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."
• • •
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 email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.