January 2, 2023 | By: Lauren Connell

This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class.

Willis McLendon had a reputation for being the kindest human being. He had a big heart and would befriend anyone he encountered. His mother Rita Shaw said, “Everyone called him sunshine because his smile brightened the world.” Willis would smile so big you could barely see his eyes. Willis was popular for all the right reasons; his heart of gold always shined through.

One day, Willis never returned from a trip to Walmart. He had promised his pregnant girlfriend, that he would accompany her to a doctor’s appointment that afternoon. Willis never showed up. Every day his mother called him on her way to work, on the day he went missing all she got was his voicemail. It was not like him to be gone for long periods and not tell anyone. After over 24 hours of no contact from Willis, the whole family started calling everyone who knew him. The family posted missing person flyers, and search parties began to scour the area.

The family didn’t feel like the police took his disappearance seriously, Willis’s family lost faith in the justice system. Willis’s mother and aunt began their own investigation. On January 15, 2007, 2 weeks after his 20th birthday, Willis’s body was found by a CSX railroad worker on New Town Road, in Monroe, North Carolina by a CSX railroad worker. He had been shot to death. Willis had a contagious smile and a beautiful soul. He was born and raised in Monroe, North Carolina. At the time of his death, Willis had just started classes at South Piedmont Community College, still figuring out what he wanted to do in life.

Willis was not like other 19-year-old men. He drove like an old man and ironed his undershirt. He was always very particular and neat. Willis was raised to be a gentleman. His mother gave birth to him at the age of 17, and he was always a mama’s boy. The three of them, including Willis’ younger brother Derick, lived in the boys’ grandmother’s home. Willis was very old school due to his grandmother helping to raise him. Attention to detail was everything to Willis. His grandmother had multiple little rugs in her home. When he vacuumed, he took the time to attend to each rug and make sure everything was perfect. He refused to wear his black shirts if they faded; they had to be the exact shade as the day he got them. Willis scrubbed his shoes clean with toothbrushes and he got up at 5 a.m. to iron his clothes, always with his trademark smile.

Willis always showed his girlfriend how much he appreciated her by sporadically doing thoughtful things for her. Once he borrowed a coworker’s car to drive up the street just to visit her at work for a split second. Willis’s girlfriend, Brooke stated, “The love me and Willis shared was a blessing and that very few people will experience a love like it in their lifetime. “According to Willis’ mother, he called every fish he caught the “biggest in the world” and every pair of shoes or new clothing item he wanted was somehow cheaper than they were. The pair of shoes he wanted was somehow half off.

The moment the family knew Willis was truly gone, they felt like a chunk of life had been ripped from them. Willis was the core of his family and the soulmate of his girlfriend. In his family’s eyes, they have photos and memories to look back on. Brooke and Willis only shared a few months together, but they will always share their beautiful daughter. Despite dying while Brooke was still pregnant, Willis was able to name his baby girl. Willis lives on in his daughter in the little details they share. Like her father, the little girl loves very deeply and brings so much light to her family. And like her father, her smile brightens the world.

If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Willis McLendon, please call the Union County Sheriff’s Office Investigations Division at (704) 283-3722.

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If you have a loved one that is the victim of an unsolved homicide, please submit their case here for consideration in a future Cold Case Spotlight post.

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