It was 30 minutes after midnight on June 17, 1972, when Frank Wills, a security guard patrolling the parking garage at the Watergate office complex in Washington, noticed masking tape covering locks on a stairwell door.
Wills thought perhaps the maintenance crew had taped the doors to keep them from locking. The 24-year-old ripped off the tape, then went for his shift break across the street to the restaurant at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge for carryout.
A little more than an hour later, Wills was making another round, when he noticed the tape had reappeared.
Suspicious, Wills called police and reported a burglary in progress at the Watergate. The guard, who worked the midnight-to-7 a.m. shift for $80 a week, had discovered what would become the biggest political corruption scandal in U.S. history — so big that it led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
His mostly forgotten role in the Watergate scandal gets a new burst of attention Friday when “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, hits theaters. The final scene in the movie, already generating Best Picture Oscar buzz, belongs to a flashlight-wielding Wills.
The guard wrote in blue ink in a security log now stored at the National Archives: “1:47 AM Found tape on doors; call police to make [an] inspection another inspection.”
Plainclothes officers responded. When they entered the sixth-floor offices of the Democratic National Committee, they found the room ransacked.
Police arrested five men—some of them former CIA agents carrying bugging equipment. According to The Washington Post’s first front-page story, they wore surgical gloves and carried sophisticated walkie-talkies and $2,300 in crisp $100 bills. They came out with their hands up.
The morning after the break-in, Post reporter Karlyn Barker went to interview Wills at his rooming house in D.C. “I remember going there and knocking on the door, and he was carrying a kitten,” Barker told The Post in 2000. “He was very nice — he told the same story we all know.”
Soon after Watergate, Wills’s name faded from the headlines. He gave $200 speeches or interviews whenever an anniversary of Watergate rolled around. But he would never profit, as did other players in the Watergate scandal — even those convicted.
Wills had quit his job with the security company in 1973 after he wasn’t given a raise. He encountered difficulty finding work and was convinced he was being blackballed in Washington. “I don’t know if they are being told not to hire me or if they are just afraid to hire me,” he told The Post.
In an interview this week, former Post reporter Bob Woodward said Wills deserved credit for alerting police.
“Being a security guard can be boring and routine and here’s somebody who stepped up to the plate and said something is not right,” Woodward said. “Instead of hesitating, he called the police right away. He didn’t call some supervisor. Not a lot of people would have done that.”
Would there have been a Watergate scandal had he not found the taped lock?
“It would not have been a Watergate that way,” Woodward said. “But Nixon and his crew were up to so much, there might have been another vehicle for disclosure.”
Although he wasn’t mentioned by name in the best-selling book, “All the President’s Men,” Wills was cast to play himself in the 1976 movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.