Law & Jurisprudence26 YEARS
The drive to the Hardee Correctional Institution in Bowling Green is a journey through small towns, farms and empty lots. The prison itself is on a road lined with soaring palm trees. There are rows of razor wire covering the tops of the fences, and scores of guards outfitted in combat boots, each carrying a clip-on panic button they can press in case they are attacked.
Inside, a door to the visitors’ area clinks loudly as it opens, then slams shut before a second door opens that leads into a windowless room filled with old desks and filing supplies. Seated at one of the desks is 48-year-old William “Bill” Dillon, who has been a prisoner in Florida for more than half of his life. Dillon’s leathery face, creased with wrinkles, stretches into a shiny, toothy smile of greeting. His thinning hair is perfectly combed and he wears an immaculate light-blue prison uniform, complete with a name tag.
Convicted of a gruesome beachside murder in 1981 and sentenced to life in prison, Dillon has largely been forgotten. But the legal proceedings that put him away can only generously be termed a “trial.” For Dillon, justice meant having his life taken away despite one witness for the prosecution who was having sex with a cop investigating the murder (and who recanted her testimony) and another who was half-blind, a tracking dog later proven to be a fraud and a T-shirt soaked with blood that prosecutors acknowledge was neither Dillon’s nor the victim’s
Evidence like that should have provided ample opportunity for Dillon’s attorney to rip the state’s case to shreds. His court-appointed lawyer, however, seemed to simply watch the case unfold, questioning little of the evidence before him. He had neither the skills nor the time to defend his client.
Dillon was turned down for parole several years ago. He won’t be eligible for release until 2041, when he will be 82 years old.
For now, the only possibility that he won’t spend the next 34 years in prison is the Innocence Project of Florida, a group that advocates for and funds post-conviction DNA testing in cases like Dillon’s, in which testable evidence still exists. To date the group has helped exonerate seven individuals of crimes ranging from murder to sexual battery.
For Dillon there is a lot riding on that blood-soaked T-shirt. In July a judge granted him the right to have it tested, along with some other evidence from the crime scene; it could take months of wrangling before prosecutors and the defense reach an agreement on the DNA order detailing what will be tested and what it will be tested for. Exoneration is a possibility; a new trial seems more likely.
“I am coming out of this prison,” Dillon says.
Killer on the road
On Aug. 17, 1981, a 20-year-old construction worker and his friends discovered the nude body of 40-year-old James Dvorak in some brush 150 yards south of Canova Beach, which is on the east end of Eau Gallie Causeway in Melbourne. Dvorak had been beaten with a blunt object so brutally that his face and chest cavity were crushed, his skull exposed and his lips peeled off. There was a 6-foot radius of blood spray surrounding his body.
Cops put Dvorak’s time of death between 1:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. in the area, which was known as a spot where gay men met for sex. The murder weapon was never found. Police suspected the motive was robbery; Dvorak had only $13 in his wallet, which police found in his car parked nearby.
The next day a witness came forward. John Douglas Parker told Brevard Sheriff’s deputies that he had been sitting in his truck at 1:30 a.m. at Canova Beach on the night of the murder when he saw a shirtless white man in cut-off jeans come from the area of the beach where the body was found. He said the man briefly sat on some wooden steps between the beach and the road and swore loudly before walking down A1A.
A short time later Parker saw the man walking on the side of the road. He flagged Parker down with what appeared to be a white T-shirt and asked for a ride. Parker agreed, and said when he turned on his truck’s interior light he noticed the man’s shorts were stained with blood, and he had fresh blood on his bare chest.
The rider, who introduced himself as “Jim,” told Parker he had been in a bar fight. Parker drove the man back to the A-Frame bar in Satellite Beach at about 2 a.m. to retrieve his car. But the man couldn’t find his car in the lot, so he got back in Parker’s truck. Parker propositioned him and ended up giving him a blow job before leaving him at the bar.
The next morning while cleaning out his car, Parker found a dirty, blood-spattered yellow T-shirt printed with the phrase “Surf It” that he assumed belonged to his acquaintance from the night before. He tossed it in a trash bin. When Parker learned about the murder, he called police and showed them where he dumped it. That shirt ultimately cost Bill Dillon his freedom.
