WILLITS, CALIF. — WILLITS, Calif. -- At Judy Bertolucci's Stylin' hair salon, the recent suicides of JoAnne Williams and her lover, Chuck Phillips, are the talk of the shop.
Their deaths, coupled with the reappearance of JoAnne Williams' supposedly dead husband and Phillips' fishing buddy, Willie Dean Williams, have turned this sleepy logging town into the center of national attention.
"People are still talking. They're forming their own conclusions of what happened. It's like some mystery game," said lifelong Willits resident and manicurist, Debbie Curry.
Willie Williams, 36, a Marine staff sergeant believed to have drowned off the Mendocino County coast in 1987 is in custody at Camp Pendleton just outside Oceanside, Calif., on desertion charges. He was tracked down in Michigan by authorities investigating a $500,000 insurance fraud case and the recent suicides of his alleged co-conspirators.
He surrendered to FBI agents earlier this month in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he had established a new life under the alias Jim Harris. He worked as a machinist and had recently remarried.
Willie Williams knew investigators were on his trail and, after learning from the TV show "A Current Affair" that his wife had committed suicide, he turned himself in.
"I can't say anyone around here is terribly surprised Willie showed up," said Peggy Jones, an employee of a Willits greeting card shop -- one of three Phillips owned. "I think there is some relief that this is all over with."
But, for friends and family of Phillips and 36-year-old JoAnne Williams, only bodies have been put to rest. "I can't go on with my life until the answers are in," said Irene Longcrier, Phillips' sister who lives in Willits.
Located 140 miles north of San Francisco, Willits is the kind of town where marijuana busts are common and tickets go fast for female oil wrestling at John's Place, a restaurant and tavern.
The tangled yarn begins on a drizzly Saturday, May 30, 1987. Willie Williams had left his daughter's birthday party to go kayaking near the Mendocino coast. He never returned.
The next day, JoAnne Williams and Phillips found Willie Williams' station wagon in the lot at Russian Gulch State Park, a well-protected cove two miles north of Mendocino. Willie Williams' kayak was found on the rocks on the north side of Russian Gulch, its ribs and decking badly damaged. A search of the park and the beaches failed to turn up any sign of him.
Mendocino County sheriff's Detective Rick Shipley said that, when he questioned JoAnne Williams, she "did not present the demeanor of someone who has potentially lost her husband."
On Aug. 14, 1987, JoAnne Williams asked a Mendocino County judge to declare her husband legally dead.
Police were skeptical from the start after they discovered that, in addition to previous insurance policies, two policies worth $341,000 had been taken out 90 days before Willie Williams disappeared.
And then JoAnne Williams moved in with Phillips four months after her husband's supposed death. Police grew more suspicious when they learned that in June 1989 the Department of Motor Vehicles sent Willie Williams' driver's license renewal to his wife's new address.
But there still was no concrete evidence that Willie Williams was alive.
Then, on Jan. 31, 48-year-old Phillips shot himself in the head with a .357-caliber Magnum. Several Michigan telephone numbers were found in his shirt pocket, which helped lead investigators to Willie Williams in Kalamazoo. A suicide note was also found that said, "I just can't face what I see coming."
Phillips had spent most of the $500,000 in Willie Williams' insurance money on his failing card shops, said JoAnne Williams' attorney, Bernie DePaoli of Eureka, Calif. He also sent several thousand dollars to an address in Michigan.
On Saturday, March 2, DePaoli found JoAnne Williams in a barn (( next to her house slumped behind the wheel of her truck. The motor was running and a garden hose had been connected from the exhaust pipe to a window. Weeks before her death, she had instructed a neighbor to look under her mattress for instructions should something happen to her.
"It said 'Don't go into the barn, you'll be horrified at what you see . . . call Mr. DePaoli . . . call the sheriff's department.'"
Just days before her death, JoAnne Williams maintained that her husband had drowned. In her suicide note, she also called members of the county sheriff's department "witch hunters" for pursuing the investigation years after her husband had been declared dead.
DePaoli, a former Mendocino County district attorney, has denied that his client was ever part of an insurance scam and said he believes a deal was worked out between JoAnne Williams and Phillips to solve financial problems both faced.
He disputed several statements made by Detective Shipley and others that incriminated his client.
DePaoli said Willie Williams' driver's license was sent to Willits as a routine renewal, and that JoAnne Williams consulted a psychiatrist because she was grieving over her husband's death.
JoAnne Williams' mother, who would identify herself only as A. Ferguson, described her daughter as a gifted artist who enjoyed painting landscapes and wildlife. She was a Cub Scout den mother in Willits, and loved taking care of her children and her pets -- geese, turkeys, sheep and dogs that roam around a grassy meadow that serves as a back yard.
"She was strong on the surface, but fragile on the inside -- that was her fatal weakness," her mother said. "She thought she had lost everything, and she couldn't bear it."
Unlike Detective Shipley's description of JoAnne Williams following her husband's supposed death, Ferguson said her daughter mourned for years.
Willits residents described Phillips as a pleasant, caring man. He came from an old, established Willits family. His 94-year-old father, Chas, still lives next to the pale blue clapboard house Phillips and JoAnne Williams shared.
"He never forgot your name," said Susan Streeter, a bartender at Jim's Place. "He was a reserved, mellow kind of guy."
Willie Williams was born in Contra Costa County, Calif., and grew up in the Delta town of Oakley. He joined the Marines at 17.
At 19, he married a hometown girl and had two daughters. That marriage lasted five years. In 1978, Williams married JoAnne Ferguson. They had a daughter, Verity, 11, and adopted a son, David, 10. JoAnne Williams also has a 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. In 1985, they moved to Willits.
Gunnery Sgt. Mary-Julia Haagenson, a spokeswoman for the Marine Corps 12th District, said it has not yet been decided whether Williams will be prosecuted by military or civilian courts. may also be charged with insurance fraud, conspiracy and bigamy, she said.