How a Detroit firefighter’s death might have sent an innocent man to prison

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

click to enlarge Maxine Willis believes her son, Mario Willis, was wrongfully sentenced following the 2008 blaze that killed Detroit firefighter Walter Harris. - Kelley O’Neill
Kelley O’Neill
Maxine Willis believes her son, Mario Willis, was wrongfully sentenced following the 2008 blaze that killed Detroit firefighter Walter Harris.

In the redemptive setting of Ypsilanti’s Second Baptist Church a well-dressed woman with a pleasant smile greets a man just released from prison. On this sunny September afternoon Ronnell Johnson is free after 14 years, following what the Washtenaw County prosecutor determined to be a wrongful robbery conviction.

The woman co-hosting Johnson’s reception through the Ambassadors Group, a nonprofit support initiative, is Maxine Willis, who hopes the next homecoming will answer a prayer. Her son, Mario Willis, is serving year 12 of a 30-year minimum sentence for the 2008 blaze that killed firefighter Walter Harris.

“The reason that you see all this here,” she later says, near basement shelves of court files, “is that it’s heart-wrenching to have a child in prison. But I didn’t just want to be a mother who said, ‘My child didn’t do this.’ I wanted to show it through evidence and facts.”

Convicted in what prosecutors framed as an arson-for-insurance money scheme at 7418 East Kirby St. in Detroit, Mario Willis and his advocates await a judge’s decision, following a motion that could win his freedom. The filing includes disturbing claims of coercion and suppressed evidence while Willis was painted as villain in a crime widely regarded as one of Detroit’s worst of the decade.

“I’ve been looking forward to having the opportunity to tell my story and have this false narrative changed,” he says from Saginaw Correctional Facility during a telephone call with Metro Times.

Among numerous, sometimes complex, issues that Willis says snowballed into his imprisonment are:

  • False testimony: Darian Ivan Dove, the central figure in Willis’s conviction, alleges detectives Scott Shea and Lance Sullivan refused to accept that the fire which killed Harris was accidental; Dove, who is serving a 17-year minimum sentence, ultimately testified that Willis paid him $20 to set the fire, then Dove tried to recant the story.

  • Misleading statements: Rance Dixon, then a Detroit Fire Department investigator, allegedly misidentified the location of gasoline detected at 7418 East Kirby, testifying that its placement proved the blaze was deliberately set.

  • Insurance coverage: Evidence jurors were presented, but Willis’s current attorney believes they misunderstood, shows that 7418 East Kirby wasn’t even insured in a way that would let Willis profit from its destruction.

  • Withheld evidence: Jurors never saw video-recorded footage in which Willis and his future wife explain their whereabouts on the night of the fire.

“That ‘innocent until proven guilty?’ That’s not true,” says Willis, 41. “You have to prove your innocence. The law doesn’t say it, but in actuality you do.”

His insider’s understanding of the criminal justice system is nothing he or his family would have predicted. Coming from a stable, two-parent, Christian home, perhaps no one thought a future including prison less imaginable than Mario Lamont Willis. While a student at St. Martin DePorres High School he played trumpet in the band and competed on the squad of DePorres’s football team champions. A 1997 Detroit News profile of the teenager in the special “On Detroit” section, with the headline “Doin’ the Right Thing,” describes how Willis performed for younger children as part of his mother’s drug awareness group. Then six-foot-three and 256 pounds, Willis was known to don a costume, transforming into Zack the Lion, to help Maxine Willis deliver positive messages to her audience.

Graduating from DePorres in 1999, he won a football scholarship to play lineman at Eastern Michigan University, but a car accident that left Willis susceptible to concussions forced a change of plans. Still, being what he calls “a glass-half-full kinda guy,” he bounced back.

“My father had always owned property. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, so I enrolled back at Davenport University as a marketing major,” says Willis.

Equipped with Davenport’s instruction and support from his family, he began learning the real estate game. One mentor and asset was his godfather, the late Detroit business trailblazer and former NFL pro, Brady Keys. Known for operating successful Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in the 1980s and 1990s, Keys had also inspired and backed “K.E.Y.S. Kids” (an acronym for “Kids Enjoy YourSelves”), the drug prevention program with a TV show Maxine Willis produced for WHPR-TV in Highland Park. Before long, Keys had groomed his ambitious, young godson to take over a struggling shop in Detroit.

