KILLING BETTY WILLIS: Why Has the Soul Singer’s Murderer Not Been Prosecuted? (Exclusive)

Over four and a half years after the murder of Betty Willis, the suspect in custody has not faced trial in Orange County

As the quiet of the night finally set in over Southern California, so did a thick blanket of unusually heavy fog, a stubborn holdover from the year prior. Some 40 miles south of Los Angeles, Betty Willis was fast asleep in Santa Ana, the Orange County town she had come to call home throughout most of her 76 years.

New Year’s Day, 2018

Just after 4 a.m., a neighbor behind Willis did her best to ignore the chill in the air as she ventured out to her backyard. A single red Solo cup lay next to a bench in the yard—a makeshift ashtray and a reminder that she was there out of habit—and about to break one of the most common New Year’s resolutions.

As she lit her first cigarette of the year, the neighbor heard what sounded like a scuffle on the other side of the wall separating her yard from Willis. She couldn’t see just what was taking place over on Willis’s side—but that was the very point of the half wall of concrete dividing her small yard from a strip center. Carrying on with her predawn smoke, she felt no reason for any immediate alarm. This was Santa Ana, after all—a city plagued with crime and frequently one of the Southland’s high-crime hotspots. But soon the sounds of the one-sided struggle grew so loud it was impossible to ignore. The neighbor was now hearing the cries of a frightened woman’s undeniable plea for help.

The smoke break was over. Discarding her cigarette into the Solo cup, the neighbor, a Guatemalan migrant who spoke little English, placed her first phone call of the year—to 911.

At around 4:30 a.m. a pair of officers from the Santa Ana Police Department arrived at the darkened shopping plaza across from the neighbor’s backyard.

In stealth mode—lights and sirens off—officers rolled up through the fog and into the strip center’s oversized parking lot—home to La Amiga, a popular fabric store owned by a Latino family. With sunrise still a distant two hours off, the officers made use of the fixed spotlight mounted atop their patrol car. The high beam cut through the mist and fog to reveal a horrific scene of a brutal rape-in-progress.

Even through the haze, it was clear that these officers had just come upon a violent rape and assault actively underway. One of the two officers bolted from the patrol unit in an attempt to apprehend the attacker who was now trying in vain to hide behind a concrete column in front of the fabric store, struggling to get his pants back on.

The police officer was closing in fast. The suspect, now in the full spotlight, looked around only to find the building to his one side and that half wall of concrete separating the business from the backyard to his other side. Up would be his only possible way out. The suspect began desperately scaling the neighbor’s half-wall barrier as the predawn foot pursuit intensified. The officer was hot on the attacker’s trail, climbing the wall after him and knocking the body-worn camera from his uniform in the process. 

Seconds later, 22-year-old Rosendo Xo Pec was in handcuffs.

                                                             • • •

Across town, Gerry Rodriguez was awakened by a phone call from Santa Ana PD alerting him to a disturbance in the parking lot of his family’s business. Opening the video surveillance app on his phone, the small business owner watched live as yellow crime scene tape was wrapped around the perimeter of his family’s La Amiga fabric store on West 1st Street in Santa Ana.

But it was what the local business owner could not see that he found just as concerning. Where was Betty, the sweet and occasionally feisty older, unhoused woman who would sleep in front of his family’s business after hours? The handful of items she’d disappear from view every morning, hours before store customers arrived—her bedding, her shopping cart, and a popup miniature bedside table—was there. But there was no sign of Betty. Rodriguez says that he had an arrangement with Willis because she “felt safe” in that spot overnight. 

“She came and asked for permission to stay here—she wanted the [security] light,” he tells LAMag. “It was very light here. So she felt more protected. I told her, ‘You can stay here as long as you don’t leave a mess.’ I didn’t know her well by then. We try to see everybody as an individual person. We know that life has its ups and downs. My father always taught us that just because we have a business today doesn’t mean we know what’s gonna happen 10 years from now.”

