Freddie Williams has spent most of his 68 years in the custody of the state of Florida. Prison walls and razor wire are the landscape of his life. Given his criminal record — the rape of a 23-year-old Pinellas Park woman at gunpoint in 1973, and armed robbery in 1985 — his chance for parole on a recent morning was slim.
But there's more to Freddie Williams' story than his record.
Something happened when he was a ward of the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, the state-run reform school in the Panhandle. The details would be hard to believe if they weren't so specific and supported by the historical record and the testimony of other boys there at the time.
And those other boys have tried to help Williams. At least help him share his story so those charged with determining his fate might understand.
"Has Mr. Williams suffered enough for the crimes he committed? I don't know," a man named Roger Kiser submitted to the three-member Florida Parole Commission on March 12. "But I do know that he has suffered long enough for the crimes committed against him as a child, and they were horrendous."
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Williams was watching TV at Washington Correctional Institution in 2008 when a report on the Dozier School for Boys came on the news. He'd never heard it called that, but recognized the old buildings and white crosses.
Five old men who had found each other online had finally gotten the attention of the media and were trying to expose the beatings they suffered at the school.
Williams thought about the boys buried in unmarked graves on the campus, and about how he swore he'd kill the men who hurt him. He cried for the first time in three decades and declared a "psychological emergency" so he could talk to a counselor.
"For the first time in my life I admitted to another person what happened to me," he wrote. "I realized how much it had affected my life, my shame, my guilt, my abusing other people, my hate and why I was always trying to prove my manhood."
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Even though a judge once called Freddie Williams retarded, he learned to read and write. In a letter to the Tampa Bay Times, Williams wrote that he was sent to the Marianna reform school from Clearwater around 1959, at 13, for stealing food and running from an abusive home. He wasn't there long when two men came in the night, pulled his covers off and took him to a building the boys called the White House. They forced him down onto a soiled cot and told him to hold the bed rail tight. One man, Maurice Crockett, beat him with a leather strap. The other, Lennox Williams, stood in the doorway.
"Mr. Williams walked in the room. He told Mr. Crockett that was enough and I was going to be a good boy all I need is a good talking to," he wrote. "Mr. Crockett left the room and Mr. Williams sit on the side of the bed next to me, he started rubbing my back, my legs and my butt telling me it was going to be alright as long as I be a good boy nobody would beat me again."
Then the large man was on top of him.
"He was hurting me, but it didn't hurt like the beating I had got so I just layd there."
The abuse continued for months, Williams wrote, and he was often rewarded with homemade cakes and cookies.
He was sent home to Clearwater, but soon ran away again and wound up back at Marianna.
"Mr. Williams had changed," he wrote. "He had other boys, little boys from Bunch Cottage … He was not my friend anymore."
Williams never told anyone until he saw the television report. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation into the allegations. Crockett was dead, but agents interviewed Lennox Williams, who served as superintendent from 1967 to 1987, when he was transferred in the midst of a class-action lawsuit over the abuse of juveniles. They asked whether he had heard about sexual abuse by staff members.
"I think if that had occurred, I would have been aware of that if there was a situation," he said.
He did admit to disciplining or confronting other staff who were accused of "inappropriate conversations" with boys, but nothing more in all those years.
But Lennox Williams' name and physical description come up in an unpublished memoir by Victor Prinzi, who was the football coach at the school in 1961. Prinzi recounts searching for a missing player and finding Williams beating the boy in the White House while apparently having an orgasm.
Lennox Williams died in 2010. He was the longest serving superintendent at the Dozier School for Boys and a deacon at Trinity Baptist Church.
Could the trauma at the Florida School for Boys have set Freddie Williams on a course for violence? The St. Petersburg Times interviewed Lennox Williams for a 1968 story, "Hell's 1,400 Acres." He acknowledged the school was so understaffed that kids learned how to sniff glue, break into groceries, or sodomize other kids.
"I know some children are harmed by their experience here," Williams told the reporter. "But what can we do?"
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The crime that earned Freddie Williams two life sentences was disputed from the beginning. He was accused with his brother of abducting a married 23-year-old white waitress in front of the Salty Dog Bar on St. Petersburg's Central Avenue and raping the woman multiple times while they drove around the city on March 31, 1973.
But three witnesses testified that the woman had dated Williams several times before and often called his home. Williams' brother, who testified that the woman courted them, was acquitted on the same facts.
During the trial, Williams wore denim trousers stitched with flowers and a matching sequined coat with a patch that said, "Sex Relieves Tension." Asked later by a reporter about the get-up, he said, "That's all I had."
The court never responded to Williams' pretrial request for a new lawyer. He tried to get a new trial after he was convicted, claiming his lawyer was racist, had met with him only twice, and had not tried to track down friends who could support his alibi. Williams also said his lawyer refused to let him testify that the victim was his girlfriend.
The lawyer conceded that he discouraged Williams from testifying, and that he hadn't talked with five witnesses "because they were someplace down on the southside (of St. Petersburg), down on 22nd Street, someplace they hung around," according to the Times. The appeal failed.
Four years later, the NAACP's New York office petitioned the U.S. District Court in Tampa to overturn Williams' convictions, saying his constitutional rights were violated by a racist court-appointed attorney and negligent trial judge.
The NAACP pointed to the lawyer's closing statement.
He had asked the jurors to "wipe prejudice" from their minds, but then said: "The fact that a black man and a white girl were together, this is rough as heck on me. I was born and raised up in Tallahassee … the pine woods part of Florida. I am as Cracker as about anyone."
The effort failed, and Freddie Williams, 32 then, began what would amount to four decades in state prison, and counting.
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Three people showed up at the parole hearing last week to speak on Williams' behalf.
Williams' sister, Roberta Williams, 62, of Tallahassee, said her brother has helped veterans and has designed clothing while in prison. Jacqueline Carpenter of Monticello, who operates a program called Operation Patriotism, said Williams made positive contributions to young people when he was at Jefferson Correctional Institution.
"He's been there, what, 41 years?" Carpenter said. "Will you guys consider having mercy on a man who is trying?"
Andrew F. Puel Jr. of Pensacola, a former Dozier ward like Williams, read a statement by Roger Kiser of Brunswick, Ga., who has researched and written a book called The White House Boys. Kiser said Williams' abuse led to loss of self-esteem and a lack of respect for law enforcement.
"We should be held responsible for our unlawful actions," Kiser said in his statement. "However, when a young boy has been subjected to the unbelievable, hideous sexual abuses suffered at the hands of those assigned to rehabilitate and care for that child, I believe the state of Florida has to share some of the responsibility."
But the commission had learned that Williams had been caught in 2012 with a cellphone in prison. Williams said he was framed, but no one cared.
"From our perspective, the first step, behaving in prison, was not achieved," said Parole Commissioner Bernard Cohen.
Parole Commissioner Melinda Coonrod said Williams' letter was "extremely disturbing," but said Williams "has a (disciplinary record) that I can't overlook."
The vote was unanimous.
Roberta Williams was disappointed by how quickly commissioners rejected her arguments.
"They have soulless faces," she said. "I'm hurt. How much more does he have to give for a cellphone? His life?"
Williams cannot request his next parole hearing until 2020. And the parole commission added two more years to Williams' presumptive release date, making it May 5, 2029. He'll be 83 years old.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.