“He allowed me to manage it for a year and he was so impressed that I was able to bring the numbers back, he allowed me the opportunity to acquire the business,” Willis proudly recalls.

Located on West McNichols, Ramsey & Ramsey beauty shop became Mario’s Hair Salon, named for a large, bald man who didn’t need its services.

Good Samaritans

Progress continued as Willis bought his first residential property, a three-unit apartment building. He focused on Detroit real estate, he says, having been taught by his parents, “I need to live in my city, I need to own in my city.” He eventually bought about a half-dozen more homes, including 7418 East Kirby. Along with a sense of personal fulfillment, Willis’s contributions toward renewing the community’s landscape earned him a 2005 resolution from Detroit City Council.

Meanwhile, a struggling outsider to the family had come to the attention of Marvin Willis, Mario’s dad. Marvin, a former entertainer with the Detroit Emeralds and co-writer of the 1970s R&B classic “Float On,” oversaw K.E.Y.S. Kids Plaza, the studio and building that also housed Mario’s Hair Salon. Marvin had hired Darian Dove, who was then in his late-30s, to do odd jobs and repairs, but when work became scarce he referred Dove to Mario.

“This is kind of what we do. We help people out,” Mario Willis says.

Dove, who declined a request to be interviewed by Metro Times, had substance abuse issues and a criminal record that included felonies, adds Willis. But his work was solid, so Willis took him on, even giving him a place to stay. Preferring the nickname “Gino,” Dove was embraced by the Willis clan. As he proved himself a reliable handyman, Dove made an agreement with Mario to trade the equivalent of monthly rent for part of his salary, so Dove and a girlfriend moved into one of Willis’s houses.

Willis’s wife, then his high school sweetheart, has fond early memories of Dove and Valorie Ann Williams, to whom she occasionally gave clothing.

“Honestly, I liked them. They had grown to be like family in a lot of ways,” says Megan Willis. “I’m very protective of Mario, so I try and keep an eye on people who are around him.”

She says Dove occasionally grumbled that other maintenance workers who’d been hired were affecting his pay, but she saw no signs of disloyalty. Now and then came word of tools disappearing from properties where “Gino” had worked, yet his relationships with the Willis family remained intact.

In 2007 there was a small fire at 7418 East Kirby, but the cause was undetermined after investigators identified nothing suspicious. By then Willis had sold the house to Megan, so he hired Dove to help repair the damage. They discussed the possibility of Dove becoming a tenant there when it was livable again. It would take a tragedy, a homicide investigation, and three years for Willis to learn that Dove began accessing the house without anyone’s permission.

click to enlarge Mario Willis and Megan, who married in 2009, say they were together on the night of the Nov. 15, 2008 fire. - Courtesy of Maxine Willis
Courtesy of Maxine Willis
Mario Willis and Megan, who married in 2009, say they were together on the night of the Nov. 15, 2008 fire.

A tale of two dates

The facts of what happened at 7418 East Kirby Saturday, Nov. 15, 2008 would be debated for years, but one thing Willis and Dove both claim their night involved was enjoying a woman’s company. Willis and Megan, who married in 2009, made regular practice of scheduling quality time together, so it was dinner and a movie for them. Dove’s encounter was much more complicated, mainly because his date for the night wasn’t the lady with whom he lived. He’d run into a woman who has been identified only as Felisha and went with her to East Kirby hours before Walter Harris would die at the scene. What Dove apparently imagined to be a harmless bit of trespassing at Megan’s property ended in a 911 call. He’d later say he caused the blaze while trying to keep Felisha warm when a flammable concoction spilled from its container.

On Sunday morning the fire department called Megan, telling her about the incident during which the roof of the building reportedly collapsed with Harris inside. Today she still maintains she and Willis had slept together through the night. Although she owned the East Kirby house, Willis helped address investigators’ questions, given his familiarity with its history of break-ins and the previous year’s fire.

“You have the death of a first responder, so I’m giving them everything they think they need,” he recalls.

While the community mourned Harris, who was regarded as one of the Detroit Fire Department’s finest and most well-liked, weeks and months passed. Dove attended Willis family gatherings and performed regular work tasks, never mentioning any firsthand knowledge of what occurred at 7418 East Kirby. But by the next year he found himself on the radar of Detroit Police.

