SB Nation

Brandon Sneed | August 6, 2013

Death of a ballplayer

Billy Dillon was about to sign a contract with the Detroit Tigers -- then he was wrongly convicted of first-degree murder and spent the next 27 years of his life in maximum security prison

Take me to the mission,
to the mission, to the place
where it’s safe
William Michael Dillon, "The Mission" from Black Robes and Lawyers
Part 1: Billy Dillon's Last Normal Day

William Dillon watched moonlit waves crash into the sand as he smoked a joint. It was Aug. 22, 1981 in Canova Beach, Fla., and Dillon, better known as Billy, sat in the Canova Beach parking lot in the passenger seat of a Monte Carlo driven by his younger half-brother Joe. They were about to hit one of their favorite bars, the Pelican (now the Key West Bar), across the street on state road A1A. Then they saw a man and a woman walking straight at them.

"Shit," Billy said. He stuffed out the joint in his palm.

The man tapped on Billy's window. They were agents with the Brevard County Sheriff's office - but this wasn't about weed. They wanted to talk about a murder.

Bill_in_1981_small_mediumBilly Dillon in 1981 at age 21. (Courtesy of Billy Dillon)

Five days earlier, on Aug. 17, 1981, a naked man was found beaten to death in Canova Beach Park, his face caved in and his lips peeled off, at a place then known as "Queer Pier," where gay men hung out to meet and have sex. The victim, 40-year-old James Dvorak, was an openly gay construction supervisor. The motive was unclear - though the police officially labeled it a robbery, Dvorak's wallet was found in his jeans nearby. They also never found a murder weapon, though investigators suspected the killer used his fists and a tree branch, having found bark in Dvorak's mouth.

The agents only briefly talked to his brother and then asked Billy what he knew about it.

Nothing other than it had happened "down there," he said, nervously pointing down the beach.

The agents acted suspicious. How do you know it was down there?

Billy couldn't remember. Said he figured he'd just seen the yellow tape or read about it in the paper or something. It wasn't like the murder was a secret. They scared tourists, and a killing on the beach was big news all along Florida's East Central Coast.

The agents took Billy's picture and personal information, then asked if he could come with them to the station to talk some more. Billy declined. He still had the joint cupped in his palm, and didn't know anything else, anyway. But the agents pressed him, asking if he could maybe meet them the next morning. Billy agreed just to get them to leave him alone - he wanted to get to The Pelican. They left, and Billy went to the bar. The next morning came and went, and Billy did not go meet with them. He didn't worry about it, or much of anything else.

He was only a few days away from turning 22, and "Really, I was just trying to love life and figure out what I wanted out of life," he says now. "I didn't really have any worries in the world. The world was my oyster; I just had to get it in the right place to open it."

He wasn't in school and he hadn't exactly been chasing a career. All he cared about was talking to pretty girls and having fun. He scraped together party money working a couple of jobs - one as a bowling alley mechanic and another as a carpenter's helper - but now he was looking forward to something else, something bigger, something he planned to take as far as he could. The Detroit Tigers wanted to sign him to a contract as a pitcher.

"He was a heck of a baseball player," says Joe. "And he had dreams of being able to go and to play major league ball. And he would've."

"He was that good," agrees his father, Joe Sr.

And, apparently, he was not just good at baseball: He played basketball and football, too, and while Joe Sr. was stationed in England, Billy picked up soccer and cricket with no problem.

"Billy was an awesome athlete," says David, another half-brother. "Everything Billy did, he did it real well. Real well."

Joe Sr., who legally adopted Billy after marrying his mother when Billy was a kid, was in the Air Force. The family moved several times during Billy's high school years, so he never had a real shot at proving himself as a ballplayer and getting the attention of scouts. But when Joe Sr. heard through a friend in the Tigers organization that the club was holding a small tryout in nearby Cocoa Beach, he got Billy an invitation, to go show what he could do.

Major league baseball teams used to hold tryouts like that all the time, usually a couple every year, before scouting was the organized, computerized, analytical business it is today. Now, the Major League Scouting Bureau runs series of open tryouts every summer, and few teams still hold their own tryouts, but it's not the way it used to be. In 1981, it was still easy for a good player, even a real good player, like Billy, to fall between the cracks and go unnoticed. The tryout camps served as insurance, giving teams one last look at players they might have missed and young prospects one last chance to show they could play.

Every once in a while such tryouts yield a big-league prospect. The Tigers themselves landed a big-leaguer in Ron Leflore, who after leaving prison was discovered at a similar tryout in 1973 and became an All-Star outfielder. More recently, the Dodgers signed catcher Rob Barajas at a tryout, and it's how the Tampa Bay Rays found pitcher Jim Morris, subject of the film "The Rookie."

Generally speaking, it's easiest for pitchers to get noticed, especially pitchers who are big guys and can throw hard - guys like Billy Dillon.

the agents he'd spoken with at the beach had already pegged the young baseball prospect as a prime suspect.

