After a Detroit firefighter died on duty, prosecutors looked for someone to blame. Did they get it all wrong?

Fire wall: The case of Mario Willis (part II)

click to enlarge Detroit firefighter Walter Harris was killed in a Nov. 15, 2008 blaze. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Detroit firefighter Walter Harris was killed in a Nov. 15, 2008 blaze.

Last week, we covered the case of Mario Willis, who supporters say was wrongfully sentenced for up to 30 years behind bars following a 2008 blaze that resulted in the death of a Detroit firefighter. This week, our investigation continues.

It was a fitting title for a man consistently described as upstanding and devoted: “Armor bearer” was not only the role Walter Harris held at Community Christian Fellowship Church; it was his career as a firefighter serving Detroiters.

Unlike biblical armor bearers who carried shields or weapons for kings and military commanders, the position in modern churches involves spiritual support. But not unlike the uniform Harris put on for duty at east side Engine Station No. 23, his moral armor reflected great passion and commitment.

He died wearing it.

“Walter Harris risked his life and gave his life to extinguish a fire and protect the men and women of his fire company,” read a statement from interim Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. issued Nov. 15, 2008. “My thoughts and prayers are with Walter Harris’ family and the men and women of the Detroit Fire Department. I encourage everyone’s prayers for hope and healing for the city and for those whose job it is to protect us.”

Prayers went out immediately from the congregation at Community Christian Fellowship where Harris, 38, had led Bible study just a few days earlier. As the 14th anniversary of his loss looms this month, a man whose name might be forever connected to Harris and those who mourn him says he hopes healing can result from truth and from his exoneration in the firefighter’s death.

“We’ve all lost someone and the way we believe we lost them has a psychological effect,” says Mario Willis, whose supporters say he was wrongfully convicted of arson.

After 12 years imprisoned at Saginaw Correctional Facility, not only does Willis long for freedom, he says the truth about the 7418 East Kirby blaze could ease resentment by those who’ve labeled him a “firefighter killer.” Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit is reviewing evidence that Willis’s appellate lawyer Craig Daly insists proves his client innocent of paying a handyman to burn the house for an insurance payout.

“To honor Mr. Harris is to honor him in truth,” says Willis, “and Mr. Harris is resting on a bed of lies right now.”

For many, Willis realizes, it has been hard to accept even the notion that he had no connection to Harris’s death. Willis admits he, too, was once among the masses that believe prison numbers are only assigned to inmates who’ve earned them.

Too long, too much

At a cozy Ann Arbor café with late-summer sun hitting the window, Syri Wilson sips water at a table for four. Having remarried since Walter Harris’s death, she is discussing questions about who’s truly responsible for killing the man she met when they were both children in elementary school.

Including several re-sentencing hearings after Judge Michael J. Callahan improperly exceeded guidelines for Willis’s initial punishment, Wilson says she asked “over and over and over and over” that court officers create a fair outcome. While she hasn’t concluded Willis is innocent, she’s also bothered by the thought of his serving unjust prison time.

“I am interested in the entire truth coming out. It’s been too long and too much for both families,” says Wilson.

Wilson has had multiple opportunities to speak scornfully of Willis during victim-impact segments in court, but he says she never attacked his character.

“That says a lot when I’m the person accused of causing her husband’s demise,” Willis adds.

Wilson has acknowledged Harris’s death was unintended, which is partly why she grew weary of post-conviction hearings and publicity that accompanied every return to a courthouse.

“As a widow, it doesn’t make me feel any better,” she says. “He’s still dead.”

Ironically, her hope at this point is identical to what Willis says he wants: complete truth and transparency.

“If there’s been some wrongdoing, some egos that were involved, some things that were hidden,” adds Wilson, “that needs to come out.”

‘He’s doing something with his nose.’

No single player in the Harris homicide case more influenced what came out to Willis’s detriment than Darian Ivan Dove. Once a trusted, small-time contractor who performed maintenance at 7418 East Kirby and other Detroit homes Willis purchased, Dove’s role had diminished by 2009. Nonetheless, Willis, whose family extended kindness to Dove for years, had recently enrolled the handyman in a Wayne County Community College District program to help Dove launch his own janitorial imprint. Instead of a protégé, Dove became a prosecution witness, testifying against Willis almost exactly a year after the blaze took place in chilly, leaf-blown autumn.

But Dove’s story changed with the seasons.