In a five-page, handwritten account Dove points fingers directly at Detroit Police Detectives Lance Sullivan and Scott Shea, the homicide investigators who interviewed him and Willis on multiple, separate occasions, stating: “…the date was, first time, June 9, 2009, I, Mr. Dove, was arrested … now they want to put words in my mouth … they are telling me that I can spend the rest of my life in prison.”

The letter further describes a call placed while Dove was in police custody, alleging that Sullivan urged him “to get Mr. Mario to say something on the phone to get him in jail.” But “that did not work at all, so they got mad and put me back in the cell,” Dove writes.

A recording of the conversation Dove describes was never played for the jury during Willis’s eight-day trial in April 2010.

“It wasn’t making sense to me,” Willis says, remembering the call. “He went from talking about traffic tickets to talking about this fire.”

Seemingly puzzled by Dove’s questions like, “What if somebody saw me that morning?” Willis answers, “I don’t even know what you talking about, dog.’” (The term “dog” is slang for “man.”)

Later in the call, Dove says, “I need to know what the hell to say.”

“The truth, shit. Hell,” Willis replies. “What you mean, ‘what to say?’ Nothing. You said that like you trying to make something up.”

Not much later Willis says he finally learned Dove was connected to the fire. What he still didn’t know is that Dove had been rehearsing what Willis calls an outright lie, one Dove would repeat before a judge, fearing a conviction for Harris’s death would seal his own death in prison, due to habitual offenses.

In a conversation with Sullivan, secretly recorded after Dove’s release from jail, Dove’s tone is resentful as he says Willis did nothing for Dove’s girlfriend while he was in custody.

“That fits the whole pattern,” Detective Sullivan says. “The whole ‘I’m above you,’ ‘I don’t care about you … I’m a so-called business man. I own all these houses.’”

In less than a year, Willis would listen from a defendant’s table at Frank Murphy Hall of Justice as the government depicted him in a similar way.

click to enlarge Maxine Willis keeps documents and other ephemera pertaining to her son's case. - Kelley O’Neill
Kelley O’Neill
Maxine Willis keeps documents and other ephemera pertaining to her son's case.

Forces and factors

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Robert Stevens told jurors Dove was “an ordinary minion who thrives and survives based on what (Willis) provides him for work.”

“He’s a nothin’. He’s a handyman,” Stevens declared, adding, “…his boss, a coward who sends this person out to take the hit.”

Having accepted a plea deal to reduce his sentence, Dove no longer insisted the fire was a tragic accident; he mounted the witness stand, saying Willis wanted the house burned to collect insurance money. In return for his cooperation Dove was handed a second-degree murder conviction, but Willis’s appellate lawyer Craig Daly says he likely would be serving no prison time, had he maintained his original story of the accident.

“That’s a weak manslaughter, negligence case. I think they would have had a hell of a time trying to prosecute him,” says Daly.

Dove’s recorded 911 call, during which the mysterious Felisha’s voice is reportedly heard in the background, and Dove’s claim to Sullivan of having tried to smother the fire himself, suggest lack of intent, says Daly, not to mention lack of foresight that Harris would die.

“That’s a tough, tough case,” Daly adds.

Willis, too, remains puzzled that jurors weren’t more doubtful about a conspiracy after hearing Dove’s 911 call.

“If you want something burned to get money, you want the most damage possible,” he says. “You’re not dialing 911 for help.”

But there were more issues for Willis to overcome: Lt. Rance Dixon, Detroit Fire Department’s investigator, testified that flames started along the house’s walls, consistent with a deliberate attempt to burn the structure vertically for maximum destruction in minimum time. In fact, samples Dixon took were tested by Michigan State Police forensic experts, showing that only charred floor boards tested positive for gasoline — supporting Dove’s explanation that an accelerant could have spilled when the container was kicked.

“I think what happened is that he had a theory,” Daly says of Dixon, “and he changed the facts to fit his theory.”

Dixon could not be reached for comment, despite a Metro Times interview request to the Detroit Fire Department.

If not somehow unpersuasive, perhaps more confusing to jurors was a discussion of the insurance coverage at 7418 East Kirby.

