Monday, 01 September 2008 15:31

Gaeton Fonzi, The Last Investigation

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It is not just well-written. In some places it rises to the level of extraordinarily well-written. Almost every chapter is well-planned and organized. And the book as a whole contains a completed aesthetic arc to it, writes Jim DiEugenio.

This year is the 45th anniversary of the JFK assassination, and the 40th anniversary of the RFK murder. Consequently, in addition to a flurry of new books on these two cases – plus the MLK case – publishers have decided to reissue three important books from the past. They are Gaeton Fonzi's The Last Investigation, John Newman's Oswald and the CIA, and Robert Blair Kaiser's RFK Must Die. Since these three books are all important volumes, and all worth buying, I will write about each of them consecutively. Since they are all at least thirteen years old, I will not review them at length or in depth. But I will try and advise the reader of the quality, content, and scope of each work. He can then make up his mind as to whether he would like to take the time and money to invest in the tome.

In my opinion, every person who does not have Gaeton Fonzi's The Last Investigation, should buy the reissue. As the reader can see by perusing this list, I consider this book one of the ten best ever published on the JFK assassination. Even those who have the original might be interested in this new edition, which has everything in the first edition, plus a new Preface by Bernard McCormick, and a new eight-page Epilogue by Gaeton Fonzi. (Reissued by the Mary Farrell Foundation, it can be bought here.)

The Last Investigation was originally published by Thunder's Mouth Press in 1993. Unfortunately it ran into the teeth of the media buzz saw created by Gerald Posner's ridiculous and atrocious Case Closed. Few people knew who Robert Loomis – the man who recruited Posner to do the job– was at the time. (Although Probe found out later.) So they could not foresee how he could orchestrate such a campaign. Therefore, Fonzi's remarkable book did not get the opportunity to cross over and become a mainstream success.

That is unfortunate. Not just for Fonzi, but for the public at large. They should feel cheated. Fonzi began his career as a writer in Philadelphia. Being located in Philly in the sixties, he had the opportunity to get in contact with two celebrated attorneys: Vincent Salandria and Arlen Specter. In the wake of President Kennedy's assassination, these two intelligent, resourceful, and energetic men would become fierce antagonists. For from almost the day it happened, Salandria smelled a rat. He was one of the first writers to take the Commission to task in harsh terms. And in January of 1965, just a few months after the Warren Commission volumes were distributed, he wrote his milestone two-part article for the periodical Liberation. This long essay is still worth reading today as a historical landmark in the study of the medical and ballistics evidence, and as an expose of the inanities of the single-bullet-theory.

After visiting Salandria, Fonzi went to visit Specter. Unlike the rest of the press, Salandria had armed Fonzi with facts. Fonzi's description of his meeting with Specter, the Warren Commission counsel who authored the SBT, is one of the highlights of the volume. When Fonzi asked some informed questions of the slick, glib prosecutor, he was surprised at the reaction: "I couldn't believe the hemmings and hawings, the hesitations and evasions I got ... I had caught him off guard." As Fonzi notes, Specter understood he had been exposed. So he later developed more ingenious rationales for what he had done. But that encounter with Specter was enough to convince Fonzi that JFK had been killed by a conspiracy. (p. 18) Further, Fonzi also concluded from his discussions with Specter, that the Commission began with the assumption of Oswald's guilt. And they assigned Specter the job to "handle the fundamentals to support that conclusion." (Ibid) In other words, there had not been any real investigation.

What this book does is trace Fonzi's journey into the next two government investigations of the crime: namely the Church Committee, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Not as a reporter, but as a participant. Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker asked Fonzi to join his staff on the Church Committee, which was investigating abuses of the intelligence community. Schweiker and Senator Gary Hart both had an interest in the assassination of President Kennedy. So they were allowed to set up a sub-committee to investigate the reaction of the FBI and CIA to the assassination and how this impacted the Warren Commission. One of the most memorable parts of the book is Salandria's warning to Fonzi before he goes to Washington. He tells him, "They'll keep you very, very busy and eventually they'll wear you down." (p. 29)

Fonzi ignored Salandria's prophetic words and decided to go anyway. Almost immediately he found out that, as Salandria had warned, there would be sand traps put in his path. Clare Booth Luce sent him on a wild goose chase for a man who did not exist. He later found out she was talking to CIA Director Bill Colby at this time, and further, she was a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, newly organized by David Phillips. He went on another wild goose chase in Key West for a reported sighting of Oswald with Jack Ruby. Fonzi later found out that this man also worked for the CIA. (p. 65) Finally, Fonzi memorably describes his meeting up with both Marita Lorenz and Frank Sturgis. This episode, with Lorenz answering her apartment door with a rifle, calling her agent about a movie offer, and Sturgis eventually getting arrested, is vivid low comedy.

