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.

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.

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.

Read the whole story here.

3 Responses
  1. Lou Mindar

    Another great story, Brandon. I always enjoy reading your writing.

    How did this story come about? Were you aware of it and sold SB Nation on the idea or did they assign it to you? How did you (or SB Nation) go about contacting Billy Dillon? How much time did you spend with Billy? Was your interview conducted in one sitting or more than one?

    That's a ton of questions to throw at you all at once. Sorry about that, but I'm very interested in the process that goes into a story like this. Any info you can share would be appreciated.

  2. Brandon Sneed

    Hey Lou, thanks for the kind words. And no problem on all the questions. Love 'em.

    I found this story a couple of years ago in a local newspaper. Just filed it away, but I never forgot about it. (How could you, right?)

    I originally pitched this to another national publication I write for, and they were into it for a minute, but then decided not to do anything with it. That was a year or so ago. A couple of months ago, I pitched the idea to SB Nation, and they accepted it.

    I had Billy's number in my file about him. Don't even remember where I found it. I just called him after SB assigned the story, he texted me back a bit later, we coordinated a few days I could go visit.

    I spent about six or seven hours with Billy over the course of two days. We hung out mostly at his house, but also went to a few meals in town.

    That should cover your questions. If you have any more, feel free to ask. Thanks!