“When you talk about somebody that has passed away, that you keep on alive in your heart, in your mind… Even though I never met [Betty’s] family, I think that if someone talks about her, she’s alive again. And that’s what I think about.”
— Gerry Rodriguez

No one else was allowed to stay there, though—just Betty. Why was she no longer in the frame?

By the time Rodriguez pulled up to the strip center, even more police and other emergency personnel had arrived. La Amiga Fabrics was now officially an active crime scene.

The sun was rising. Soon, news stations in L.A. would flash the Monday morning headline—“Homeless Woman Murdered”—confirmation that Orange County’s first homicide of the year had just taken place.

The quiet life of Betty Jane Willis was over.

How has a murder caught on camera, with its prime suspect apprehended at the scene and now in police custody, still not gone to trial? It’s been more than four and a half years since the killing of Willis was captured on a security camera outside the Santa Ana’s La Amiga fabric store. Rosendo Pec, the man who has pleaded not guilty to the rape and murder of Willis, recently turned 27 behind bars at Orange County’s Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana. He has yet to face justice in a courtroom. But for Willis’s family and others who knew and loved her, any sort of justice will apparently have to wait.

The Postal Worker

The price of a stamp was 15 cents and Sony’s newly-launched portable cassette player, dubbed the Walkman, had just debuted. It was the summer of 1980. The original Funkytown era and an overall banner year in the world of music and disco.

Donna Summer’s “On the Radio” was just that, and Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” had just claimed Billboard’s top spot. And Aretha Franklin was back in the studio recording new vocals for her big 1960s hit “Think.” 

Betty Willis appears to have never crossed paths with Aretha Franklin, but their early lives share striking similarities. Franklin and Willis both come from the Deep South; at the age of two, both girls were relocated from the South—Franklin’s family moved to upstate New York, while the Willis family moved out West, settling in California. Both became professional singers, releasing their first recordings in the early 1960s. And both Franklin and Willis died in 2018 at the age of 76. Though their beginnings hold striking similarities, the conclusion of each woman’s life couldn’t have been any more different.

While Franklin was working on that re-recording of her hit song “Think,” and appearing on the big screen in the musical comedy The Blues Brothers, a new decade had dawned in a world free of Spotify playlists and undisturbed by YouTube algorithms. Even the advent of the compact disc was a distant two summers away.

Willis had a Walkman. It was that newly-launched portable tape player that served as her constant companion, helping the music-lover survive the long, dull days of the repetitive tasks required of a U.S. Postal Service employee. Still, just like in her music, she found a rhythm in the mundane post office tasks and even some comfort within the structure of the Postal Service. In fact, it was within that rigid routine where she found predictability. That feeling of stability, which was lacking in the single mother’s life, could always be found after clocking in for a shift at the post office. Willis learned the routine of work at a young age.

“My mom started working at six years old in the field,” her daughter, Stephanie Walker, tells LAMag. “Picking grapes, pecans—whatever needed picking—she was out there in the Mississippi heat.”

Where Willis found a routine, an 18-year-old newly-hired USPS mailroom worker named Anthony Reichardt found something even more simple: A job. Reichardt figured the steady nine-to-five paycheck could also help him pay for his occasionally expensive habit of record collecting.

Mountains of envelopes separated Willis and the newest (and youngest) employee at Santa Ana’s North Grand post office. Today they were partnered together and assigned to sorting the stacks of mail filtering through what was then Orange County’s primary mail hub. Headphones on, Willis got busy. Unlike Reichardt, she had quietly accepted her fate years ago and was already on a roll with the day’s mind-numbing task. Reichardt, on the other hand, wouldn’t mind a conversation while tackling the dull task ahead.

Chatting it up with colleagues can be a challenge for the busy frontline postal worker. That challenge isn’t made any easier on a newbie like Reichardt when his coworker is sporting headphones and sunglasses throughout the shift.

But Reichardt —an  avid music fan and collector of records for as long as he can remember —never let much stand in his way when it came to talking music.

Eventually, and to the young new hire’s delight, the beginnings of a conversation were emerging between the unlikely duo. Reichardt told Willis about his record collection. Willis told Reichardt about her records—the ones she recorded back in the 60s with Phil Spector at Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios.