An angry young man
Bill Dillon never knew his biological father, but his mother’s new husband, Joseph Dillon, adopted him as an infant.
A career military man, Joseph Dillon’s 24 years in the Air Force meant the family spent time in England (Bill’s mother’s home country), California and North Dakota, before settling in Satellite Beach in 1977.
Joseph Dillon, now 74, still lives in Satellite Beach, retiring there after a 23-year stint with the U.S. Postal Service. He spends much of his free time traveling in his RV, but still lives in the house where he raised his family.
Joseph was strict with his kids, to help keep them out of trouble. He was often frustrated by his son Bill’s choice of friends and teenage pot-smoking.
“He was a good kid; very athletic,” Joseph says, recalling that Bill had planned to try out for the Detroit Tigers about the time he was arrested. The team held open tryouts in Cocoa Beach that year.
In August 1981, Joseph was vacationing in the Keys when he learned that his son had been charged with murder. He was confident it was all a mistake.
“In the beginning it was a little questionable, but I think he was telling the truth,” he recalls. “If we had been able to afford an attorney, I think the results would have been different. It was a shock to us; we didn’t think he would be convicted.”
Joseph attended his son’s entire trial, and was so confident Bill wouldn’t be convicted that he wrote a statement thanking the court and the dozens of individuals who testified. He never got the chance to deliver his thank-you.
In August 1981, Bill was living with his sister in Orlando and doing odd jobs as a mechanic and construction worker. He frequently found himself in Brevard County, where his parents lived. That’s how he came to be at Canova Beach Aug. 18.
Dillon was driving with his brother, Joe, when he asked him to pull into a parking lot near Canova Beach at dusk so he could smoke a joint. He’d caught an article in the newspaper about a murder in the area, but didn’t realize he was close to the scene until noticing police tape.
After the brothers parked, two cops from the Brevard County Sheriff’s Department walked up to the car and quizzed them about the murder. Bill recalls being nervous and vague as he tried to conceal the joint by cupping it in his hand. He told the cops he couldn’t remember where he’d been the night before.
Even now, 26 years later, Bill vividly recalls that ominous first meeting with the cops.
“It’s almost dusk, gloomy out, and as I’m smoking a lady and man come walking up 13 stone steps from the beach to where we’re parked out front,” he says. “They separate and each one comes to one of our windows.”
Bill was stoned and evasive, and he intrigued the cops; criminals often revisit the scene of their crimes. He told police his name, and they asked him to come to the station for an interview at 10:30 the next morning. Pleased that they were finally leaving, Bill eagerly agreed. But he didn’t go to the police station the next morning. Days later his parents told him the police had come to their house looking for him.
Eager to get the matter cleared up, Bill called the police station from Sandals Restaurant in Cape Canaveral, telling them where he was. Moments later two police cars flew into the parking lot. He was taken to the station and grilled; the interview ended when Bill agreed to sign a form waiving his rights to an attorney. It turned out to be a trick.
After signing the waiver, police told Dillon it wasn’t necessary and asked him to wad it up and throw it away. Then he left the station and headed home.
The police didn’t leave him alone for long. He was picked up again at home a few hours later.
“They came back at 9:30 that night,” Dillon says. “They said, ‘If you pass, we won’t bother you anymore.’ I just knew they didn’t have anything because I didn’t kill anyone.”
This time cops took him to the Brevard County courthouse where he was left alone in the back seat of a locked police car for about 20 minutes. Finally he was led into a small office with a two-way mirror.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” says Dillon. “I knew it wasn’t me, so I wanted whoever was on the other side to know it wasn’t me.”
A man came into the room with a German shepherd on a leash. The dog walked over to Dillon and sniffed his feet. Then the man pulled the dog back and said, “How does it feel to be tracked by Harass II?” Dillon recalls.
The man with the German shepherd was John Preston, a retired Pennsylvania state trooper considered at the time to be an expert in tracking criminals with dogs. Preston told Dillon the dog had sniffed the yellow “Surf It” shirt, then picked out the piece of paper Dillon had crumpled from an array of three samples. He was arrested that night and charged the next day with first-degree murder.
A brother’s investigation
Bill’s brother, Joe Dillon, was 17 when his brother was charged. He was convinced his brother was innocent, but was also confused about the whole situation. He joined the Navy to escape home when his parents sank into a deep depression over Bill’s conviction.