A muscular 6'4, Billy threw over 90 mph with ease and showed off a decent curveball, slider, changeup and a split-finger fastball, a pitch just becoming popular. A few days after the initial tryout the Tigers called and said they wanted to put him through one more workout, then they could sign him and get him started in their farm system, probably in Lakeland, where they held spring training and had a team in the winter league.

But none of that was going to happen. Billy didn't know it at the time, but the agents he'd spoken with at the beach had already pegged the young baseball prospect as a prime suspect.

Part 2: How He Lost His Life

After hearing about the murder on the news a day or two after it happened, 56-year-old John Parker contacted the Brevard County Sheriff's office. He told them that around 1:30 a.m. the night of the murder, he'd parked his pickup truck in the Canova Beach Park parking lot, hoping for a quick hookup. A man streaked with blood emerged from the woods. He told Parker his name was Jim, he couldn't find his blue Dodge Dart, and he wanted to know if he could have a ride to a bar down the road. When Parker asked about the blood, "Jim" said he'd just come from a bar fight. Parker paid him $20 for oral sex. The next morning, in the back of his truck, Parker found "Jim's" blood-soaked yellow T-shirt, size small, with "SURF IT!" across the chest, which later became a key piece of evidence.

As the investigation got underway, sources told Sgt. Charles Slaughter about this kid Billy "Wild Bill" Dillon. He told crazy stories about "rolling queers" - that is, he'd hit on gay men, get them drunk, and then convince them to take him back to their place. Once there, they'd drink some more, until eventually Billy's suitor either passed out or he beat them up and then robbed them.

Nobody had ever actually seen Billy do anything of the sort, and some suspected he made up the stories for attention, to sound tough - but he also openly disdained homosexuals, which almost everybody did back then, and he was known as something of a prick. Sources said he'd show up uninvited to parties and steal beer, weed and cigarettes. They described him as "mouthy" and "always starting trouble and getting into fights." Some described him as "the black sheep of the Dillon family" and "fucking crazy." He had started going out with a girl named Donna Parrish a few weeks before, but her parents and friends didn't like Billy.

Some described him as "the black sheep of the Dillon family" and "fucking crazy."

Investigators also learned that Billy had briefly served in the military before being prematurely discharged under honorable conditions for stealing - and he had a DUI on his record.

So ... Billy wasn't exactly a Boy Scout. Or as he describes himself now: "I was almost 22, but really I was more like 16 or 17 mentally." He was, in fact, like a lot of young guys in the early 1980s, when the recession made jobs hard to come by, living day by day and almost always looking for a party, drinking and smoking weed until all the days and all the nights ran together and seemed all the same.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, several sources also told investigators they often saw Billy wearing a yellow "SURF IT!" T-shirt matching the one Parker found in his truck. (Billy owned no such shirt, although he did own a yellow T-shirt from an oyster bar that said "EAT IT RAW!") Some of those sources also told investigators that when they talked about the murder with Billy, he jokingly said that he'd done it.

* * *

A few days after Billy first spoke with the agents, some friends told him that the police were looking for him and showing his picture to people. On Aug. 25 - just a couple of days before Billy was supposed to throw for the Tigers again and sign that contract - police took him in for questioning.

He didn't even think about getting a lawyer. One, he had no money, and two, Billy naively assumed that since he'd done nothing wrong, he had nothing to worry about. After all, he was about to become a ballplayer. He even waived his Miranda Rights.

The first question they asked him was where he was the night of the murder. Bill had no idea - that had been a week and a half ago, and he often drifted from one friend's couch to the next, depending on who he was hanging out with that night. He gave them a few names and said they could check with them.

They made him sign something - he doesn't even remember what they told him it was, "a waiver or affidavit or something" - and then they told him they didn't actually need it, so he could ball it up and throw it away. After he did, they told him he should ball it up even more. He thought that was ridiculous, but he was just ready to get out of there and go home, so he just did it. Then they said he was free to go, so he called his mom and she picked him up.

At about 10:30 that night, the agents showed up at the house, saying they had some more tests for Billy. If he passed, they said, they'd leave him alone.

"What do you want to do?" Joe Sr. asked Billy.

"I should’ve lawyered up. But I didn’t, because I wasn’t guilty of it and I wasn’t afraid of anything."

"I was big and bold in the truth." Dillon says now. "And looking back, this is where I should've lawyered up. But I didn't, because I wasn't guilty of it and I wasn't afraid of anything."

He told his dad, "Well, I didn't have anything to do with it, so I can pass any tests they got."

They put him in the back of a police car and drove him to the courthouse, where they parked in the rear parking lot - and then left him there, saying someone else would come get him soon. He was stuck in the car, which, like most police cars, had no way for someone in the backseat to get out. When the agents disappeared, Billy started to panic and had a flash of paranoia: Maybe they were about to make him the fall guy - maybe they were going to shoot him dead right there, and say that he'd done it and tried to get away.

That's not what happened, but what did happen wasn't much better.

Soon, someone else came out to the car and escorted him into the building and then into a room. He was struck by how dimly lit everything was - the parking lot, then the hallways, then the room itself. It made him think of dungeons.

The agent told Billy to face a one-way mirror on the wall, grab his hair, and pull it all the way over to the right. Billy didn't know that John Parker was on the other side of the glass, saying he wasn't sure if Billy was the man he remembered as "Jim" or not.

Then the agent picked up the phone, made a call, and said, "We're here."

A few minutes later, a man and the biggest German Shepherd Billy had ever seen burst in through the door. The dog charged straight at Billy.

"How does it feel," the handler said, gloating, "to be tracked by Harass Two?"

"What?" Billy said.

"And then," Billy remembers, "they were like, ‘We got you now!'"

They questioned Billy into the wee hours of the morning. Then they arrested him, charged him with first-degree murder and put him in a cell.

Even then, Billy assumed everything would get worked out, that once they really started looking at the case, it would become clear that he wasn't the murderer. It made no sense. After all, Billy had seen the police sketches of the killer based on Parker's description, and he didn't even remotely resemble the man. "Jim" had short, curly hair and a thin mustache. Billy was clean-shaven with long, shaggy hair.

His birthday was in a week. He expected to go to spring training in a few months, to spend the next year or two or 10 or 20 playing baseball. He had no idea that he'd spend the next 27 years, springs and summers, falls and winters, locked up in prison.

* * *

Dillion_medium

The next few months were an amalgamation of absurdity and conspiracy and horrific luck, much of it not Dillon's fault at all, but some born from his own mistakes in judgment, from the uniquely desperate way human beings sometimes make things worse when trying to correct past mistakes.

The Tigers, naturally, lost interest. They didn't owe him anything and he never heard from them again. And Dillon's family, like Dillon, continued to believe that everything would work itself out, that innocent people didn't go to jail.

As the date of his trial approached, Dillon agreed to take a polygraph test and failed not just once, but twice. Then he shot holes in his credibility when, among other minor inconsistencies, he lied to investigators when they asked him where he was living. He told them he didn't have a place, when really, he did - albeit late on his rent - but he lied because he didn't want them to find his stash of weed. He was still more worried about being arrested for that than he was about the murder.

He couldn't make bail and as he awaited trial he shared a cell at the Brevard County Jail with a man named Roger Chapman, who was charged with sexual battery. Chapman claimed that Dillon had confessed to the murder and even demonstrated how he'd killed Dvorak. In exchange for agreeing to testify at Dillon's trial, Chapman's charges were dropped.

Only three months after being arrested, Dillon went on trial. His girlfriend, Donna Parrish, testified that she'd gotten into a fight with him the night of the murder because he had no money for drinks at The Pelican. She then said she found him later on the beach, standing by the dead body, bloody and shirtless. When asked why she didn't immediately say so to investigators, she said she was in love with Dillon.

Parker also testified that Dillon was the man who had left the bloody yellow shirt in his truck - even though his physical description of "Jim" was vastly different from that of Dillon. And, Parker added, he couldn't be 100-percent positive because, by the way, he was legally blind. But he still thought it was Dillon.

Chapman, with his own freedom hinging on his testimony, told the jury about Dillon's jailhouse confession.

But the key piece of evidence, the evidence that made all the other testimony seem so convincing and certain, was the bloody yellow shirt, which prosecutors waved in front of the jury. There was no DNA testing back then, but John Preston, the man who'd burst into that room with the German Shepherd, Harass Two, testified that the dog had linked a scent from that yellow shirt to that crumpled-up piece of paper the police had Dillon throw away. Harass Two then tracked that scent through the courthouse all the way up to the room where Dillon sat the first night he was questioned. Then, after that, the dog had tracked Dillon's scent all the way back across state road A1A to the scene of the crime - nine days after the murder.

Preston and his dogs were impressive. A former state trooper, Preston earned $300 a day tracking criminals and testifying, almost always with spectacular results. In 1977, for instance, he and his dog tracked the killer of three Girl Scouts in Oklahoma - by following the scent across a body of water. He even claimed his dogs could follow a scent under water, and after a hurricane.

Dillon was starting to understand that he was in deep. He started to fight back, He had to be chastised by the judge multiple times as he would rebut the claims against him, especially when Donna was on the stand. To the jurors, he looked and acted like a mouthy punk.

His behavior was understandable. Dillon's lawyer, public defender Frank Clark - who would be disbarred in 1987 for, among other reasons, neglect of clients - was so stunningly apathetic that even the judge, Stanley Wolfman, was taken aback. He hardly bothered to challenge a witness. Years later Wolfman said, "I just kinda shook my head internally...I don't think Mr. Clark did a good job."