From here, the book begins to build its powerful argument for conspiracy in the JFK case. Fonzi's chapter on Sylvia Odio's meeting with Oswald – or his double – in Dallas is one of the very best in the literature. (Chapter 11) I would rank it up there with Sylvia Meagher's work on that absolutely crucial witness, except Fonzi can reveal an aspect to her travail that Meagher could not. Namely that the Warren Commission actually joked about her, and never had any intention of taking her seriously. He combines this with the report of the Alpha 66 safehouse in Dallas where Oswald was reportedly seen. He then uses this to describe the background and activities of that particular Cuban exile group.

And this is used to segue into his fateful meeting with Alpha 66 ringleader Antonio Veciana. Veciana had just been released from prison on a drug conspiracy charge at the time Fonzi looked him up. And, as Fonzi will note later, Veciana believed that it was his CIA handler Maurice Bishop who was behind that frame-up. Fonzi learned from Veciana that he had seen Bishop with Oswald at the Southland Center in Dallas in the late summer of 1963. In the wake of the assassination, Veciana kept his mouth shut about this of course. And when a government agent named Cesar Diosdato visited him after the murder to ask if he knew anything about Oswald or the assassination, he was even surer to do so.

From the physical description Veciana gave, the Church Committee came up with an artist's sketch of Bishop. When Schweiker saw the sketch, he told Fonzi that the face strongly resembled CIA officer David Phillips. And from all the activities that Veciana described to Fonzi, the investigator matched them up with where Phillips was at the time and with what he was doing. And here let me add something important. Most research done in the JFK critical community is made up of reading archival releases, perusing books and periodicals, and doing phone interviews. Reading this book, one understands the difference between that kind of work and what an actual field investigation is. They are worlds apart. People who are good at one, are not necessarily good at the other. They take different skills. The latter necessitates knocking on doors, making appointments, getting leads from one person that lead to another, taking notes and reading them at night, and finally and probably most importantly: knowing how to interview. This kind of sustained and relentless inquiry is what literally jumps off the page of this book. And to really appreciate it, you have to have done it. Fonzi is a first class field investigator. One of the best ever in the JFK field.

Fonzi arranged for Veciana to meet Phillips face to face. Phillips acted like he never had seen him or heard of him before. (p. 169-170) This is incredible. Why? Because Phillips, along with his friend and colleague Howard Hunt, was so close to many Cuban exile groups, including Alpha 66. At this meeting, Phillips was so intent on feigning Veciana as a stranger that he asked Fonzi if Veciana was part of the Church Committee staff!

Partly due to the Veciana testimony and the compelling Schweiker-Hart Report, the Church Committee gave birth to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Another triumph of The Last Investigation is that it is an insider's view of just how shabby that Committee's work was. Fonzi details how it almost capsized at its inception due to the battle between Representative Henry Gonzalez and Chief Counsel Richard Sprague. Another memorable chapter from the book concerns the author's attempt to interview Oswald's close friend in Dallas, the enigmatic George DeMohrenschildt. Within 24 hours of serving him with a summons in Florida, DeMohrenschildt was dead. At this point, with Sprague being shown the door due to incessant attacks in the press, Fonzi could not even arrange interviews with DeMohrenschildt's daughter – who he was living with at the time – or journalist Edward Epstein, who was simultaneously paying DeMohrenschildt hundreds of dollars for interviews. Those interviews were for a book called Legend, which was inspired in part by CIA counter-intelligence chief James Angleton. To say the very least, there are many questions that have never been satisfactorily answered about the circumstances surrounding the death of this most important witness. (For just one sample among many, see Jerry Rose's essay on the subject in The Third Decade Vol. 1 No. 1 p. 21) The HSCA had an opportunity, in fact an obligation, to at least try and answer some of them. That it completely failed in that crucial endeavor says a lot about its efficacy and its legacy.

