San Diego What really happened to the late Bill Wiggins on that Friday, July 18, 1997? This much is known by Coronado police: "We discovered the body about 1:35 in the afternoon. And by the time we recovered it, it was about 4:00 in the afternoon." The speaker is homicide lieutenant Stephen Wall.
"We do get quite a few bodies that float up on the beaches. But oftentimes they're people who've jumped from the bridge, undocumented immigrants who drown in the river, or on the ocean side. Or just accidents. But this is the only homicide we've had for several years where the body is floating in...."
It was homicide and "definitely" not a suicide, Wall says, because of the angle of injury -- Wiggins was shot through the heart from above -- and the fact that it was a 12-gauge shotgun blast. "It would be kind of hard to [shoot yourself with a shotgun].
"So since we did not have a crime scene, we did not have really any idea who this person was, who his friends were. And nobody has said, 'Yeah, he's a dirtbag,' or 'We're mad at him,' or 'He owes us money.' He was a very quiet man, he didn't bother anybody."
The Coronado cops issued the following bulletin -- and got no response:
"HOMICIDE INFORMATION WANTED: The Coronado Police department is seeking your assistance in solving a homicide involving William B. Wiggins III who was killed Friday, July 18, 1997. Wiggins was found dead, from a shotgun blast, floating face down in San Diego Bay, along the shoreline of the 1500 block of Marine Way in Coronado. Contact Investigator Stephen Wall at 619-522-7247."
"We did find a little history about Mr. Wiggins, though," says Wall, "that he had lived aboard a boat in the harbor, several years prior, out in Glorietta Bay [Coronado] before the Port District came in and cleaned everybody out. And I think that's when he met these other two [people], and they moved out to El Cajon and they started this business."
Wall says he found Wiggins's two friends in a compound outside El Cajon. "[They] were sort of itinerant maintenance people, who went around fixing things and doing routine maintenance all over the county. Freelance handymen, I guess."
* * *
The midday heat outside El Cajon is vicious and draining. The entrance to Larry Gest's yard is out of sight, at the end of a winding dirt road obscured by bushes and mature olive trees.
Gest's world is an acre of dry grass defined by agave plants splayed along the perimeter. The grass looks fire-prone, except under the olive trees. A house sits behind a sea of wood and metal bars, tires, corrugated roofing, a rusting MG Midget, a small trailer, and an old Ford Econoline van. Beside the house stands a shack with blue Dutch doors and a sign that reads "Long Branch Saloon." Odd jars and beer bottles stand in a row below the sign.
Larry Gest appears at his door. There's blood on his hands. "Just been hit by some metal shards," he says. "Hacksaw snapped."
He has a face like David Janssen, the star of the old Fugitive TV series. He's a little deaf and speaks hesitantly, but he is eager to talk about the late Bill Wiggins. He brings out a couple of chairs and places them in the shade under a large olive tree.
"I was one of the prime suspects, [me and my] helper Dale, who lived in the trailer right there. The [Coronado police] really talked to us, and they had us [do] this voice-stress analysis test. I can understand why I would be a prime suspect, but I think in their mind I'm clear.
"I haven't fully recovered [from Wiggins's death]. It was very traumatic. It is a big rotten thing in my life. I feel guilty. He was really my only good friend down here in California. I'd known him eight years, I think; maybe ten, almost. We drove taxis together down in South Bay when I first came down here to California [from Washington State]. I helped him with his boat. It was a 38-foot sailboat. He [lived on board] and then he gave it up. Bill was a very good person, easygoing, liked to have a good time,
didn't like organization or time clocks any more than I do. Free-thinking, I guess."
"We were partners, really, but I was pretty much the organizer of the work and had the contact with management companies. And we never had any lack of work. Remodeling, construction: it's more and more specialty work, like, we built custom patios and gazebos and things like that. Built a lot of fences and remodeled a lot of offices, and repainted, and fixed toilets. He was kind of like me, a jack-of-all-trades."
But Gest has something on his conscience. "I wanted to get this electrical contracting license; I can push myself hard. Not everybody has the natural energy I have. It was going to cost $1600 to $1700, or if we wanted it within 30 days, $3000. I wanted it because that would have given us access to a $35,000 electrical job in some condos going up.
"We were working too hard and not having much money. We had our certain amount of arguments, living together. And we worked too much. We worked too many hours. Certainly there was stress."
A week before he died, Bill Wiggins had had enough.