After his hitch in the Navy, Joe became a cop for the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office. He worked in narcotics, theft, sex crimes and child abuse, but found his niche as a homicide investigator, eventually spending seven years in that role. It gave him a unique insight into his brother’s case, and there were a lot of things about it that didn’t add up.
“We just happened to be where the crime scene was,” says Joe. “They were just doing a field investigation; they didn’t have anything.”
He dug into the case, examining a mountain of court transcripts and case law. The more he looked, the more convinced he became that his brother had been railroaded.
“I believed in my brother, but you always believe in your family,” says Joe. “But when I started to look at the case files, nowadays I don’t know how that would fly.”
First and foremost was the fact that Bill’s girlfriend at the time, 24-year-old Donna Parrish, had sex with Brevard County Sheriff’s Office chief investigator Charles Slaughter after being questioned by him about the case. Slaughter was the cop who had taken Dillon to the courthouse the night he was arrested. Joe heard about it during the trial and verified it by pulling Slaughter’s police personnel file.
“The chief was having sex with the star witness, provided her with alcohol and money and threatened her,” Joe says. “He was supposed to be an impartial person. The prosecution couldn’t believe they even got a conviction on this.”
Slaughter was demoted and later quit the sheriff’s office. Joe says his brother’s defense attorney, Frank Clark, did little with the information. In fact, Clark was disbarred in 1987 for handling matters without adequate preparation and accepting employment when it was likely to affect representation. And that wasn’t his first brush with the Florida Bar. In 1975, while serving as an assistant public defender in Brevard County, he was suspended for three years after a felony conviction for transporting a stolen diamond ring worth $62,500 across state lines, and he was reprimanded privately by the Supreme Court in 1972 and 1973 for neglecting clients. Clark died in the early 1990s.
Parrish’s story itself was all over the map. At one point she told police Dillon had been in the area the night of the murder and that his hands had been covered in blood. She also told police she thought he had once beaten someone. During the trial she testified that she had been with Dillon drinking coffee at 2 a.m. on the night of the murder. In yet another version she said she was home alone that night writing a love poem. On another occasion she said Dillon was buying her drinks at the Pelican Lounge in Cape Canaveral with money he stole from Dvorak shortly after she had seen him getting dressed near Dvorak’s body (which she said occurred 30 minutes later than was possible, according to the autopsy).
A week after the trial Parrish recanted, saying she had been intimidated by police and prosecutors. Prosecutors said they found her original testimony to be accurate and ignored her later statements.
Joe Dillon also discovered that Slaughter had handled the yellow T-shirt before allowing the dog to sniff it at the courthouse the night Bill was arrested, and was seated next to Bill in the interview room when the dog walked up to his brother.
“The dog headed to my brother who was by the cop,” Joe says. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.”
What’s more, he found out that the dog, Harass II, didn’t sniff the shirt until nine days after the crime. It is commonly accepted in police investigations that dogs can’t determine smell with any accuracy beyond 72 hours.
Preston and his dog were instrumental in another high-profile Brevard County conviction, that of Wilton Dedge, who was released from prison after 22 years when DNA testing ruled him out as the man who raped and cut up a woman [see “Case closed?” Aug. 5, 2004]. Both were in Brevard County and handled by the same team of prosecutors. Both involved testimony from Preston and an alleged positive identification from the same dog, says Dillon’s public defender Mike Pirolo.
And then there’s the fact that over the years investigators have lost key evidence – cigarette butts and a pair of jeans found near the body – used to tie Bill to the crime scene.
“The majority of the evidence was lost,” he says. “Now that the judge has granted DNA testing, they mysteriously can’t find a lot of the evidence used to match his DNA. There is something stinky going on. I really believe [DNA testing] will come back in the favor of my brother. I just hope he can get a fair shake. I’m not ashamed of what happened; I think he got a really unfair deal.”
More evidence of that can be found in the statements of John Douglas Parker, the man who picked up the bloodied hitchhiker at Canova Beach the night of the murder. Parker, it turns out, was half-blind; it’s unclear why he was even driving in the first place. His description of the man he gave a ride, and had oral sex with, bears almost no resemblance to Bill Dillon.
