Angel on Death Row

Newspaper Accounts

Willie going to chair as proud man

Copyright 1984 The Times-Picayune. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the Times-Picayune.
December 27, 1984

By Jason DeParle
Staff writer

ANGOLA, La. -- Like most condemned men, Robert Lee Willie has a few regrets.

"If I could live my life over, I'd join a terrorist organization," he said in a recent interview.

For Willie, scheduled to die early Friday morning for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Faith Hathaway in 1980, the statement is a characteristic display of verbal bravado and disdain for authority.

Many of the state's condemned men speak in sorrowful terms of lives gone astray. But after leaving at least two women raped, two people dead and another paralyzed, Willie said he's going to the chair with his head held high.

"Electric chair don't worry me, man," said the 26-year-old Covington man. "I have a lot of pride, I don't run from nothing."

By his own description, Willie has lived the life of a backwoods derelict whose acts of terror stemmed from boredom more than anger. He came of age in St. Tammany Parish barrooms, dedicated himself to alcohol, drugs, women, and his own defiant notions of manhood.

Nothing, it seems, is as important to him as his manhood.

"I come here from Marion, Ill., the maximum securitiest penitentiary in the country," Willie said. "Ninety percent of the convicts here couldn't make it where I come from."

"You have real convicts there -- escape risks, trouble makers," he said. "I established myself as a man and as a convict."

Following crime tradition

In establishing himself as a convict, Willie has followed a family tradition. His father, John Willie, spent 27 of his 53 years behind bars, serving sentences for cattle theft, aggravated battery and manslaughter. John Willie began serving time when Robert was 2 years old.

"My father had a reputation as someone you didn't mess with," Willie said. "If you messed with John Willie, he'd shoot you."

With his father at Angola, Willie was raised by his mother and stepfather and spent a lot of time living with relatives. But Willie bristles at the suggestion that he's a product of a broken home.

"I was brought up in a good family," he said. "My family's not to blame for nothing."

Willie said his early life was filled with mischief, such as throwing eggs at police cars, stealing cigarettes and drinking beer. By the time he was 13, he was in reform school for stealing horses. He quit school at age 16, a ninth-grade dropout.

"I hung around just old hippies," he said. "I was smoking marijuana around 13. I was into heavy drugs around 16. That's when I left home.

"I run with dudes mostly older that me," he said. "I guess that's why I know so much about stuff."

For the next few years, Willie said, he supported himself by driving a truck, working on a river boat, selling drugs, and stealing.

He said he got $8,000 from a bank robbery and moved to Florida to spend the money. He beat and drowned a man and stole $10,000 worth of marijuana, confessing to the crime years later, only after being convicted of Hathaway's murder.

He got caught in a St. Tammany Parish burglary and spend six months in prison.

Shortly after Willie's release, sheriff's deputies found him in a bar and arrested him for violating his probation. Willie jumped off the prison roof and escaped, but after a day of freedom he was arrested again. He served a year on the escape charge and walked out a free man on Christmas Eve, 1979.

That night he ran into Joseph Jesse Vaccaro, a friend from jail.

"We went out and got a drink, just started partying," Willie said. "We partied for weeks at a time. Every bar that was open after midnight, we'd be there."

"I bought some pounds (of marijuana), started selling bags. Just lived off the dope income, you know."

Five months later, Willie and Vaccaro came upon Hathaway, who was celebrating the night before she was scheduled to enter the Army.

"We got loaded one night man about 4:30 in the morning. We was gonna rob this store, a Time Saver in Mandeville, but too many people was there so we blowed it off. I had a sawed off shotgun."

"We see this broad walking along the side to the road so I asked her did she want a ride." Willie said.

Willie and Vaccaro blindfolded her, raped her once in the back of their Ford, and drove her to a remote wooded area.

"I helped her down the hill so she wouldn't fall because she had the blindfold on," Willie said. "She just kept saying 'I won't identify y'all or nothing.' She kept saying 'don't hurt me.'"

Willie and Vaccaro offer differing accounts of what happened next, blaming each other for the 17 stab wounds that took Hathaway's life.

"He raped her again," Willie said. "The next thing you know he pulls out his knife and starts stabbing her. She grabbed the knife, man. It cut about three fingers."

"He said, 'hold her hands,' you know. So I grabbed her hands, man," Willie said. "I was real scared. It freaked me out."

At trial, however, Vaccaro said that Willie was the killer. Willie "jugged her and jugged her until she begged us to kill her," Vaccaro said.

'Stayed drunk and loaded'

Willie said he went home and soothed his fears with a six-pack of beer. That evening, he and Vaccaro were cruising again.

"We stayed drunk and loaded, doing drugs," he said. "I was averaging two fifths of Jack Daniel's a day. We bought a whole lot of hits of acid. You could imagine."

Armed with a sawed-off shotgun and a pistol, they robbed a traveler at an interstate rest area.

Several days later they fell upon 20-year-old Mark Brewster of Madisonville and his 16-year-old girlfriend, parked in a lovers' lane.

Vaccaro and Willie kidnapped the couple and drove them to Alabama, raping the girl along the way. Willie led Brewster in to the woods, planning, he said, simply to tie him up.

"We wasn't planning on hurting him until he got kind of smart, you know," Willie said. "Got to making all kinds of demands. He demanded to be let go.

"I had a little pocket knife," Willie said. "I cut his throat. I stabbed him in the side.

"He slumped over and I kept wondering, 'Man, is this dude dead or what?'" Willie said. Then he'd raise back up, like 'I'm still alive, ass----.'"

"That's when I left and got Joe and told him, 'Hey man, this dude won't die, you know,'" Willie said. "Joe said, 'yeah, he'll die.'"

Vaccaro shot Brewster and the two men left him for dead. Brewster survived, but is paralyzed below the waist.

Willie and Vaccaro drove the girl back to Louisiana, kept her overnight, and raped her again before releasing her.

Willie and Vaccaro fled to Arkansas, where they were soon arrested.

A St. Tammany Parish jury, believing Vaccaro's version of events, sentenced Willie to die for the Hathaway murder. Vaccaro was sentenced to life.

Willie mocked the death sentence by placing a tattoo of the Reaper on his chest -- a hooded marauder wielding a knife and a flaming hourglass.

Back on trial on the kidnapping and rape charges, for which he drew three 30-year sentences in the Illinois federal prison and two life sentences from the state, Willie blew kisses to the girl, and drew his finger across his throat in menacing fashion when Brewster took the stand. But these days, Willie says, he wishes the two of them well.

"I'm glad he's recovering," Willie said. "I felt real bad about that. I hope he does feel some relief at my death. I hurt him pretty bad."

'People say I'm an animal'

While many men have gone to the chair strengthened by the Bible, Willie goes fortified by his own sense of uncompromised manhood.

He said any form of authority is an assault on manhood. So he rails at the state and decries what he calls governmental tyranny.

"You could have everything you want in the free world -- women, cars, houses, land," he says. "But who hounds you all the time to give them something? The government. That's why I'd become a terrorist. I'd try to change this country."

Willie sometimes says he's sorry for his crimes, but says he can't understand "why everybody keeps bringing it up and bringing it up."

"Hey man, them people's dead," he said. "You ain't gonna bring them back by taking about it."

He thinks his sins are forgiving because "God gave his son for them," and he says he's going to the chair satisfied with the life he's lived.

"I've wasted it, but I've also enjoyed it. I've lived a good life. Some people might not necessarily agree with that comment," he said.

"People say I'm an animal," he said. "But they wouldn't say it to my face."

"I wouldn't say I'm an animal. But I am a cold person."


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