“Which records? What songs?” Reichardt asked.

“You wouldn’t know any of them,” Willis insisted.

“How’d they go? Sing one!” Reichardt persisted.

After a little more pestering, Willis gave in and began singing:

“They’re gonna put me in the movies / they’re gonna make a big star out of me / We’ll make a film about a girl that’s sad and lonely / and all I gotta do is act naturally.”

Reichardt joined in, turning Willis’s impromptu karaoke episode into a duet—backing her loud and soulful voice with his own brand of harmony. In what an onlooker might describe as a sudden plot twist, the conversation that seemed most unlikely to occur just moments earlier had now escalated into an all-out back office singalong.

But as the two belted out the song’s chorus, Reichardt soon realized he was finishing it out solo. Why had Willis stopped? He glanced over to find his co-worker frozen, no longer singing or even sorting. She slid her sunglasses down to the edge of her nose so that Reichardt could clearly see the suspicious glare she had fixed solely on him.

Willis had a question: “How do you know that song?” she demanded.

Reichardt made clear it wasn’t Buck Owens’ old country version of “Act Naturally” he recalled, but the  re-tooled soul version he was familiar with. 

And that was the very moment it hit him—that “soul version” was, in fact, the Betty Willis version. The label from the classic 45 vinyl popped in his head: “BETTY WILLIS.” The eager music buff was in disbelief as his mind connected the dots in real time—this woman with the headphones and sunglasses—his very own post office colleague, who was sorting the mail with him in this very moment—was an actual recording artist, live and in person! As Willis waited to be clued into just what was going on, that’s when the words finally came to him:

You’re Betty Willis!” Reichardt exclaimed.

“Yeah? And?” Willis sat unimpressed by Reichardt’s pronouncement of the obvious.

But what the young man said next would not only capture Willis’s attention but ultimately link the two together for decades to come:

“I have your record.”

The Soul Singer

Throughout the 60s, Betty Willis recorded music in Hollywood and worked with Phil Spector, Leon Russell, and other big industry names. 

Betty Jane Willis was just two when, in the early 1940s, her family pulled up stakes in the South and went west, eventually settling in California.

As she reached her 20s, Willis settled in Santa Ana, some 30 miles south of Los Angeles. It was around this time that she began finding her voice as a professional singer. By the early 1960s, Willis was booking vocal work at various recording studios around L.A., laying down tracks for Leon Russell and then-fledgling producer Phil Spector. Willis also provided harmony vocals for other acts, cut a handful of solo singles, and even recorded a duet with Bill Medley, one half of the famed Righteous Brothers duo.

Its something about luck,but lucksounds too easy. I just don’t know. I know a lot of singers that should have made it, but for whatever reason, it never happened for them.”
–Bill Medley, speaking to LAMag about Betty Willis

But by the winter of 1964, Willis found herself pregnant and alone. The following year, she gave birth to her first and only child, a daughter she called Stephanie. 

Aside from a few jukebox singles and a handful of one-off recordings, a complete picture of Willis’s recording history remains elusive. However, in recent decades, thanks to YouTube and record buff database websites, more Betty Willis recordings have surfaced.

Also proving elusive for Willis was any sort of fame or mainstream success in the music business. By the end of the 1970s, studio work and live gigs had all but disappeared from her schedule, making it clear to the single mom that a viable career in the often tricky music industry just wasn’t in the stars. Nonetheless, Willis continued showcasing her high-powered vocals to friends and family, occasionally still performing at small venues and other local events. But before the end of the decade, Willis was done—even with the small gigs. The single mom’s dream of making it as a professional singer was to remain just a dream.

Betty Willis attends a live music event, pictured here with Bill Medley

Her focus shifted to motherhood. The time had come to raise her young daughter and secure a steady, decent-paying day job. For Willis, that steady nine-to-five came when she joined the U.S. Postal Service, assigned to Santa Ana’s busy mail hub on North Grand Avenue.