Right after this, Fonzi relates an episode that shows us why it did not. Robert Tanenbaum, Sprague's Deputy Chief Counsel, was out one night with some members of congress trying to collect votes to get full funding for the committee. A Republican representative, and future candidate for president, John Ashbrook approached him about that subject. He said, "Well, we really don't mind funding the Kennedy assassination, although I didn't think much of the man ... but we'll be damned if we're going to fund that nigger King's." (Pgs. 204-205) Later, at home, Tanenbaum got a call from columnist Jack Anderson. Anderson wanted confirmation that Ashbrook had used that particular ethnic slur about Martin Luther King. The lawyer refused to confirm it. Then Ashbrook called him and tried to deny he had used the word. This was the three-ring circus the HSCA had become at this time. And as Fonzi notes, Anderson was one of the major outside forces reducing it to that sideshow.

At this point, the new Chief Counsel Robert Blakey entered the picture. Blakey centralized the entire operation around him and his new JFK Deputy Gary Cornwell. Blakey and Cornwell were organized crime specialists. And, as Fonzi notes, their ambition was that if they found a conspiracy they would impute it to the Mob. But, above all, they would issue an authoritative sounding report. Everything else would be shoved aside in pursuit of that aim. Bases would be touched, issues would be engaged. But none of them to the point of actually being resolved. In other words, the substance of the report did not really matter. As Cornwell so memorably put it: "Congress gave us a job to do and dictated the time and resources in which to do it. That's the legislative world. Granted it may not be the real world, but it's the world in which we have to live." (p. 222) Fonzi objected to this approach, saying that realistically that meant they could never actually complete a serious investigation. To which Cornwell happily replied in his immortal phrase, "Reality is irrelevant!" For all intents and purposes, this exchange sums up what happened to the HSCA after Sprague. It also explains why so much of their work in crucial areas e.g. the autopsy, ballistics, New Orleans etc. is so dubious today.

But Fonzi soldiered on. He was able to find some sympathetic allies in Al Gonzalez, Eddie Lopez, and Dan Hardway. And those Four Musketeers helped produce much of the hidden substance of the HSCA's work. I say hidden, since the fruits of their labors were either camouflaged or remained classified until the Assassination Records Review Board finally declassified it. In that regard, Fonzi relates his meeting with a man he calls "Carlos". Through declassified files, we have since found out that this character is Bernardo DeTorres. DeTorres was suspected of being in Dealey Plaza the day of the assassination and actually having pictures of the crime. (See Probe Vol. 3 No. 6) Further, according to information unearthed by Fonzi and Gonzalez, DeTorres knew Oswald was not involved because he knew who actually was involved. He knew this because "they were talking about it before it even happened." (p. 239)

Needless to say, when Carlos/DeTorres was questioned in executive session he denied everything with impunity. He actually said: "I never worked for the CIA. I never talked to anybody associated with the CIA." (p. 233) As he usually does, Fonzi caps this chapter with a zinger. He managed to secure Carlos/DeTorres phone calls from immediately after the time he was summoned by the committee. He had made many calls, "but the one that stuck out was the one to McLean, Virginia. I knew that billings on calls to CIA headquarters are listed under that town ... ." (p. 242)

Another interesting witness who Fonzi notes is CIA Director Richard Helms. As I noted in my review of Jefferson Morley's book, according to Eddie Lopez, Helms was insufferably arrogant when called as a witness. When he walked outside to talk to reporters, he told George Lardner that no one would ever know who or what Lee Harvey Oswald represented. When he was asked about Oswald's ties to the KGB or CIA, Helms said with a laugh, "I don't remember." When he was pressed on this point by a reporter he said, "Your questions are almost as dumb as the Committee's." (p. 302) Fonzi ties this in beautifully with how Blakey was either unwilling or unable to get to the bottom of Oswald's ties to US intelligence. For instance, he points out that, among other holdings, Blakey never saw all of Oswald's 201 file. (p. 301)

Fonzi's chapter on Mexico City is sterling. After briefly summarizing what the Warren Commission said about this trip (pgs 281-282), the author quotes David Phillips as telling a reporter that it was a good thing the CIA reported on Oswald being "here in September". (p. 284) This is a fascinating statement, especially in regards to the Warren Commission. Because on page 777 of the Warren Report it says that the fact that Oswald has been to the Cuban Embassy was not known until after the assassination. Since one of his stations at the time was Mexico City, what did Phillips help report to Washington at the time that produced such misinformation? And did he know that the statement in the report was, apparently, false? If so, why did he not try to correct it? Further, in an interview Phillips did with the CIA friendly reporter Ron Kessler right before his HSCA testimony, Phillips made some interesting statements. He said he heard one of the tapes made in the Soviet embassy. He also saw a transcript. He said Oswald was trying to make a deal with the Soviets. He actually quoted Oswald as saying, "I have information you would be interested in, and I know you can pay my way." (p. 285)

