Fallen Heroes: Officer James F. Willis

Nelson Zoch

Officer James Franklin Willis was born in Carthage on June 15, 1925. He attended elementary school in Galloway and graduated from Logansport High School in Louisiana in 1943. He served his country in the United States Army during World War II from February 1944 to December 1945. He joined the Houston Police Department in Cadet Class No. 15 on October 1, 1956. This class graduated on December 31, 1956, officially going to work on January 2, 1957. Willis’ original assignment was to the Radio Patrol Bureau – Evening Shift. He later worked for a time in the Traffic Enforcement Division but in 1960 transferred to Radio Patrol – Night Shift.

On Monday night, June 29, 1964, Officer Willis was riding alone in Unit No. 603 in the Radio Patrol Bureau working out of the Northeast Substation. Just shortly after midnight (Tuesday morning, June 30), Officer Willis was parked on the north side of the 8800 block of Market Road. He observed traffic at this location when he pulled out onto Market Road, attempting to follow a speeding vehicle traveling east on Market. When he pulled out onto Market, the officer crossed the westbound lanes, losing control of his vehicle and slipping onto the left shoulder of the roadway and skidding sideways for more than one hundred feet on wet grass.

According to witnesses, he appeared to have regained control of his vehicle. Unfortunately, at this time a westbound 1949 Cadillac driven by Thomas Lewis Jones struck the left side of his patrol car. This tremendous collision caused the police car to break apart just behind the front seat. The rear of the vehicle – with the top still attached – came to rest 105 feet beyond the front end. Officer Willis was ejected from the car and landed in a nearby ditch. An ambulance rushed the officer to North Shore Hospital but moved him shortly thereafter to Ben Taub General Hospital with massive injuries to the head, face and chest. A doctor from North Shore Hospital rode in the ambulance with Officer Willis to the larger, better-equipped Ben Taub.

Houston Police Officer James F. Willis died from those injuries at 2:30 p.m. the following day, Wednesday, July 1, 1964. He was thirty-nine.

Thomas Jones was pinned inside his Cadillac. A friendly wrecker driver ripped open a door to remove him from the twisted metal. It was also too late for Jones, too. He was pronounced dead at the scene. He was forty-seven.

Fellow patrol Officers Don C. Griffin and Charles C. Dodd witnessed this tragic accident. They were traveling westbound on Market about four blocks behind Jones’ Cadillac. They reported seeing an eastbound vehicle approaching them at a high rate of speed, probably the one Officer Willis was chasing. They then saw Officer Willis’ headlights go over to the wrong side of the street and also saw sparks and smoke. Griffin described it as an explosion.

Accident Officers Reid A. Woodruff and Paul H. Artz conducted a thorough investigation of the two-fatality accident under the supervision of Accident Division Captain John M. LeVrier. They determined that both vehicles were traveling in excess of fifty miles per hour at the time of impact. They never determined how or why Officer Willis lost control of his patrol car.

Officer Willis was survived by his wife, Lois, as well as two sons, seventeen-year-old Douglas Franklin Willis and ten-year-old Robert Edward Willis. Also mourning his death were his mother, Mrs. Ivous Willis of Gallaway, two sisters, Mrs. Ruby Tabor of Galloway and Mrs. Maye Peace (wife of HPD Officer James Peace) of Houston and one brother, the Reverend W. C. Willis of Houston.

Funeral services were held on Friday, July 3, 1964, at 10:30 a.m. at the Helmers Street Baptist Church, 7721 Helmers. The Reverend John Duckett officiated and the Pat H. Foley Funeral Home at 2110 Tidwell was in charge of the services. An additional service was held at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 4, at the Methodist Church in Panola County in Galloway. Burial followed at the Adams Cemetery.

Officer Willis was chairman of the Board of Deacons at the Helmers Street Baptist Church. He also was a veteran of World War II. Pallbearers were Sergeant I. H. Gaman, Officers J. T. Lum, H. M. McNutt, Curtis Simmons and Detectives George LaRue and V.O. Baker.

Lois Willis remarried and lived in Pasadena in 2003. Douglas F. Willis joined the Houston Police Department in Police Cadet Class No. 34 in 1967. He retired from HPD in 2002 after serving most of his career in the Accident Division. Robert E. Willis lived in Montana. Officer Willis’ mother, Mrs. Ivous Willis, is deceased, as his sister Mrs. Ruby Tabor. Mrs. Maye Peace, who was widowed, lived in Porter. The only brother, Reverend W. C. “Jack” Willis lived in Carthage.

When Officer Doug Willis graduated from the Academy, he proudly pinned on his Dad’s Badge, No. 1308.

Reid Woodruff, who investigated this terrible accident with Paul Artz, said the fact he knew Officer Willis made the accident investigation particularly difficult. Both Woodruff and Artz were later promoted to sergeant and completed long, exemplary careers with HPD. Woodruff worked Radio Patrol for many years, retiring in 1986. He lived in Magnolia. Artz worked the Accident Division and the Training Academy, retiring in 1991 to a home near Spring.

Of the witnesses, Don Griffin made detective and worked Robbery as well as Burglary and Theft before resigning from HPD. Charlie Dodd made detective and also worked in Burglary and Theft, retiring in 1989. Sergeant Gaman retired from the Garage in 1979. He resided in Houston. Officer J. T. Lum retired from the Garage in 1991 and died in 2000. Officer H. M. McNutt retired from the Academy in 1979. Officer Curtis Simmons made sergeant and retired in 1984 after a long career in HPD. He lived in Lovelady in 2003. Detective George LaRue retired from Special Thefts in 1977 and lived in Trinity. Detective V. O. Baker retired from Auto Theft in 1980 and lived in Madisonville.

Retired Assistant Chief Milton C. Simmons recalled that his father, retired Sergeant Curtis M. Simmons, was a personal friend of Officer Willis. They had been close friends since their days in Cadet Class No. 15. Chief Simmons remembered this night in particular as his family went to the hospital to be with the Willis family.

No other information was found about Thomas Lewis Jones, the other man who died in the accident.