NEWS: Man Charged with Killing 76-year-old Homeless Woman – a ’60s Soul Singer – During Sexual Assault
A 22-year-old homeless man was charged Wednesday in the murder and attempted rape of a 76-year-old woman who was sleeping in a strip mall parking lot in Santa Ana.
The woman was identified as 1960s soul singer Betty Jane Willis, who recorded the songs “Someday You’ll Need My Love,” “Act Naturally” and “Take My Heart.”
In the early morning hours on New Year’s Day, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office, Rosendo Xo Pec approached Willis and removed her blanket before sexually assaulting her.
Prosecutors allege that Pec punched her multiple times in the head and choked her when she cried for help.
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Born on a farm in Mississippi, Willis moved with her family to Fresno, California, when she was two. In the early 1960s, she moved to Santa Ana and sang in Los Angeles-area nightclubs. Singer Bill Medley, whose career with The Righteous Brothers was just beginning, was told about Willis. Medley and Willis recorded a song together at Gold Star Studios, but it was never released. However, her voice and association with the studio drew notice from producers Phil Spector and Leon Russell, who retooled the country song “Act Naturally” into a rhythm and blues version for Willis in 1965. As part of the duo Betty and Ray, with Ray Lockhart, she also made several other recordings. Her last known recording was in 1968.
According to her daughter, Willis enjoyed a singing career but did not want to be part of the music industry. She also grew frustrated when paperwork was mishandled that scuttled an Africa music tour. She briefly worked in a factory before becoming a postal worker in the 1980s and retired after 37 years.
Despite having family in Santa Ana, Willis chose to mostly live on the street in retirement. She slept outside a fabric shop, arriving after the shop closed and leaving before it opened.
Early on January 1, 2018, Willis was assaulted by a homeless man who attempted to rape her. She was hit repeatedly on the head and choked to death, before police arrived to apprehend her attacker. Willis was 76.