On Dec. 4, 1981, the jury found Dillon guilty of first-degree murder.

Only 12 days later, Parrish recanted her entire story, including the part where she was in love with Dillon - and admitted that she'd been having sex with Charles Slaughter, the police sergeant working the case. She said that she'd been coerced into testifying against Dillon by Brevard County Sheriff's Office Agent Thom Fair, who'd threatened to make her "rot in jail" if she didn't.

Still, a subsequent motion for retrial was rejected - the judge said there was enough evidence without Parrish's testimony to convict Dillon.

Instead of going to spring training, and starting a career and settling down and getting serious and maybe even making the major leagues, on March 12, 1982, Billy Dillon was sentenced to life in prison.

Part 3: The Death of Wild Bill Dillon

Going to maximum security prison is more than just losing the life you previously led - it is also about a new life, one spent 24-7 with the very worst men in American society, the violent and psychopathic, the ones they make horror movies about. It's as close to hell, demons and all, as can legally exist in America. And it is worse when you are 22 years old, young, naive, good looking, stupid and convicted of committing a crime on the "Queer Pier."

The State of Florida didn't mess around. Dillon began his sentence in Raiford, Fla., at Florida State Prison - the Hell of all hells, where the worst offenders go when they have disciplinary problems at other max-security prisons.

Dillon declined an option to start his sentence in protective custody. He'd already spent over six months in jail, thought he knew how to get by, and wanted to quickly acclimate to his new world. He thought he could stay out of trouble by simply keeping to himself. "I figured I would have to be in some sort of confrontation for there to be a situation," he says. "Well, that wasn't the case."

"It was then," Dillon says, "I realized I would have no rest."

That plan disintegrated the first hour after he was booked and released into the general population. Five men charged into his cell. Dillon fought, they stabbed him and beat him nearly unconscious - and then they took turns raping him.

"It was then," Dillon says, "I realized I would have no rest."

The guards never stopped it. "The guards aren't there to protect you," Dillon says. "They're there to keep you from getting out. They're not going to risk their lives for yours."

With every attack and every wasted passing day, he felt more and more of himself slipping away. "I felt like all that I was, was gone," he says. "And I just wanted it to end."

There was the horror that happened to him and the horrors he saw happening to others. Over the years, Dillon saw men get murdered for 10-cent coupons and he saw others commit suicide to escape. He did laundry with serial rapist/murderer Ted Bundy and watched him stare at girls on television. And, all too regularly, particularly during his first few years, Dillon suffered the rapists.

The worst torture came when he couldn't stop thinking about everything, from the injustice against him to the pain in his family to the nightmare he woke up to every morning. He just wanted to make his mind shut up.

"It was just a spiral," he says. "And I couldn't allow myself to continue in that way."

A storm in the mind of an innocent man in prison can kill him as easily as a shank in the side. All who suffer thusly find ways to make the thunder go still. The only difference is that some are still alive after the silence.

So Dillon picked fights with prisoners at random. He fought his rapists, every time. He wanted to make someone as angry as he was, angry enough to maybe, just once, hit him just a bit too hard - hard enough to make his mind go quiet. So he could stop thinking. Forever.

* * *

Dillon served his time in several different prisons, getting transferred every few years because Florida likes to keep prisoners from getting too familiar with guards or one another. About the only thing that didn't change was that every prison had a softball league.

About the only thing that didn’t change was that every prison had a softball league.

Dillon played in every one and was usually the best player in the league. It was a release. When he played shortstop, he threw so hard that only a few guys could catch his throws. He was also one of the guys who could be counted on to hit a home run almost on command. Dillon's teams almost always won the league championships.

"It was a way to feel like I accomplished something," he says. "However small and trivial it was - it meant nothing to nobody else, but me."

Prisoners who didn't play in the games wagered on them, and they learned that Dillon's teams were always a good bet, because he knew how to put the right kind of team together. This, in turn, earned him friendships with people who protected him in ways the guards would not. Softball, not anything else, became his salvation.

It was just slow-pitch. The fields were usually all dirt. The equipment was beat up and worn.

But none of that mattered. Out there, on the ball field, they weren't prisoners. "We were just ballplayers," he says.

At Avon Park Correctional Institute - Dillon's second stop after five years at FSP - the fence to the softball field was the prison's walls. When Dillon hit home runs, he launched them out of prison itself, never to return. He liked the metaphor. For the brief moment as he watched the ball disappear over the wall, he was, ever so briefly, free.

He played hundreds of games, maybe thousands. Dillon has no idea how good he could've been as a pro baseball player. He thinks that with his physical tools and his array of pitches, he could've put together a solid career, because he understood something essential: More important than how talented he was physically, he knew how to handle himself mentally. As a young man he might have been something of a fuck up, but when he played ball he could always focus.

There are a few terms we use to describe athletes doing well. On fire. In the zone. And, perhaps most scientifically accurate: Unconscious.

