Former Long Beach City Councilman James H. Wilson died of an apparent heart attack Thursday, about a month after he was sentenced to three years in prison for mail fraud.
Wilson, 58, a councilman for 16 years before resigning in May, had appealed the sentence. He was at home early Thursday when he began suffering chest pains. Paramedics rushed him to St. Mary Medical Center, but his heart had stopped and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, a spokeswoman for the Long Beach hospital said.
Wilson was convicted in April on 21 fraud counts for accepting about $54,000 between 1978 and 1983 from fireworks manufacturer and convicted political fixer W. Patrick Moriarty. A federal court jury in Los Angeles found that Wilson accepted the money in exchange for his support of fireworks legislation.
Wilson had a long history of heart problems, and friends said they were sure that the indictment and trial helped bring on his death.
"It definitely did," said Long Beach Mayor Ernie Kell. "To be under that cloud of suspicion was very, very difficult for him. But he never thought he was going to jail. He thought the appeal was going to remove that cloud."
Wilson's attorneys argued two months ago that a trial could threaten his life. But U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie denied a motion to delay, saying that the councilman had run for office three times since his heart condition was diagnosed and was planning to seek reelection.
Popular with both council colleagues and his central city constituents, Wilson received a council commendation for his years of "dedicated service" on May 13, three days before Rafeedie sentenced him to prison on a single fraud count and suspended the other 20 counts.
The council, in an unusual action, had formally requested that Rafeedie place Wilson on probation, rather than send him to prison. Council members have said that Wilson, a one-time City Hall janitor who directed anti-poverty job programs before his election in 1970, was one of the city's most effective legislators.
Said Mayor Kell, "Those of us who worked with him or knew him had the deepest respect for him. When I think of Jim, I'll think of all the good things he did for this community."
Residents and organizations from Wilson's 6th District joined the council in requesting leniency. And some of the city's most prominent officials and businessmen--including the city attorney, city prosecutor and president of the police officers' union--contributed to a Wilson legal defense fund that received about $20,000 in donations.
The judge noted Wilson's "impressive array of support" but said that Wilson's "breach of public trust" required a more severe penalty.
Held Special Place
As the only black ever to serve in an elective position in Long Beach, Wilson held a special place in his central city community, said Frank Berry, president of the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Jim was the only true representative of the black community as far as an elected official, so his role was very special," Berry said. "Because they didn't have a representative on the Board of Education, people would come to Jim with education-related problems. They'd come to him with all kind of problems."
Wilson will be remembered, Berry said, not for his felony convictions, but as the person who demonstrated that the government system could work for blacks in Long Beach as well as for whites.
Berry said he was shocked by Wilson's death, since he had spoken to his old friend a few hours earlier. "He was feeling real well, probably better than I've seen him act and talk for three or four months," Berry said. "He was able to smile and laugh a little, kind of like his old self."
Wilson was indicted in January as part of a continuing public corruption investigation by local and federal officials into Moriarty's activities. Of those charged so far, nine have either been convicted or pleaded guilty, one was acquitted and one case is pending.