MANATEE -- “In the gym, he was always a gentleman. In the ring, he was ferocious.”
That’s how Tommy Pettiti described former professional boxer Willie “The Cannon” Shannon.
“He was a talented fighter,” said Pettiti, who used to throw punches with Shannon.
Those who know Shannon remained in shock Wednesday after they learned he was picked up by Las Vegas police in Parrish for the 1981 slaying of a Las Vegas beauty queen.
Shannon, 60, who was arrested in connection with the 1981 rape and brutal murder of 18-year-old Jamey Walker, has resided in the area for years after he settled here in the late 1980s.
Pettiti, public relations coordinator with Sarasota Boxing Club, first met Shannon ring side in 1987 at the club when it was still located at Sixth and Central.
“That’s sad to hear,” Pettiti said. “A lot of people looked up to him and admired him as a fighter.”
Shannon would come out of the corner like someone coming out of the cage, he said.
“He was ready to go. He was someone who didn’t hold back. He was just always ready to fight,” Pettiti said of the cruiserweight with a winning record.
Aside from sparring together, Pettiti would also tutor Shannon in reading, writing and basic math.
“He was so nice. He was eager to learn,” Pettiti remembers. “He had what I thought was a huge heart in and out of the ring.”
But that’s not the picture detectives at Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department painted of Shannon, of whom they kept tabs on for years.
Shannon was taken into custody Tuesday in Parrish without incident. He will be extradited to face charges of murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.
“Initially, he was named as a suspect back then,” said Las Vegas Metropolitan Cold Case Detail Sgt. Jon Scott in a telephone interview. “There just wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove it. It just took a long time to get the physical evidence so we could confirm it. DNA technology evidence advanced enough to be able to assist us.”
Shannon’s DNA was found on Walker’s underwear. The two never dated or had a relationship, according to authorities.
Walker’s body was found on Mother’s Day, May 10, 1981, by Marine Corps sergeants completing an exercise at Lake Mead National Conservation area near a bridge along rocky desert terrain, according to the warrant.
Walker’s face, jaw and skull were fractured. She had other broken bones and lacerations. An autopsy showed she died from a massive skull facture after she was flung from the bridge.
Shannon lived near Walker at the time of her abduction.
When detectives questioned him then, he told them he didn’t know her very well and that she didn’t appear to be friendly. He said he was training for boxing when she went missing.
Walker’s mother told detectives Shannon used to regularly run by their home and stare. Walker told her mother she disliked Shannon and he tried to flirt with her, according to the warrant.
The kidnappers called Walker’s father days before her death demanding $75,000 in ransom. Rumors circulated Walker’s family lost money from a bad drug deal and dealers retaliated by kidnapping the 18-year-old girl. Walker’s family members passed a polygraph test when asked if Jamey’s death was drug-related.
“I’ve got your daughter. And I’m not kidding because we’ve gone too far to turn around,” the kidnapper said in a phone call.
The family was told they were being watched and not to contact authorities. A day before her death, Jamey was allowed to call home. She said they would be releasing her, according to the warrant.
Detectives from Las Vegas flew to Manatee County in 2006 and interviewed Shannon again.
“We were hoping he would confess,” Scott said.
After his arrest this week, Shannon has not provided any new information to detectives.
Shannon, who used to fight at venues, including Caesar’s Palace when he lived in Las Vegas, continued fighting when he moved to Florida after completing a four-year prison sentence in Nevada. He was convicted in 1984 for a charge of battery with intent to commit a crime.
That conviction stemmed from a case where he was accused of attacking and kidnapping another young woman. While in prison, Shannon made statements to another inmate about Walker’s slaying and a botched drug deal.
“He certainly had a checkered past to say the least,” Scott said, noting Shannon had a record of arrests for robbery and attempted murder in Florida in 1968.
In recent years, two detectives worked on the case using a federal grant to pay for lab and travel expenses. Over the years, as many as 10 different detectives investigated, Scott said.
In Manatee, Shannon had no arrest record for violent crime. He had a 2001 arrest for forgery and petit theft. Court records show he was father to a few children as well.
“I find it hard to believe that he straightened up after he left here,” Scott said. “My assumption is he continued -- he just may not have been caught.”