Sunday, 13 August 2006 23:07

Joan Mellen, A Farewell To Justice

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The book was a huge disappointment for me. Reportedly, Mellen spent seven years on it and over 150, 000 dollars. So, quite naturally, like others, I was expecting at least a worthwhile effort. If it was not going to be definitive, it would now be at least the best book on Garrison. But that's not true, writes Jim DiEugenio.

In the JFK assassination community, few works have been labored over longer or been more keenly anticipated than Joan Mellen's new volume on the late New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, A Farewell to Justice. Mellen reportedly worked on the book for several years. When it was first announced, it was to be a full-scale biography of Garrison and published by a major university press. But on its long voyage to completion, these terms were altered. If you go through the book and count the number of pages that are purely biographical, it comes to about 25. So it is not in any way a biography. Also, the publisher is not NYU Press but Potomac Books. Reportedly, the book got so long that the original publisher opted out.

This last brings up my first criticism of the book. Many complain today about the lack of editing in the publishing business. And because of the cost cutting pressures, it has become a serious problem. The Kennedy field is no stranger to bloated, turgid, off-balance books e.g. the original version of The Man Who Knew too Much, Ultimate Sacrifice, and many of the efforts of Harry Livingstone. (Ironically, Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins was beautifully edited.) Mellen's book is a hardcover edition. Which means it was expensive to produce. To defray costs it appears to have been whittled down. Not with a scalpel, but a carving knife. There is no way not to describe the book as poorly produced even on the simplest level. As many commentators have noted, the footnotes are out of sync with their proper placement. (And beyond that, some rather controversial claims are not annotated at all, a point I will refer to later.) Even the Table of Contents is off. For example, Chapter 13 is listed as beginning on page 204. It begins on page 205. Further, the book, to say the least, is not well written. Consider this sentence from Chapter 12, p. 187:

Put in contact with Shaw's defense team by Walter Sheridan, Miller went on to serve as the liaison between Shaw's lawyers and Richard Lansdale, a lawyer in Lawrence Houston's.

That abrupt and startling fragment would make any sophomore English major wince. But further, as Publisher's Weekly has noted, Mellen's overall grip on the narrative is something less than controlled, let alone masterly. It confuses an already complex case with "shifting timelines, authorial voices and locations with seeming little cause."(As we shall see, this is not an unfair criticism.) The net result is that one does not come away from the book feeling as one has looked at a delicately painted mosaic of the Garrison investigation, a burnished portrait. The result to me seems blocky, and oddly, at the same time, amorphous -- both in its overall design, and within its chapters. It is true that many books on the JFK case suffer from similar failings. But Mellen is a tenured professor of English, who teaches creative writing and has published many previous books that were better written than this one. So I assume, and hope, the fault was with the editor.

Before getting to what I see as some of the book's serious problems, let me list what I see as its clear, and less clear, achievements.

  1. She pinpoints when Garrison's curiosity was piqued about the JFK case. It was not with the legendary 1966 plane flight with Russell Long. It was when Garrison picked up the 1965 issue of Esquire with the article on the Warren Commission by Dwight MacDonald. Another source was former Warren Commissioner Hale Boggs. This explains why there are so many memoranda in the Garrison files from throughout 1966. (And if memory serves me right, one or two from 1965.)
  2. Her work on the VIP Room incident at the Moisant Airport appears to be quite solid. Added to the previous work of Joe Biles and Bill Davy, it seems to me to be just about an accomplished fact that Clay Shaw signed the ledger of the Eastern Airlines waiting room as Clay Bertrand. Therefore, by his own hand revealing that he used the alias that Dean Andrews said he did when he phoned Andrews and asked him to defend Oswald.
  3. Her discussion of the famous Clinton/Jackson sighting of Oswald, Shaw and David Ferrie is the longest I have seen and contains some new and interesting details. For instance, it appears that Oswald actually did register to vote, but his name was later erased. And the FBI knew about the incident and about his subsequent attempt to find employment at a hospital in the area and they deliberately covered it all up.
  4. Her writing on the September, 1967 hatchet job in Life magazine accusing Garrison of being in bed with the Mafia is detailed and specific. She names Dick Billings, David Chandler, Jim Phelan, Robert Blakey, Aaron Kohn, and Sandy Smith as all cooperating on the slander. She states that the whole purpose of the two-part piece was to slam Garrison. Like Tony Summers and Davy, she produces evidence showing that Sandy Smith was, in essence, an employee of the FBI. And that Life drove a wedge between Garrison and his political ally Gov. McKeithen by threatening to do the same to him unless he gave Chandler a job in state law enforcement, thereby keeping him out of the D.A.'s clutches.
  5. Her elucidation of the things that William Wood (aka Bill Boxley) snookered Garrison into doing is quite instructive. This includes the indictment of Edgar Eugene Bradley (which the DA came to regret) and the near naming of Robert Lee Perrin as one of the snipers in Dealey Plaza. These were prime pieces of misinformation according to Mellen.
  6. Mellen's work with former HSCA New Orleans investigators allows her to write several illuminating pages on how Bob Buras and L.J. Delsa were deliberately circumscribed by Chief Counsel Robert Blakey into limiting their investigation into the many leads Garrison was willing to provide the HSCA. It also shows how Blakey's clear bias on the case created divisions in the ranks of the staff.<
  7. The file David Ferrie called "The Bomb" is minutely described by two people who saw it, Jimmy Johnson and Clara Gay. It is hard after reading their descriptions not to conclude that Ferrie had some advance knowledge of how the actual circumstances of the assassination in Dealey Plaza were going to occur. Her evidence is interesting but much more equivocal on a loan Shaw made to Ferrie to fly to Dallas a few days before the murder.
  8. She writes six well documented pages on David Ferrie's activities with the Civil Air Patrol. As Delsa told me in 1994, it appears that one of Ferrie's objectives was recruiting young men, including Oswald, for future consideration in the military. Another appears to be referring them to Clay Shaw for both professional and personal reasons.

