Wednesday, August 21, 2019


The Man Without a Heart
by Robert A. Waters

The Blackwater River flows through the wilds of Alabama into Florida’s Panhandle.  Its ink-black water meanders along, lapping sugar-white sand beaches while centuries-old cypress trees line the banks.

On May 1, 1956, three young boys played along the water’s edge.  They were David Earl Wilson, 7, his younger brother Douglas Cecil, 4, and a friend, seven-year-old Michael McCauley.  The Wilson family’s mobile house trailer sat back on a hill, looking down over the shirtless boys as they yelled and romped.

The playmates parted as their neighbor, thirty-three-year-old Dallas E. Withers, approached a motorboat tethered to a nearby tree.  While climbing in, the unemployed electrician turned to the boys and asked, “You want to go for a short ride?”

The excited youngsters hesitated briefly, then crowded into the boat.  But McCauley, fearful that his father would be angry, jumped out and waded back to shore.

A sudden roar of the engine alerted Mary Alice Wilson, the brothers’ mother.  She sprinted from the house down to the river’s bank, screaming for her neighbor to return with her boys.  Withers never looked back.  The distraught woman watched in horror as the boat motored into the fog and disappeared around a bend.

Since she didn’t have a telephone, Mrs. Wilson rushed to a neighbor’s home and called the Bay County Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff M. J. “Doc” Daffin and his lead investigator, Floyd D. Saxon, raced to the residence at 414 Second Court in Millville.  The unincorporated community sat on a spit of land between Watson Bayou and St. Andrews Bay in Panama City.  After Mrs. Wilson and Michael McCauley breathlessly described the events of the afternoon, Daffin quickly organized teams of deputies to search the shoreline.

News of the abduction spread quickly.  With a population of around 50,000 residents, Bay County was home to several military installations, including Tyndall Air Force Base.  In addition to law enforcement officials, local fishermen and servicemen soon joined the hunt for the missing brothers.

*******

Three hours after casting off with the youngsters, Withers docked his boat at Polecat Bayou, fifteen miles from the Wilson home.

He was alone.

Waiting deputies arrested him on the spot.

Lawmen transported Withers to an undisclosed jail for his own safety.  Weather-hard, with dark eyes, the suspect said little.  When asked where the boys were, he feigned surprise and denied taking them.

Darkness fell, and the long night passed with no word from the missing brothers.  The next morning, Mrs. Wilson, sobbing, released a tape-recorded statement: “Please, Mr. Withers,” she said, “Tell me where you left my sons.  I want them back dead or alive.”  The Fort Pierce News Tribune reported that “the boys’ father, Willard E. Wilson, was taken to a veteran’s hospital in Birmingham for treatment of shock.”

The Wilson family had lived in Panama City for only three weeks.  Originally from Mississippi, Willard worked as a civilian employee at Tyndall Air Force Base.

Shortly after noon, searchers in a military helicopter spotted four-year-old Douglas.

Floating face-down in the murky waters, his remains were located about 300 yards from the mouth of Cook’s Bayou.  Lawmen grimly pulled Douglas from the river and transported him to Smith Funeral Home in Panama City.  Soon the coroner arrived.  After conducting an autopsy, he announced the cause of death was drowning.

Though searchers combed the river all day, David was not found.

On the second day, after hearing Mrs. Wilson’s taped appeal and learning that Douglas had been found, Withers confessed to killing the boys.  Sheriff Daffin told reporters that in his first confession, Withers claimed that while making a sharp turn around a bend, David fell out of the boat.  Withers stated that after David drowned, he panicked and tossed Douglas into the water.

The next day Withers admitted his sordid reason for the abduction and murders.  He informed investigators that he had molested young boys for years, but had never been caught.  When he saw the children playing on the bank outside their home, he immediately felt drawn to the older Wilson boy.

Withers stated that after finding an isolated spot, he forced David to commit “indecent acts.”  He described how he flung the child into the dark water and watched him flounder until he slowly sank out of sight.  The boy had cried out just before disappearing.  Detectives noted that Withers was matter-of-fact when describing what happened.  In order to cover his crime, the killer said he also tossed four-year-old Douglas into the river.  Like David, the youngster quickly drowned.

