Dove tales: CIU interview casts doubt on Detroit firefighter death conviction
Fire wall: The case of Mario Willis (part III)
PUBLISHED Dec 20, 2023
Detroit firefighter Walter Harris was killed in a Nov. 15, 2008 blaze.
Last year, we covered the case of Mario Willis, who supporters say was wrongfully sentenced for up to 30 years behind bars following a 2008 blaze that resulted in the death of a Detroit firefighter. This week, our investigation continues.
Apart from lingering grief among loved ones and colleagues of the late firefighter Walter Harris, several familiar with his case say one thing hasn’t changed in 15 years since Harris’s death: Darian Dove is a liar.
Dove, 54, is serving a second-degree murder sentence at Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson after setting the Nov. 15, 2008 blaze that left Harris dead in an east-side Detroit house. Advocates for Mario Willis, who Dove implicated in Harris’s killing, say a recording recently obtained by Metro Times further proves Willis was wrongfully convicted and should be freed after 14 years in prison.
“The bottom line is, when it comes to Darian Dove, you can’t believe anything he says,” says Craig A. Daly, Willis’s appellate lawyer.
Recorded during the summer of 2023, Dove’s telephone interview with Valerie Newman, director of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit, adds to a growing litany of contradictions about how Willis allegedly convinced Dove to burn the home at 7418 East Kirby, so Willis could collect insurance profits. Daly and others who support Willis’s innocence say the only accurate version of why Harris was killed lies in what Dove titled the “Truth Statement” – a handwritten 2010 letter in which Dove explains how he accidentally set the fire while trying to heat the house. Dove, who worked as a maintenance contractor for Willis, admits in the letter that he used keys to enter 7418 East Kirby without Willis’s knowledge, so he could entertain a woman identified only as “Felisha.”
Darian Dove testified that Willis paid him $20 to set the fire before recanting the story.
In a later affidavit, dated March 26, 2014, Dove reiterates, “Mario Willis had nothing to do with the fire.”
“During their interrogations,” he adds, “the police insisted that I was paid by Mario to set the fire and they told me I could be forgiven for the fire if Mario paid me to set it. They made the idea seem very appealing and they pushed very hard for me to adopt their story.”
But during the recorded interview with Newman Dove claims no memory of the sworn statement. In fact, he tells Newman and investigator Tracy Weinert, who also participates in the conversation, that Willis is “trying to play innocent” by asking that the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) review his case.
“Now the tables are turned,” Dove tells Newman.
Newman later declined to recommend Willis’s exoneration, saying that her findings weren’t strongly enough in his favor. Newman did not respond to a request to speak with Metro Times.
Mario Willis is serving a 30-year minimum sentence for the 2008 blaze that killed firefighter Walter Harris.
“They are supposed to uphold justice, and to hear this man give different stories than what he testified to on the stand, it’s disheartening,” Willis, 42, says in a telephone call from Saginaw Correctional Facility.
Dove’s latest contradictions, which Willis and supporters call outright lies, range from disparaging to near-comical, such as when he claims to have entered 7418 East Kirby holding a pistol and flashlight “just like a officer would do.” Dove tells Newman he wanted to be sure no one was at the vacant rental property before setting the fire, never explaining why he’d need Willis’s firearm for potential vagrants.
“Never,” Willis says when asked if he gave Dove the pistol licensed to Willis.
“When you take the class [to carry a concealed weapon] they tell you that no one is to ever be in possession of your pistol except for you,” he says.
Willis further insists that he would never put Dove, also known as “Gino,” and who Willis and his parents treated as family, in position to compromise his own freedom.
“It’s not like Gino was some horrible person, but I knew he had a criminal record. Let’s just say that,” adds Willis. “He was trying to turn his life around and I was trying to assist him in that way.”
While Dove’s multiple stories — one even claiming that Willis grew impatient from waiting outside, then joined Dove in the house and set the blaze himself — only mention a $20 payment, Dove tells Newman and Weinert that Willis promised him $5,000 of anticipated insurance proceeds. His only mention of $20 in roughly an hour of dialogue is when he newly alleges that Willis threw money from the window of Willis’s SUV because Dove was calling 911 from a pay phone after the blaze ignited. Willis ordered Dove to take the cash and find a way home, Dove claims.
It’s not lost on Bill Proctor, private investigator of the Willis conviction and former WXYZ Channel 7 television reporter, that Dove had never offered details like the $5,000 bounty, in or out of a courtroom.
“It’s not true. He’s a hateful, vindictive liar,” Proctor says. “It’s just unfortunate that he turned on the family that adopted him.”
Proctor’s “vindictive” label stems from Dove’s repeated references in the CIU interview to the amount Willis paid Dove for maintenance work. While acknowledging that Willis let him and his girlfriend live rent-free in one of Willis’s properties, Dove tells Newman that he was underpaid no fewer than five times within the first 20 minutes of the recording.
At another point Newman asks Dove if he has contacted Willis’s family since being convicted, which Dove denies. But a May 1, 2010 letter signed “D. Dove” and mailed from the prison where he was then held tells Maxine Willis, Mario’s mother, “I miss y’all” and “I am so, so sorry.”
Darian Dove, key witness against Mario Willis, who supporters say was wrongfully convicted in a firefighter's death, denies sending mail to Willis's family. The envelope pictured shows a return address to Dove at a jail facility.
For nearly 10 minutes after Newman and Weinert try to end the phone call, Dove continues, expressing concern that he won’t receive more prison time; during this part of the interview Proctor notes that Dove places himself and Felisha at 7418 East Kirby. While Dove doesn’t tell Newman the story he originally told detectives about accidentally setting the fire, he admits to having taken Felisha to the home — which is consistent with his “Truth Statement” and other written statements from two men who say Dove gave them matching accounts of the accident.
Newman reportedly told Willis and Daly the CIU could revisit the case if new evidence becomes available. Willis says he’d be encouraged if Detroit Fire Department Commissioner Chuck Simms speaks up: Simms, who was the arson investigator in Harris’s death, is recorded on video discussing Willis’s alibi for the night of the fire, but has declined numerous media and personal requests, including a letter from Willis’s mother, to confirm the discussion. Prosecutors at Willis’s trial argued that Willis never told investigators he’d spent the night of the fire with his future wife, Megan.
“An officer like Simms, his testimony is held to a higher standard,” Willis says. “We know you’re not going to lie… There’s a lifestyle behind that. There’s everything the oath stands for.”
Meanwhile, Daly says Dove’s “fabrication” still provides information that can be included in supplemental pleadings to the motion for relief from judgment he’ll file on Willis’s behalf next year, but Daly is disturbed by what he calls CIU’s cursory approach to topics about which they knew Dove lied.
“They were not doing an objective investigation,” adds Daly. “They were engaged in confirmation bias to reach a conclusion that Mario was convicted and was going to stay in prison.”
Willis says the CIU findings add to his disappointment with local agencies that helped convict him. His real estate and business investments once earned him formal commendation.
“I rock with my city!” he says. “Everything I owned was in the city — and this is what it is?”