Parker said his acquaintance was between 5 feet, 11 inches and 6 feet tall with dark-brown hair parted in the middle and a mustache. Bill Dillon is 6 feet, 4 inches tall, did not part his hair down the center in 1981 and wasn’t able to grow facial hair. Parker even described the penis of the man in his truck, telling police it was “very pointed and narrow.” Dillon is circumcised and has a noticeable mole on his penis, according to documents filed for his appeal.
Joe Dillon hasn’t been a cop for six years; a car accident left him with a steel plate in his neck and unable to do police work. He first contacted the Innocence Project asking for help with his brother’s case about 10 years ago. He wrote again six or seven years later, after hearing nothing. Then he met a Harvard University professor who worked with the Innocence Project, and things began moving forward.
“As a police officer I was always involved with people who said, ‘I didn’t do it,’” he says. “But I saw the manipulation.”
A hate crime
Assistant state attorney Wayne Holmes says the state supports DNA testing in the case; he even notes that it is the state that informed Bill Dillon’s appeal lawyers about the existence of a sandal and some cigarette butts found at the scene that could also be tested.
But Holmes doesn’t think anything will come of it. “We have no objection as long as it’s relevant items for testing,” he says. “I don’t believe there is anything to be tested that will show the actual innocence of Mr. Dillon. … A jury was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, and that’s the way our system operates.”
He acknowledges that the blood on the yellow T-shirt doesn’t belong to Dillon, the victim or even Parker. A complete DNA profile may be able to identify whose blood it was stained with to determine whether someone else was involved, he says, or it may come up with sweat or skin cells as a way of putting Bill Dillon at the scene of the crime.
Still, the lack of Dillon’s blood, or the victim’s blood, on the shirt does not make Dillon innocent, he says.
“It’s not like a rape case which excludes a person and they’re innocent. We don’t have that scenario here. It’s not going to be the type where we can conclusively say this is an innocent person.”
Dillon’s attorneys hope to have numerous items tested: a pair of cut-off jeans found at the crime scene and a pair of underwear found tucked inside them, the yellow T-shirt, hair from the yellow shirt, black and blue flip-flops, a pack of menthol cigarettes, hair samples collected from the crime scene, soil and vegetation samples, fingernail scrapings from the victim and four loose hairs from the victim. The items will likely be tested for blood, sweat, saliva, skin cells, semen and hair once prosecutors and the defense agree on the scope of testing, whether each item is relevant and whether the items can be located.
One possible outcome is that Dillon could be granted a new trial. If that happens, the state would have a hard time proving its case after so many years, Holmes says.
“It may create an impossible burden. You might have witnesses who are no longer alive, and memories fade. It opens a bunch of potential issues.”
Richard Junnier, a consultant with the Innocence Project, says far from being cooperative, the state has been resisting the DNA testing. “They’re fighting every possible thing in every possible way,” says Junnier, who notes that prosecutors have fought having the yellow T-shirt tested because they knew at trial the shirt didn’t bear the victim’s blood.
Junnier says that the defense didn’t know that key fact at the trial, and adds that prosecutors even encouraged jurors to assume it was Dillon’s shirt stained with Dvorak’s blood.
“The evidence at trial should not have been considered for a conviction,” Junnier says. “It seems obvious that this was a hate crime.”
Dillon has made the best of prison. He works as a coordinator for the band room, setting appointments for musicians to practice. He’s also learned to play the guitar, bass and keyboards.
He met and married a woman who worked providing jobs to prisoners, but the marriage only lasted a year and Dillon had it dissolved on the grounds it was never consummated.
He coaches softball, and has thought about teaching outside the prison if he were ever released. He draws, writes music and reads everything he can get his hands on about solar energy. He enjoys crossword puzzles. His main gripe is that he’s never been able to have children and feels he’s too old to start now. His brow creases and contorts when he thinks about it.
“I was very, very angry that that was taken from me. I was angry at myself a lot for being so arrogant,” he says. “I want to get out there in the world.”
But not today. Today there’s a guard anxiously tapping her watch as she peers into the small room. Dillon smiles sheepishly. As he walks away, he says softly, “I know eventually it will all come out and I will be a free man.” Then the door slams shut and locked again.