Key witness in court fight to free a man imprisoned for life is murdered in South Dade

  • In US
  • 2021-01-21 12:00:00Z
  • By Miami Herald

A key witness in a legal fight to free a man who spent more than 40 years in prison for killing a tourist at a North Miami Beach motel was found shot dead in his red pickup truck near his West Perrine boarding home Monday.

The killing of 71-year-old Bill Monroe Hearns complicates and may undermine an effort by the Innocence Project of Florida to free 67-year-old Thomas Gilbert from prison in the Florida Panhandle. Gilbert has spent more than four decades behind bars after being convicted of the murder during a robbery in 1973.

The Innocence Project - a non-profit that works to free people wrongly convicted of crimes - contends Gilbert had no part in the murder of a Virginia tourist in the motel breezeway as the man returned from getting a pizza.

A large part of its case relies on a 2019 interview with Hearns where he named the shooters and claimed he never knew Gilbert. Almost a half century earlier, Hearns had told investigators he had no idea who shot the man. At the time, Hearns was suspected of supplying the murder weapon.

Miami-Dade police detectives are leaning toward Hearns' death as being a drug-related crime unrelated to his relationship with Gilbert, but it was too early to rule anything out.

Neither the Innocence Project nor the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, which prosecuted Gilbert, was aware of Hearns' death until being informed by the Miami Herald. The Herald linked Hearns to the Gilbert case by matching pictures and his date of birth to police and court records.

Thomas Gilbert
Thomas Gilbert  

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office wouldn't say how Hearns' death might impact the GIlbert case. Instead, the office provided a memo composed by staff in its "Justice Project," that was forwarded to the Innocence Project late last year. In it, prosecutors refused to open a new case into the murder, saying the project's client "lacked credibility." As for Hearns changing his tune during the 2019 interview, assistant state attorneys Michael Spivack and Victoria Brennan of the Justice Project said the only thing consistent about Hearns was his "unwillingness to cooperate."

"In 2019 when he met with your investigator at a location other than his home, and in phone calls, he made conflicting oral statements and maintained a position of being coy and uncooperative by refusing to commit to one version of events, and by refusing to sign an affidavit or even provide you with his address and phone number," they wrote.

Innocence Project Executive Director Seth Miller refused comment on the case, saying he hadn't been informed that Hearns had been killed.

Hearns was found dead early Monday afternoon in the front seat of his red Chevrolet pickup in the 10400 block of SW 170th Terrace. Two days later, police had released little information publicly about the case, only issuing a flier with a picture of Hearns wearing glasses and earrings, and saying he was killed around 1:30 p.m. Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers also issued a flier without explanation, offering $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of Hearns' killer or killers.

Police say the shooter walked up to Hearns' truck and fired, then ran through a field before getting into a black car and driving off. A law enforcement source told the Herald that Hearns was a well-known drug dealer in the neighborhood. He was shot and killed outside a boardinghouse where he'd been living.

Inside his room detectives found nearly 1,000 grams of crack cocaine, over 5,100 grams of powder cocaine and $6,000 in cash, the sources said. Detectives are trying to figure out if the killer took anything from Hearns' truck after the shooting.

A Miami Herald article from 1977 detailing the murder of William Willits at a North Miami Beach motel.
A Miami Herald article from 1977 detailing the murder of William Willits at a North Miami Beach motel.  

Gilbert's possible innocence first came to the attention of prosecutors decades ago. Four years after a jury convicted him of murdering William Willits, 58, a tourist from Chesapeake, a fellow prison inmate wrote a letter to prosecutors claiming to be the killer. Prosecutors ultimately determined there wasn't enough evidence to free Gilbert and charge the other man.

Gilbert's case - he's serving a life term at the Jackson Correctional Institution in Florida's Panhandle - was picked up by the Innocence Project in May of last year, when it asked a judge to grant a new trial and said the second police investigation in 1977 raised "serious concerns" about the validity of Gilbert's convictions. The litigation is ongoing.

Complicating matters is that the case is so old that some of the key witnesses have died. Among them is Allen Hicks, a former inmate who claimed to be the real killer. Also dead is the victim's wife, Eleanor Willits, who identified Gilbert at trial as one of the robbers. At trial, prosecutors claimed the couple were accosted by two men in the motel's breezeway and that one of them took Eleanor's wedding ring and tried to force the couple into their room.

On the way to the room William Willits was shot dead. The robbers stole jewelry, a wallet and American Express travelers checks. Gilbert and a man named William Watson were arrested a few days later for an unrelated crime. Gilbert said he knew nothing about the murder and Watson, who was taken into custody wearing a chain similar to one stolen in the robbery, refused to speak to police. Watson was later identified in a photo lineup by Eleanor Willits and his fingerprint was found on the pizza box.

The evidence against Gilbert was less solid, with only Eleanor Willits claiming he was the second robber. Still, a jury convicted Gilbert of second-degree murder after a three-day trial. He was sentenced to life. Watson was also sentenced after a separate trial. Three years later Allen Hicks wrote the letter to prosecutors confessing his involvement, according to a motion filed earlier this year by the Innocence Project.

During the second investigation into the murder in 1977, police took Hicks to the motel, where he allegedly pointed out where the shooting happened and other details, according to a police report. Yet when Hicks spoke to Gilbert's former defense lawyer, he claimed he confessed "under duress" and that there might have been another Allen Hicks involved in the crime.


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