The Kennedy Assassination Fifty Years Later
Whether it was a lone gunman or a conspiracy, New Orleans had footprints
New Orleans Magazine
Michael L. Kurtz
The Warren Commission Report devoted much attention to Oswald’s well-publicized distribution of pro-Castro “Hands Off Cuba” leaflets on Canal Street.
In mid-April 1963, only seven months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald arrived in New Orleans. After staying briefly with relatives, he got a job at the Reily Coffee Company, the makers of Luzianne coffee, and he rented an apartment at 4907 Magazine St. in the city’s Uptown section. During his stay in the city in the next five months, Oswald would engage in activities and make personal contacts that remain the topics of much discussion a half-century later. While it’s still being debated whether the assassination resulted from the act of a deranged lone gunman or from a conspiracy, and whether Cubans, mobsters, renegade CIA agents or influential members of the industrial-military establishment masterminded the killing of the president, everyone agrees that the five months that Oswald spent in New Orleans during the spring and summer of ’63 played a critical role in the assassination.
Oswald’s ties to New Orleans ran deep. He was born there in October 1939. Lee’s father, Robert, died two months before he was born, leaving his mother, Marguerite Claverie Oswald, to raise Lee, his older brother, Robert, and his older half-brother, John Pic, by herself. During Lee’s early childhood, Marguerite lived in several homes on Alvar, Pauline, Bartholomew and Congress streets in the Upper 9th Ward. When Lee was 6, she lived briefly in Covington, where Lee first attended school. Marguerite moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in ’46, where Lee would live for the next six years. In ’52 she moved to New York, then in ’54 back to New Orleans, where she lived on Exchange Place in the French Quarter. Lee attended Beauregard Junior High and Warren Easton High School for one year each.
Lee Harvey Oswald, above left, projected a public image of sympathy for communism in Cuba and the Soviet Union, distributing pro-Castro leaflets, left. Beneath the surface Oswald associated with extreme right-wing elements taking actions to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro, one of whom was David Ferrie, above right.
District Attorney Jim Garrison subpoenaed the famous Zapruder film making it the first time it was seen in public. The film of the assassination showed Kennedy’s head moving violently leftward and backward after being struck.
As soon as Lee reached the age of 17, he joined the Marine Corps, where he served for more than two and a half years. After leaving the Marines, he travelled to Fort Worth, then to New Orleans, where he caught a Lykes freighter bound for Europe. In October ’59, Lee defected to the Soviet Union, where he would spend the next two and a half years. In April ’62, with funds provided by the U.S. State Department, he returned to the United States, bringing with him his Russian wife, Marina Prushakova, and their daughter, June. For the next year, Lee and Marina lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, before his move back to New Orleans.
No one knows the reason for Lee’s decision to move to New Orleans in April 1963. Although his aunt, Lillian Claverie Murrett, and uncle, Charles “Dutz” Murrett, lived there, his mother and brother lived in Fort Worth. The Warren Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy, tread very lightly over the minefield of espionage and suspicion that encompassed Oswald’s five months in the Crescent City in the spring and summer of ’63. Eager to attribute a motive to Oswald’s alleged killing of Kennedy, the commission focused exclusively on Oswald’s public espousal of socialist, communist and Marxian ideology. In its Report, the Warren Commission mentioned Oswald’s appearances on local radio and television programs, in which he proclaimed himself a supporter of the USSR in the Cold War. It also discussed Oswald’s fight on Canal Street with Carlos Bringuier, a prominent anti-Castro Cuban exile, and it devoted much attention to Oswald’s well-publicized distribution of pro-Castro leaflets calling on the United States to keep “Hands Off Cuba.” Finally, the commission noted Oswald’s formation of the New Orleans chapter of the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Even though Allen Dulles, the former Director of the CIA, was a member of the Warren Commission and knew of highly secret intelligence activities emanating from New Orleans, the Warren Report gave these activities no attention. However, Oswald’s death at the hands of Jack Ruby didn’t eradicate his connections to New Orleans.