Science has shown that when athletes are at their best, their brain activity is nearly as still as when they are asleep. The only thing really working is the frontal lobe, which controls the limbs and reflexes. Everything else is quiet. This is exactly where they want to be, and the ability to get there makes and breaks careers. It took Dillon very little effort to go unconscious, in any sport - he also played, basketball, flag football and handball while in prison, though there was nothing quite like softball.

"That's where I could just lose myself," he says. "I could go out there and play and put everything I had into the games. To me, and I think to a lot of guys, they were so much more than softball games. That was my quiet place." Every minute on the softball field was a minute where his concentration could be so total, so complete, that the prison walls slipped away.

Year after unending year, week after unending week, he played softball every day he could, and even after he blew out his knee, he didn't stop. He just slid across the diamond to first base, and, eventually, he just pitched. But he stayed out there as long as he was able. It let him physically feel like he was doing the things he fantasized about at night when trying to fall asleep.

he started writing songs of his own — hundreds of them, many on toilet paper.
Dillion2_medium

He never stopped thinking about what could've been with the Tigers. When they won the World Series in 1984, there were guys on the team his age, even younger. He'd dream about it, see himself in the major leagues, mowing down hitters, making big plays, hearing the crowds. Then he would go out on the softball field the next morning with murderers and rapists and arsonists and drug dealers, and imagine that's what he was really doing.

"If it weren't for softball," Dillon says, "I really don't know how I would've made it." And over time, he also started playing guitar. As his body aged and broke down and he found himself unable to play softball as much as he wanted to, Dillon still chased after the feeling of silence his mind had discovered on the field. He found it in music. He taught himself how to play, and after learning to play all his favorite songs, he started writing songs of his own - hundreds of them, many on toilet paper.

Life in prison remained horrible, but he slowly adjusted, even as he felt more and more wronged by his incarceration and continued to fight his way through almost every day. He didn't even know it, but only a few years after being imprisoned, a key piece of evidence that had gotten him convicted appeared to be indisputably refuted: John Preston, the man with the German Shepherd tracking dog, was revealed to be a complete fraud. When Preston and his "magic" dogs were subjected to independent tests, his dogs failed miserably. Furthermore, the certificate from McGinn's School for Dogs that supposedly proved Preston was an expert tracking dog trainer, was declared a forgery by school founder Tom McGinn.

One day, about 12 years after he started his sentence, Dillon was watching television and saw some country music stars visiting hospitals to see young kids with cancer. As Dillon heard those kids' stories, "I knew in the deepest parts of my heart," he says, "that I really didn't have anything more to cry about. I said to myself, ‘You know something? It's a piss-sorrowful thing what you have to deal with - but look at what they have to deal with. They don't even get an opportunity to try. If you die tomorrow, you've had way more opportunity than they've ever had in their life.' And I saw a way to be thankful for what I did have, rather than be angry for what I didn't."

It wasn't something that just happened in that instant, but it took up space in his mind, which left less space for the rage. In time, Dillon was transformed. "I'd wanted to be that violent guy," he says. "But I realized - that's who they wanted me to be. And that wasn't going to help me or anybody else."

He changed, utterly and totally, becoming monkishly calm, not only avoiding fights, but breaking them up, which was far more dangerous. He started talking to some of the prisoners about their life choices, reflecting with them on the things that landed them all in prison. "Some of these guys would get out and then come back," he says. "And I felt like, I had a chance to show these guys things they could change. And I began to feel like, this is what I'm here for - helping these guys change their perspective. The bad situation that happened to me, I gave it a reason for happening." He wasn't getting out, but maybe he could help others stay out.

Part 4: The Reincarnation

In 1982 Wilton Dedge was convicted of a sadistic crime: A man broke into a woman's home and then raped her in awful ways at knifepoint while cutting her. Dedge's trial was nightmarishly similar to Dillon's: It happened in Brevard County; a jailhouse snitch testified against him and received a drastic sentence reduction in return; and John Preston's "miracle dog" Harass Two linked Dedge to the scene of the crime.

Fourteen years later, in 1996, Dedge became one of the first Florida inmates to seek post-conviction DNA testing - five years before the state passed a 2001 law that allowed for such testing. Dedge's motion succeeded in 2000, and in 2001, with the help of the Innocence Project of Florida, DNA testing proved that Dedge had not committed the crime. Still, it took an absolutely maddening procedural process - where at one point the State said that even if Dedge was found completely innocent they would not release him - before Dedge was finally exonerated and released in 2004.

Dillon heard Dedge's story and filed his own motion for DNA testing in 2005. The IPF learned about Dillon's case in 2007 and took it from there.

"I think the evidence in his case was completely manufactured," says Seth Miller, the IPF executive director.

"This is a case about a corrupt sheriff’s office and about a corrupt state Attorney’s office."