By summer he would fully confess in a “truth statement” that he — and he alone — caused the blaze which led to the death of a “gentle giant,” as Harris was described; that he’d tipped out on his live-in girlfriend after midnight Nov. 15, 2008, using 7418 East Kirby to entertain a woman named Felisha with alcohol and marijuana; that she’d grown cold, so he threw together a flammable solution which spilled and spread into a fatal nightmare; and that Mario Willis neither paid him to set the fire nor even knew Dove was in the house, which actually belonged to Willis’s future wife.

Yet, at the preliminary examination to decide if Willis should stand trial, Dove was ready to fulfill his end of a deal. Pressured by Detroit Police investigators, according to an affidavit he later signed, he pleaded guilty to burning 7418 East Kirby for $20; what the government wanted Nov. 18, 2009 at 36th District Court was testimony that the boss, Willis, paid him to do it.

“Who told you to light the fire?” asked Robert Stevens, assistant Wayne County prosecutor.

“I guess Mario,” Dove replied.

By most accounts Dove was a wreck of a witness, often interrupting both Stevens and Willis’s defense lawyer, Wright Blake, saying at one point that he thought Patricia Jefferson, the judge presiding, was Judge Linda Parker because they wore similar glasses.

“To honor Mr. Harris is to honor him in truth,” says Willis, “and Mr. Harris is resting on a bed of lies right now.”

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Dove testified that he’d been painting 7418 East Kirby because he eventually planned to move in, admitting he’d taken “a couple girls” there without anyone’s permission and occasionally drank beer at the house, even before the fire. He’d been drinking the entire night before Detective Lance Sullivan arrived at his actual Detroit home to take a statement, he said.

“Do you remember being asked this question, ‘Why did Mario want you to burn the house?’ And your answer was ‘for the insurance money,’ correct?” Stevens asked.

“OK, but how true was that?” Dove replied.

At another point, Dove seemed frustrated by additional quotes purportedly of his own words, replying, “Y’all coming up with all this. I don’t even know what’s going on.”

A peculiar moment was noted by Judge Jefferson’s asking, “What’s the problem?”

“He’s doing something with his nose,” said defense lawyer Blake, observing Dove.

“He needs a Kleenex,” added Stevens.

Blake handed Dove a tissue, then continued his cross-examination. He referred to a moment when Dove saw Willis ahead of the same day’s proceeding, asking: “And didn’t you apologize to him for lying on him and for bringing these charges on him?”

“Huh?” Dove answered.

“Didn’t you do that, sir?”

“When?”

“Before you were brought up here, weren’t there some deputies…?”

“Naw, come on,” Dove said.

Appearing confused at moments, other times defensive, Dove seemed eager for the cross-examination to end.

“Sir, yes or no, did he tell you to burn the outside of the house?” asked Blake.

“No,” said Dove.

“Sir, yes or no, did he tell you to burn the inside of the house?”

“I don’t like these questions.”

Despite what appeared to resemble a strikeout for the prosecution more than a homerun by its key witness, Willis was ordered to trial. The next time he saw Dove, who said he “broke out crying” when he learned that Harris died, Willis notes that his ex-employee had rehearsed for the witness stand.

“They dressed him up, just like they do on TV, and made him the guy I chose to do my ‘bidding,’ in their words,” Willis says.

“In the beginning when I tell you I was highly upset because of all I have done for him … to categorize it properly, in the beginning I was livid,” he adds. “But as time went on I felt sorry for him. I said, ‘My God, this man was used.’”

Craig Daly, Willis’s appellate lawyer, agrees, having recently filed a motion for relief and evidentiary hearing to discuss Dove’s recanting statements, video documentation, and other facts.

“The way I see it in its totality is that this was a conviction by manipulation,” Daly says.

The fallout has been not only his client’s unjust imprisonment, but the “very unusual” time span of proceedings like Willis’s latest re-sentencing just last year, he adds. Sentence-related issues have long delayed the opportunity for Daly to present key evidence that exonerates Willis, he says.

“But that’s because these judges keep wanting to hammer Mario,” says Daly.

Based on his current status, Willis, 41, will be 70 years old before he’s eligible for release and the Michigan Parole Board will potentially influence the rest of his life, Daly says. Meanwhile, Dove, who declined Metro Times’ request to be interviewed, could be free in a few years.

While the court finally has been presented with additional materials, including Dove’s 2014 affidavit admitting he lied, Daly says the Conviction Integrity Unit could act independently.

“I love the fact that we have an integrity unit, number one,” says Daly. “Number two, it’s important that they staff the unit with people who know (defense law).”

click to enlarge Maxine Willis believes her son, Mario Willis, was wrongfully sentenced. - Kelley O’Neill
Kelley O’Neill
Maxine Willis believes her son, Mario Willis, was wrongfully sentenced.

