Inside the Garrison JFK Assassination investigation.

Part 8 of 9

Thursday, March 14, 1968

Today Dick Billings, associate editor of Life magazine arrived in New Orleans, having received a letter from Jim Garrison assuring him of immunity from subpoena or any other legal entanglement. In the morning Garrison came into my office and told me that Billings was arriving that afternoon, and was planning to stay for three months. I asked him what I was supposed to do if Billings came into my office. Was I to co-operate with him, as we had in the past, and show him the files? Garrison said emphatically not, and that he was now convinced that Life was now working with the Federal Govt, and that he himself wasn't even going to talk to Billings. He said he would prefer it if I didn't see Billings socially outside the office, although he added that he wasn't exactly ordering me not to.

It should be noted that a week ago we received word from the West Coast that Life was preparing an article about the case which would be published at the time of the Shaw trial, and which would cast the investigation in a derogatory light. Also, on March 11, Federal District judge James Comiskey rules that Life stringer David Chandler did not have to testify before the Orleans Parish grand jury as to his alleged knowledge of organized crime in Orleans Parish. Also today, Jim Garrison addressed the National District Attorneys Convention, and he attacked the judge's decision on the grounds that there was a collusion between the Federal District court, Life magazine and the Federal Government. He added that they were engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the Zapruder film, among other things.

By way of retaliation, Garrison decided to subpoena the Zapruder film today. The subpoena was drawn up by Dick Burnes, and he requested my assistance in including some details about the actual film itself. I considered it important to clarify whether we were subpoenaing the original film, or a copy. I advised Burnes that it would be better to subpoena a first generation copy, as I was quite sure that the magazine wasn't going to take the original out of their safe for anyone, and that we would therefore have a better chance of success if we subpoenaed a copy. The matter was referred to Garrison. I went into his office, (Harold Weisberg and Moo Sciambra were in there at the time,) and again recommended that we subpoena a copy. However, Garrison was adamant that we subpoena the original. I got the impression that he hadn't thought about which copy to subpoena until I raised the question. I also got the impression that he was less concerned about getting a copy of the film to show at the trial than he was about making trouble for Life. In any event, the subpoena was drawn up in the afternoon. I discussed the matter with Jim Alcock, and he agreed that it would be better to request a copy. I pointed out that, from the point of view of the trial, it would presumably be effective to show the film, and that we were therefore presumably concerned about the outcome of the subpoena -- unlike the Dulles subpoena, for example. Alcock said it would be even better simply to ask for the film, without subpoenaing it at all, especially as Billings was coming in that very afternoon.

At 3:00 pm. Billings arrived in the office, and sat outside in the lobby, waiting to be invited in. Eventually he spoke to Jim Alcock in Alcock's office. Billings at that time advised that Life was outraged by Garrison's recent statements about them in front of a large proportion of the D.A.'s in the country, and that Life's lawyers were instituting contempt proceedings against Garrison as a result. Alcock told him of the new office policy with regard to Billings, and that they had been told not to provide him with any more information.

Friday, March 15, 1968

Billings had still failed to reach Garrison, and he therefore come into the office again. (Garrison not in office, of course.) He spoke to Alcock and Louis Ivon on this occasion, and they told him of the subpoena of the Zapruder film, which was in fact issued today. I saw Billings briefly soon after he had met with Alcock and Ivon. He seemed depressed by his failure to make any headway; he told me he was leaving Life on April 1, 1968, with plans to be a freelance writer. We agreed to meet that evening to discuss the whole matter further.

I met Billings at 7 pm. And we discussed the whole subject of the assassination and the Garrison investigation for several hours. Clearly, he position is that he wants to write a book about the subject, and he has already approached about six publishers in New York, without receiving any encouragement. He feels that his problem is that he is unable to reach any conclusion on the subject. I am not too clear exactly what he means by this, but my guess is that he does not feel that he can make any positive statements about the validity of Garrison's case. (Later, 1969: Billings' position is clearer to me now. His problem at that time was that he was trying to justify -- both to himself and to his employers -- the position he had taken with regard to the Garrison investigation; ie. He had failed to advise his editors of the weakness of the Garrison case, and oversight which was, I believe, the cause of his losing his job with the magazine. Billings held off and held off blowing the whistle on Garrison for reasons which are probably complex. Although this is speculation, my guess would be that billings did this (a) because he thought there were genuine doubts about the assassination problem, and that Garrison might eventually hit on the solution. (b) Billings evidently had a great deal of information about Cuban exile-type plots in Miami -- I mean solid evidence that such plots existed, and was hoping to see Garrison tie in these plots to the Dealey Plaza outcome. He had half the story and he was hoping Garrison would provide the other -- vital -- half. Boxley's remark -- Life lost interest in us when we lost interest in the Cuban exiles -- makes sense in this context. (c) and this is probably by no means least -- Billings undoubtedly liked and admired Garrison in many ways, and probably thought that it would constitute betrayal if he informed his editors of some of the realities of the Garrison investigation. And by the end of the evening, he had convinced me that he was very well aware of the realities, probably more so than any other journalist who has worked on the case.)