David Menschel, the IPF legal director, says, "That dog handler was being fed information by the sheriff's department to consistently pick out the suspect. This isn't a case about a corrupt dog handler. This is a case about a corrupt sheriff's office and about a corrupt state Attorney's office."

Dillon's new lawyer through the IPF, Mike Pirolo, filed a motion to have the yellow "SURF IT!" shirt DNA tested. The tests indicated that the blood on the shirt was that of the victim, James Dvorak, and someone else - but not Dillon's. His DNA was nowhere to be found.

Still, the state rejected Dillon's motion for a new trial based on the DNA evidence. Instead they scheduled a new evidentiary hearing for 2009.

Meanwhile, Dillon was released on a $100,000 bond on Nov. 18, 2008. Wearing glasses, jeans, a brown sport coat, an unbuttoned dress shirt and a black T-shirt with "NOT GUILTY!" stamped on the chest, he walked out of the Brevard County Detention Facility to a swarm of media - and his family. Joe Jr., wearing long hair and a leather jacket, ran up and embraced him, followed soon by the rest of his family.

"The feeling is something you only reach a few times in your life," Dillon said at the time. "It's a man in the desert who finally finds water."

On the day he was released from prison, Dillon went home and broke out a black guitar and played - and sang - a song by the country duo Montgomery Gentry. This was a shock - his family had heard Dillon sing before, but never heard him play the guitar. And the song he sang was also a surprise.

Its title? "Lucky Man," a song not about what he had lost, but what he had not.

* * *

At the 2009 evidentiary hearing in Tallahassee, Pirolo argued that since Preston had been found a fraud, all his testimony should also be scrutinized. Someone else from the past showed up to help out, too: Roger Chapman, the man who'd testified against Dillon in exchange for having his rape charges dropped.

Now Chapman testified that he'd lied about Dillon to avoid the charges against him, and he said that Agent Fair had even told him exactly what to say. He then walked over to Dillon, shook his hand, and apologized.

Two to three weeks after the evidentiary hearing, Pirolo got a fax from the state saying that they had filed a nolle prosequi - meaning that they'd chosen to dismiss all charges. The absurdity of it made Pirolo laugh. "Didn't get a phone call or even an email," he says. Just like that, the case was over.

A few years later, in 2012, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet gave Dillon a full pardon, meaning he was not only cleared of the murder, but also the crimes from before his conviction that had made him such a prime target in the first place - also meaning that, in a way, he'd really become an entirely new man.

* * *

Dillon now lives in a nice house in Chapel Hill, N.C., with his partner, Ellen Moscovitz - Dr. Ellen Moscovitz, the Harvard-trained president and CEO of the DNA Diagnostics Center based in Cincinnati, Ohio. They met in 2009 at an Innocence Project Conference sponsor dinner for exonerees. They began dating not long after that, and in time he moved to Chapel Hill to live with her, where she works from home.

Nowadays, he spends a great deal of his time writing songs and singing. He owns a dozen or more guitars, and he's set up his own personal recording studio right in his house. In 2009, Grammy Award-winning producer Jim Tullio helped him put together his first album, "Black Robes and Lawyers," which was released nationwide. As the title infers, it's about everything he went through and how he survived. One of Dillon's favorite songs, "The Mission," is a prayer about finding a quiet place. He still goes there, to that quiet place, often for hours every day down in the studio. And he continues to find purpose in the hell he suffered by traveling the country to speak about his experience and giving interviews to virtually anyone who asks. One of those interviews came in 2011 for "The Usual Suspects" a Florida-based public affairs television program produced by a man named Gary Yordon.

Yordon was so moved by Dillon's story that he gave him the opportunity to return to his original quiet place, where he was supposed to make a career. Dillon hadn't played softball since leaving prison, and hadn't played baseball since, well, since that tryout with the Tigers. Yordon told Dillon that he played for the Tallahassee Bombers, a baseball team that competed in the Masters Division of the Roy Hobbs World Series in Florida, an annual event for adult ballplayers. Then he asked Dillon if he wanted to play baseball again.

Heck yeah, he wanted to play.

"He was like a 9-year-old," Yordon said back then, "calling me about details, including if he had the right shade of gray on his pants."

On Oct. 30, 2011, he played his first game of baseball in 30 years at Hammond Stadium in Fort Meyers, Fla., where the Minnesota Twins play their spring training games, the Detroit Tigers play the Twins every year, and the home ballpark for the Twins' Single-A affiliate, the Fort Meyers Miracle. Dillon wore gray pants, a navy blue Nike cap with the Boston Red Sox logo, like everyone else on his team, and the Bombers' navy blue jersey, the No. 27 on the back, the number of outs in a baseball game and the number of years he had spent wrongly imprisoned.

He was perhaps the biggest guy on the field, his arms and chest bulging against the jersey. He wore gray batting gloves and still looked like a ballplayer.

He hit into a double-play his first at-bat, trotting down the first base line like any other 50-year-old man with a blown-out knee. But he smiled the whole way. Somehow, all those balls he had hit over the wall while in prison, those moments that he had felt free, had delivered him ... here, on the field, in uniform.