The above is certainly an estimable list of achievements. Standing alone, they would be valuable contributions. The problem is they do not stand alone. They are part of a much larger volume. Altogether the above accounts for significantly less than 20% of the book. If the rest of the more than 80% of the work would have been just bland regurgitation from other books e.g. Garrison's own book, or Bill Davy's fine work, that would have been one thing, and the book would have still been commendable.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. The rest of the book seems to me to be sloppily composed, not proofread for errors of fact, loaded with controversial tenets, in large part assumptive, ideologically biased, has many weighty yet unsupported claims, exhibits a trustworthiness that goes beyond naivetè, and (I believe) deliberately leaves out important details to shape people and events in a certain way. These are serious criticisms. I believe they are merited. Especially for a veteran writer who was producing what was supposed to be a definitive book.

As I noted earlier, the book suffers from a wobbly structure that consists in part of the shifting of time frames, locations, and viewpoints. For instance on pages 60-61 we begin with Oswald's Canal Street arrest in 1963; we then go to Francis Martello's testimony about Oswald's FBI interview while in custody; we then flash forward to 1967 and David Ferrie -- who is not in the Martello report -- being interviewed by John Volz of Garrison's staff; then she describes Garrison requesting the FBI file on Ferrie; and then she mentions the FBI wiretapping of Garrison's office. All of this jumping around in the space of about five paragraphs. At times, with certain characters like Ferrie and Thomas Beckham she actually tries to place us inside their heads, revealing their thoughts, while having them refer to themselves in the third person: "He is sick, Ferrie says. As a result of rumors of my arrest, I've been asked to leave the airport, he says." (p. 103) At other times she presents a decades old interview in the present tense, throwing in bits of novelistic detail. Consider this interview of Carlos Quiroga by Frank Klein:

"Well, he [Banister] didn't have anything to do with arms," Quiroga says. Then he smiles. Klein thinks: He smiles involuntarily or smirks when he is not telling the truth. (p. 99)

At times she adapts an omniscient viewpoint. On page 98, she has Banister employee Bill Nitschke looking at a picture of a Cuban who he identifies as Manuel Gonzalez. She then writes, "He was in fact looking at a photograph of longtime CIA operative David Sanchez Morales." The problems here are that 1) She does not reference the photo 2) She does not footnote the conversation so we can crosscheck it 3) She does not indicate the evidence for her being right and Garrison being wrong about the photo identification 4) Morales never came up in the Garrison inquiry. (Morales' nickname, "El Indio," did come up but we do not know that it applied to Morales in this context, or if the photo was of him.) Perhaps the assertion is correct, but it would need more backup than she provides. As I said earlier, the careless and inconsistent use of these near-novelistic devices make it hard to follow an already difficult case. The Garrison investigation of the Kennedy murder is not the killing of the Clutter family in Kansas. And Mellen is not nearly the writer Truman Capote was.

Then there is another organizational problem: the misnamed chapters. Chapter 5 is titled "The Banister Menagerie," yet it begins with Andrew Sciambra's interview of Clay Shaw in 1966. Or consider pages 60-62 which discuss David Ferrie's association with Oswald, the FBI and Jim Garrison, Sergio Arcacha Smith, and informants in Garrison's office like Bill Gurvich and Tom Bethell. These come at the end of a chapter entitled, "Oswald and Customs." Chapter 10 is titled "A Skittish Witness" referring to Richard Case Nagell. Yet only five pages of the chapter, less than a third of its length, actually deals directly with Nagell. Chapter 21 is called "Potomac Two Step," apparently referring to the charade of the 1976-1978 congressional inquiry into Kennedy's death. Yet, only a few pages of this chapter discuss the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Most of the HSCA material is in the following chapter entitled "The Death of Jim Garrison." Again, this betrayed to me a writer with a weak grip on her narrative. (In fairness to Mellen, this may have occurred in the editing process.)

