His life began to unravel when he fell behind in paying child support and lost his apartment. Then both of his parents and a sister died in 1998, "and he just fell off the map," said his daughter, Shannon Royal.
"We didn't hear from him for 3 or 4 years," she said. "The phone number was disconnected, the letters came back. Then somebody called and said they'd found my dad, and he was homeless."
Her father may not have had a home in Los Angeles, but he had a family.
Sgt. Baumann made regular trips to the 99 Cents Only store to get the specific brand of oatmeal cookies Willis craved. "Because," she said, "if that was my family member, I'd want somebody to get them whatever stupid cookies they liked."
Lori Weise drove from Altadena to South L.A. one Christmas Eve to make sure that Willis wasn't alone. "I can't tell you how many people came by with gifts and food," she recalled. "I said 'Wow, this man is loved.' "
Willis will be buried on Saturday in his Mississippi hometown. His daughter had been trying for several years to persuade him to return home or move in with her in Atlanta. But he always refused, obsessed with the idea that people were looking for him.
Royal surprised her father with a visit five years ago, bringing her husband and three children. He was embarrassed by his circumstances, but happy in their company. He took the family along on a recycling expedition and gave his grandchildren the $130 that he earned. His daughter bought him a cellphone and took him shopping at the Crenshaw mall.
It's been painful for Royal to think of her father living on the street, she said. Some family members are ashamed; they don't like the picture on her Facebook page of him surrounded by pigeons.
But she takes comfort in the thought that so many strangers took her father into their hearts.
"It's an honor that somebody would take interest in him. He was homeless, you know. But they knew what kind of person he was," she said.
"He didn't hurt anybody. He kept the street clean. He's a good man. There was a lot of people who loved him."