by Richard Senate
He was the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Ventura but he was much more than a religious leader in the community. He was a fixture in town, always speaking up for the underdog on local radio and newspapers. Anyone who attended his sermons will recall his dry humor and booming voice. He had once been trained as an actor, even appearing in films in that era, before movies could talk.
That was before he received the call to the pulpit. He was serving as a prison chaplain at Walla Walla, Washington State Penitentiary when he learned one of the convicts, Clarence Boggie, confessed he was innocent of the murder of a man that had seen him sentenced to life in prison. He believed the man and took up the cause of reopening the case to see if his account of what happened was true. At that time mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner had written that he was going to start a group to investigate people wrongly convicted of major crimes. He called it the “Count of Last Resort”.
Argosy Magazine saw it as a public relations stunt, but Garner believed it could make a real difference. Reverend Gilbert made the long drive from Walla Walla to Temecula where Gardner had his home then. He presented the facts of the Boggie case to the mystery author. The two men became fast friends. Investigators were called in, the new lie detector used, and it was found that Mr. Boggie wasn’t even in the same town when the murder took place.
Gardner wrote up the findings in the magazine and the case was reopened, leading to the release of Clarence Boggie with a full pardon. It became the first of many cases that saw 100 men and women investigated with over half released.
It is interesting to note that not one of the released convicts ever went back to a life of crime. Mr. Boggie himself, married his childhood sweetheart, built a cabin and then died of a massive heart attack three months after his release–but he died a free man.
When Gardner learned that a position was open for a new rector in Ventura, where he had once lived, he told Rev. Gilbert to apply. William got the job and moved his family to Ventura. He would continue to help with the Court of Last Resort and built the new church that still stands on Loma Vista. The two men worked together for many years, and when Erle Gardner passed away, Rev. Bill Gilbert gave the eulogy at this funeral service. After his retirement, and when Rev. Gilbert passed on to his reward, as was his wish, he was buried at the church he loved, a truly remarkable man.