But in reality, the newspaper story contains no mention whatsoever of a meeting at Ferrie's apartment, a "Leon Oswald," a "Clem Bertrand," Clay Shaw or an assassination plot. Rather, Russo's story mentions only David Ferrie and his alleged threatening remarks directed toward JFK.
Russo had also been interviewed by the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate at that time, which ran an article on February 25. It reports that Russo had heard David Ferrie threatening the President's life, and that, following Ferrie's death, Russo had written Jim Garrison about his recollections of Ferrie. Once again, there is no mention of a meeting at Ferrie's apartment, a "Clem Bertrand," Clay Shaw, a "Leon Oswald," Lee Harvey Oswald, or an assassination plot.
Three media interviews also show Russo telling the same story:
What Russo said in that interview is recorded in the Sciambra Memo. Much of the material in the Sciambra Memo is consistent with what Russo had already told the Baton Rouge press, but some "interesting" elements began to be added.
Russo claimed that Ferrie had often spoken of killing the President, whom he allegedly loathed for his policies regarding Cuba, particularly vis-a-vis JFK's failure to support the invasion at the Bay of Pigs. There is reason to doubt even this much, as no Ferrie acquaintance but Russo ever reported any such hostility surviving the summer of 1961 Gus Russo writes:
David Ferrie has long been portrayed on paper and in film as an American grotesque: a raving hater of President Kennedy, who threatened to kill the President. He was said to be angry at JFK for failing to help the Cuban exiles restore liberty to their land. It seems certain he made a celebrated statement after the Bay of Pigs fiasco on which much of the portrait has been based. That incident occurred in July 1961, when Ferrie was addressing the New Orleans chapter of the Order of World Wars. Ferrie became so critical of Kennedy's handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion that he was asked to discontinue his remarks. But that was almost certainly taken out of context and misinterpreted.When shown a photograph of Clay Shaw by Sciambra, Russo said that he'd seen:
A devout Catholic (who was, for a time, a seminarian), Ferrie voted for Kennedy in 1960 and was "elated" when he defeated Richard Nixon for the presidency that year. "Things are going to turn for the better now that a Catholic has been elected," a good friend would remember Ferrie saying. Another friend elaborated, "After all, he was an Irish Catholic too. He was an enthusiastic supporter [of Kennedy]. Dave was a spokesman for the Kennedys. To him, the idea of a Catholic president was mind-boggling, He thought Kennedy was fabulous (Russo, Live By the Sword, 144).
". . . this man twice. The first time was when he pulled into Ferrie's service station to get his car fixed. Shaw was the person who was sitting in the compact car talking with Ferrie. He remembers seeing him again at the Nashville Street Wharf when he went to see JFK speak. He said he particularly remembers this guy because he was apparently a queer. It seems that instead of looking at JFK speak, Shaw kept turning around and looking at all the young boys in the crowd. He said that SHAW eventually struck up a conversation with a young kid not too far from him. It was perfectly obvious to him that SHAW stared at his penis several times. He said that SHAW eventually left with a friend. He said that SHAW had on dark pants that day which fit very tightly and was the kind of pants that a lot of queers in the French Quarter wear. SHAW had on a corduroy type jacket which was black with white stripes."
It would later be determined, at Shaw's trial, that Shaw was not the individual in question at the Nashville Street Wharf. Shaw, as a top civic leader in New Orleans, dressed conservatively and acted decorously in public. Further, Ferrie did not own a service station until 1964, prompting the question as to whether two assassination conspirators would be seen together in public following the assassination.
Russo described a roommate of Ferrie's, whose name he didn't know, as having "sort of dirty blond hair and a husky beard which appeared to be a little darker than his hair. . . . a typical beatnik, extremely dirty, with his hair all messed up, his beard unkept [sic], a dirty T-shirt on, and either blue jeans or khaki pants on. He . . . wore white tennis shoes which were cruddy and had on no socks."
Sciambra showed Russo a photo of Lee Harvey Oswald, and Russo "began shaking his head and said that he doesn't know if he should say what he's thinking. . . . He then said that the picture of Lee Harvey Oswald was the person that Ferrie had introduced to him as his roommate. He said the only thing that doesn't make him stand up and say that he is sure beyond the shadow of any doubt is the fact that the roommate was always so cruddy and had a bushy beard. He then drew a beard on the picture of Oswald and said this was Ferrie's roommate."