Something in common

At a glance, Walter Patrick Harris and Mario Lamont Willis were much more alike than different. From their bald heads and bulky frames to their shared Christian faith, similar interests might have forecast their paths crossing at a charity event, not a courthouse.

Both were family men, though Harris was a decade older, married with six sons. Both were involved with real estate, Harris as a licensed agent. Both were Detroit boosters, despite living in the suburbs at one point or another. Both were well-regarded by their peers and associates. Their families even had a mutual friend who attended the same church as Harris and his wife.

While Willis was fond of large trucks like the Ford Excursion he maneuvered on monster wheels through the streets of Detroit, Harris was a motorcyclist. It’s hard to imagine the men not clicking with one another, says Willis’s mother Maxine, had they ever been introduced.

“Oh, my God, I think if they had an opportunity to meet, they would have been a dynamic duo,” she adds.

Not having personally known Harris, she learned, like much of Detroit, about his outings with the Axemen, a club of firefighters with motorcycles, about his mentoring, about his big-hearted dedication to helping others. The main traits shared between Harris and her son were “their love of humanity, their desire to make this world a better place, and more importantly, to share God’s word,” Maxine Willis adds.

Tributes including the 2012 documentary film BURN, which he inspired, and the Walter P. Harris Regional Training Center are part of the senior firefighter known as “Walt’s” legacy. The 11-classroom training facility’s website describes it as a hub for new recruitment, emergency medical technician and in-service training, an emergency vehicle operators course, live fire training, and more.

For many, Harris’s bravery speaks for itself as he was said to be “first in” at the scene of fires and glad that the Engine 23 station saw a good amount of action. When the roof collapsed, trapping him and other personnel who were able to escape, some reports indicate he’d been checking 7418 East Kirby for vagrants who might need rescuing. But no Detroit Fire Department officials responded to Metro Times’ telephone calls or e-mails seeking interviews about Harris’s death or the murder trial, and Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for fire and police investigation records remain unanswered by the City of Detroit. Jack P. Dietrich, supervising assistant corporation counsel of the city Law Department’s FOIA section, did not respond to phone or written messages seeking comment about the city’s violation of public records law.

Dr. Fred Vultee, a Wayne State University journalism instructor whose courses address reporting about government agency operations, says withholding public information hinders citizen trust.

“In my journalism professor capacity I’d say that’s not cool. That’s not how it’s supposed to work,” Vultee says.

The appearance of a code of silence encountered by Metro Times when seeking information about Harris might be misplaced loyalty by those who admired the first responder, the professor adds.

“Whether it’s for good or ill, we don’t attach any blame to people who say, ‘I’m just trying to protect my friends,’” says Vultee, a former news reporter. “The point is to make sure that matters are being done and addressed in the public’s interest.”

Exemptions to FOIA provisions are established to protect individual privacy and also in accordance with other stipulations.

“Absent some of these specific things, they should tell you, at least, this is where the record is and why they’re not giving it to you,” says Vultee.

click to enlarge Plaques at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters memorialize Walter Harris and other firefighters who died on duty. - Lee DeVito
Lee DeVito
Plaques at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters memorialize Walter Harris and other firefighters who died on duty.

Hooked for homicide

But ongoing questions didn’t just emerge in the aftermath of Willis’s conviction; they’d risen like smoke over 7418 East Kirby since the investigation’s onset and throughout the trial. For one, Willis wondered why he was ever targeted, particularly since he’d assisted police and fire officials by providing information during the process. His trial lawyer told him the prosecution needed a “big fish” to punish for Harris’s death, since he was a first responder lost in the line of duty.

Stevens used the exact term in an opening argument to jurors, explaining why Willis sat before them: “So the person that lights that torch, lights that house up, the person who puts him up to it, the ‘big fish’ as we call it, the person who’s responsible, the person who sends out his minion … that’s the person we’re after.”

He added, “You may not agree with that. You may think the person that lit the fire is more important. Do not agree. And the reason is because there’s a person who, out of cowardice, is setting another person up to take the hit on it, in case somebody gets caught.”

Willis agrees that he, a property investor described as a “Detroit business man,” fit the “big fish” label more than a reckless fix-it guy with only tears for restitution.

The prosecution needed a “big fish” to punish for Harris’s death, since he was a first responder lost in the line of duty.