In addition to the book's clumsy editing, questions arise about the proofreading. Proofreading does not require exquisite expertise. It just means having someone with an affinity for the subject ask pertinent questions. That didn't happen here. There are too many errors of fact and interpretation. As Patricia Lambert has pointed out, Mellen seems to have misinterpreted CIA files on one John Jefferson Martin with Banister assistant Jack Martin. So Mellen turns Jack Martin into a CIA officer. I have seen these documents and I agree with Lambert: the two are not the same person. On page 92, she says that an FBI informant told Garrison that rightwing segregationist Joseph Milteer had phoned him from Dallas on the day of the assassination. Jerry Rose, who thought Milteer was in on the plot, produced documents showing that Milteer was not in Dallas that day. On page 105, she discusses David Ferrie's disclosures to Lou Ivon, first conveyed to Oliver Stone's researcher Jane Rusconi and depicted in his film. But what she lists here goes beyond not just what Ivon told Rusconi, but to my knowledge, what he told anyone else. On page 169, she writes that not just the CIA, but the Special Group Augmented, Task Force W, the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the FBI and the NSA all knew about the Castro assassination plots in the early sixties. This is an amazing assertion. To say the least, there is much documentation to the contrary. On page 181, she writes that David Atlee Phillips died before Jim Garrison could reach him. Phillips died in 1982. Garrison's inquiry was effectively ended almost ten years earlier. And there is no evidence that Garrison knew about him at that time.

Mellen seems confused about the results of the HSCA. After relating the famous Victor Marchetti Spotlight story about the CIA cutting loose Howard Hunt in a "limited hangout," she adds something to twist that story around. She says Marchetti was mistaken. The CIA's real scapegoat was Shaw. She then offers the HSCA Report as evidence this was so. She writes in her typical mangled syntax:

The report calls Shaw a "limited hang out, cut out" to play a role in the conspiracy, the very terms Victor Marchetti had been told were being applied to Hunt ... Shaw, the Committee decided was "possibly one of the high level planners or "cut out"to the planners of the assassination." (pgs 355-356)

This is another amazing assertion. As anyone who has read the HSCA Report knows this language is not found anywhere in that volume about anyone. And definitely not Shaw. The HSCA cooperated completely with the CIA and identified Shaw as a businessman who cooperated with them, as thousands of others did, by consenting to interviews upon their return from abroad. The report even disguises his presence in the Clinton/Jackson incident by at first saying Shaw was there, and then (p. 145) that Ferrie was there with Oswald, "if not Clay Shaw" thereby smudging the identification. A page later the report lists more evidence of relations between Oswald, Ferrie and Banister, with Shaw notably absent. The report also says that they could not relate any conspiracy to the government. What Mellen seems to be doing here is quoting from a document that was declassified many years later. It was written by HSCA counsel Jonathan Blackmer and was not in the report. It was declassified by the ARRB and first used by Bill Davy in his book Let Justice Be Done (1999, p. 202) where he made the distinction clear. It is hard to believe that Mellen did not read that book and its footnotes, especially since she wrote a jacket blurb for it.

Then there are what I see as failures of omission, or incompleteness. There is very little new offered on the trial of Clay Shaw. Even in the way that the CIA deliberately obstructed the case. Yet there have been many new documents declassified in this regard, some of them very interesting, especially in regards to James Angleton. This was disappointing since it would reveal the extraordinary lengths the Agency was willing to go to subvert the DA and protect Shaw.

There is no real chapter that concentrates on the role of the media in the destruction of Garrison. Bits and pieces are scattered throughout without any cumulative effect or focus. Mellen once told me she would have a separate chapter on James Phelan. It's not here. Neither is there any real vivisection of Hugh Aynesworth, or Edward Epstein. Again, I see this as another missed opportunity to show just how threatened the power structure was by Garrison. To be fair to Mellen, it may have fallen victim to the editing knife. I hope so.

Then there are New Orleans matters which she explores but not to fruition. In discussing the alleged "child molestation"charges aired by Jack Anderson she attributes their circulation to Layton Martens. After doing some work on this issue with Garrison's son Lyon, I came to the conclusion that Shaw's lawyers were involved. Mellen does not even mention them. She discusses the book Farewell America and rightly labels it a fraud. But she seems to end that affair with Garrison investigator Steve Jaffe and Herve Lamarre (one of the book's authors). But the story is much richer and more interesting than that. Garrison eventually discovered that the book was an elaborate and laborious charade that was worked on by more than just Lamarre. And that Lamarre (under the authorial pseudonym of James Hepburn) was basically a front man in a complex shell game designed for the sole purpose of confusing and delaying his inquiry. Which it did. When all the leads are followed -- which Mellen does not seem to have done-- it is difficult not to detect the hand of James Angleton in the pie. Again, this may have been an editing decision.

A curious aspect of the book is the author's insistence on enumerating in detail several sexual anecdotes. From my experience, there is more sex in this book than the entire library of JFK books combined. Jim Garrison always thought that to discuss Clay Shaw's homosexual escapades would be out of bounds personally and, for him, unprofessional. Though he had more than one report on this in his files, he never used them to violate Shaw's privacy. Mellen goes ahead and describes them in rather graphic detail (pgs. 119-124). Including an incident with Shaw "and two colored males on the patio naked and using wine bottles on each other." (p. 119) But that is not all. Very early in the book, by about page 35, we have been treated to anecdotes about homosexual fellatio, orgies, Garrison's philandering, and the DA's favorite sexual practices. On page 101, she excerpts a letter Ferrie wrote describing a dirty movie: "...some dude fucking this broad ... he got his nuts jerking under her knee, she blew him, he fucked her in the ass twice..." Mellen saves the capper in this regard for the end. On page 382 we get a description, in her words, of "the shape of Garrison's genitalia." I don't understand what these strained and rather tawdry episodes contribute to the book or why the author was so insistent on including them in a volume that is, ostensibly, about the murder of President Kennedy.