In general, I feel that Billings and I share a similar position about the Warren Report. He does not believe that there was a conspiracy on the part of the government, the Warren Commission or the FBI to conceal the truth, but that a probability exists that they simply did not uncover the whole truth. When it came to the investigation of sensitive areas, such as Oswald's possible alliance with anti-Castro Cubans, he feels that the FBI tended to side-step the problem by not investigating it very thoroughly, for fear that it might upset their sole-assassin preconceptions. In corroboration of this, one need only point to the absence of any trace of an FBI investigation of the 544 Camp St problem. Billings argues that some of the classified FBI reports, if declassified, probably would reveal some interesting information, and he cited CD 1085, the FBI report on Cuban exile groups. Billings does not feel that the FBI knowingly would have filed any reports which indicated conspiracy without making it known, merely that these reports might inadvertently contain such information. I agree with this position.

As for the Garrison investigation, Billings was more guarded, but I sense that he believes that, 1. Shaw is completely innocent. 2. Garrison sincerely believes everything that he says. 3. Garrison is not motivated by political ambition, but that his motives are much more complex, or, maybe, much more simple. 4. Garrison, regrettably, has too much of a butterfly approach, and instead of concentrating on a few important areas, such as Oswald's Cuban connections, hops around from storm drain theories to the Minutemen, without ever really exhausting one line of inquiry. I agree with all these assessments, including the first, in the light of what Billings told me later on in the evening.

We discussed Life's position at some length. I said that I thought it was absurd to say that the magazine was a tool of the government in view of their Nov. 1966, article ("A Matter of Reasonable Doubt") and it was also unfair to accuse them of suppressing the Zapruder film. They have made it available for viewing in the National Archives (without restriction, as is the case with some of the other film in the Archives, eg. the Nix film,) they have published articles based on its contents criticizing the Commission and calling for a new investigation, and, above all, they are a magazine and not a TV station or a Movie company. The only decision which they made about the film which cannot easily be interpreted as simple commercial vested interest was their refusal to let CBS show it on their "Special" on the Warren Report. Such a showing would almost certainly have enhanced rather than diminished the value of the film. I asked Billings about this and he said it was one of those rather mysterious calculations made by the businessmen in the upper echelons, which, he agreed, did not seem to make good sense.

He then said that Life has in fact been dickering with the project of making a film, utilizing Zapruder and other footage which they possess, such as DCA, Dorman, Hughes, etc. However the problem has been to find a producer for it. As Billings said you cannot just splice the footage together and then shot it. You have to analyze it and come to conclusions, etc., and this is precisely what no-one in the magazine wants to do, not because anyone there knows there was a conspiracy and is trying to hide it, but because it would represent a controversial entanglement which they would rather avoid. As he said, if you showed the Zapruder film to 100,000 people, 95,000 would immediately conclude that Kennedy was shot from the front. If they made such a film it would be sold to a TV station.

Billings emphasized that he had no Federal government connections. He worked closely with Garrison during the early stages of the investigation, and was sincerely hoping for some solid proof of conspiracy, which the magazine would have published if it had existed. As he said, this would have been a considerable embarrassment to the FBI and the government, and he observed that the present rift between Garrison and Life must be a source of pleasure to the FBI. Billings said that he had suspicions about the New York Times aborted investigation, and in particular their peculiar attitude towards Garrison. He feels that many of the news media had adopted a negative attitude toward Garrison before they had had a chance to come to a valid conclusion about his evidence. I recall that this was my impression, too. I told Billings what I knew about the New York Times story. In November, 1966, before I was working for Garrison, and, I believe, almost before the Garrison investigation began, I was in Dallas with Penn Jones. To be precise, this was on November 22, 1966, at the assassination site. At that time I met Martin Waldron of the NY Times, and, he had a four or five page questionnaire of problems about the assassination he was looking into, as a part of the NY Times investigation. Most of these questions were about New Orleans, and specifically about David Ferrie. I did not see the list, but he showed it to Penn Jones. Thus, it should be emphasized, the NY Times was investigating Ferrie independently of Garrison, and possibly actually earlier than Garrison.

