Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Whistle-blower in Big Tobacco case seeks quiet life in Dunedin

DUNEDIN

For more than four years, Merrell Williams spirited away the ammunition that would cripple Big Tobacco.

As a paralegal at a Louisville, Ky., law firm, Williams snatched research exposing cigarettes' addictiveness and potential to kill long hidden by tobacco giant Brown & Williamson.

For 40 years, corporate attorneys had contended smoking was safe, and they had never lost a case. But Williams' damning files showed that executives knew of the risks, allowing a breakthrough for anti-tobacco litigation.

The nation's attorneys general mounted a landmark lawsuit demanding repayment for decades of public health costs.

On Nov. 23, 1998, the Master Settlement Agreement was born. Tobacco companies agreed to pay $246 billion.

And Merrell Williams disappeared.

• • •

The man at the door of the modest Dunedin bungalow last week looked tired, his face carved with wrinkles. Williams is 69 now and speaks slowly.

"I actually don't have an opinion about it anymore," he said. "The world is the way it is. If you go to Paris, you're going to smell (cigarette smoke), you're walking through it. You go to Ireland, you smell it, you're walking through it. Go to Florida, you're walking through it. It's here to stay."

Williams splayed across a recliner in his home on Milwaukee Avenue. In the next room sat his memoirs, Playing with the Tobacco Mafia, translated into Portuguese. Near that, a letter from Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers, praising him as a personal hero.

But the legacy of Williams' crusade against cigarette companies now seems stuck in a distant history. The "racket," once his enemy, is now a fact of life.

"These are killers," he said. "But I don't really care. I can't do anything about it."

What happened?

• • •

In 1999, Williams moved from his home in Ocean Springs, Miss.

The settlement had been signed. Williams' documents were published among academics and attorneys. And after a quintuple bypass from years of stress and smoking Kools, one of Brown & Williamson's signature brands, he settled a personal injury suit against the company. That undisclosed award — "a very small fraction" of what other attorneys made, he said — would allow him to buy Caribbean condos, a Catalina sailboat and regular Parisian getaways.

By all measures, he had won. But he felt abandoned.

"When I was in the middle of this, I was thinking I was important, this was important," he said. "The whole thing was nothing but a scam. … If the lawyers had really intended to do something good, they would have done it. And yet their whole purpose was not to do good, but to make money."

Billions shuffled among attorneys, and the states took their cuts. But the makers of cigarettes and the silk-stocking law firms that protected them, he said, still command multibillion-dollar industries.

And people like him, former addicts and asthmatics, continue to die in droves.

"I'd like to think there was good that came of it, but there wasn't," he said. "I know who the winners are. The losers are the American public."

• • •

Williams landed at an isolated Virgin Islands villa in the mountains of St. Croix, which he bought for about $700,000.

He sailed his boat, the 42-foot Sundowner, in the Atlantic Ocean. He learned to snorkel. He enjoyed the distance, the isolation, "the inglorious concept of being completely away."

A few years back, tobacco sharpshooters had labeled Williams a thief and an alcoholic, out for money and over his head. Friends and associates called him a "deeply flawed" and desperate failure, with the look of "warmed-over death."

Yet the man who once struggled to earn child support now lived carefree off his settlement money in the island sunshine.

Williams' history runs on contradictions. In one breath, he talks of disasters had he not smuggled the tobacco files; in the next he suggests he did it for the thrill, or the challenge, or because he wanted to get caught. He calls all lawyers "scumbags," then admits he traveled to see a tobacco defender out of admiration.

And in perhaps his biggest puzzle, the allure of the cigarette scandals: the idea he once devoted his mind to, he now wants to forget.

• • •

On New Year's Eve 2008, Williams bought his house in Dunedin for about $70,000. He said a car crash in the islands, his disillusionment with sailing, Gulf Coast nostalgia and old age motivated him to return home.

His girlfriend, a Brazilian multilingual attorney he met online, followed him.

"Suddenly we appeared in each other's life. He also had been angry with the world, and frustrated with what had happened to him, and quiet, thinking love couldn't happen again," she said. "He is interesting. He is intriguing. He is mysterious."

Williams waves her off, rambling his nobodyness and regrets, like a $40,000 consulting job for the film The Insider.

The film starred Russell Crowe as tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, and cast no actor as Williams. ("Don't see it," he said. "It's such a lie.")

In St. Croix, he learned to love the anonymity. It's something he hopes he'll find here.

So he goes fishing. He reads the news. And at the gas station, when he watches smokers buy their packs, he doesn't say a thing.

"I'm an avoider," he said. "You're looking at an ego disbursed."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Whistle-blower in Big Tobacco case seeks quiet life in Dunedin 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 3:22pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Review: Mumford and Sons shower Amalie Arena with love in euphoric Tampa debut

    Blogs

    There are releases, and then there are releases. And minutes into their concert Wednesday at Amalie Arena, Mumford and Sons gave Tampa the latter.

    Mumford and Sons performed at Tampa's Amalie Arena on Sept. 20, 2017.
  2. FEMA to open disaster recovery center in Riverview

    Hurricanes

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it will open a disaster recovery center Thursday in Riverview for Hillsborough County residents impacted by Hurricane Irma.

  3. Life sentence for man convicted in killing of brother of Bucs' Kwon Alexander

    Bucs

    An Alabama man who shot and killed the 17-year-old brother of Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander in 2015 was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday, the Anniston (Ala.) Star reported.

  4. Remember him? Numbers prove Ben Zobrist is one of greatest Rays of all time

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The first foray back to the Trop by the best manager the Rays have had obscured the second return visit by arguably the second-best player in franchise history.

    Figures.

    Chicago Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist (18) grounds into a double play to end the top of the third inning of the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
  5. GOP's new repeal bill would likely leave millions more uninsured, analyses suggest

    Health

    WASHINGTON — The latest Republican bid to roll back the Affordable Care Act would likely leave millions of currently insured Americans without health coverage in the coming decades, and strip benefits and protections from millions more, a growing number of independent studies suggest.

    Vice President Mike Pence listens as President Donald Trump talks to reporters about the Graham-Cassidy health care bill during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. [Evan Vucci | Associated Press]