Let's jump from the low to the high, from the sexual to the scholarly. Mellen has laid out her footnotes, not in the classic, older way of putting them on the page. Nor has she done it in the later, more common way of superscripting a number next to the sentence and then placing the note at the rear of the book. What she has done is put the notes in the back but equated them with a page and a line. As I said earlier, this is problematic for her since by about page 185 the footnotes do not correspond to the page they are referring back to. So one has to work to match the reference to the page and line. But often that work is in vain, since many important pieces of information are not footnoted at all. And when I say many, I do not mean just several. Nor do I mean a dozen. I would estimate that, at least, about 45 major passages are undocumented. For instance, on page 41, she writes that Garrison learned from a source that Ferrie's library card had been found on Oswald, but that it had been destroyed. On the same page, she writes that Oswald's cousin, Marilyn Murrett, worked for the CIA. Three pages later, she takes us into Garrison's mind while the DA is interviewing Ferrie two days after the assassination. Garrison asks himself why a minor homosexual would have a relationship with Jack Wasserman, Carlos Marcello's attorney. She adds that this was more intriguing since the Warren Commission concluded there was no "real Mafia motive" in the assassination. So in the space of four pages, there are four pieces of rather important information -- which includes Garrison's thoughts -- that should have been annotated but were not. And I am not hunting and picking. On page 135, she writes that the mysterious European business association Shaw was tied to, the Centro Mondiale Commerciale, was by our own government's admission, a CIA front. Again, this is not sourced. And again, I have read a lot about the CMC and I have never seen this particular claim noted, let alone substantiated. About 100 pages later she writes that Walter Sheridan briefed Johnny Carson for his interview with Garrison. Again, this is quite interesting yet there is no source for it.

I could go on like this for several pages. I am not saying that everything in a book has to be footnoted. But when one is presenting important things as fact, and it is new information, then at least most of that new information should be footnoted just to establish trust and rapport between the author and reader. Especially if the writer is a university professor and knows the rules of scholarly research. This is a serious failing that strikes at the heart of the book's credibility.

I want to segue here to what I see as another failing of the book: her judgment about certain important personages swirling around the Garrison investigation. She spends a great deal of time on Walter Sheridan. There is no doubt that Sheridan had an important role in the Garrison case, and is a complex and fascinating figure in his own right. But I believe her portrait of him is shortsighted. She clearly implies (p. 187) that Sheridan's infamous NBC special was handed to him as an intelligence agent assignment. I thought this at one time also. Exploring the point, I got documents out of the UCLA library that showed that Sheridan worked for NBC for a number of years. That he produced at least seven documentaries, some of them nominated for awards, and some of them themed around rather attractive liberal causes. So while I agree that it is probably true that Sheridan got the assignment through his intelligence ties, it is not as cut and dried as she portrays it. And in another related, recurrent theme she chalks up Sheridan's eagerness to wreck Garrison to Robert Kennedy. Yet, about 150 pages later, she has Sheridan still trying to wreck Garrison, this time on tax evasion charges. But by this time, Bobby Kennedy is dead. So who was directing Sheridan then?

The issue of who Sheridan really was and what master he served is not an easy question to answer. But there is a hint of this in an interview New Orleans P. I. Joe Oster gave to the HSCA. In discussing Guy Banister's early days, he named a curious working partner he had. It was Carmine Bellino, who would later become a chief investigator for Bobby Kennedy's Justice Department. This is a very interesting fact which is not in the book. In her haste to blacken RFK, an issue I will deal with later, Mellen discards things like pointed migrations, complex motivations, and multiple allegiances.

Same thing with Gordon Novel. Novel was an associate of Sheridan who infiltrated the Garrison inquiry, wired his offices, and then supplied the fruits of his work to NBC. In fact, Novel told the press in advance that Garrison would be disposed of like trash via the NBC special. How close was he to the CIA? He wrote letters to Richard Helms at this time reporting on Garrison's actions. When Garrison subpoenaed him for the grand jury, Novel fled New Orleans to Ohio where he was safe housed by the CIA and protected by the governor from being extradited back to New Orleans. He admitted under oath that he employed multiple lawyers who were remunerated by government agencies. His superiors then asked him to sue Garrison over the DA's impressive interview in Playboy. During his deposition, he gave out some very interesting information about his history with the CIA going back to the Bay of Pigs, and his New Orleans association with people like Ed Butler, Sergio Arcacha Smith, and David Ferrie, among others. The CIA gave him a rigged polygraph which Novel then used to smear Garrison to, what he admitted were, CIA associated journalists. He was a friend of CIA arms specialist Mitch Werbell, and his electronic wizardry led him to meet Charles Colson during the Watergate scandal. They discussed Novel creating a degaussing gun that would erase the Watergate tapes that eventually brought Nixon down. Around 1976, Novel reportedly got in contact with the HSCA and wanted to talk.

Mellen leaves almost all of the above out and introduces Novel, on page 65, as a serious witness to the Garrison inquiry. At times she states that the White House and Sheridan, not the CIA, were actually behind his pernicious and well-protected maneuverings. And what I have synopsized above is not a third of what I could say about Novel. But clearly, it would have an effect on how the reader views him in relation to the Garrison inquiry and the Kennedy assassination. Mellen's foreshortened version reveals a lack of perspective, curiosity, and insight. And let us be blunt: gullibility. (This last is a compelling issue which I will deal with later.)

Then there is the use of documents and how they relate to character portraits. I have already mentioned the apparent confusion about Jack Martin. About Kerry Thornley, she has stated in public, and repeats here, that Thornley received training in chemical and biological warfare. When I first heard this at the Duquesne 40th Anniversary JFK Conference Mellen gave it so much weight that I thought perhaps Thornley was part of the MK/Ultra program (something he actually claimed to be later in life). She repeats the charge in the book. But Stu WExler described this doucment to Larry Hancock. Hancock explained that many of his fellow soldiers in the military from that decade of the sixites were given the same training; it was quite common during the Cold War. So much for MK/Ultra. Then there is the document she uses in relation to Thomas Beckham. The document itself is not presented in the book. Instead, she quotes from it and paraphrases it. If taken at face value it says that Beckham received special instruction in espionage techniques, in small arms training, and was given a psychological dossier by a combined intelligence force of the government. But what Mellen does with this document in relation to Beckham, Oswald, Garrison, and the JFK case is, in my view, sheer hyperbole. She says that this document proves that 1) Beckham was to be used as an assassin; 2) he was to be a back-up assassin in case the Oswald-as-patsy scenario did not come off; 3) that it reveals ample foreknowledge of the JFK assassination by the government; 4) It proves that those who plotted to kill Kennedy had been grooming an innocent man for a very long time, and 5) that Garrison had uncovered parts of this plot in the Clinton/Jackson incident. (page 374)

My reaction to all this, as I wrote in the margin of the paragraph which contains these claims, is a simple: "What the F?" From the way I read this document (combined with what I have learned about U.S. intelligence) I surmised there must have been dozens of men each year who got this kind of training. (Which is beautifully demonstrated in the first part of the David Mamet film Spartan.) How she can directly relate this document to the JFK case, to Oswald's particular role, to a particular agency in charge of the murder, in a particular time frame, these claims all escape me. (Let alone the Clinton/Jackson incident, since as I can see, Beckham was not a part of that and perhaps not even cognizant of it.) Its not that you cannot make this claim with any documents in this case. For instance, there are certain documents pertaining to Mexico City, which I believe are pretty incriminating about Oswald: what he did there, how he was impersonated, and the CIA's role in that charade. But I did not see that here.

This relates to her use of Beckham throughout the book. She has clearly relied on him as the spine of the work. Thomas Beckham has been around for a long time. In fact, his name appears in the first positive study of Garrison, Paris Flammonde's The Kennedy Conspiracy way back in 1969. Garrison was interested in him because of his relationship with Fred L. Crisman, an utterly fascinating character from the Pacific Northwest who Garrison thought was a high level intelligence operative. At the time of the HSCA Garrison wrote an interesting four-page memorandum on Beckham and his relationship to Crisman. The HSCA tracked him down and he did more than one long interview with them. These interviews were declassified by the ARRB early on and a number of people saw them as early as 1994-1995. Gus Russo tracked him down for the 1993 PBS special on Oswald. According to Russo (who Mellen, as we shall see, trusts in other areas) Beckham took back what he said. He told him that he told the HSCA New Orleans investigators what he thought they wanted to hear. He even told him that he cheated on his HSCA polygraph examination, which is how he passed it. Now he has gone back to his HSCA version for Mellen and she takes him at face value with no questions asked. And further, takes the document he has not just at face value, but exalts it to a degree that is, I believe, unwarranted.

The point is this: many people were exposed to the Beckham evidence before Mellen (e.g. Larry Hancock). Some of them were specialists in the Garrison investigation. None of them have gone as far as she has with him i.e. to make him the centerpiece of a book on the DA. To take just one reason among many: it is hard to corroborate a lot of what he says. Which does not necessarily mean he is not credible. It just means that a more judicious person would not stake her book on a guy like him. In fact, she is the first. I predict she will be the last.

Which brings us to Gerry Patrick Hemming. Like Beckham, Hemming has been around for a long time. Unlike Beckham, he has talked on the record to many authors and researchers, some of whom I have had questions about e.g. Gordon Winslow. I would have thought he would have gotten everything out of his system on this matter in the nineties when he talked at length to Tony Summers (for a videotape documentary), John Newman, Mark Lane, and Noel Twyman. (Reportedly, Twyman flew him to his home in San Diego for a three-day marathon interview.) His discussions for those four men included inside information on the relationship between James Angleton and Oswald, musings on the possible role of David Morales in the assassination, Guy Banister's quest for a JFK assassin, and his slight caviling, but ultimate agreement on the "assassination caravan" story as related by Marita Lorenz to Mark Lane. I, and probably others thought that, after thirty years, Hemming was finally tapped out. I was wrong. He has new bits to tell Mellen. One new angle is information on Sylvia Odio. He says he knows who sent the Cuban visitors to see her (p. 87). Like many things in the book, it is not revealed how he knows this. On page 277, Hemming has more insight into Odio. He apparently had a relationship with her in Cuba. Mellen, unaware she's swimming with sharks, uses Lawrence Howard as a corroborator on this. This is where I began to get suspicious. Because it reminded me of a tactic used by Wesley Liebeler and the Warren Commission on Odio. Namely make her into some kind of "loose woman"so doubts would be raised about her character and credibility. (Mellen does not note this striking parallel even though the HSCA was fully aware of it.)

The other untapped line of new knowledge by Hemming is about Bobby Kennedy. According to Hemming, RFK met with Oswald in Florida face to face. (How Hemming could have forgotten to say this previously is a complete mystery.) To offer some sort of credence to a wild story, Mellen adds, "The story recalls the scene in the Oval Office witnessed by attorney F. Lee Bailey."(p. 201) Unfortunately, I couldn't find a scene in which Bailey was even at the White House in this book. So in addition to the bald assertion by Hemming, Mellen adds a bald parallel by Bailey.

And the use of Hemming in relation to Odio and RFK really leads to a much larger issue in this book. Mellen is out to rewrite 1) The Odio incident 2) The history of the Castro assassination plots, and 3) Bobby Kennedy's apparent reluctance to find out the truth about Dallas. To say that she indulges in a rather questionable revisionist history here is much too mild. This is a radical, sensational revisionism. Let's analyze her rewriting of the Odio incident as a representative sample of what she is up to.

The outline of Sylvia Odio's story is well stated in Sylvia Meagher's classic book, Accessories After the Fact. (Meagher found Odio and her story so compelling she titled her chapter on it, "The Proof of the Plot.") The incident was further detailed, with new corroborating evidence, in the nineties by Gaeton Fonzi in his fine work, The Last Investigation. Fonzi investigated Odio for the HSCA and he chronicled a lot of his work in his book. In 1993 PBS, in their aforementioned special, interviewed some of Fonzi's witnesses on camera. The witnesses, including a priest, all bolstered the story told by Sylvia and her sister Annie. So the incident has not just survived the test of time. For most objective people it has been enriched and fortified by further inquiry.

But not for Joan Mellen. According to her, for 25 years, Meagher, Fonzi, the HSCA, and PBS got it wrong. First of all, Odio somehow overlooked a rather important and salient detail. Oswald, or his double, did not arrive at her door with the two Cubans. He was already at her house! But alas, if Sylvia Odio was wrong about this, so was her sister Annie who was there. And then so were her four corroborating witnesses including people you usually don't dissemble with e.g. a priest and her psychiatrist. The logic that Mellen uses to try and enforce her bizarre and baffling revision of this is weird. She says that if Odio was able to identify Oswald, then why could she not identify the two Cubans? Well, maybe because Oswald was apprehended and his face was plastered all over television and the newspapers so she could see it? And the Cubans who were escorting him were not apprehended, were not even really looked for by the Warren Commission who tried to brush the whole thing under the rug? If they were never looked for or found, how could she identify them?

Why does Mellen reject that rather obvious and simple argument? Because again, she has done what no one else did in forty years. Not Fonzi, not PBS, not the HSCA. Through Hemming, she found out who the two Cubans were who visited Odio. (Odio recalled them as Leopoldo and Angelo.) Hemming introduced her to one Angelo Murgado, a Miami Cuban who loved the Kennedys so much he changed his last name to Kennedy (a curious point I will address later). And Murgado/Kennedy told Mellen who Leopoldo was. Hold on to your hats here. Leopoldo was Bernardo de Torres. Yep, the guy who infiltrated Garrison's investigation and may have been involved in the killing of Eladio del Valle. The guy who was good friends with CIA arms specialist Mitch Werbell. The man who allegedly had photos of the assassination he once thought of selling to Life. The man who was so in bed with the CIA that he later sold arms to South American countries and reportedly got involved in CIA drug trafficking in the eighties. Now right off the bat, this would seem to be a bit puzzling for an obvious reason. Fonzi and the HSCA had picked out Bernardo as a prime suspect for the assassination and they had a plant in his Cuban circle of friends. They even brought him to Washington for an executive session interview. So clearly, Fonzi was familiar with what he looked like. And clearly, as Fonzi writes, he spent many hours with Odio going over her descriptions of the two men. Yet it never struck that blunderbuss Fonzi that Leopoldo was right there in front of him, ripe for the picking. (In Fonzi's book, p. 111, the Odio sisters give a description of "Angel." If you compare it with the Mellen description of Murgado, and the photos and description of de Torres, both here and elsewhere, you will see why Fonzi never had his "Eureka" moment.)

It would seem to me that what Murgado/Kennedy is trying to do is shift responsibility for Oswald from the CIA backed, right-wing Cubans to the leftist, Kennedy backed Cubans (JURE), of whom Odio was allied with. Mellen apparently shuts her eyes to this so she can then not ask the question: Well, if Odio and JURE were associated with Oswald before the assassination--to the point of him being her house guest--why on earth would Odio identify him? Dodging the questions completely, she can then write that if Oswald was with the Cubans driving to Dallas, or if he was already there at the Odio apartment, "the meaning of the incident remains the same." (Page 381) If the meaning was the same then why did Murgado/Kennedy make a point of getting Oswald out of the car and into the house? Is Mellen really unaware of the significance of this switch? If she is she either has not done her homework on this important issue or she is incredibly careless with what she writes.

But Murgado/Kennedy is not done. (Let's call him MK for short from here on in.) He reveals to Mellen just how he knows all this stuff, and why he was with Bernardo at Odio's house than night. (Although he never reveals how he has escaped detection all these years. And the uncurious Mellen apparently never asked.) See, he and Bernardo were part of a kind of "special team"of Cubans employed by RFK. For what pray tell? Well MK says that they had a dual purpose. One was to try and kill Castro. The other was to patrol around and be on the lookout for plots to kill President Kennedy. One might then have thought, well they did a Keystone Kops kind of a job since one of the "Kennedy protectors," de Torres, may have been in on the plot to kill him. And RFK must have been pretty stupid to have people like de Torres, MK, and as MK says Manuel Artime around him to protect his brother. Why? Because all these guys were veterans of the Bay of Pigs disaster. Meaning that, like Dave Morales, they were all dyed-in-the-wool CIA loyalists. Consequently, all of them blamed the Kennedys for that debacle. And all of them stayed in the employ of the CIA afterwards. In fact, Artime was Howard Hunt's Golden Boy, the man who Hunt wanted to replace Castro if the Bay of Pigs succeeded. Further, the CIA and their hard right Cubans had planned to never let the Kennedy Cubans, e.g. Manuelo Ray of JURE, take any power in Artime's Cuba. They devised a secret operation inside the Bay of Pigs called Operation Forty, which sponsored death squads to eliminate all the Ray/Kennedy Cubans and then chalk it up to accidents, friendly fire, casualties of war etc. MK and Mellen want us to believe that RFK would not know that the very people he was involved with despised him and his brother for ending their dream of a retaken Cuba. This is especially hard to swallow since RFK sat on the secret Taylor Commission that interviewed witness after witness involved in the planning of that so-called "perfect failure." Reportedly, he and JFK came to the conclusion that the CIA had designed the operation to fail, that they counted on JFK then escalating it with American forces, and when he did not, they blamed the failure on him, covered up their duplicity in the press, and told the Cubans JFK had lost his nerve. Clearly, when Fonzi describes the outburst Morales has at the drop of JFK's name, and how Morales mentions the bloody revenge they extracted in retaliation for the Bay of Pigs, this is illustrative of the Cuban veterans resentment of Kennedy.

How could RFK not be aware of this if, for example, I am? In my earlier research days when I did a lot of interviews, I talked to several Cubans. I decided that I would not talk to any more afterward since in every discussion I had about the Kennedys they all blamed JFK for the failure of the Bay of Pigs. Some of them in quite bitter terms. So it would follow then that the actual veterans of that operation would especially despise the Kennedys. And as de Torres may have done, took the sentiments one step further into an act of murderous vengeance. (So why would Murgado change his name in honor of him?)

Why does Mellen not ask these obvious questions? Why did she not do her homework on this issue? All this information is in the literature today. In fact, there is one rather slim volume that explains the Bay of Pigs fallout in eyewitness detail. And it is not by a "Kennedy idolater" -- a smear term which Mellen likes to employ apparently so she does not have to argue the facts, or defend her rather dubious and comical crew of witnesses. That book is called Give Us this Day. It is written by Artime's friend and sponsor, Howard Hunt. A man who, like de Torres, is suspected of being involved in the JFK assassination. Hunt details all of his disputes with the Kennedys over the Bay of Pigs, how he disliked Ray and thought if the Kennedys installed him in Cuba, it would be "Castroism with out Fidel." In other words, Ray was a Communist and the Kennedys were backing another Castro. Does Mellen not think that MK, de Torres, and Artime got that message from the Spanish speaking Hunt?

Hunt was also involved in setting up Sergio Arcacha Smith in New Orleans as head of the CRC. Like the effortlessly gulled Gus Russo, Mellen believes Smith was also a Kennedy friendly Cuban who was actually buddy-buddy with RFK. This is the guy who worked for the Batista government for decades, who made a fortune in industry, who saw it all come to nothing when Castro took over. A man who was personally jetted out of Cuba by the CIA and set up in New Orleans with CIA allies like Ed Butler and Guy Banister. A man who was later identified as one of the two Cubans who threw Rose Cheramie out of the car as they were driving to Dallas discussing how to kill Kennedy. Who according to Richard Nagell was involved in the setting up of Oswald in New Orleans, and who according to Officer Francis Fruge, may have had maps of Dealey Plaza in his apartment in Dallas where he was living at the time of the murder. It is hard to measure who the better indictment in this case would be against: Smith or de Torres. But according to Mellen and MK, they were both "good friends" of RFK.

I pondered throughout how Mellen could believe such people without reservation. People who some investigators -- like Fonzi, Ed Lopez, and the late Al Gonzalez -- have thought were actually suspect in the case. It was not until her last chapter that I began to understand why. Her agenda, in large part, coincides with theirs. Mellen was once married to Ralph Schoenmann. And in fact, when her book came out, her former husband did a three-hour radio interview with her on WBAI in New York. Schoenmann was the man who once wrote that Bobby Kennedy was in charge of the 1965 CIA coup in Indonesia against Sukarno. That he ran the operation from a navy ship off the coast. Since RFK was out of the White House and in the Senate at the time, I noted that this irresponsible charge was almost certainly false. But it is part of Schoenmann's view of America and the JFK case. He sees no important difference between the Kennedys, the Eastern Establishment, and the Power Elite. To him the assassination was a struggle between the Eastern Establishment and the new oil barons of the southwest, or as Carl Oglesby has termed it, The Yankee and Cowboy War. And Schoenmann, against reams of contrary evidence-- e.g. Richard Mahoney's excellent book JFK: Ordeal in Africa -- considers the Kennedys part of the Eastern Establishment. Since Mellen's book is about Jim Garrison, who ended up rejecting Farewell America, she could not quite view it that way. But, like her former husband, she spares no opportunity to carve RFK -- if not JFK-- into tiny pieces. Looking through my notes, and then the marginalia I wrote in the book, I have little problem writing this next sentence. The book is a hatchet job on RFK; one aimed right between his shoulder blades. And it is hard to believe that it was not planned that way. Especially since, as noted above, she never doubts anything these Cubans and their allies like Hemming tell her, no matter how wild, no matter how illogical, no matter how unsupported. Any time she can take a shot at him, she does. At one point, she writes that Bobby was always given to hero worship of brutal men (p. 187). Really. Like, for instance, Cesar Chavez? And for her there is never a less than sinister reason why RFK could doubt Garrison, or be uncertain about what to do about the death of his brother: the deep melancholia he sank into after JFK's death, the humiliations LBJ inflicted on him, the naked disdain Hoover felt for him personally. Incredibly -- or rather, with Mellen, predictably -- these are never even mentioned, let alone given any consideration. At one point she writes that it was RFK who told the family they should not make waves about a conspiracy to kill JFK (p. 344). Yet according to a man who was at this meeting, Peter Lawford, it was Teddy who voiced that sentiment. Bobby was the one who wanted it out in the open for a family discussion. This episode, which I noted in Probe Magazine, will be expanded upon in David Talbot's upcoming book about RFK. Which, unlike Mellen's work, promises to be responsible, balanced, and inductive in method. That is, its conclusions will flow from the evidence, and not vica-versa.

To exemplify just how far her anti-Kennedy rage reaches, let me cite two egregious examples. She uses the notorious Louisiana right-winger and segregationist John Rarick (p. 173) to relate a story about the sad Kennedy sister Rosemary. Previously, it had been reported that she suffered from mental retardation and the family had her institutionalized. Misdiagnosed, she had a lobotomy. Since then the Kennedys have always been in the forefront of special rights for the mentally afflicted. Well, Rarick says that is all wrong. She was misdiagnosed alright. She really was a kleptomaniac who consistently wrote bad checks. (A Kennedy who was hard up for money?) And instead of sending her to one of the better institutions in the northeast, she was sent to Angola in Louisiana which, by some reports, houses much of the pathological prison population of the area. What does Rarick have to support this story? Records that have now conveniently disappeared. And what on earth does it have to do with Garrison's inquiry? Then on page 200, she drags in the Bernie Spindel tapes. Spindel was a surveillance technician who worked for Jimmy Hoffa. Previously, the only tapes he ever had about the Kennedys were the mythological Marilyn Monroe tapes, which were investigated by the NYPD and found to be apocryphal. (Spindel was in trouble with the law and he was using this blackmail bluff as a bargaining chip.) Now, Mellen uses Kennedy enemy and proven liar Spindel as having "tapes and evidence about the Kennedy assassination that he wished to make public."Of course, like the MM tapes, these are never revealed. (I wonder why.). With the use of Spindel and Rarick, Mellen descends into the netherworld of the likes of The Clinton Chronicles. And again, this is a book that is supposed to be about Jim Garrison and his inquiry into the John Kennedy murder. If she had not been so single-minded in her near-pathological obsession with Bobby she could have written more and better stuff about Garrison e.g. the chapter on Phelan or the media. And it would have been a better book. As with the discredited John Davis, if I were to go into every dubious accusation she makes about the Kennedys, that in itself would take a small book.

So, for me, it's not surprising that in her (unconsciously satirical) final chapter she willingly uses people like MK and Beckham. They help her fulfill her preplanned double arc, namely to support Garrison, and dig a pitchfork -- to the hilt-- into RFK's back. In her eagerness to do so she ignores the facts that 1.) Today, you don't need Beckham to support what Garrison did. There is an abundance of other evidence in that regard, and 2.) The whole story about why RFK remained inactive about his brother's death is a subtle, shaded, and complex one. And having the likes of Bernardo de Torres pal talk to you about it after he's made you dinner is not a good way to approach it.

In sum, the book was a huge disappointment for me. Reportedly, Mellen spent seven years on it and over 150, 000 dollars. So, quite naturally, like others, I was expecting at least a worthwhile effort. If it was not going to be definitive, it would now be at least the best book on Garrison. But that's not true. Bill Davy's book is still the best book in the field. Unlike Mellen's work it is both clearly written and well organized. Further, he does not make statements he cannot support and does not serve as a willing and eager conduit for disinformation from people with obvious agendas. Like covering up their suspect roles in the conspiracy to kill President Kennedy.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 22:44
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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