The next time I saw Waldron was on the day Jack Ruby died, Jan 3, 1967. Once again I was with Penn Jones, and at that time I asked him if he had made any headway with his list of questions. He told me that he had taken it to N.O. police chief Giarrusso, who had given him hardly any information. This was confirmed by Billings, who had seen a list, and I believe he said had obtained a copy of it. It had Giarrusso's answers written against the questions. Most were either "don't known", or "see Garrison" or "Garrison investigating". The odd thing is, Waldron never did go and see Garrison, not once. Garrison himself told me that he had never met Waldron, and Billings, who was obviously at that time alert to the possibility of rival papers getting onto the Garrison investigation, says that as far as he knows, Waldron never tried to see Garrison.

In addition, there is no doubt that Waldron knew a full 6 weeks before the story broke in the States-Item that Garrison was conducting an investigation of the assassination. But the NY Times never broke the story. When I met Waldron on the day Ruby died, I asked him about a remark he had made earlier to Penn Jones about a policeman who had died in New Orleans. (Penn Jones' hobby is collecting "assassination deaths".) I asked him on this occasion who this policeman was. He said, "Oh, Lieutenant Dwyer, some name like that. You ask your D.A., I'm sure he knows about it." (Dwyer is mentioned in Frederick O' Sullivan's testimony.) The fact that I was working for Garrison was a big secret at the time, or was supposed to be. I had said nothing about it to Waldron, nor, I am sure, had Penn Jones. In any event, it is curious that Waldron showed no interest in seeing Garrison, and the NY Times showed no interest in breaking the story.

(1969: At the time of the Shaw trial I asked Waldron about this. He said that, in the first place, he did try to get to see Garrison but was unable to get past his secretary, or words to that effect. Secondly, he admits that the NY Times had the story and could have broken it, but it just didn't seem that big a deal. As to how he got onto the story in the first place -- and Ferrie in particular -- Waldron was vague.)

Billings feels there is a possibility that Waldron has "Federal connections" of some kind, sources who supply him with information, but at the same time place him under certain constraints. I have noticed that Waldron never sets foot inside the DA's office, even though I invited him in once or twice.

Billings says he first saw Garrison on December 14, 1966, (a date which keeps cropping up.) He was alerted to the fact that Garrison was up to something by David Chandler, who in turn had been alerted by me. I had called Chandler, at the suggestion of Matt Herron, who is a friend of Chandler, and knew that Chandler knew more than most people about Garrison. (In fact he had just written a story about him for New Orleans magazine.) I wanted to know a bit more about Garrison before committing myself to working for him. (Ironically, I was worried specifically by the possibility that Garrison might be scared off the subject if he stumbled into CIA involvement!) Chandler was alerted by my call, made a few inquiries and called Billings. I asked Billings when the investigation really began, and he replied that that was, to him, one of the big mysteries of the case. He thinks it might be earlier than is realized. Garrison once told me that one of the things that got him going was the Esquire issue with articles by Sylvia Meagher and Ed Epstein. I note that no investigative report in Garrison's files is dated earlier than December, 1966, and so I conclude that the investigation did not seriously get under way until early December, although there may have been some unrecorded investigation before that. Billings feels that Garrison was in possession of important and convincing information implicating Ferrie early on in the investigation–information which he has never made available to anyone. Billings feels this because Garrison was so positive, so sure, so convincing, about Ferrie. I do not believe this is true for a minute. Garrison has a way of being very sure and very convincing about things on precious little evidence.

We discussed some aspects of the New Orleans investigation in more detail. I said that it was important to place oneself in the position of being about to start a hypothetical investigation of the assassination in the New Orleans area, as Garrison did. What are the important things to investigate? They are, I think: 1. Who is "Clay Bertrand"? 2. Who is the unidentified man passing out leaflets with Oswald in front of the International Trade Mart? 3. How did "544 Camp St." appear on some of Oswald's literature? 4. In general, did the FBI conduct an honest and thorough investigation into Oswald's activities in New Orleans, or did they leave big gaps?