The Postal Service would become the one-time soul singer’s best-paying gig. Sure, it was a hell of a lot less interesting than recording music in Hollywood, but it was where Willis found a steady paycheck and a bit of certainty. Still, it must have been a heartbreaking decision. But it was where she was to remain until her retirement some two decades later. 

How and why Willis ended up homeless is not entirely clear. By most accounts, her unhoused life—which began sometime in the 1990s—seemed to be much more of a choice than anything else. Confused and disappointed by reality one too many times, the fierce and independent-minded Willis was determined to create a way of life that worked for her, regardless of whether those closest to her could understand or accept her chosen path.

“She always enjoyed her independence. She was definitely a free spirit.” said Walker, her daughter, later adding, “She dealt with a lot of racism. And I’ve seen it.” 

In 2018, speaking to the Orange County Register about her mother’s life and sudden exit from the music industry, Walker explained that her mom had grown frustrated after some apparently mishandled documents forced her to cancel a major concert tour in Africa. 

“My mom was worldly. She loved to read about everything—different tribes, different places in the world, different places to visit. Different music,” Walker told LAMag.

By the end of her life, Willis was like any other douting grandmother who visited her grandkids frequently. She played the usual part, her family says; but the difference was that when the rest of the family went to their homes, Willis did not. Visits with family would always end the same—after a visit, Willis would refuse to stay over and insist she be dropped off back on the street, preferring to be on her own. That’s because Betty Willis, it seems, had arrived at a place in the world that was all her own. Now, when life handed her lemons, she refused to accept them; perhaps she was unable to trust the tree from which they grew.

Justice For Betty

November 2021

Perched high above the rowdy streets of Santa Ana is where I find the public affairs office of the Orange County District Attorney. Nestled safely in the trees, an impressive eight stories up, the DA’s office has its own unique view of the streets it seeks to protect. The black-and-white contrast between street-level Santa Ana and life in the towering 11-story administrative complex, jutting out above the Orange Coast fog, couldn’t be more clear.

By October of 2021, I’m getting restless—and absolutely nowhere—while seeking answers from the DA’s office. Just as the city of Detroit was honoring the memory of Aretha Franklin—renaming a Michigan post office in honor of the Queen of Soul—I can’t stop thinking about the lives of these two women—the similarities, differences, and the three years that have gone by since both Franklin and Willis died. One, a headline-making, record-breaking icon in her life and death. The other, about to be forgotten. 

As Thanksgiving approaches, I make my way into the lobby of the Orange County Superior Court’s Central Justice Center in Santa Ana, determined to track down someone who can tell me something—anything—about the Betty Willis case. After about half an hour of waiting, an attractive blonde woman sporting an electric lime green dress breezes past a lobby security guard. She scans her plastic ID badge and then buzzes through a second set of glass doors, disappearing into an elevator bound for the eighth floor. The petite woman with heavy yet tasteful makeup is the district attorney’s spokesperson, Kimberly Edds. She’s already exasperated this Monday morning amid multiple failed attempts at logging into her computer.

“All these passwords,” she sighs.

After months of my own dead-end attempts to connect with anyone at her office, I share with her my own frustrations over being unable to get basic information from her office. As she works to gain access to her computer, I explain that I’m researching Willis’s case for a story I’m writing. She tells me she’s happy to assist in whatever way she can. 

She continues clicking away at her keyboard, to no avail. Our small talk is dwindling down and we’re still not logged in. “Let’s do this,” she proposes, explaining we will now relocate to another computer. We end up at a small stand-alone desk outside the doors of her spacious office—at a cubicle labeled INTERN. Once there, we huddle together in front of a computer screen and input Willis’s case number. As we scroll, Ms. Edds confides to me that she’s puzzled by my interest in Willis’s case. “I don’t see what’s so special here,” she says while paging down through the digital case file. 

Once more, I’m getting the sense that the rape and murder of Betty Jane Willis—for whatever reason—simply isn’t this office’s highest priority. I soon learn that my sense is spot on, at least on this particular day.

The current focus of the DA’s office is, in fact, a New Year’s murder—just not that of Betty Willis. The office is abuzz this Monday morning as they prepare for the verdict of a trial involving a much more headline-friendly murder than “Homeless Woman;” today’s big case includes SEO-perfect keywords and phrases, including “love triangle killer” and “meat cleaver as weapon.”