“In this case, the homeowner’s policy had lapsed, so the mortgage company put on it what they call a ‘forced-placed’ insurance policy,” adds Daly.

A 2018 letter requested by Willis for his appeal and exoneration efforts states that proceeds from the policy “would have been issued to the mortgage company.” Referring to statements made during trial, Kenneth M. Korotkin, insurance counselor with the Southfield-based Korotkin Insurance Group, adds, “There were numerous references made that Mario Willis had pure financial reasons to obtain proceeds or profit from a fire at E. Kirby on Nov. 15, 2008. Mario Willis, again, would not have been entitled to any of the insurance proceeds.” (Neither Korotkin, nor his insurance agency, had associations with 7418 East Kirby.)

Korotkin’s letter also stresses that Willis no longer owned the house since he’d sold it to Megan, who “would also not have received any direct benefit,” because forced-placed coverage solely protects “the mortgage company for the amount owed to them.”

“Unless you’re talking about it like we are, in context, calmly, the jury hears about it and it sounds bad, doesn’t it?” Daly admits. “Forced insurance.”

He adds, “Megan took a loss on this of tens of thousands of dollars, because they weren’t going to get any insurance money.”

Willis says he and Megan learned only when it was reported by TV news that the house they’d still planned to restore was demolished by the city three weeks after the fire. There had been no opportunity to hire an adjuster and the permit to raze the building wasn’t issued until two days after it was leveled, Willis says.

Almost a year before his trial, a property he owned on the other side of town was damaged after police kicked in its door, shocking tenants who lived there. They’d come to the wrong address, expecting to arrest Willis, who was licensed to carry the pistol he says was near him at his actual home with Megan in Farmington Hills.

“It would have been Breonna Taylor before Breonna Taylor,” he says, comparing the breach to a Louisville, Kentucky, case that drew nationwide attention. Taylor died in 2020 after she was stricken by police, who said they fired shots in response to her boyfriend Kenneth Walker. Walker admitted shooting out of fear for his and Taylor’s lives when he thought the cops were criminal intruders.

“I thank God I wasn’t there,” Willis says, “because if I had been home with Megan and they had the right address, they would have killed me.”

He voluntarily turned himself in to police after learning of their mistake.

\Darian Dove testified that Willis paid him $20 to set the fire before recanting the story. - Michigan Department of Corrections
Michigan Department of Corrections
\Darian Dove testified that Willis paid him $20 to set the fire before recanting the story.

A lonesome Dove

The rental property incident left Willis shaken, but also suspicious. Shea and Sullivan had come to the house when Willis still lived there, interacting with him peacefully, despite knowledge of his CCW permit. The detectives knocked, saying they had a warrant to take his vehicle as part of their investigation, Willis recalls. When he asked to grab his briefcase from the Ford Excursion, they agreed, but frisked him first to be sure his pistol wasn’t within reach. He later wondered: Had the cops who swarmed the house hoped he’d shoot at them out of fear when they kicked in the rental home’s door?

The black Ford Excursion he drove became another point of dispute at Willis’s trial. He recalls an interview when detectives showed him a DVD case, saying they had footage of his SUV from the night of the fire.

“No, you don’t,” Willis answered.

They had images not only from the same date, but placing his truck near 7418 East Kirby, the cops told him.

“No, you don’t,” Willis repeated.

In his revised version of the events, Dove told police he and Willis drove to a gas station at Mt. Elliott and Gratiot, parking as they watched 7418 East Kirby burn. Prosecutors called a police expert to testify about images of the Excursion captured at a fueling location. Despite lacking a date or time stamp, what Willis calls “maybe about 30 seconds of fuzzy video” was shown to the jury, suggesting Willis’s vehicle might, indeed, have been where Dove placed it. Even the police witness acknowledged the footage was a re-creation, but Judge Michael Callahan allowed the video, despite defense objections.

“This is cheating!” says Bill Proctor, the former WXYZ Channel 7 reporter and a private investigator hired by Willis’s family.

After filling key roles in freeing 11 wrongfully convicted men from prison, Proctor says the level of malfeasance by police, fire, and court officials in Willis’s case is particularly striking.