Phillips had also claimed that all the tapes of Oswald's calls to both embassies had been routinely destroyed a few days after they had been made. But as Fonzi notes, the problem with this is that the FBI had heard a tape of one of Oswald's calls with the Russian embassy. Their agents determined it was not Oswald's voice. This was after the assassination. And as the author further notes, Warren Commission attorneys David Slawson and William Coleman both said that they had heard tapes of a man who was supposed to be Oswald while they were in Mexico City investigating Oswald's activities there. This was many months after Phillips said they were destroyed. (pgs. 286-287) There were other things that HSCA lawyer Dan Hardway surprised Phillips with. For instance, every source in both Miami and Mexico City who linked Oswald with some kind of Cuban plot emanating from Mexico City was one of Phillips' assets. (pgs 292-293) According to the CIA, they learned of Oswald at the Russian embassy on Oct. 1st. Yet the cable on this was sent to CIA HQ on Oct. 8th. Phillips said he had signed off on it. (This is when, according to Phillips, Oswald made the "offer" he mentioned to Kessler.) Hardway had read the transcript and no such offer was mentioned. The routing slip indicated that Phillips had not read the transcripts. Further, in checking his scheduling, Hardway found out that Phillips could not have signed off on the cable since he was not in Mexico City at the time. (p. 293) Hardway came to believe that this cable had been created after the fact. And as Fonzi so memorably notes, Hardway's questioning and his clear skeptical attitude about his Mexico City tale clearly had Phillips mentally dissheveled: he lit up a cigarette even though he already had two going. (p. 278)

Much of the rest of the book chronicles: 1.) Fonzi's confirmation of Phillips as Bishop 2.) His introduction into the literature of Dave Morales, and 3.) His chronicling the decline into ineptitude of the HSCA. Concerning the first, I really do not think there can be any question today that Bishop was Phillips. The number of witnesses who acknowledge Bishop and put him in exactly the place he should be according to Veciana is impressive. (See pgs. 319-320) One can question whether Veciana saw Oswald with him in Dallas. But not whether Phillips was Bishop. And Fonzi concluded that Phillips had Veciana set up on his drug charge, and may have had him shot right before the HSCA issued its final report. Interestingly, Fonzi brings up the figure of John Martino, who figures in books by Larry Hancock and David Kaiser. Fonzi interviewed both his widow and his son Edward. He writes that they told him that Martino never talked to either of them about anti-Castro Cubans being involved in the JFK case. (p. 325) Somehow this got reversed with Anthony Summers and others much later.

Fonzi, with the help of Bob Dorff and Brad Ayers, located some friends of the late Dave Morales. Morales had been Ted Shackley's Chief of Staff at JM/WAVE in Miami. He also worked in the infamous Phoenix Program in Vietnam. After interviewing Ruben Carbajal and Robert Walton, they relate to Fonzi the drunken tirade Morales went into at the mention of JFK's name. It concluded with "Well, we took care of that sonofabitch didn't we?" (p. 390) Fonzi, bless him, leaves it at that. He takes it not one foot further than the quote itself. Later writers, like David Talbot, and especially Shane O'Sullivan, have mutated and expanded this thing into Morales being directly involved in not just the JFK murder but in Bobby Kennedy's as well. Yet this original quote says no such thing. It does not even impute direct involvement to Morales in the JFK case. (O'Sullivan even tried to place Morales – along with two other CIA officers – inside the Ambassador Hotel on the night RFK was killed.)

Let me add one more compliment to this wonderful book. It is not just well-written. In some places it rises to the level of extraordinarily well-written. Almost every chapter is well-planned and organized. And the book as a whole contains a completed aesthetic arc to it. In that regard, let me close this discussion with a quote by Sylvia Odio. She explained why, in the nineties, she actually talked to PBS after refusing to talk to anyone for over a decade: "I guess it is a feeling of frustration after so many years. I feel outraged that we have not discovered the truth for history's sake, for all of us." (p. 406) She then continued with a telling perception: "I think it is because I'm very angry about it all – the forces I cannot understand and the fact that there is nothing I can do against them ... We lost ... we all lost."

An exquisite quote with which to close an exquisite book.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 22:40
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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