Billy Wilson had a large network of friends.
The longtime musician and surfer had fallen on hard times since the Woolsey Fire, but even after losing his home he stayed in Malibu, living out of a truck near the water and playing his acoustic guitar or catching waves. There he would hold impromptu jam sessions or surf lessons, greeting everyone he knew with a smile.
Malibu Times reporter Samantha Bravo met Wilson there one afternoon in the spring of 2020 while working on an assignment for Scene Magazine, a student publication at California State University-Northridge.
From his truck parked outside the Adamson House, Wilson told Bravo he was still struggling to get back on his feet after Woolsey, more than a year after the fire burned through Western Malibu.
“People like me, the old school Malibu, we’re stuck into the cracks. There is no real support,” Wilson told Bravo at the time. “They always talk about it in the paper, how they reach out and help, all about this ‘Malibu Strong.’ It’s all bull—, it doesn’t mean nothing.”
Wilson’s truck was filled with his everyday necessities, clothes, blankets and a few surfboards strapped on the hood, Bravo described.
“God, it’s hard enough to wake up and do anything in the morning when you don’t have the money and a place to go,” Wilson said. “You hope to God you have enough gas to start up and keep warm or listen to the radio or go buy food.”
It was in his truck that Wilson was found dead on Saturday, July 24, with the news of his death spreading quickly on social media. Around 50 posts appeared on his Facebook page within a couple days of his passing, friends memorializing the longtime local for his generosity, mentorship and “sweet soul.” He was remembered as a storyteller, a talented performer and a teacher.
The LA County Coroner’s Department confirmed Wilson’s death but was not able to provide details about his passing. As of Aug. 2, his cause of death was still listed as “deferred pending additional investigation,” which likely indicated a pending toxicology report. William “Billy” Wilson was 63.
Upon Wilson’s death, some locals began raising concerns over safety issues at the Surfrider parking lot—one called it a “toxic drug haven.” But tracking down any statistics on the area had so far proven fruitless. When reached, Public Safety Commissioner Chris Frost directed questions to the sheriff’s department. Officers reached at the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station directed inquiries to the LASD Homicide Bureau downtown, which in turn stated it had nothing on record for that weekend in the area. LASD Malibu Liaison Lt. Jim Braden did not immediately respond to interview requests and Mayor Paul Grisanti did not have any knowledge of an increase in crime or drug use in the area.
Grisanti did speak highly of Wilson, whom he knew by his positive reputation in the community.
“The man who died was a longtime resident of Malibu who had a local band and was a contractor and surfer for many years, and at the end of his life he was living out of his van,” Grisanti said. “He wasn’t your standard homeless guy. He surfed a lot and played guitar there [Surfrider Beach]. I think most of the people are going to tell you he was not a problem person.”
Despite obvious hardships, Wilson continued living in Malibu up until his final days.
In 2006, Malibu Times Staff Writer Kim Devore interviewed Wilson about the closing of popular music venue and dive bar The Dume Room.
“We want these businesses. We need these businesses. We support these businesses,” Wilson said of the venue. He bemoaned the influx of chain stores and luxury shops driving out small businesses.
“People from the Valley aren’t going to come here to shop. They want to see Malibu,” he told Devore. “People come here for a reason. People live here for a reason.”