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Another house he owned on Prest Street was insured for $125,000 and in foreclosure at the time of East Kirby’s fire, Willis says, making it a better target if arson had been the plan, but Willis says defense lawyer Blake didn’t present the information to jurors. Offering even more opportunity, a couple of weeks before the fatal blaze, Detroit mobilized 35,000 volunteers to patrol neighborhoods and stop arsonists known to spark hellfire on Devil’s Night, Oct. 30; despite all the vigilance, 7418 East Kirby could have burned then with less suspicion than any other night of the year. If he’d been devious enough to hire Dove, another question was: Why hadn’t Willis paid attention to the calendar?

As it turned out, 136 fires in the city were reported between Oct. 29 and Oct. 31, 2008, with none of his houses among them.

“It’s noteworthy,” Willis says, “that, out of all the multiple properties that I owned, I have never had an insurance claim.”

Lastly, Dove’s contention that Willis retrieved him from home and drove him to 7418 East Kirby hours before Harris died — a claim Dove’s girlfriend at the time calls a lie in her 2014 affidavit — invites the question: Why would Willis put himself or his vehicle, displaying its distinctive “7 Monsta” license plate, anywhere near the crime scene? Willis says he’s often reflected on such thoughts with flashbacks even triggered while watching Detroit episodes of The First 48 detective series. He recognized Scott Shea and Lance Sullivan, the investigators who fueled the prosecution’s case.

Forensic chemist Dirk Hedglin says science also fueled the fire’s legal fallout. Hedglin, who worked in the ATF’s forensic lab and supported the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, and Centennial Olympic Park bombing probes, expects to testify if Willis wins a new trial. He operates the Eastpointe-based Great Lakes Analytical, Inc. laboratory, which specializes in fire debris and crime scene analysis.

Hedglin’s review of evidence from 7418 East Kirby confirms the Michigan State Police finding that floorboard samples from the house contained gasoline.

“Then if you go back to Dove, he explains that he kicked over a gas container,” says Hedglin.

“Liquids, with gravity, like with everything else, they’re going to flow to the lowest point on the floor,” he adds. “Most floors are not perfectly level. I don’t know how much fluid he had, but that would allow it to spread … There had to be some sort or ignition source in that room, so then the fire’s just naturally going to spread from that room to the next, to the next; it’s just oxygen, and it’s going to burn the house down.”

Despite a Detroit Fire Department investigator’s testimony that the house was vacant, which ruled out an accident, Hedglin says the scenario Dove described is realistic.

“Is is plausible? Yes.”

An independent review

The City of Detroit’s silence in response to queries about 7418 East Kirby precludes information of possible interest to firefighters: In the wake of Harris’s death there was talk of change in the Detroit Fire Department’s frontline response protocol, but Metro Times interview requests to discuss whether changes were implemented received no reply. A 2010 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report offers recommendations about circumstances related to the 7418 East Kirby fire, including:

  • greater caution at vacant buildings with “proper risk-benefit decisions being made by the incident commander”

  • re-evaluating an almost 20-year-old standard operating procedure at vacant or abandoned buildings

  • ensuring that an EMS unit is on the scene and available for “firefighter emergency care”

  • a “respiratory protection program” to help properly maintain breathing equipment

Bill Proctor, a former WXYZ Channel 7 TV reporter and private investigator who supports Willis’s exoneration, says the question of whether Harris might have survived with safer policies in place hasn’t been adequately addressed. A murder conviction made Willis collateral damage in a tragedy compounded by perceived public expectations, Proctor adds.

“The Willis case is certainly up there when it comes to human frailty, but in this case, he’s higher because of the political nature of what happened to him,” says Proctor. “The City was going after an answer that everybody would accept.”

Dove’s recklessness and Felisha’s absence, since she hasn’t been located to testify about the fire, set a fatality and a miscarriage of justice in motion, Proctor says: “Those were the people that were involved in the accident that the City turned into a crime.”

For his part, Willis says he’s sincere when expressing feelings that Harris’s legacy should be cherished.

“I’m not dismissive of Mr. Harris,” Willis says. “But I matter, too.”

He’s treated fairly by the staff at Saginaw Correctional, he says, but stabbings over such trivialities as dessert, and security lockdowns, aren’t uncommon.

“This is where the Boogeyman lives,” adds Willis.

Of Harris’s relatives, Maxine Willis says, “We pray for that family all the time.”

Megan Willis, Mario’s wife, says she, too, sympathizes with the family that lost a man of Harris’s stature, especially Syri Wilson.

“Yes, my heart went out to her because she lost her husband, but I lost mine, too,” adds Megan.

“They took my best friend away, they ruined his character,” she says. “They made him out to be a person that he wasn’t.”

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