“The government gets to do that,” he adds. “They have all the authority and all of the influence. They come in the door pounding their chest and saying, ‘I’m right!’ even when they know they’re wrong.”

Deciding the prosecution was indeed correct, jurors convicted Willis.

Having played star witness a month earlier, Dove, who Maxine Willis describes as “a character,” appears to have felt isolated when several weeks after beginning his sentence he sent her a letter and makeshift Mother’s Day card. Signed “Gino” and “D. Dove,” the letter’s content suggests levels of comfort and entitlement that seem to contrast the reality that he helped send Maxine’s youngest son to prison.

“Hi, mama,” he writes in the missive dated May 1, 2010. “This is your stepson. Well I have been alright in here, but I miss y’all … And I wish that I can finish helping Pops with the building, because that was fun. Maybe when I come home I hope that I will still have a job.”

Adding, “mama, I am so, so sorry,” Dove ruminates, wishing he could “start over with” his life and asking God to help him “get through this and come back home with my family that took me in.”

Receiving no response from Maxine, five weeks later, Dove penned a compelling attempt to recant his testimony against Mario Willis. The letter, which finds Dove often referring to himself in third person, reads in part: “I remember that morning about 2:30 a.m. or 3:20 a.m. on Nov. 15, 2008. That I did talk with Felisha, because we was old friends at that time, because I met her at a friend’s house, and we was talking about having fun and we had some beers & weed, but I did not smoke weed. So we [decided] to go over to East Kirby Street … and then she said she had to use the bathroom … So we went in and took the beer & weed in the house, and it was a little cold in the house … but then, after that, we was playing around … and she, Felisha, said, ‘Is it any heat in the house to break the chill?’ … And it was some gas in the house because I had found some wood and a big piece of metal, and I poured a little gas on the metal … and I started a little fire to keep Dove & Felisha warm, but I forgot to move the plastic gas can … and we was kissing, and before I knew what was going to happen — please, please — I was not trying to put the house on fire.”

Dove details feeling “scared to death” while Felisha was in tears, attempting to smother the fire with clothing items and eventually finding a nearby pay phone to dial 911. Attempts by Willis’s defense team and investigators to locate Felisha, whose voice is reportedly heard describing firefighters arriving in the distance, all failed.

“But let’s get this right,” Dove’s letter continues. “…I don’t know why the people are saying that Mr. Dove did this fire on East Kirby for $20. And for a fireman to get killed, I would never do something like that in my life, because Mario is my boss and he let Mr. Dove stay in one of his houses. And Mario did not [hire] Mr. Dove to burn down the house, because that was gonna be my house with my girlfriend.”

Dove describes having bumped his head while trying to contain the blaze, and learning that “by the morning [they] were short a fireman” after Harris’s death. He vents frustration at the media’s portrayal of the accident — “like Mr. Dove is a killer and Mr. Mario is the mastermind of the situation.”

Dove’s letter concludes with regret that Harris lost his life, reiterating Willis’s innocence: “And I promise that Mr. Willis … was not around when I was over on East Kirby Street … Mr. Willis did not know nothing about this situation at all. I had keys to the house, and I did not want to go and pay for a [motel] room” to entertain Felisha.

Painstakingly detailed and often emotional, Dove’s account ultimately failed as a formal recantation of damning testimony against his one-time benefactor. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the lengthy “truth statement,” as Dove titled it.

“The recanting statements are particularly suspect,” wrote the appeals judges, “because, assuming that Dove actually made the statements, he apparently waited until after he learned the full extent of his sentence and made statements that tended to reduce his own culpability by characterizing the fire as accidental.”

But just a few paragraphs earlier in the written decision the panel acknowledges the recantation as “consistent with Dove’s original claims in June 2009” — nearly a full year before Dove was ever sentenced.

Daly wanted to recall Dove to the witness stand and cross-examine him about the statement, but the Court of Appeals denied the effort, refusing Willis’s request for a new trial. Daly says he understands doubts about Dove, given changes in his story. At one point before sentencing, Dove even flip-flopped into alleging that Willis joined him inside the East Kirby house, impatient because he wasn’t seeing flames: “I stated to him that I could not do it. That’s when he snatched the lighter from me, stating, ‘Your dumb ass can’t do anything right!’ and set the house on fire. We both ran out of the house.”

