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.