At 5 p.m, a police car, siren wailing, arrived at the Breakers Hotel. It had come for me. A Sheriff's deputy explained that the States Attorney needed to see me because I was apparently the last person to have seen George De Mohrenschildt alive. De Mohrenschildt, who was a key witness in the Kennedy assassination, had died an hour before from a gunshot wound to his head.
The news came as a shock. I had been in the midst of a four- day interview with De Mohrenschildt, for which I had agreed to pay him a $4,000 "honorarium." I had never before paid anyone for an interview, but De Mohrenschildt had had an extraordinary relationship with the subject of my book, Lee Harvey Oswald. I had reason to believe that he might have been in a position to cast light on Oswald's prior entanglement in the web of intelligence services. He had been, as far as I was concerned, a man of considerable mystery. Even his date of birth—"1911," on one passport, "1914" on another— was in doubt. He had emigrated from Russia via various European countries to the United States in May 1938, and claimed such diverse occupations as insurance salesman, film producer, journalist and textile salesman. In addition, British intelligence suggested that he may have been working for German intelligence.
In any case, when he tried to join the OSS in 1941, he had been "security disapproved" because of his associations with German espionage agents. He then got involved in the oil business after the war, became a social figure in Dallas and traveled extensively around the world. In 1962, he befriended Oswald, who had just returned from Russia to Dallas, and introduced him to many people. Then, in the spring of 1963, just after Oswald attempted to assassinate General Edwin A. Walker, he abruptly broke off all contact with Oswald, and moved to Haiti, where he remained for over ten years.
What had brought De Mohrenschildt to the attention of the Warren Commission was Marina Oswald's testimony that De Mohrenschildt had rushed up the stairs of Oswald's house after he missed Walker and shouted, "Lee, how did you miss General Walker?" So he had to return from Haiti to testify. When questioned about this remark by the Commission, De Mohrenschildt shrugged it off as nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence: a "joke." He then returned to the obscurity of Haiti and gave no more interviews.
He returned to the U.S. in the mid-1960s. I first interviewed him on April 22, 1976, but he was not forthcoming. Then, he mysteriously vanished in Europe. When he returned in 1977, he informed me that he needed money. At that point, I offered him a $1,000 a day for a 4-day interview. The first day had gone well. With the help of my research assistant, Nancy Lanoue, I managed to fill in many of the gaps in his career prior to his meeting Oswald.
Then, this morning, I asked him about why he, a socialite in Dallas, sought out Oswald, a defector. His explanation, if believed, put the assassination in a new and unnerving context. He said that although he had never been a paid employee of the CIA, he had "on occasion done favors" for CIA connected officials. In turn, they had helped in his business contacts overseas. By way of example, he pointed to the contract for a survey of the Yugoslavian coast awarded to him in 1957. He assumed his "CIA connections" had arranged it for him and he provided them with reports on the Yugoslav officials in whom they had expressed interest.
In late 1961— De Mohrenschildt could not pinpoint the date— he said had a lunchtime meeting in downtown Dallas with one of these connections; J. Walter Moore. Moore steered their conversation to the city of Minsk, where, as Moore seemed to know even before he told him, De Mohrenschildt had spent his childhood. Moore worked for the CIA's domestic contact service in Dallas. He told De Mohrenschildt about an ex-American Marine who had worked in an electronics factory in Minsk for the past year, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was returning to the Dallas area. Although no specific requests were made by Moore, De Mohrenschildt gathered that Moore would be appreciative to learn more about Oswald's activities in Minsk.At this time, he was extremely busy trying to arrange for Papa Doc Duvalier, the Haitian dictator, to approve his oil exploration deal in that country. Some help from the U.S. Embassy in Haiti would be greatly appreciated by him, he suggested to Moore. Although he recognized that there was no quid pro quo, he hoped that he might receive the same sort of tacit assistance that he had previously received in Yugoslavia. "I would never have contacted Oswald in a million years, if Moore had not sanctioned it," he explained to me "Too much was at stake."
When Oswald arrived in Dallas, De Mohrenschildt paid a visit to his house because, he explained to me, he "assumed that was what Moore wanted." He then conducted an unwitting debriefing of Oswald — a subtle questioning in which the subject, Oswald, in this case, did not realize he was being debriefed.
As he won Oswald's confidence, he not only drew him out about his experiences in Minsk but, with flattery, he encouraged him to write a detailed memoir for publication in a magazine. He also offered to help edit and select photographs for it -- an offer that provided him with a plausible reason for continuing to probe Oswald's past. When he found out Oswald had written his memoir that described, among other things, his work in the electronics factory, he borrowed it from him and told Moore.
During that fall De Mohrenschildt also had introduced Oswald to potential employers in the electronics business. He said he wanted to stimulate Oswald to discuss his work in the Minsk factory, which he assumed would be of interest to Moore.
In mid March 1963, De Mohrenschildt got the lucrative Haitian government contract for which he had been waiting. He had assumed that it had been helped along by the work he was doing for Moore.
But it then became apparent to him that he had become a much closer confidant of Oswald than he realized. In early April, Marina gave him a curious memento from Oswald. It was an inscribed photograph showing Oswald dressed in black, holding, in one hand, the radical newspaper The Militant and, in the other, the sniper's rifle with the telescopic sight-- that he had shown De Mohrenschildt the week before. The photograph was signed "For George, Lee Harvey Oswald" and dated April 5th, 1963. Marina had derisively scribbled in Russian "Hunter of Fascists. Ha. Ha." That "Ha Ha" became less a joke to De Mohrenschildt on April 10th when De Mohrenschildt heard on the radio that a sniper had fired a shot at General Walker. Only a few weeks before, in the company of three young geologists, he recalled that he had heard Oswald single out Walker as a "fascist" that should be dealt with, and, when one the geologists egged him by talking of an assassination plot against Hitler, Oswald answered that Hitler should have been shot before he ever achieved power. He thus had a "pretty good suspicion who had taken the potshot" at Walker.