Suddenly, Edds and I are out of time. 

After printing out a publicly available case event log and handing it to me, the spokeswoman said she was short on time. She then graciously provides me with her personal number, instructing me to contact her directly should I have any additional questions about the case. 

I took her up on the offer. I’m still waiting to hear back from Ms. Edds.

A review of court records paints the picture of a case effortlessly free-falling through the long ago formed cracks of a tired and broken system. A system that’s in anything but a hurry. The case against Pec appears suspended in time—but why isn’t entirely clear. Public court documents reviewed by LAMag offer a couple of clues: COVID and apparent language barriers.

Initial scheduling conflicts in early 2018 appear to have been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Six different public defenders have been assigned to the case over a four-year period, as Pec appears to have held up proceedings. Then came further COVID-related delays. Documents reveal one of the most significant and repeated delays over the last four and a half years has been the result of an apparent communication barrier between Pec and the court. A number of paid translators—including one flown in from Salt Lake City and certified in the ancient Mayan language K’iche’—have been summoned on multiple occasions to facilitate clear communication between Pec and his multiple public defenders.

This has some scratching their heads in confusion and frustration. One law enforcement official close to the case (who is fluent in both English and Spanish) indicated that previous verbal interactions with the suspect had been “very clear,” suggesting that Pec may not only understand but possibly comprehend Spanish.

What’s more, the suspect’s initial police interrogation on the morning of the alleged attack lasted for more than 45 minutes and was conducted entirely in Spanish.

Rosendo Xo Pec
Rosendo X. Pec was 22 years old when he allegedly attacked 76-year-old Betty Willis in 2018… (Santa Ana Police Department)

Very little is known about Pec, the young man charged with raping and killing Willis. What little we do know came shortly after his January 2018 arrest—and just before the Orange County District Attorney’s office stopped responding to media inquiries about Willis’s case. 

Senior Deputy District Attorney Mark Birney temporarily opened up about the alleged killer’s background when speaking to The Register in 2018. Birney told the newspaper that Pec emigrated from Guatemala, arriving in the U.S. by way of Galveston, Texas, some four years prior to the murder.

When approached in January—almost four years to the day of Willis’s murder—Birney had little to say about the case and its slow-motion progress.

“The delays have to do with our court system and issues with the defense,” Birney said. “Mr. Pec uses the services of the K’iche’ interpreter, a unique and sort of exotic interpreter.”

Exotic and presumably expensive, too.

Rosendo Pec is charged with murder with an enhanced rape charge, which could lead to life in prison without the possibility of parole. A recent court hearing was scheduled for the end of August, but on August 26, the trial date was once again kicked down the road. This time until October. 

Outside the courthouse last week, following yet another postponed hearing, Willis’s 57-year-old daughter Stephanie Walker broke down in tears, explaining that if she doesn’t fight for her mother, no one will.

“I just know that I have to be the one to fight for her. It’s like everyone else has forgotten about her,” she said. “And that’s why I’m trying to make sure that people know she was somebody—she was loved.”

A Final Duet

Two years before the killing of Betty Willis, the young man who had enthusiastically befriended her decades earlier while sorting mail on North Grand Avenue, found himself still thinking about Ms. Willis.

Now in his early 50s, edging ever so close to retirement, Reichardt’s fascination with music hadn’t changed one bit. But it seemed everything else had. The Walkman was replaced by the iPhone, headphones were now earbuds; and colorful postage stamps (once 15 cents) had somehow become bland, QR-coded labels (now 49 cents).

Still employed with the Postal Service at the time, Reichardt’s lifelong hobby of record collecting had evolved. Now portions of his music collection had even gone digital, as he shared a number of his rare LPs online, uploading them to his personal YouTube channel. Whether fully realizing it or not, his simple act of dusting off the old tracks, one by one in his spare time, was bringing to life old, forgotten songs—many of which had never before been heard online. Reichardt was potentially giving Willis an eternal fanbase each time he clicked upload.