"I can't even really remember that at-bat," he says. "I was just kind of numb."

He grounded out in his other two at-bats that day, too, and he ended up going hitless for the tournament. His timing, after all, was a bit off - it had been a while since he'd faced live pitching.

But he never really stopped smiling.

"Everybody has a little boy inside," Dillon said at the time. "And ballplayers are always ballplayers, for their whole life."

Last July, his two quiet places came together in one beautiful moment. He stood in front of the crowd at Tropicana Field before a Tampa Bay Rays game and sang the national anthem. He wore his now signature cargo pants and black "Not Guilty" T-shirt, and if he was nervous, it didn't show. He smiled when he was introduced, and the crowd went wild as the P.A. announcer recounted his story. He eased right into the anthem, growling it out, taking his time, taking it easy, just enjoying where he was and how good it felt to stand on a baseball field and sing, where the only words that mattered were about the land of the free.

Part 5: The True Story of the Night of Aug. 16, 1981

After Dillon was exonerated, the Brevard County Sheriff's Office re-opened his case and launched a thorough investigation, retracing its steps and interviewing more than 50 people to determine whether Dillon was really involved in the crime at all, and, if he wasn't, who was.

It took some jarring twists and turns. Now a few people swore that Dillon had killed Dvorak, including Donna Parrish, who changed her story for at least the seventh time, and Roger Chapman, the jailhouse snitch. Both recanted their previous recantations, and now claimed Dillon was guilty.

Chapman was facing several new charges and, in all likelihood, wanted help with his legal trouble again. As for Parrish, she's never been able to get her story straight.

The Sheriff’s Office concluded that he was not involved in the murder.

The evidence was clear, or at least clear enough as far as Dillon was concerned. The Sheriff's Office concluded that he was not involved in the murder.

Instead, they believe that on the night of the murder, four young men -- Daryl "J.D." Novak, Eric Novak, James Johnstone and Phil Huff -- went to Canova Beach to drink and get high. They never planned to kill anyone.

For nearly 30 years they all kept what happened that night a secret, until finally, after Dillon had been exonerated and Brevard County had re-opened the case, investigators talked to Huff. He said that he had been looking for a sign, about "coming clean." They asked him, point-blank, to consider everything that Dillon had gone through.

That was the sign. "The worst part is that [he] went to jail," Huff told them. "That has killed me every day." He started talking.

According to Huff, who was 17 at the time of the murder, the four men were hanging out on the beach, and drinking and smoking weed. James Dvorak walked up, struck up conversation, had a beer and even took a few pulls on their joint. Then Dvorak and Johnstone, who was 20 years old, wandered off.

After about 10 minutes, the other three went looking for them. They found Johnstone and Dvorak on the ground in the woods, having sex.

Seeing his friends, Johnstone acted like he was being attacked and punched Dvorak a few times.

This sent the Novak brothers into a rage. Huff and Johnstone backed off, but the Novaks whaled on Dvorak. "I'd never seen them like that before," Huff would say later. "I've never seen anyone snap like that." Huff even heard the sound of a tree branch cracking across Dvorak's face. Even when Dvorak got away and took off running down the beach, stark naked, the Novaks chased him down and kept beating on him. "The screams," Huff said, "haunt me to this day. At the top of his lungs ... it just kind of came out as screeching."

After that night, the boys would almost never speak again. When Dvorak went lifeless, they scattered.

One of them wandered out of the woods into the parking lot. He had curly brown hair and a thin mustache, and he was covered in blood and wearing shorts and nothing else and carrying his yellow "SURF IT!" T-shirt. He was also too drunk and high to find his car, a blue Dodge Dart. He saw John Parker sitting in his pickup truck and wandered over, asking if he could get a lift to a tavern down the road.

Nearly 30 years later, when the boys' DNA was tested against the DNA found on that "SURF IT!" shirt, there was one absolute match: James "Jim" Johnstone.

Part 6: The Mission
Only freedom matters.
Only freedom rings true.
Only freedom matters.
Because without freedom,
there’s nothing much left to lose.
William Michael Dillon, "Freedom" from Black Robes and Lawyers

Today, Bill Dillon travels the country to speak to law students and civic organizations and whoever else will listen, so that people understand how things in the justice system can go wrong and how they can counsel wrongfully convicted clients to help them through their own hells.

"Not many could've gotten through it," Moscovitz says of her partner.

"There's 313 who've gotten through it," Dillon counters. He means there have been 313 people in the United States exonerated of wrongful conviction through the efforts of the Innocence Project. "And that's only the DNA cases," he says. "That's not the cases without DNA."

"And think about how many more are probably not on the radar, still just sitting there, wasting away," says Moscovitz.