Investigators believed Withers had stopped at a sand-bank to molest David, though for some reason he never admitted it.  Tracks on one of the sandbars in the river contained footprints of a man and two young children.  After the assault, Withers likely forced the brothers back into the boat and tossed them out.

For the next three days, hundreds of searchers scoured the river and its banks for the older boy.  During this time, women of the community grouped together in local churches to make sandwiches and iced tea for the men.  Finally, four days after having been snatched from the shoreline in broad daylight, two local fishermen radioed that they had located the remains of a young boy.

David’s body had floated up only a few feet from where his brother had been found.

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Dallas Withers had spent time in a reform school before joining the U. S. Army in 1943.

Trained as a machine gunner, Withers was assigned to Company D, 304th Infantry Regiment, 76th Infantry Division.  As he spoke to investigators, the suspect made a shocking claim.  He stated that in 1945, during a night bombardment near Oberinheim, Germany, while supporting a squad of riflemen from the rear, he lowered his machine gun and turned it on his fellow GIs.

He informed detectives that he and another soldier were having “sexual relations,” and he was afraid of being found out.  Withers said casualties from the enemy bombardment were so horrific that no one realized some soldiers had been shot from behind.

Sheriff Daffin reported that Withers passed a lie detector test about the episode.  However, Detective Saxon told reporters that he didn’t believe the suspect’s claims.  (The army never fully investigated the incident, evidently writing the “confession” off as an attention-seeking ploy—or perhaps they were unwilling to open up a can of worms that could destroy many lives.)

Sheriff Daffin told reporters that Withers “showed absolutely no remorse or emotion in answering my questions.  He is a man without a heart.”

At ten o’clock on the morning of May 7, hundreds of mourners attended funeral services for Douglas and David Wilson.  A local newspaper reported that after the services in Panama City, “the two were taken to Louisville, Miss., by a [Smith Funeral Home] hearse for services at the Middleton Methodist Church there.”

***********



The trial of Dallas E. Withers, scheduled for January 7, 1959, promised to be a sensation.  It did not disappoint.


The Panama City courtroom was packed to capacity with 250 spectators.  Willard and Mary Alice Wilson sat behind prosecutors while Withers’ aged mother took a seat behind her son and the defense team.  (His wife and seven children were nowhere to be seen.)

Thomas Beasley, a former state representative from DeFuniak Springs, represented Withers.  (He was known for having tried 30 death penalty cases in which not one of his defendants was sent to the chair.)  But in this case, the attorney had little to work with.  Withers had confessed twice.  In addition, witnesses had seen him leave with the children.  Finally, physical evidence found in his boat proved the brothers had been there.

At first, Beasley made a half-hearted attempt to show that Withers was insane.  But the defendant’s obvious planning and confessions shot down that argument.

Beasley then claimed that Withers had been “drunk and unaccountable” for his actions.  But while he had been drinking, witnesses testified that he was not drunk.  (An appeals court later wrote that “there was ample competent substantial evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that Withers was not so intoxicated at the time of the commission of the crime as to be incapable of premeditation.”)

Finally, in desperation, the defense argued that Withers had suffered a work-related accident that may have damaged his brain and made him impulsive.  This could have caused him to “snap” and perform an act he couldn’t control.

Prosecutor J. Frank Adams told jurors that the crime Withers committed was the worst ever recorded in Bay County.  He stated that it was obvious from his confession that Withers knew right from wrong.

Four hours after receiving instructions, jurors returned with their verdict.

Guilty.

Circuit Judge E. Clay Lewis, Jr. immediately sentenced Dallas E. Withers to death in the electric chair.

Mary Alice Wilson agreed with the verdict.  “He had a trial,” she said.  “My boys did not.”

On February 2, 1959, nearly three years after the heinous murders of two innocent boys, Withers walked solemnly to Florida’s Old Sparky.  Reporters said he remained calm to the very end.

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