Lee Harvey Oswald was always clean-shaven, his family, wife, friends, and acquaintances agree. There is not a single photograph in existence of Oswald with a beard. The closest thing to it is his New Orleans mug shot of August 9, 1963, which shows a barely perceptible bit of stubble on his chin and a wispy hint of a mustache.
Sciambra reported, "Russo said the more we talk the more comes back to me and he said that the name Leon really rings a bell." Russo suggested that Sciambra draw a beard on the photo of Oswald, and show it to Ferrie friends such as Kenny Carter, Tim Kershenstine, Niles Peterson and Al Landry, whom he believed could confirm that Oswald had been Ferrie's roommate. Needless to say, none of them could. Indeed, later at the Clay Shaw trial Marina Oswald testified that Lee had been home with her every night the couple lived in New Orleans with the exception of the one night he had been in jail.
In all likelihood, Russo was thinking of Ferrie's onetime roommate, James Lewallen, as even Russo once admitted was possible.
So under Sciambra's extensive questioning, Russo's testimony came to include several "interesting" elements, including Oswald as Ferrie's roommate, Ferrie and Shaw together, and Shaw as a homosexual "hawking" young boys. But what it didn't include was Clay Shaw conspiring with anybody to murder Kennedy.
[Russo] recalled lying on a table, the needle inserted into his right arm, as a "clear substance" was administered, which he thought took about ten minutes, and he felt nothing out of the ordinary. Then the Pentothal bottle was attached and Russo reacted instantly. "My head started spinning round and round things started closing in on me and tightening up and I started getting violent and upset." "I knew I was upset," he said. "I recall being bothered I didn't want to be bothered, didn't want anybody to touch me and I didn't want anybody close to me." At first "the doctors were holding me down." Then "I felt like I was kicking at them." He became violent and had to be physically restrained. "It seemed like they strapped my whole body, they strapped the right arm down and they held the left arm . . . and they strapped me around the waist and around the legs." "I just kept swinging and twisting and squirming away" and "the needle came out once, at least, maybe more." "That's when they strapped me down." "[Alvin] Oser . . . was holding me down right at the waist. He's big!" "He just physically got on top of me and I kept saying, I remember saying, 'Get away you mother fuckers, get away,' and I kicked at them and I was swinging at them" (Lambert, False Witness, 72-3).It seems miraculous that the interrogation was completed at all, but indeed it was. It was, in fact, the turning point of Garrison's "case" against Clay Shaw. Up until this time, Russo's story had centered around only David Ferrie. Now, Ferrie was dead, and Russo's story would have to undergo a radical change in order to be useful to the DA. By this time Russo had been shown Clay Shaw's photograph and had heard enough about him and his alleged alias to begin to make the connections his interrogators needed.
Plenty of financial incentive had been floated for young Mr. Russo as well. Russo would later recall Garrison peeling off hundred-dollar bills for him, and nonchalantly "telling him not to worry about expenses," plus numerous hotel stays with unlimited room service for him and all the friends he cared to invite (Perry Russo, Interview of January 27, 1971). Russo estimated he received $3,000 cash for "expenses" (Shaw trial transcript, February 11, 1969, 442-3), this being over and above Russo's salary from Equitable Life. He was also promised a great deal more that he did not end up receiving (Perry Russo, Interview of January 27, 1971). He was paid $15,000 from Time magazine for his story (Perry Russo, Interview of January 27, 1971).
Although no transcript of the session was made, Assistant DA Andrew Sciambra wrote a detailed memo outlining Russo's responses to questioning. With Sciambra conducting the Pentothal interrogation, Russo again described Ferrie's roommate, "Leon," as a "very dirty" "beatnik-type guy" with a "bushy beard" and hair "all messed up." Russo reiterated that "Leon" was "extremely dirty." He recalled seeing "Leon" at Ferrie's place around September 20-25, 1963. At this session, Russo for the first time referred to Ferrie's roommate as "Oswald."
Russo denied knowing Clay Shaw, but when asked if he knew "Clay Bertrand," Russo said very possibly for the very first time that he did indeed know a "Bertrand," a man he said he had met at Ferrie's apartment. He described "Bertrand" as a "queer," and "a tall man with white kinky hair, sort of slender," and now said that "Bertrand" was the man he'd seen once at Ferrie's service station and at the Nashville Street Wharf.