Moscovitz says, based on her work with the Innocence Project and their experts, they estimate that out of the nearly two million prisoners incarcerated in the United States, some 10 percent are there strictly because they were railroaded, similar to Dillon and Dedge. That's approximately 200,000 people.

There's plenty of work to do, because when someone is wrongfully convicted, those responsible don't like admitting it. It took three years for Dillon to receive compensation from the state of Florida - $1.35 million - although he could've sued for more. "They didn't compensate me for my time in prison," Dillon says. "They compensated because - it's basically just ‘shut up and go away' money. So I can go buy some toys and move on and leave them alone."

"This has been a painful, long, horrible, laborious process."

"This has been a painful, long, horrible, laborious process," Moscovitz says. "Just horrible."

The scariest thing about his entire ordeal is just how easily it happened.

"I could've been Billy," says Joe Jr. "If they had chosen to go after me. But they chose to go after him instead."

"And I'm far from the only one," Dillon says. "They did it too easy. They were professionals at it."

But ... why?

"It had nothing to do with me personally," he says, with Moscovitz nodding along. "They didn't personalize it."

So why, then? Why did they go after Billy Dillon? Their own selfishness? Just to make themselves look good and keep their jobs?

"Not even that," Dillon says. "It was society's selfishness. They wanted a killer. They wanted the people they hired to do anything to get him."

"[Canova Beach] is a tourist town," Moscovitz says, "and they had a killer on the loose. They said, ‘If you don't catch him, we'll fire you and find someone who can.' And a lot of these people have been promoted for doing a lot of bad things."

In his previous life, all this would've made Dillon just rage. But now he knows that, like in prison, he can't let such noise reign or he'll lose himself again. So Dillon keeps finding ways to quiet his mind. He pours himself into his speeches and his art. He's written hundreds of songs, and he's given hundreds of talks, and he's still writing and planning talks for the future. One of his biggest goals: "Write the world's greatest love song."

More immediately, he and Moscovitz recently bought an RV. As you read this, he's probably puttering around the Midwest with her, or visiting friends in Montana and Colorado. Then he's going wherever he wants to, just because he finally can.

He lost himself in prison, but found a small part of who he once was on the softball field, and when he was reborn after seeing those cancer-stricken kids on television, he left behind pieces of himself that weren't all that great to begin with - the things that made him an easy target for the detectives in the first place. The kid who just hung out and partied is gone. He doesn't hate anyone anymore, gay or otherwise. Not even the men who ruined his life. Now, he's a man more at peace than a lot of other 50-somethings.

"I just want to help people now," Dillon says, "and maybe make a better place for everybody. I think that's what God put me here for."

Those aren't just words for a reporter to put into a story to drive home a point or something - Moscovitz has lived with Dillon for years now, and she's blown away by how at peace he is.

"I never see anger," Moscovitz says. "Never anything like that. Just the sadness."

Dillon's most prevalent symptom from his years of imprisonment is his amazing, almost supernatural calmness. I saw it when I interviewed him in his living room. Sunlight streamed in through giant windows. He ambled up the stairs from his basement studio, moving with the slow, fluid assuredness unique to true athletes, even one with a bad knee. When he sat in a chair beside the window, he eased into it and slouched a bit. As he spoke, he gestured easily with his big, thick hands, hands that once made a baseball look small and now dance along the fretboard of a guitar. As we spoke, Moscovitz sat across the room, working on her laptop.

After we'd talked for about 45 minutes, right in the middle of telling me about when the police took him to the courthouse that time, Dillon just stopped speaking. He propped his elbow on the chair's armrest, put his chin in his palm, and closed his eyes. I didn't interrupt.

Moscovitz explained that Dillon suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and this is often how it strikes. He gets sleepy. That's why he has to move around whenever he's speaking somewhere - to keep his mind from shutting itself down - forcing himself, over and over, to relive the awful memories in hopes of saving others from a similar fate.

But when he's at home and at ease, like right now, his mind wins, taking him somewhere away from crooked cops and rapists.

A moment later, Dillon's eyes blink open, as though he's waking from a dream. He apologizes and stands and turns to stare out the window. He watches a couple of deer walk through his backyard then get spooked and dart off into the trees.

"Where were we?" he says in a woozy drawl.

Sometimes that quiet place is his studio or the stage. Sometimes it's just the still darkness of sleep. And a lot of times, it's 30 years ago on a baseball field in Cocoa Beach, and baseball scouts are telling him what a big future he has.

Design/Layout: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Photo Credit: Brandon Sneed

About the Author

Sneedheadshot

Brandon Sneed is a writer based in eastern North Carolina. He's the author of an untitled narrative business book with Hwy 55 founder Kenny Moore (coming winter 2014) and the forthcoming novel "The Making Island" (spring 2015). He also wrote the book "The Edge of Legend" and has written for Men's Journal, GQ, ESPN The Magazine, Outside, SLAM, and more. He blogs at brandonsneed.com and does Twitter as @brandonsneed.

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