But now he wasn’t just reflecting on memories of his old friend Betty, he had now begun actively searching for her. And his search wasn’t taking place online, but on the streets of Santa Ana. Reichardt got word from a longtime post office customer about a particular area of town where Willis might be living. That’s when he learned Betty was unhoused, spending her nights sleeping on streets and in walkways. Taken aback, he immediately compartmentalized that unexpected detail, refusing to let it distract or delay his objective of reuniting with his old friend.

It was almost like I cracked open something that had been closed off, you know? I will never forget that day.”
— ANTHONY Reichardt

Reichardt combed through his expansive collection of albums and gathered up the 7-inch Rendezvous Records and Phi-Dan vinyl singles Willis had released in the early 60s. He then printed photocopies of the 45s labels, making certain the artist’s name BETTY WILLIS was clearly visible. Armed with the evidence of her singing past, he took it with him to a community center, where he was told Willis would frequent.

“I found all this eBay stuff and I printed it all out,” he says.

Volunteers at the local community center were surprised and impressed to learn of Willis’s soul-singing past as a recording artist—something they say she never spoke of.

Unfortunately for Reichardt, none of the center’s volunteers had seen Willis for some time. They did share with him, however, that there was a nearby park Willis had been known to spend time at—maybe he’d have better luck finding her there.

A man on a mission, Reichardt was soon circling the park. Eventually, he noticed an older Black woman sitting alone beneath a tree. Could it be? Hard to say as so many decades separated this moment from the first. And, anyway, what are the chances? But then something caught his attention. He noticed a familiar accessory being worn by the woman alone under the tree: her sunglasses.

“Betty?” he cautiously inquired, leaning out his car window, “Betty Willis?”

The woman looked up. It was Betty Willis.

“Let me park!” Reichardt calmly yelled out the window, as if absolutely no space or time had ever existed between this day and the day the pair first met back in 1980. “I can’t believe I found you.”

There she was. Older, yet still attractive—and, of course—still wearing those signature dark shades.

Betty Willis photographed by a family member in her later years

Reichardt remembers in vivid detail just how Willis looked that day at the park: sporting a spotless, wrinkle-free white shirt with matching scuff-free, bright white shoes and fitted jeans.

As he stepped out of his car, he tried to reconcile the image of a homeless person society had programmed into his mind with the woman standing before him. “It’s confusing to me,” Reichardt recalled a few years later. “Her nails were done, hair done. Everything.”

The two sat in the park and chatted, both once again oblivious to the world around them. Reichardt was impressed with Willis’s detailed recollection of years gone by—names of old post office colleagues he’d forgotten about to first-hand accounts of recording sessions at Gold Star Studios up in Hollywood—stories only someone like Willis could know about. Lost in conversation, memories, and music, nearly two hours had now come and gone. Reichardt knew it would soon be time to say goodbye.

But before the reunion could end, he had one last surprise. “Let’s get in the car!” he told his friend.

He said he had something special he had to share with her.

Once in the car, Reichardt presented Willis with online printouts highlighting how much her hard-to-find records were selling for on marketplaces like eBay. “You’re known the world over!” he insisted, encouraging her to tell her grandkids about her musical past.

Reichardt then placed a burned audio CD into his car’s stereo system. As the first track played out, he was transported back to the summer day in 1980 when the unlikely duo first met, sorting mail and singing her songs at a Santa Ana post office.

When he glanced over at Willis in the passenger seat, Reichardt understood he wasn’t traveling alone on this trip back in time. “It was almost like I cracked open something that had been closed off, you know?” he later recalled. “I will never forget that day.”

As he turned up the volume, the familiar opening lines of “Act Naturally” rang out through the car’s stereo speakers. Willis stared straight ahead and out the front window, as a tear escaped the lower edge of her sunglasses.

“They’re gonna put me in the movies / they’re gonna make a big star out of me . . .”

Gently swaying back and forth to the rhythm of her own beat, Betty Willis seemed to finally accept what her friend had been telling her all along: “This is so damn good.”

Soul singer Betty Willis

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