All of these points have been looked into by Garrison. The net result of his investigation has been that: 1. Clay Bertrand has been identified by Garrison as Clay Shaw, and by Dean Andrews as Gene Davis. Gene Davis seems like a better candidate as Andrews is the only person in the world who ever knew who Bertrand was, and Gene Davis admits he called Andrews at the Hotel Dieu, (although I did not tell Billings this at this time.) 2. The unidentified man with the leaflets remains unidentified, although at one point Garrison claimed that his name was "Manuel Garcia Gonzalez" -- on no evidence whatsoever, apparently. 3. No explanation has been provided as to how the Camp St address was on Oswald's literature, if we discount merely assuming that people like Guy Banister are "involved". 4. It has been concluded that the FBI's investigation was, on the whole, very thorough indeed. (Exception: Guy Banister and 544 Camp St. really do seem to have been overlooked, which, as I have remarked before, is curious when you consider that the FBI knew about this 3 months before the assassination, and of course Banister was an ex FBI man.

This does not add up to a very productive investigation, although in many ways this was not Garrison's fault. A serious and quite considerable investigation was conducted into these areas, (although I'm afraid the less said about the "Bertrand" investigation the better.) Also, Alcock, Ivon and Sciambra have all attested at different times to the efficiency of the FBI's investigation. It is hard to think of anyone of any relevance who was not interviewed by them within a week or two of the assassination. (In fact, most were interviewed within a few days.) This has been, I am sure, a source of great disappointment to the DA's office, although Garrison himself has never admitted as much. When all the books and articles came out criticizing the Commission, I think many people in the office thought they were exploring virgin territory when they looked into Oswald's background, because these books had tended to over-emphasize the short-comings of the FBI. They gave no indication of how extensive their investigation had been. Far from finding virgin territory, they found that the FBI had been there ahead of them every time -- three years ahead of them. I don't think anyone was expecting this. I know I wasn't; it was clear that many of the people working on the investigation, such as Louis Ivon, acquired a certain sneaking respect for the FBI, as I did too.

Billings still considers the Sylvia Odio lead one of the most important in the case, and recently checked out the rumor that she is now living in Chicago with her husband. He concluded that she is not. He has spoken to Annie Odio, who promised to forward a letter from Billings to Odio, but she will not give him her address. In fact, no one has succeeded in interviewing Odio yet, or showing her pictures of possible suspects. Billings wants to talk to Odio's father, who may still be in jail, to find out if he still has the letter she wrote him before the assassination (?) referring to the alleged visit of "Leon Oswald". Billings feels that Castro may well co-operate in this project, and might even be able to furnish him with some valuable information. I gather he is toying with the idea of approaching Castro about this.

Billings and I then began to discuss the case of Clay Shaw. He told me he thought it was a bum rap, after I had broken to ice on the subject by telling him that, to me, the most serious criticism of the case that I had seen was the Phelan article. I told him that it was difficult to see any way around the problems created by that article. I said that Sciambra's latest position was to say that he omitted the conspiracy meeting from the memorandum because he told Garrison about it verbally when he returned from Baton Rouge. Garrison was having dinner in a restaurant, and Sciambra told him there. Billings then startled me by telling me that he was present at that meeting between Garrison and Sciambra. I think Billings said it was at Broussards. Billings related that Sciambra joined them later in the evening. He came in excited and told them that he had just interviewed Perry Russo in Baton Rouge. He was excited because Russo had said he had seen Shaw and Ferrie together on one occasion -- in a car at Ferrie's gas station, and he claimed he had seen Shaw on one other occasion -- at the Nashville Street wharf on the occasion of President Kennedy's visit.

Thus Billings' description of what Sciambra told Garrison on the night of Feb 25, 1967, is consistent with the controversial memorandum which Phelan attacked. No mention was made of a third meeting at which the assassination was allegedly discussed, no mention was made of Lee Harvey Oswald, nor of Clay Bertrand.

When Billings had finished telling me this, I started to say, "Well, that means that Sciambra..." when he interrupted me: "Sciambra's a liar," he said. He added that he considered that Sciambra was the most dangerous person in the office, because he was, among other things, stupid. I am forced to agree. It now looks as though there is no alternative to the clear cut conclusion that Clay Shaw is completely innocent. It is now clear that the sodium pentothal and hypnotism sessions which intervened between the meeting in Baton Rouge and Russo's testimony at the Preliminary Hearing were used not to "objectify" Russo's testimony, as Garrison claims, but to elicit it.

It is of course still conceivable to argue that the hypnotism, etc. was necessary to get Russo to recall what did in fact happen, and that he was unable to recall events through the unaided use of his memory, but this is clearly grasping at straws. The simpler hypothesis (Occam's Razor) is that his testimony was suggested to him. The transcripts of the hypnotism sessions very much bear this out, incidentally. Billings remarked that he was appalled at the extent to which Russo was "prepared" as a witness before testifying. As he said, it ought not to have been necessary, if only because Russo's original story -- seeing Ferrie and Shaw together once -- was by itself interesting enough. But he was finally so prepared by hypnosis, etc., that he reached a point where he was no doubt unable to distinguish between what he had originally recalled and what had been suggested to him. (I am prepared to believe that by now Russo is genuinely unable to make this distinction.)