Sciambra asked him "if he could remember any of the details about Clay Bertrand being up in Ferrie's apartment," and Russo described being in Ferrie's apartment with "Bertrand" and "Leon Oswald." Ferrie had told him, he said, "We are going to kill John F. Kennedy" and "it won't be long." Sciambra asked whom Ferrie had meant when he said "we," and Russo said, "I guess he was referring to the people in the room."
So, from Garrison's perspective, this version of Russo's testimony was substantially improved. It had Ferrie, and Oswald, and "Bertrand" at an assassination party. It had talk about killing JFK. But it did not have "Bertrand" talking about killing JFK, and it had no planning for any assassination attempt. In other words, it didn't have Clay Shaw involved in any conspiracy.
The following day, Russo was brought to Clay Shaw's house by a member of the DA's staff, as Russo wanted to see Shaw in person before identifying him as the "Bertrand" he claimed had been at Ferrie's apartment. He knocked on Shaw's door, posing as a door-to-door insurance salesman. After a brief exchange with Shaw, Russo took his leave, and informed the DA's office that Shaw indeed was "Bertrand."
The following day, the same day Shaw was arrested, Russo was interrogated under the influence of hypnosis by Dr. Esmond Fatter and Andrew Sciambra (First Hypnotic Session, Exhibit F").
During this March 1 interview, under the influence of hypnosis, Russo now described a full-blown "assassination plot." Remarkably, though Clay Shaw had been arrested on the sole basis of Perry Russo's testimony, it is Dr. Fatter who introduces most of the key elements of "Russo's story." Russo fails to describe anything but himself and "Dave Ferrie just sitting around," until Fatter narrows the subject matter down. Using the visual device of an imaginary television screen, Fatter tells Russo, "Continue looking at that television picture and notice the news cast The president, President Kennedy is coming to New Orleans and as you look, describe it to us." "Who is that white haired gentleman that is over there, looking at President Kennedy?" Russo describes the man he'd seen at the Nashville Wharf. "How about this white haired gentleman?" Fatter asks again. "That was him," Russo replies. "Do you know his name?" "No."
Fatter instructs Russo to look at the "television screen" again, and changes the scene to Dave Ferrie's service station. "Tell me about the white haired man sitting in that automobile," Fatter says. "He is sitting with Dave and they are just talking," Russo says. At Fatter's prompting, Russo dates the event in March 1964. "Take a look at the white haired man again," Fatter tells him. "Did you ever see that man before?" "Yes he was a friend of Dave's." "Where did you see him before?" "At the Nashville Wharf."
On the day of Clay Shaw's arrest, Russo is visualizing an alleged March 1964 sighting of Shaw, and answering the question, "Where did you see him before?" with "At the Nashville Wharf" in 1962. He fails to acknowledge any other meeting without prompting from Dr. Fatter. That prompting is not long in coming.
Fatter shifts the picture on the "television screen" to "Ferrie's Apartment [sic] on Louisiana Avenue Parkway," and instructs Russo to say what he sees. "He introduced me to his roommate who was a kook!" Russo volunteers. Asked for a description of the roommate, Russo says, "Looked like he would be about as tall as I and he had sandy brown hair, dirty white shirt and dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty." "And Perry, his name was " "Leon." "His last name?" "Oswald."
"Who else is in the apartment?" Fatter asks. "Nobody," Russo says, "just me and him." "Just you and Ferrie?" "And Oswald." After a brief discussion of Ferrie and "Leon," Fatter instructs him, "That's right, continue to go deeper and deeper Now, picture that television screen again, Perry, and it is a picture of Ferrie's apartment and there are several people in there and there is a white haired man.
Again, it is Fatter who introduces the white-haired man.
"And how about the white haired man?" Fatter prompts him. "That is a friend of Dave's." "His name?" "CLEM BERTRAND," Russo's reply in the transcript reads, capital letters and all. "Had you seen him before?" "Yes, I saw him at the Nashville Street Wharf." "I wonder where else " "Nowhere." "Is that the same white haired gentleman in the service station?" "I don't remember the service station."
At this point Fatter changes the subject abruptly to introduce another key ingredient of the story: "I wonder who that is sitting on the sofa with the rifle?" "Leon." "What is he doing with the rifle, Perry?" "He always had a rifle; he liked guns and many times he would have a rifle." After some more talk about the rifle, Fatter says, "Continue looking at the television program and Clay, the white haired man, is going to come into the room." Fatter is the first to use the name "Clay."