Three years after the 1964 publication of the Warren Report, the district attorney of Orleans Parish, Jim Garrison, would startle the nation by announcing (after the publication of a States-Item news article by Rosemary James and Jack Wardlaw), that his office was conducting an investigation into the Kennedy assassination. Garrison further stated that the assassination resulted from a conspiracy hatched in New Orleans in the summer of ’63, and that Lee Harvey Oswald projected a public image of sympathy for communism in Cuba and the Soviet Union, but beneath the surface associated with extreme right-wing elements taking actions to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro. By early March ’67, the District Attorney’s office had arrested Clay L. Shaw and charged him with conspiracy to commit the murder of John F. Kennedy. A native of Kentwood, Shaw was a prominent member of the New Orleans business and civic community. He had served as director of the International Trade Mart and played a prominent role in the ’60s movement to revitalize the French Quarter.
Another individual that Garrison intended to charge with conspiracy to kill the president was discovered dead in his Louisiana Avenue Parkway apartment by investigators from the DA’s office. He was David William Ferrie, a 45-year-old eccentric. Like Garrison, a native of the Midwest, Ferrie had studied theology and had even established his own religion, an offbeat sect that had few members. An expert pilot, Ferrie flew for Eastern Airlines in the 1950s and served as a captain for a Civil Air Patrol squadron at Lakefront Airport. There he met Oswald for the first time because Oswald had joined the squadron. Because of his homosexuality, Ferrie lost his job at Eastern, but he drew the attention of Guy Banister. A former FBI agent and former assistant supervisor of the New Orleans Police Department, Banister opened a private investigative agency located near Lafayette Square in ’61. Banister was an extreme anti-communist and racist and found that Ferrie shared his beliefs. Using his connections with the local CIA office, located in the nearby Masonic Temple Building, Banister obtained jobs for Ferrie to fly missions in which he dropped supplies to CIA-sponsored anti-Castro guerillas.
To support his accusations against Shaw and the now deceased Ferrie, Garrison obtained both a grand jury indictment and a bill of information alleging that Shaw was guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Garrison produced a witness, a recently released Angola inmate named Perry Raymond Russo, who related a story, that if true, would’ve destroyed the official government lone assassin version of the assassination. His memory jolted by hypnosis sessions, Russo stated that in the summer of 1963, he attended a party at Ferrie’s apartment. Both Clay Shaw and Oswald (who called himself “Leon”), together with several anti-Castro Cubans, also attended. Russo claimed that at the party, Ferrie launched a tirade against President Kennedy, calling him pro-Communist and demanding that action be taken to eliminate him. Ferrie then talked in detail about assassinating Kennedy, about how he should be killed while he rode in a motorcade. Ferrie then laid out plans to catch the president in a “triangulation of crossfire,” in which multiple gunmen firing from different positions would kill him.
Three years after the 1964 publication of the Warren Report, the district attorney of Orleans Parish, Jim Garrison, would startle the nation by announcing that his office was conducting an investigation into the Kennedy assassination.
After two years of intense publicity and legal appeals, the trial of Clay Shaw began in January 1969. Garrison’s prosecutors produced witnesses and for the first time in a public setting, the famous Zapruder film of the assassination showing Kennedy’s head moving violently leftward and backward after being struck, convincing many courtroom observers, including the jurors, that a conspiracy indeed existed. However, in making its case against Shaw, the prosecution proved wanting. Once again, Russo testified about the party, but subjected to a withering cross-examination, he didn’t come across as a highly credible witness. A convicted heroin dealer named Vernon Bundy testified that he saw Shaw and Oswald exchange an envelope on the Lake Pontchartrain seawall. Seven witnesses from Clinton, La., stated that they saw Shaw, Ferrie and Oswald together there in late August ’63. The most compelling witness that Garrison seemed to produce was a New York accountant named Charles Speisel. Unlike the former inmate Russo, Speisel, well dressed and well spoken, appeared quite credible when he testified that he also had attended a party, this one at a house on Esplanade Avenue, in which Ferrie, Shaw and Oswald also discussed assassinating the president. Fortunately, in our adversarial system, there’s an opportunity for the defense to cross-examine a witness. Upon cross-examination, Speisel admitted that he fingerprinted his daughter when she returned home during holidays to ensure that aliens hadn’t kidnapped her and switched her for one of their own. The rest of the trial was anti-climatic, and it took the jury less than an hour to acquit Shaw.
Garrison’s failure to prove his case in a court of law delighted defenders of the Warren Commission’s lone assassin conclusion, but Garrison did raise certain questions that directly related to the New Orleans connection to the assassination. First, why was Oswald, an outspoken communist sympathizer, associating with people like Banister and Ferrie, who were on the opposite end of the political spectrum? Both Garrison’s office and a subsequent investigation by the House Select Committee on Assassinations uncovered evidence that Oswald indeed associated with extreme right-wing anti-communists during his New Orleans sojourn. Banister’s secretary, Delphine Roberts, and William George Gaudet, a CIA operative who frequently met with Banister, recalled seeing Oswald in Banister’s office. Oswald had known Ferrie since he belonged to the Civil Air Patrol squadron that Ferrie commanded, and numerous witnesses saw them together in New Orleans in the summer of 1963.
Another issue raised by Garrison was his accusations against the CIA for engaging in a willful cover-up of its New Orleans-based anti-Castro operations in the spring and summer of 1963. At the time, virtually all pundits and leaders of the national news media scoffed at Garrison’s charges, but later developments proved him entirely accurate. Next to Miami, New Orleans became the home for the largest influx of Cuban refugees from Cuba after Fidel Castro assumed power in ’59. Acting on orders from its Langley, Va., headquarters, the New Orleans office of the CIA developed an extensive network of individuals assigned to engage in guerilla attacks against the Cuban government. According to CIA documents, Oswald was assigned many tasks involving anti-Castro maneuvers emanating from the New Orleans Field Office. Others who took part in the activities included Ferrie, Banister, Gaudet, and such anti-Castro Cuban exiles as Carlos Bringuier and Sergio Arcacha Smith.
The activities carried out in and around New Orleans during the early 1960s became embedded in a morass of intrigue and intelligence operations that hasn’t yet been totally untangled because of the continuing refusal of the CIA to release all materials in its possession relating to the assassination. Only a few aspects will be mentioned here. Various anti-Castro Cuban organizations were established in New Orleans and served as fronts of undercover operations. Arcacha Smith’s Cuban Revolutionary Council had an office in the same building, located at 544 Camp St., where Banister’s private investigator’s office was housed. It is of considerable interest that some of the pro-Castro leaflets that Oswald passed out in downtown New Orleans listed 544 Camp St. as the address of his Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Banister used Oswald to try to find Castro’s double agents who had infiltrated such groups as the Cuban Student Directorate (DRE), also located in New Orleans. The details of these intelligence activities remain classified to this day. It is known that George Joannides, the CIA’s liaison with the DRE, deliberately withheld vast amounts of documentary material from congressional committees looking into these matters.
In late August 1963, Oswald travelled to Dallas, where he met with David Atlee Phillips, who, using the alias “Maurice Bishop,” served as the principal CIA official in charge of Western Hemispheric clandestine activities. Oswald also met in Dallas in late September with Silvia Odio, the daughter of a prominent Cuban opponent of Castro. At both meetings, Oswald was accompanied by, or seen by, Cuban exiles supported by the CIA.
Together with Banister and Ferrie, Oswald visited the large Schlumberger Well oil drilling supply company located in Houma. According to CIA records, the company provided cover for a large cache of weapons and other supplies that Ferrie and others would fly to Cuban rebels fighting against Castro’s forces. A guerilla training camp was located near Bedico Creek, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. There both Americans and Cuban exiles were instructed by CIA agents on guerilla tactics and even methods of assassination, since killing the Cuban leader remained the highest priority of the American intelligence agency. A recently released document written by Richard Helms, the CIA’s second in command, reveals that even after President Kennedy was assassinated, assassination plots against Castro were being hatched in Washington, Miami and New Orleans.
It took the jury less than an hour to acquit Clay Shaw of the charges to conspire to kill the president. Garrison’s failure to prove his case in a court of law delighted defenders of the Warren Commission’s lone assassin conclusion, but Garrison did raise certain questions that directly related to the New Orleans connection to the assassination.
The Mafia Angle
Another aspect of the New Orleans connection to the assassination lays in the possible involvement of organized crime, with the Louisiana Mafia boss, Carlos Marcello, being a prime suspect. Marcello had plenty of reason to despise President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. In 1961, acting on orders from the attorney general, federal agents arrested Marcello, who had never obtained his U.S. citizenship, and “deported” him to Guatemala. After Marcello returned, he found himself entangled in protracted legal struggles to remain in the country. The Justice Department prosecuted him on various immigration charges, and in ’63, Marcello would be tried in federal court. On the very day that the president was assassinated, the jury would acquit Marcello on all charges.
Marcello faced other attacks from the Kennedy administration. Robert Kennedy’s Organized Crime Division had singled out Marcello as a primary target in its campaign to destroy Mafia syndicates throughout the country. Marcello voiced his intense hatred of the Kennedy brothers to many people. In one noteworthy conversation with Edward Becker, a Los Angeles mobster, Marcello vowed that, “Bobby will be taken care of.” Referring to President Kennedy as a dog, with Robert being the dog’s tail, Marcello told Becker that, “the dog will keep biting if you only cut off its tail, but if you cut off its head, it will die.” The inference was clear: if President Kennedy was assassinated, Robert Kennedy would no longer be attorney general and his war against organized crime would end.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Carlos Marcello did indeed have the “motive, means and opportunity” to assassinate the president.
Even more evidence for the theory that Carlos Marcello masterminded the assassination came from a story told by Frank Ragano, an attorney for and a close friend of the Florida mob boss, Santo Trafficante. Ragano stated that in July 1963, he visited the notorious Teamsters Union president, Jimmy Hoffa, had expressed his desire to see the “sons of bitches [John and Robert Kennedy] killed,” who asked him to request that Trafficante and his fellow Mafia godfather Marcello have President Kennedy killed. Ragano travelled to New Orleans, where he met with Marcello and Trafficante at the Royal Orleans Hotel. Ragano relayed Hoffa’s request, and both mob bosses reacted as if the “hit” on Kennedy was already planned. Ragano also stated that in ’82, Trafficante, then dying of heart disease, told him that “Carlos fucked up. He should have killed Bobby, but he got Giovanni [John] instead.”
The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Carlos Marcello did indeed have the “motive, means and opportunity” to assassinate the president. Since Marcello’s organized crime empire included Texas, as well as Louisiana, any Mafia murder, especially that of the president, would have needed Marcello’s approval. The committee found that Oswald’s assassin, Jack Ruby, had longtime connections with Marcello operatives in both states. In 1959, for example, Ruby flew from New Orleans to Havana, where he paid Fidel Castro’s people a substantial sum of money to release Trafficante from a prison in the Cuban capital. In the summer of ’63, Ruby made several trips to New Orleans, where he met with such known Marcello associates as Harold Tannenbaum and Nofio Pecora, both of whom operated Bourbon Street strip joints. In the fall of ’63, Ruby made numerous telephone calls to both men. In Dallas, Jack Ruby owned two strip clubs and he reported directly to the two mob bosses of the city, Joseph Civello and Joseph Campisi. Both men were close associates of Marcello’s and in fact, served as his Dallas surrogates.
When Carlos Marcello won his acquittal in the federal court in New Orleans on Nov. 22, 1963, sitting at the defense table along with one of Marcello’s attorneys, G. Wray Gill, was none other than David Ferrie, an investigator for Gill. Before Marcello’s victory party at his West Bank estate got underway, Ferrie and two of his companions set off on a mysterious trip to Houston and Galveston the evening of the assassination. From a public telephone booth outside a skating rink, Ferrie made and received several calls to individuals connected to Marcello and Ruby. One call he made was to the telephone number of the girlfriend of Lawrence Meyers, a Chicago mobster and friend of Marcello’s, who visited Ruby in Dallas the next day, Sat., Nov. 23. The following day, Ruby murdered Oswald in the parking garage basement of Dallas Police Headquarters. Finally, John Martino, a mob associate of both Marcello and Trafficante, appeared to know exactly when and where the murder of the president would occur.
During one of his legal appeals, Jack Ruby stated that “the world will never know the true facts of what occurred … because these people who have put me in the position I’m in will never let the true facts come aboveboard to the world.” Ruby’s statement not only summarizes his murder of Oswald, but also that of the many enigmas of the Kennedy assassination. Although no concrete evidence proves that a conspiracy to kill the president originated in New Orleans, the city’s connection to the assassination remains one of its enduring mysteries.
Michael L. Kurtz is a Scholar-in-Residence in History and Southeastern Louisiana University and author of Crime of the Century: The Kennedy Assassination From a Historian’s Perspective (Third Edition, 2013).