Billings pointed out a further conflict. When Russo first said he saw Shaw and Ferrie together at the gas station he said it was before the assassination. When Billings later interviewed Russo he had changed this to after the assassination, which was more in harmony with the facts, because Ferrie did not get the gas station (from Carlos Marcello) until ‘64 or ‘65. Billings also said that he was having dinner with Garrison, Sciambra, and Russo on the night of Feb 26th, I think, and at one point the name Bertrand came up. The name meant nothing to Russo because he said, "Bertrand, who is that?" or words to that effect.

Shaw was arrested on Wednesday, March 1, 1967. Billings has a clear record of the events which led up to this arrest, and he briefly outlined them to me. (Billings evidently has a very good memory, because he was able to rattle off exact times and dates without looking anything up.) Basically, the sodium pentothal session and the hypnotism sessions intervened between the Sciambra interview and the arrest. Billings said that after Garrison heard of Russo's amplified testimony by these means, he demanded the immediate arrest of Shaw, right on the street as he came out of his house. (Shaw's house was being staked out at the time.) Garrison's assistants demurred at this, however, especially in view of the presence of a Life reporter. They insisted that Shaw be brought in to the office. Garrison acquiesced, Shaw came to the office and requested an attorney when they started talking about taking a lie detector test or sodium pentothal, or undergoing hypnotism. The lawyer arrived and he requested a delay of one day before taking the lie-detector test. At this point Garrison ordered the arrest of Shaw. I had been told earlier by someone in the office that Shaw's somewhat precipitate arrest was motivated by this consideration: that if he had been allowed to return to his apartment he would undoubtedly have destroyed whatever incriminating evidence there may have been there. (Snag is, Shaw had already been brought in to the DA's office for questioning on Dec 23, 1966, and asked if he had ever used the name Clay Bertrand. Presumably he would have destroyed the evidence at that time, if there had been any.)

Thus, Billings leaves me with no alternative but to conclude that there was no basis for Shaw's arrest. I note the following three points: 1. At the time of Shaw's arrest there was only one witness against him -- Perry Russo. 2. Russo's testimony is not credible when considered in the light of Phelan's and Billing's criticisms. 3. Dean Andrews, the only person who ever claimed to know who Bertrand was, says Shaw is not Bertrand, and there is no reason to assume that Andrews is "protecting" Shaw other than by making an ad hoc assumption to that effect. (I notice that people who want to believe that Shaw is guilty do make this assumption.)

In a series of articles for the Chicago Daily News, Richard Billings outlined the story of the Garrison investigation. He confirmed that Sciambra failed to mention any "assassination party" in Russo's testimony in Baton Rouge. Billings also told author Edward Jay Epstein that Sciambra's oral account to Garrison matched the Sciambra Memo, but failed to mention the "assassination party" that later became the key part of Russo's testimony. See Epstein's The Assassination Chronicles (New York, 1992), p. 281.

It seems to me important to realize that Garrison is mainly guilty of bad judgement rather than bad faith. He seems to believe sincerely that Shaw is guilty, Thornley a conspirator, the CIA planned and carried out the assassination, and that the Federal government covered it up. I once told Alcock that this was my impression of Garrison -- that in mitigation one had to concede that he believed what he said. "Positively," said Alcock. "If I didn't think that I would have quit long ago."

(Later, 1969: Much of what Billings told me he repeated to Ed Epstein shortly before his article came out in the New Yorker. He had shown the galleys to Billings, as he had heard that Billings was familiar with the case, and he wanted Billings to check the facts. Billings went further, and wrote a great deal of additional information in the margins, including much of what he told me. Shortly after he got this information from Billings, Epstein called me up. He wanted to know if I knew about it, and if I considered it important. I said yes I did to both questions. Epstein was quite excited to be able to include this material at the last minute. Somehow, before the New Yorker piece came out, Sciambra had gotten word of Billings' corroboration of Phelan. (In fact, Billings wrote 5 articles for the Chicago Daily News which included some of this in a very compressed form.) I was curious to see what Sciambra's reaction was going to be. It turned out to be straightforward: Billings is a liar. Billings was not having supper with Garrison when I returned from Baton Rouge.

Thus Billings calls Sciambra a liar, and Sciambra calls Billings a liar. I don't think I need bother to say which of the two I believe.

Next: Part Nine.

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