The Carter Family's Blackest Sheep Recalls An Errant Youth—and Sees a New Start in Marriage

updated 04/09/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/09/1979 01:00AM

If the White House pays less than avuncular attention to the California wedding this week of Jimmy Carter's nephew Willie Carter Spann, no one will be less surprised than Willie, who considers himself the reigning black sheep of the family. "Someone has to be," he says with a shrug, "and Billy is in retirement."

Willie is being modest. His credentials as a rascal and rakehell utterly eclipse Billy's. Now in California's Vacaville prison on charges of armed robbery, Willie has been, at one time or another, a thief, a pimp and a drug dealer—"in constant trouble," as Uncle Jimmy once put it, "all his adult life."

Until recently Willie, 32, has seldom spoken about his famous relatives. Now, however, as he prepares to marry Jane Frey, an insurance broker nearly 10 years his senior, Willie seems in the retrospective mood of a man about to turn over a new leaf—affording a rare underview of that model of front-porch Americana: Plains, Ga.

Willie says his father, William Hardy, was an Air Force captain and test pilot who turned to crime and died in prison. He and Jimmy Carter's sister Gloria were divorced before Willie was 5, and until she remarried Willie lived with his grandparents, Earl Carter and Miz Lillian, who, Willie says gratefully, "raised me as a son." (Lillian still writes once a month.) After Gloria remarried, she and her new husband, Walter Spann, eventually decided that Willie was too much for them to handle. He was packed off to stay with Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Rosalynn. "They were kind to me," Willie allows, but "life there was very strict. It was a lesson in being square, an exercise in fading away. I was so nervous that I had to get relief some way—so I sneaked booze wherever I could find it, ripped off a grocery store and got caught."

After only two weeks with Uncle Jimmy, Willie was sent to a military school, having, by age 12, developed a taste for drugs and liquor. He enlisted in the Air Force, he says, at 17—and left three years later with not one but two bad-conduct discharges.

Back home things didn't work out any better than before. Willie tangled with Uncle Billy, who, Willie recalls, "tried to rip the ignition wires out of my truck, claiming I was too drunk to drive. He was too drunk to fight. I left Plains."

After a brief career in TV repair and dealing grass in L.A., Willie hitchhiked cross-country with an 18-year-old pal named Susan, whom he married in Stillwater, Okla. They paused for a visit in Plains, then moseyed on down to Florida, where Willie borrowed Susan's mother's car, drove it to California, promptly sold it, and got himself convicted for grand theft auto. Out on parole, he drifted into L.A., where "dusk to dawn it was life in the fast lane." It was fast enough to send him to San Quentin and Soledad for 42 months when he failed to convince a California cop that the straight razor he was carrying was only for shaving. In prison Willie accepted a homosexual lover. "You take it where you can get it," he says.

Once outside he went to San Francisco. There, he confesses, "I was a 24-hour-a-day speed freak, heroin addict, armed robber, burglar, pimp, dealer—and an escort to old people, so they could leave their hotel rooms without being mugged. Life was like nothing I can explain."

It lasted until a friend made the mistake of trying to burglarize an elderly woman's house while she was home. Caught the next day, he broke down and implicated Willie in no fewer than nine robberies. "The police grabbed their shotguns and M-16s and came after me—and there I was, this little old snake-bitten junkie, just sitting there."

That was 1976, and when Willie turned to his famous clan for help, he says, "I was told that everyone was too tied up in the campaign. So I went to court with a drunk public defender, copped a plea and got all they could give me: 10-to-life."

That would have been it for Willie, he implies, if it hadn't been for the appearance of Jane Frey, a 41-year-old, Sorbonne-educated divorcée from San Francisco. Introduced by a mutual friend, they spent every Saturday or Sunday for six months talking at the prison until, as she recalls, "finally one day he said, 'I guess we'd better get married.' "

"I think things are going to work out for us," says Frey, "and I'm not just being an optimist. I really believe Willie wants to make it." He will get his chance when he is freed on parole next Christmas Eve. Meanwhile he'll have to make do with monthly conjugal visits (five hours in a mobile trailer) and the dubious honor of sharing protective custody inside the prison with cult killer Charles Manson. "He's a friend," admits Willie. "I listen to him mutter and rant all day and half the night." At least he benefits by the comparison. "The guards smile at me and feel good," says Willie, "knowing they have at least one true aristocrat in their midst."

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