After some rambling on Russo's part, Fatter takes control of the session again. "Let your mind go completely blank, Perry," he says, "see that television screen again, it is very vivid now notice the picture on the screen there will be Bertrand, Ferrie and Oswald, and they are going to discuss a very important matter and there is another man and girl there [Russo and Moffett] and they are talking about assassinating somebody. Look at it and describe it to me."
What's left to describe? Fatter has just fed Russo the entire story. For the first time ever in the record, Russo now describes what would later become a full-blown "assassination plot," involving Dave Ferrie, Ferrie's roommate "Leon," and the white-haired "Clem Bertrand."
Ferrie was still doing most of the talking, however. That would not do, not with Clay Shaw in the defendant's chair.
Russo was interrogated again under the influence of hypnosis on March 12, 1967 ("2nd Hypnotic Session, Exhibit G"). This "2nd Hypnotic Session" was actually the third, since Russo was hypnotized on March 9th, but no transcript of this interview is known to survive. This March 12th session was the first time Russo stated for the record that "Clem Bertrand" had been an active participant in the "assassination plot" he claimed to have overheard. By now, Russo was naturally claiming he had seen Clay Shaw on three occasions, not two.
Russo had finally given the testimony that the Garrison prosecution wanted and needed. He took this account into the Preliminary Hearing in March, 1967.
After asking three questions, the test was stopped due to Perry Russo's erratic pneumograph tracing and his physical movements. Upon shutting off the instrument and taking the attachments from Perry Russo's body, the interview continued. Perry Russo expressed that he was under a great deal of pressure and wished that he had never gotten involved in this mess. . . . I then told him, you know the questions that I intend to ask you during this test, is there anything you would wish to clarify with me. I then asked him was Clay Shaw at this party, he replied do you want to know the truth, I stated yes, he said I don't know if he was there or not. I told Perry that Shaw was the type of a man that if you were to see him, he would stand out in your mind and I asked him if he would give me a no or yes answer to this question. He stated that if he had to give a yes or no answer, he would have to say no.A few weeks later, Russo affirmed to journalist James Phelan and photographer Matt Herron that Sciambra's memorandum of this February 25 interview was an accurate reflection of what had been said in Baton Rouge: that Russo had said he'd seen Clay Shaw twice, that he had heard Ferrie threaten JFK, and that he suspected that Lee Harvey Oswald a physically "cruddy" individual with a "bushy beard" might have been introduced to him as Ferrie's roommate. And Russo admitted to newsman Richard Townley of WDSU-TV that in the wake of the hypnosis sessions he found it difficult to distinguish reality and fantasy (New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 21, 1967).
But the prosecution had one massive problem. The Sciambra Memo, detailing the February 25, 1967 interview with Russo in Baton Rouge, and the two hypnosis session transcripts had been given to journalist James Phelan by Jim Garrison. The differences between the two accounts were striking. Both Russo and Sciambra testified under oath that much more was said at that interview, but omitted from the memorandum. They also would claim that the memo should have noted three occasions that Russo saw Shaw, not two.
Andrew Sciambra went to great lengths to try to explain his memorandum of that February 25, 1967, interview with Russo specifically, why it contained no meeting, no "assassination plot," no Oswald, no "Bertrand," and no Clay Shaw. Under oath, both Sciambra and Russo said that of course they had discussed the "assassination plot" with Oswald and "Bertrand" at that time. Sciambra explained that he'd had no need to include this information in his memorandum, as by the time he got around to typing it up, he'd already discussed "Bertrand" and the "assassination plot" in a memorandum reporting Russo's February 27 Sodium Pentothal session.
Defense attorney William Wegmann questioned Andrew Sciambra about the one item of evidence that could prove that Russo had indeed mentioned "Bertrand" and an assassination plot in his original interview.
WEGMANN. Now, Mr. Sciambra, you took notes, is that correct?
SCIAMBRA. I did.
WEGMANN. Where are those notes today?
SCIAMBRA. Those notes were burned.
WEGMANN. When did you burn those notes?
SCIAMBRA. Sometime after I completed the memorandum.
WEGMANN. How long after?
SCIAMBRA. Very shortly, shortly and may I explain why I burned my notes?
THE COURT. You have a perfect right to explain.
SCIAMBRA. Ever since this case began we have had tremendous problems in the District Attorney's Office trying to keep information from flowing out of the district attorney's office to others. . . . We have been trying very unsuccessfully to prevent this . . .
WEGMANN. Isn't it a fact that James Phelan subsequently, after the memorandum was submitted to Mr. Garrison, came to you and asked you for those notes?
SCIAMBRA. That is exactly right and I went to look for them and couldn't find them there.
WEGMANN. There weren't any leaks in the district attorney's office that time?
SCIAMBRA. We always had leaks in the District Attorney's office.
WEGMANN. From the very inception?
SCIAMBRA. From the inception.
WEGMANN. If you knew you had burned them why did you go look for them?
SCIAMBRA. I wanted to see if the main reason is I wanted to see that I had done it.
During his cross-examination, Sciambra called Phelan a "prostitute" for what he termed Phelan's misrepresentation of the facts. (He also accused Phelan of trying to bribe Russo to change his story, as well as possibly acting on behalf of the defense.) The following exchange brought Sciambra's testimony to an end.
WEGMANN. You said that Phelan was a prostitute and for not having objectively reported [the facts of the case in his Saturday Evening Post article]?
SCIAMBRA. That was obvious.
WEGMANN. And do you feel you objectively reported what Russo told you on February 25 in Baton Rouge?
SCIAMBRA. I reported it to the best of my ability. That would make me a sloppy memorandum writer but it doesn't make me a prostitute.
SCIAMBRA. Some twenty-six inaccuracies, twenty-six inconsistencies, differences between my interpretation and Perry's words.
WEGMANN. How many omissions?
SCIAMBRA. It had some omissions but the obvious omission was the fact I did not report in that memorandum that Perry had told me about meeting in Ferrie's apartment between Shaw, Ferrie and Oswald and that was the big omission and that I pointed out.
Sciambra had somehow "omitted" the prosecution's entire case. As Shaw's attorney, Irvin Dymond, put it in his closing statement to the jury: "It's like a man going lion hunting, shooting a lion and a rabbit, then coming back and writing a story and leaving out the lion" (James Kirkwood, American Grotesque, p. 447).
James Phelan testified that Russo had admitted to him in March 1967 that the February 25 memorandum was accurate. Other journalists present in New Orleans also knew that Sciambra had gotten no "assassination party" story in Baton Rouge. When Sciambra first returned to New Orleans, having just questioned Russo, he reported to Garrison in the presence of Billings. In conversations with Garrison staffer Tom Bethell, in an article in the April 16, 1968 Chicago Daily News, and in an interview with Edward J. Epstein (See Epstein's The Assassination Chronicles [New York, 1992], p. 281) Billings insisted that Sciambra had never mentioned seeing Shaw at any "assassination party." "Twice" was how often the Sciambra Memo said Russo had seen Shaw, and "twice" was what Sciambra said on his return from Baton Rouge. "Twice" did not include the "assassination party."
Russo initially named two witnesses who could corroborate his story. He said he'd attended the party where this "assassination plot" was hatched with his girlfriend, Sandra Moffett, and his friend, Niles "Lefty" Peterson. Peterson confirmed that he and Russo had indeed been to a party at Ferrie's home in the summer of 1963, but could recall no one resembling Clay Shaw or Lee Harvey Oswald in attendance. Moffett denied attending the party, stating in a sworn affidavit that she had never even met David Ferrie until 1965.
However, Russo may have simply tried to be cooperative when approached by the Garrison investigation. He was told by the Garrison staff that "We have a closed case against this man" (Phelan, Scandals, Scamps, and Scoundrels, p. 176). He apparently assumed that since they must have plenty of evidence against Shaw, it would do no harm to help them out. But having once told his "assassination party" story, he could not back out, knowing full well that an indictment for perjury would await him if he failed to tell the required story on the stand. As Phelan explained:
He [Russo] told me that he was caught in the middle of this thing, that if he stuck to his story, Shaw and his friends and lawyers would clobber him. If he changed his story, then Garrison would charge him with perjury and chuck! there would go his job with Equitable Life. He told me all he was concerned about was his own position, that he wished he'd never opened his mouth about it, wished he could go back to the day before he shot off his mouth up in Baton Rouge. (James Kirkwood, American Grotesque, p. 168)He was left with the entire weight of the case against Shaw on his shoulders, and no way to back out.
He was trapped.