GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — By the time his name was called out in federal court Thursday morning, Harrison County Supervisor William Martin was already dead.
Martin had been scheduled to appear at 11 a.m. Thursday to answer to an indictment claiming he took bribes for years and then tried to get a witness to lie about it to a grand jury.
His lawyer, Jim Davis, said Martin was going to plead not guilty, and seemed "strong" when he last talked to the supervisor Wednesday. But by 8 a.m., when pretrial processing was supposed to begin, Martin was nowhere to be seen.
No one in the courtroom on the sixth floor of Gulfport's federal courthouse knew why even three hours later, when U.S. Magistrate Judge John Gargiulo told a court security officer to call the missing defendant's name. "William Martin" echoed three times in the mostly empty courtroom, then three more times outside the courtroom in a lobby with a spectacular view of the Mississippi Sound.
By 11:16 a.m., when Gargiulo issued a bench warrant for Martin's arrest, police officers had already reached his home in a modest suburban neighborhood on Gulfport's north side.
That's where they found him dead in his own bed. According to Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove, Martin shot himself in the head once with a handgun, likely in the early hours of Thursday morning. Martin left a note, although Hargrove declined to disclose its contents.
Rumors that Martin was in legal trouble had circulated for months, although a sealed indictment was returned only last week. The document, unusually short on detail for a federal indictment, alleges that Martin took "multiple things of value from a person" in exchange for official acts between January 2005 and August 2012. The indictment says Martin also accepted "a thing of value from a person" in September or October of 2014.
Finally, the indictment claims that on Dec. 17, 2014, Martin tried to "impede the providing of truthful testimony" by a witness subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury to testify about the bribes.
Officials with the U.S. Attorney's office and the state auditor's office refused to say more about the case against Martin. Employees of state Auditor Stacey Pickering were at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport Thursday morning, examining documents.
Martin could have faced 10 years in prison for each of the two bribery counts and 20 years for witness tampering.
Davis said the charges against Martin were not related to the case of Harrison County Supervisor Kim Savant, who resigned and pleaded guilty in December to taking bribes from Pass Christian contractor Sean Anthony while a member of a countywide sewer authority. Anthony agreed earlier this week to plead guilty to a federal conspiracy charge related to the case. Kamran Pahlavan, the former executive director of the Harrison County Utility Authority, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he took bribes from Anthony and faces trial in July.
A lawyer and former prosecutor, Martin had served as a supervisor of the coast's most populous county since 1999. Divorced with grown children, he was an influential figure in Gulfport's black community. Word of his death brought family and friends, fellow lawyers and law enforcement flocking to his home as police milled around.
Dennis Stevenson, a friend and fraternity brother, described Martin as "a wonderful man, people-centered."
"I talked to him about a week ago and he seemed to be in good spirits," Stevenson said. "It is a shock to all of us."
Neighbor Ramona Bradley came home from work when she heard what happened.
"He was always talking about wrong and right," Bradley said. "I can't believe this happened."
Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy