Friday, 15 December 1995 21:40

The Life & Death of Richard Case Nagell

Jim DiEugenio pays tribute to the person Jim Garrison once called "the most important witness in the JFK case".

From the November-December, 1995 issue (Vol. 3 No. 1) of Probe

The buzz on the Internet began about the middle of the first week of November. "The Man who Knew too Much" – Richard Case Nagell – was rumored to be dead. The original story said that his body was found in a Los Angeles park.

The Sad Truth

On the main point, Nagell's death, the rumor was correct, although officially he had passed away at his home near the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. The coroner's office has stated to Probe that Nagell died of heart disease on November 1st at age 65 at his apartment in Silver Lake. Once the staff heard this, they arrived on the scene to survey what was left behind of one of the most important witnesses to the assassination of John Kennedy. It was a melancholy sight. Nagell passed away in a rundown triplex in the lower class area of Silver Lake, near Hollywood. The triplex was on a dead end street right next to an overpass to a busy L. A. freeway. Amazingly, the inside door to the apartment was open and one could look inside. By November 4th, the place appeared to be barren. If Nagell left anything of importance behind, it doesn't seem to have been there. The landlord had already placed a sign up to lease the apartment.

Nagell, who in the last two decades of his life, abhorred publicity, certainly seems to have had his wishes fulfilled. The obituary for his death did not appear in the Los Angeles Times until November 10th. Even then, it was the last in a series of four listings on page 34. The writer spent more time discussing Dick Russell's 1992 book – the paper had done a feature on it when it appeared – than in explaining to its readership the probable significance of Nagell's life and death.

The Most Important Witness

In 1975, on the eve of the HSCA, Jim Garrison stated quite succinctly, "Richard Nagell is the most important witness there is." Nagell occupies a prominent place in Garrison's memoir On the Trail of the Assassins. Bud Fensterwald, after the HSCA, in 1981, stated pretty much the same: "Nagell is probably the only vital individual who knew the details of the assassination and is still alive." Amazingly, there is no record of the Warren Commission ever having interviewed Nagell. This in spite of the fact that there is a December 1963 FBI memo stating that he had met Oswald in Texas and Mexico City. This in spite of the fact that Nagell wrote at least two letters to the Commission telling them he had knowledge of both Oswald and the conspiracy well in advance of the assassination. There are conflicting reports of how Robert Blakey and the HSCA approached Nagell. Although Russell, his biographer, stated on a radio interview program in 1992 that the Committee had ignored Nagell, researcher Gus Russo has stated that there is a tape in the HSCA collection containing a call from an HSCA staffer to Nagell. According to Russo, Nagell hangs up quite quickly. Anna Marie Kuhns-Walko states that the tape is longer but seems to have been altered. To our knowledge, no HSCA records of contacts with Nagell have been declassified by the ARRB or National Archives. They should be made available in transcript form and the ARRB should verify the transcript against the existing tape. Needless to say, now that Nagell is dead, every agency's files on him should be reviewed by the Board and then released.

Nagell's Background

Nagell's story is well-known to the research community. He was a longtime intelligence operative who seems to have been working for the CIA in the 1960's. He had maintained that some in the more moderate part of the Agency had gotten wind of a plot to kill Kennedy. He was assigned to find out if this was true. He did so and found out there was a conspiracy afoot and Oswald was to be the man set up for the assassination. Nagell was then told to foil the plot, even if that included terminating Oswald. Nagell backed out of this assignment, mistimed the plot and ended up getting himself purposefully arrested in El Paso in September of 1963. He tried to inform the authorities of the conspiracy but all of his warnings were ignored.

Nagell and Garrison

Nagell's significance was first revealed in more detail during the Garrison investigation. Nagell managed to get a letter to the DA in early 1967 conveying the kind of information he possessed. Unfortunately for both parties, Garrison could not bring Nagell to New Orleans and was too busy to go to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri where Nagell was being held. In April of 1967, Garrison sent an assistant, William Martin to conduct an interview with Nagell. This proved to be a mistake by the unwitting Garrison. Martin had an office in the International Trade Mart and, as documents uncovered by Bill Davy reveal, was a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. In a memo dated April 18th, 1967, Martin details his contacts with Nagell. At first, they were promising. Nagell actually confirmed that Garrison was on the right track and revealed the existence of a tape of a conversation he had among some Cuban exiles which would affirm this. But very soon Nagell discovered Martin's duplicity, and by April 25th refused any more interviews with him. Later, there was an exchange of nasty letters between them. Although he did meet personally with Garrison later, for reasons advanced in his and Russell's book, Garrison decided not to use him at the trial of Clay Shaw.

A Question of Credibility

In the wake of Russell's book and the revelation of a plane accident Nagell had previous to the assassination, commentators like Mark Zaid and Paul Hoch have questioned Nagell's utility on the basis of his possible mental instability. Probe has decided not to engage in telepathic psychiatry. We print here, in its entirety, and for the first time, a letter Nagell wrote in his prison days, during the Garrison investigation. We provide a bit of decoding (see the sidebar on page 6) to those unfamiliar with the field and with Nagell's cynical and biting sense of humor (common among spies.) Let the reader decide if Nagell is in control of his faculties and is in possession of rare and inside information. After reading it, we think the same figure of speech once applied to T. E. Lawrence can also be used with Richard Case Nagell: the poor devil rode the whirlwind. The letter begins on page 5 of this issue. CTKA will soon offer a Richard Case Nagell file in its catalog.

~ Jim DiEugenio

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