But Daly points out that Dove gave recantation a second try in a sworn affidavit dated March 26, 2014, insisting, “Mario Willis had nothing to do with the fire.”

“During their interrogations,” Dove’s statement reads, “the police insisted that I was paid by Mario to set the fire and they told me I could be forgiven for the fire if Mario paid me to set it. They made the idea seem very appealing and they pushed very hard for me to adopt their story.”

Daly says Dove’s affidavit subjects him, once again, to a cross-examination if Willis is granted the motion for relief and evidentiary hearing being filed this month. The statement actually boosts Dove’s credibility, he adds.

“I would say that no one would go to court and say that they lied under oath, knowing that could put him in prison for the rest of his life,” Daly says. “Darian Dove is eligible to be released soon. Why would he risk it? If he gets on the stand and says he lied, the deal he accepted is off.”

‘Damn! You caught a body or something?’

About six weeks after Dove’s affidavit an additional sworn statement from Valorie Ann Williams was given in support of Willis’s innocence.

“In November of 2008 I was paying very close attention to Dove’s comings and goings from our home because I knew he was cheating on me,” the affidavit reads. “I slept very little and very lightly during that time, and made sure I was always awake when Dove left and returned.”

Williams is certain Willis never retrieved Dove after midnight the date of the fire, as Dove told authorities Willis had, because “Willis never came to our house for any reason after 10 p.m.”

“I always knew when Mario came by in the big truck, because it would vibrate the windows because of the engine size,” her statement reads.

But detectives never interviewed Williams, who concludes: “If they had, I would have told them the truth.”

Back in 2010 a former carpenter and one-time FEMA housing inspector named Walter Collier awaited his own interview about an encounter with Dove. While at Wayne County Jail a year earlier, on charges of which he was eventually cleared, Collier heard the familiar description of the East Kirby blaze as accidental.

Dove “told me he was with a woman when this happened; he also told me that Mario Willis had given his name to the police and he was going to get back at him for doing that,” reads Collier’s affidavit.

Still unaware Dove had been there Nov. 15, 2008, Willis says he told investigators about Dove only when they asked for names of those who had access to the dwelling. Daly says his client’s transparency further demonstrates innocence because it defies logic for a criminal to identify his co-conspirator.

“You are not going to do that with an arson for profit,” Daily adds, “especially not with someone like Darian Dove.”

When Collier unexpectedly found himself in a courtroom “bullpen” with Willis while awaiting the verdict in his own case, he shared Dove’s story and was asked to call Willis’s then-attorney Wright Blake.

“After I was found not guilty and released I called Mr. Blake and left my name and number,” Collier states.

Later missing the returned call from Blake, he says he tried reaching the lawyer again, leaving his name and number, but was never contacted to testify in Willis’s defense.

A man identified as Nikemo Burton crossed paths with Dove, who he knew as “June Bug,” in lockup a few months later, according to Burton’s unsworn, handwritten statement.

“I asked him how much time he was in for. He told me ‘20 years,’” reads the paragraph printed on Michigan Department of Corrections Prisoner Stationery. “I said, ‘Damn! You caught a body or something?’ He went on to tell me … he was over off Kirby and Townsend at a house with one of his girls. They was getting high and made a mistake and started a fire. He said they called 911 and left, but the next day he heard a firefighter died and the rest is history. And that [was] why he was here and with so much time.”

Like Williams and Collier, Burton remains unknown to 12 jurors who’d been chosen to vote for Mario Willis’s guilt or innocence.

click to enlarge Mario Willis is serving year 12 of a 30-year minimum sentence for the 2008 blaze that killed firefighter Walter Harris. - Michigan Department of Corrections
Michigan Department of Corrections
Mario Willis is serving year 12 of a 30-year minimum sentence for the 2008 blaze that killed firefighter Walter Harris.

Commissioning an alibi

Another figure who would remain unknown to jurors has become much more familiar to the public in 2022. Chuck Simms, then a lieutenant and arson investigator for the Detroit Fire Department, was recently promoted from interim commissioner to the commissioner post. Simms, whose name appeared on both the prosecution and defense witness lists, was ultimately never called to testify, but has revealed himself as a potential asset in Willis’s exoneration efforts. Simms intercepted Willis on June 10, 2009 after Willis says he was tricked into visiting the police precinct, although he’d willingly answered questions about the fire. Megan Willis was being held on traffic-related charges, he was told.