I interrupted. "So you knew Oswald had tried to assassinate Walker, what did you do about it?"
He said he immediately rushed over to Oswald's house to find out what had happened and if Oswald had disposed of the rifle. He recalled being very frightened, as was his wife, Jean. He feared that he could be implicated, and the CIA might cut off support for his Haitian contract. at risk, that night was the last time he ever saw Oswald.
I then asked him whether he had reported the assassination attempt -- and the telltale photograph --to Moore. He said "I spoke to the CIA both before and afterwards. It was what ruined me." If so, the CIA had in its possession information and a photograph identifying Oswald as a potential assassin some six months before Kennedy came to Dallas. But it was a big "if"-- and serious problems with the story he was now telling. Why had De Mohrenschildt not turned over this evidence to the FBI when he was questioned or to the Warren Commission when he testified? Concealing such evidence could be a crime-- especially since it could have shown that De Mohrenschildt and others had prior knowledge about Oswald's assassination potential. His prior failure to tell the FBI about the photograph even could be construed as a possible obstruction of justice. To be sure, part of his new story fit the established facts. J. Walter Moore was indeed in the CIA's Domestic Contact Service in Dallas which had responsibility for debriefing returning visitors from the Soviet Union that had potential intelligence of value. And Moore had been in contact with De Mohrenschildt. He had debriefed him in 1958 on his work in Yugoslavia which, according to CIA records, he had disseminated the resulting reports to ten government agencies.
There was also some indication the Domestic Contact Service in Dallas might have been asked to debrief Oswald. According to a memorandum given to the Warren Commission by the CIA, the CIA had placed a look-out card in his file after learning in 1961 he was returning to the Dallas, and a CIA officer recalled suggesting that Oswald and his wife be debriefed through the Domestic Contact Service. So it could have happened, but there was no documentation showing that Moore had received this heads-up, or had been in touch with De Mohrenschildt after Oswald had returned to Dallas in 1962. Was De Mohrenschildt now dragging the CIA into his relation with Oswald as a red herring— or had the Warren Commission missed a critical link between the CIA and Oswald?
I asked whether he had any proof the inscribed photograph existed. He offered to make the photograph available to men through his lawyer, Pat Russell, and I could verify the handwriting of Oswald's and Marina's. He then opened up his thick black address book and wrote out Russell's phone number.
It was now 1:30 p.m. and we decided to break for lunch. We agreed to meet again at 3 p.m. Just after De Mohrenschildt left the room I noticed that he had left his address book on the couch and mentioned it to Nancy. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. I realized he had returned for his address book which I handed back to him. It was the last time I saw him.
David Bludworth, The State's Attorney, was a folksy, charming and savvy interrogator. He began by telling me that De Mohrenschildt had put a shotgun in his mouth and killed himself at 3:45 p.m. There were no witnesses— and no one home at the time of the shooting. The precise time of his death was established by a tape-recorder, left running that afternoon to record the soap operas for the absent Mrs. Tilton, and which recorded a single set of footfalls in the room and the blast of the shotgun, which was found on the Persian carpet next to him. No suicide note or other clue was found. He said I was probably the last person to talk to him. Then, he asked whether I had in my possession De Mohrenschildt's black address book. I replied "No." He politely rephrased the question, and asked me again--about a half-dozen times, whether I had the black book. (I wondered whether this line of questioning proceeded from De Mohrenschildt having told someone else that he had left his book in my room— or, even somehow my remark that he had left his book had been overheard.)
Gradually, the questioning became more relaxed and Nancy and went for a drink with Bludworth. He then told us that De Mohrenschildt's sudden death had caused "havoc" in Washington. The House Select Committee on Assassinations believed that De Mohrenschildt was a "crucial witness" and, for the past week, had the FBI search for him in three countries. Just that day, after locating him in Palm Beach, the Committee had dispatched one of its investigators to subpoena him. Bludworth knew this, he continued, because that investigator's card had been found at the Tilton mansion. Bludworth's theory was that De Mohrenschildt returned from his interview with me, saw the card, realized he was going to have to testify on this subject, and, not being able to face that ordeal, killed himself with the shotgun.
I asked at this point why he was concerned about the missing black book.
"Don't worry about that," he answered.
The banner headline of the New York Post that night was "KEY JFK WITNESS KILLS HIMSELF."
March 31, 1977
Two FBI agents arrived at my hotel. They were both polite and precise in their questions. They asked me how I had located De Mohrenschildt in Florida.
They explained that Just two weeks before he had turned up in Florida, De Mohrenschildt had literally "vanished" from the Hotel Metropole in Brussels, leaving his luggage, raincoat and pipe behind in his room-- just minutes before he had been scheduled to meet with a Soviet diplomat. After he was reported missing in Belgium, he had reportedly flown from London and New York. They wanted to know if De Mohrenschildt had not given me any of his personal papers. When I said "No," they thanked me for my time and left.
There was a phone message from Nancy, who had gone back to New York. The lawyer, Pat Russell, had sent the photograph. It was, as De Mohrenschildt had described it, a copy of the celebrated backyard photograph of Oswald with the rifle that appeared in the Warren Report. But on the back it had a date and handwriting. A handwriting expert who had been working with me, Thea Hall, immediately identified both the dating and the inscription as Oswald's writing concluded the Russian printing on reverse side was consistent with Marina's handwriting. So now I knew De Mohrenschildt had been given this incriminating photograph before the assassination— but it did not answer the real issue of whether he had passed it on to the CIA