson said his father began to show the first signs of Alzheimer's Disease in the late 2000s. By 2012, when Ray received a Civic Leader Award from Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley, Ray was beginning to require hospice care to deal with the onsent dementia.
On Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, Ray died at home in the arms of his wife of 63 years, Virginia, and surrounded by his family. He was 86 years old.
In Ray‘s final moments, Virginia softly asked him a question.
"Do you see him?" she asked.
Ray looked up at her, then past her.
"I sure do," he said.