"What turned out to be our last conversation was kind of negative. We were arguing about him helping plant these ivy plants. He didn't want to help. We got into an argument. I said, 'Talk to you later.' [He said,] 'Okay, whatever.'"
Bill Wiggins took off.
"I don't know [why]. I think [it was] just the stress and everything at work. The year before, he'd had a kind of nervous breakdown. What I recall of Bill [during the last year] was when he wasn't working, he'd just sleep. Couldn't get him to do nothing.
"He just wanted to take off for a while. Guess he had a little money [put] away or something, and that's the last I saw him, about a week before the police came out. They never did tell me what actually
Can he think of any enemies Bill made? "Not that I know of. The only person that he didn't get along with was his brother-in-law. [His sister] Tracy's husband, John."
Gest's biggest fear is that Wiggins had become overstressed by all the work Gest had been forcing on him and had taken his own life.
"I wondered whether he shot himself on a beach, and the tide came in and carried him off. I got tide books. It got so complex I just finally gave up. I realized this was way over my head. I got a little rubber raft. I was going to put it out on the water and see where I floated when the tide was [on the run].
"I was also thinking you could use a flare gun, to shoot a 12-gauge shotgun shell. That was something else that I had always wondered about. Bill had a flare gun. I really hope that it is true that he didn't shoot himself. I really, really do.
* * *
Dale Chambers used to live in a trailer on Gest's property. Now he lives in it across the highway. He's younger, in his 30s perhaps, and full of nervous energy. "The only reason I'm talking to you now," he says two minutes later, under some trees beside the house, "is to nail the son of a bitch who did it.
"Bill was someone I could talk to. I learned a good portion of what I know about construction and remodeling and everything about roofing from him. Bill made life with Mr. Gest bearable. He was a safety valve. A mediator. A Henry Kissinger!"
When the Coronado police came and told him the news, Chambers says it was a bombshell. "I collapsed -- like this! -- to the ground." As he picks himself up after the demonstration, tears well in his blue eyes and run down his cheeks. "Yessss," he hisses. "Even now. I want the cops to catch the S.O.B. I'm very concerned with justice."
He doesn't believe Wiggins killed himself. "He was mild till he had to be otherwise," he says. "But one thing about Bill is -- was -- strength of character." Wiggins told Chambers that 20 years ago he was a heavy drinker. Then doctors found evidence of liver damage. "He quit drinking that second," says Chambers. "Three percent of [alcoholics] succeed like that."
Instead of drinking, Chambers says, Wiggins used to smoke pot to relax with a glass of soda. He believes that late on the night of Friday, July 18, last year, Wiggins tried to do a deal in the street, to score some weed. The seller got greedy. Told him to empty his pockets. Wiggins refused. The seller blew him away.
"You don't believe someone would do that? I've seen
people [knifed] over a quarter on the pool table," Chambers says. "Instant asshole. Just add alcohol."
Chambers had to undergo the voice-stress test. According to Wall both he and Gest passed it.
"Bill served in the military during Vietnam," says Chambers. "But in Germany. He told me the only way not to go get transferred to Vietnam was to be the best at what he did. He was maintaining Scout [tracked vehicles]. He was so good they kept him there."
Dale Chambers was also in the military. When he went to the farewell ceremony for Bill Wiggins at Fort Rosecrans last year, he only knew one way to say good-bye. He does it again here, standing between the house and the trailer he lives in. "The final salute," he says. He raises his right hand slowly up to his brow. "Twelve-count up, twelve-count down. Silent. That's the way I said good-bye to Bill."
"Cracklin' Rosie" plays on the radio somewhere inside the house.
Larry Gest gives me a ride back downtown in his van. "Yes, I feel guilty because I pushed Bill too hard," he says. "I was worthless for a while [after Wiggins died]. And I haven't had enough money since to apply for that license. But if he got depressed and..."
"He didn't [kill himself]," says detective Wall later. And, he adds, he doesn't think it likely Wiggins was killed in the street by a punk. "Normally a street robbery is not going to be that clean. They're not going to dispose of the body in the water."
Although Gest and Chambers "passed" their voice-stress tests, Wall emphasizes that nobody is totally discounted as a suspect. "Since we haven't proved it yet, there's nothing that says we're not going to go back and talk to these people all over again."
Responding to a request for an interview for this story, John Britton, Bill Wiggins's brother-in-law, said he and his wife (Wiggins's sister Tracy), who live in the South Bay, "choose not to be involved."