“It was a complete lie,” he says. “I never paid $260. She never had any warrants. I don’t know why they felt the need to concoct a story.”

In fact, he says, Megan had been questioned about the fire and what she and Mario did during the hours leading to it: “date night,” dinner and a movie, she’s recorded saying before telling detectives they slept at home until the next day. Megan had already left the precinct when Willis arrived with cash in hand, so he cut short the ensuing conversation with detectives after their questions became “accusatory,” he says. Heading out the door, he was greeted by then-Lt. Simms.

“Hey, Mario, don’t leave,” Willis recalls Simms saying.

Although eager to get back to an aluminum-siding job at one of his properties, Willis agreed to talk, but asked that they first step into an empty interrogation room.

Simms had interviewed Willis on Nov. 19, 2008, four days after the fire, but Willis only remembered his face. At one point during their video-recorded talk at the precinct he asks the lieutenant’s name, to which Simms replies, “Chuck,” though he doesn’t appear in the camera’s view.

Excerpts from actual interviews conducted with Willis and Megan by Simms, Detective Shea, and Detective Sullivan are posted at justiceformariowillis.com, the website launched by supporters in 2020.

“You remember what you told me, right?” Simms asks Willis. “…I remember you told me y’all went out that night. Y’all went out to dinner or something.”

Simms’s memory is significant, says Willis, because, despite Willis’s and Megan’s repeated, matching accounts to police and fire officers of how they spent the night of Harris’s death, Detective Shea testified at trial that Willis never gave an alibi. Shea took the stand, saying he “reviewed the entire file.”

When reached by phone, Shea, no longer a DPD officer, declined to comment about the investigation. Sullivan could not be reached, despite two interview requests through Detroit Police Media Relations.

Simms did not respond to several telephone and email requests to be interviewed by Metro Times. Like Willis, it’s likely the commissioner was clueless that his confirmation of the alibi was being recorded.

Also apparently clueless were police who’d continued recording in the same interrogation room where Megan sat more than an hour earlier. Willis had inadvertently chosen an empty cubicle that preserved both his and Megan’s words. But the discovery wouldn’t be made until three months after Willis was convicted. His dad Marvin owned and operated a video production company. Late nights, Maxine Willis lay in bed while her husband reviewed footage of the investigation that took their son away from them.

“I would just hear him saying, ‘Shut up, Mario! You talking too much! Get up and get outta there!’” Maxine recalls — she, too, wishing Willis hadn’t spoken without a lawyer.

One evening, Marvin dozed off while watching the interview detectives conducted with his daughter-in-law, Megan. But he woke up to a familiar voice none of them knew was also contained on the tape: Mario’s. Albeit too late to keep him out of prison, his answers to Simms’s questions proved Mario had shared his whereabouts on Nov. 15, 2008. Yet, having failed to convince jurors he was in bed with Megan, Willis was stuck. The prosecution had mocked the notion of his transparency, despite knowing Willis filed a required alibi notice with the court, meeting the deadline, says appellate lawyer Daly.

“The thing that’s stunning is that nobody jumped up (to object) and the judge never said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not a proper argument,’” Daly says.

But Megan says someone had indeed jumped while she was on the stand testifying in Willis’s defense, only she insists Assistant Prosecutor Stevens leaped for the wrong reason.

“I remember very clearly the man jumping up and down and asking, if Mario and I were together, why I didn’t tell anybody,” Megan says.

Without Shea affirming the fact that she had, and with none of the video evidence that clearly proves it, even Judge Callahan took Willis to the woodshed, lecturing him about trying to deceive the court with Megan’s testimony. Megan says she took particular offense at the idea she was manipulated, given her partnership with the man she’s known since they were teenagers. Callahan issued Willis, who was 28 and had no criminal record, a whopping 40 to 60 years in prison, improperly exceeding sentencing guidelines. Willis has been re-sentenced four times, each with media fanfare and members of the Detroit Fire Department making their presence felt at Frank Murphy Hall of Justice downtown. In 43 years practicing law, Daly says he’s never seen displays like those Detroit Fire personnel have coordinated at Willis’s appearances, such as filling the courtroom and parking a ladder rig in front of Frank Murphy.

Both Willis and Megan say various personnel observing proceedings often did whatever they could to rattle nerves.

“Because I was on bond, I was walking into the courtroom everyday with my wife, my family, and my supporters, and there was definitely an intimidation factor,” Willis recalls.

Sneers and curses were directed his way, even with his mother beside him, he says, causing the ex-lineman to wonder, “What if they try to do something to me?”

Similarly, Megan says firefighters would do things like “follow you onto the elevator” or populate stairs leading to the courthouse entrance, but she kept her “head held high.”

“I was representing Mario and I didn’t want them to know they were getting to us.”

Later she’d slip away by herself: “I would go into the bathroom and cry,” she says. “I know that bathroom very well.”

A major moment when she didn’t cry was at the trial’s conclusion, her body reacting too quickly for tears to form. Hearing that the jury reached its verdict, Megan left her job, but she arrived at Frank Murphy after the Willis family had already left the courtroom.

“I can see it like it was yesterday,” she says. “The elevator doors opened and I saw their faces. They didn’t say anything and I knew it was ‘guilty.’ I passed out.”

click to enlarge Maxine Willis says she “didn’t just want to be a mother who said, ‘My child didn’t do this.’ I wanted to show it through evidence and facts.” - Kelley O’Neill
Kelley O’Neill
Maxine Willis says she “didn’t just want to be a mother who said, ‘My child didn’t do this.’ I wanted to show it through evidence and facts.”

Fire wall

Asked if her son had truly achieved the mini-Dan Gilbert, real-estate-magnate status jurors were led to believe he had, Maxine Willis lets out a laugh.

“No! Just doing OK,” she says, “had five or six properties that my sister helped him invest in.”

Through decades of work, which included producing a puppet show for Nancy Reagan during Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, Maxine has collaborated with the same agencies that helped convict her son.

“I’ve been around these groups and I’ve seen them do great things,” she says, “but to have them come to trial and distort, and line up fire trucks and carry signs that said, ‘Mario Willis, murderer…’ I hate to say it, because my momma told me you don’t call people liars — but they lied.”

Pooling resources with relatives including Megan’s parents, and occasionally organizing fundraisers, Maxine estimates they’ve spent “probably $300,000” in legal fees since 2010. There have been other costs, too: The 10,000-square-foot K.E.Y.S. Kids Plaza, former home of Mario’s Hair Salon, mysteriously went up in flames. Battle-scarred and feeling unsafe, in 2014 Maxine and Marvin Willis left their west-side Detroit home of 36 years.

Like countless numbers of Detroiters, in the wake of Harris’s death Maxine heard positive things about him.

“My son is also a good man. Two good men were lost,” she says.

Attempts by Metro Times to interview or gain reporting assistance from no fewer than six Detroit Fire Department executive-level or staff members were all unsuccessful. Additionally, a Sept. 7, 2022 Freedom of Information Act request for fire investigation records related to 7418 East Kirby remains unanswered, in violation of Michigan statute.

Proctor, the private investigator, says firefighter culture is comparable with, if not more rigid than, the so-called “blue curtain” attributed to police.

“Think about it this way,” adds Proctor. “Firemen literally live with one another where they’re in the beds, they’re showering, they’re in space together as much as they are with their own family.”

Desire to gain accolades from a high-profile case like Harris’s death might also have fueled action and inaction by fire and police officers, says Proctor: “There are people whose ambition drives them to do things in uniform and behind ‘blue curtains,’ and that kind of crap, but a lot of the bad acts that we see have to do with the idea of guys on a treadmill, under pressure to close cases.”

With a record of zero “tickets,” meaning citations for breaking prison rules, Willis has channeled his energy into daily exercise, helping to host church services, and supporting a youth diversion program at Saginaw Correctional in the years he has served. He’s hopeful his court case is reopened, if not through the motion for relief, through Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), which received the case in spring 2021. Maria Miller, spokesperson for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, which oversees CIU, says Willis’s file is “in the initial review stage.”

“I tell people, ‘Don’t listen to me,’” Willis adds. “Look at the facts and the evidence.”

This story continues in next week’s issue.

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