Three years after he was arrested as a Watergate burglar, Frank Sturgis told Senate investigators he was a CIA agent who would do anything for the agency—even kill. To flaunt his expertise, Sturgis volunteered a grisly “How to Get Away with Murder” tutorial for the committee. He bragged that his reputation as a hit man led the FBI to grill him as a prime suspect in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
by Don Fulsom
Best-known as one of President Richard Nixon’s five inept Watergate burglars, Frank Sturgis would undoubtedly prefer to be recalled as a swashbuckling CIA assassination specialist who would gladly bump off anyone for the agency. In fact, in secret 1975 testimony before a Senate committee, Sturgis proudly described himself a “whore” who “would do anything” for the CIA.
Sturgis’s boast lies buried in his lengthy, closed-door testimony to a post-Watergate Senate investigation of alleged CIA and FBI crimes and abuses. A bi-partisan committee chaired by Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, conducted the investigation. Sturgis’s testimony was declassified—but mostly ignored—in the 1990s.
|Frank Sturgis Watergate Mugshot
Sturgis told the Church committee he agreed to participate in a CIA-sponsored domestic assassination plot sometime in 1961. He claimed not to have known the target, or exactly when a higher-ranking CIA colleague (and also a future Watergate felon), Bernard Barker, recruited him for the hit, which, Sturgis claims, never came off.
Sturgis honed his assassination skills in World War Two. That’s when, as a fearless U.S. Marine Corps “Leatherneck,” he crept behind enemy lines with lethal intent. Gaeton Fonzi, a congressional investigator who got to know Sturgis, mentioned his friend’s wartime heroics:
"He was shipped out to the Pacific jungles where he volunteered for the toughest unit in the Marines, the First Raider Battalion—the legendary Edson’s Raiders. He learned how to kill silently with his bare hands. He infiltrated enemy encampments, sloshed through amphibious landings and was airdropped on commando raids." 1
Sturgis is usually thought of as one of the Watergate Cubans from Miami. But he was of 100 percent Italian descent and was born Frank Fiorini in Norfolk, Virginia. Later he adopted the surname Sturgis from his stepfather, Ralph Stugis. He did not even speak Spanish, but was able to communicate fairly well with his Cuban exile pals because of his fluency in Italian.
He played key roles in 1960 CIA/Mafia plots overseen by Vice President Nixon against the life of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. As the Bay of Pigs veteran told Church committee investigators, he had also trained a number of would-be assassins for CIA plots against other foreign leaders. The committee was probably aware that Sturgis consorted with Mafia bosses. 2 His Mob activities were not deeply explored, though, because the committee’s central focus was on possible lawbreaking by the CIA and the FBI.
So it was as a CIA assassination authority, that Sturgis enumerated—in graphic terms—some of the methods he might employ on behalf of The Company. (Of course, he never admitted to actually killing anyone.)
Describing himself as a CIA “whore,” Sturgis explained that term as intelligence community lingo for someone “who would do anything. But he has got to be motivated by patriotism. And he would do anything for his county—regardless of what it was.”
Sturgis’s idol and ultimate CIA boss, E. Howard Hunt, had a similar attitude, once declaring: "I had always assumed, working for the CIA for so many years, that anything the White House wanted done was the law of the land." 3 Hunt went on to recruit, train and supervise Sturgis and Barker as part of the Nixon White House burglary team that got caught by police after breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington on June 17, 1972.
|E. Howard Hunt|
Hunt was a perfect undercover agent: inconspicuous—but articulate, personable and convincingly dishonest. His Ivy League suits usual hid a holstered pistol.
One of Hunt’s White House supervisors, Egil “Bud” Krogh described Howard as “a short, dapper man” with a “sharp aquiline nose, light features, sandy hair, and a ready smile.” In his 2007 book Integrity, Krogh observed that Hunt “could blend easily into any group without drawing undue attention to himself, a valuable characteristic for a spy.”
At his Church committee appearance, Sturgis recounted a time that Barker had asked him about how Hunt—fabled in Miami’s Cuban exile community by one of his CIA code names, “Eduardo”—would know that the intended domestic target had, in fact, been killed. “Well,” Sturgis said he replied, “there are several ways: Number one, the person would eventually be reported missing. Number two, I will cut off his right finger and give it to you … because there won’t be no body to recover.”
How would Sturgis get rid of the body? Our expert witness’s answer: “I could dig a hole (in the Everglades) and put lye in it. The lye will eat up his body. I could take an airplane and fly it over the Gulf Stream and I could dump his body in the Gulf Stream weighted down. I would have to cut his stomach and his intestines so that he wouldn’t float. Even weighted down, a body will float unless you cut up the insides and the intestines. Or, I says, I could go with a boat out into the Gulf Stream and use explosives in order to destroy the body completely.” 4
Sturgis’s declassified testimony has gone mostly unexamined by scholars and historians. And with justifiable reason: This burglar, spy and self-confessed killer was not a reliable witness—mostly because he had been all too willing to spread obvious disinformation for the CIA. It was Sturgis who floated the theory to the Church committee that Fidel Castro was behind the JFK assassination; that Lee Harvey Oswald had been working as an agent of Castro; and that Oswald had made a trip to Miami to try to infiltrate an anti-Castro group. And, like all CIA agents, he would surely lie under oath to protect top Company secrets. (In 1977, former CIA Director Richard Helms pleaded guilty to lying to the Church committee about the CIA’s role in overthrowing President Salvador Allende in Chile.) 5
Nonetheless, even habitual liars sometimes tell the truth. With the benefit of new disclosures, at least some parts of Sturgis’s Church committee testimony from April 3 and 4, 1975 now seem to contain at least a kernel or two of credibility.
Sturgis’s pride in being grilled as a suspect the day after the JFK assassination is quite provocative. “I had FBI agents all over my house (in Miami). They told me I was the one person they felt had the capabilities to do it. They said, ‘Frank, if there’s anybody capable of killing the President of the United States, you’re the guy who can do it.’” Why would he implicate himself, in even a tangential way, in the Kennedy assassination? And what just did the Feds know about Sturgis that sent them scurrying to Miami to question him?
Some JFK assassination researchers are convinced that Hunt, Sturgis and Barker were in Dallas that pivotal day in U.S. history. In a deathbed confession, Hunt claimed that he was in on the Dallas plot (but only as a “benchwarmer”). He identified Sturgis and a number of other CIA personnel as collaborators.
In the past, Hunt and Sturgis had steadfastly claimed they were at home—in suburban Washington and in Miami, respectively—when President Kennedy was killed. They both said they were watching television with their families (at about the time of day most people were at work, and soap operas were the main TV fare.). But Hunt’s son—St. John Hunt—later revealed that his dad was not at home that day, and that his mom told him his dad was in Dallas “on business.”
Like Hunt, Sturgis had only loyal family members to back up his alibi that he was at home watching television on Nov. 22, 1963. The Rockefeller Commission—a predecessor to the Church committee—concluded: “It cannot be determined with certainty where Hunt and Sturgis actually were on the day of the assassination.” 6
At a 1985 libel trial involving Hunt's possible links to the JFK assassination, however, CIA operative Marita Lorenz—a former Castro mistress and a friend of Sturgis—placed Sturgis, as well as Hunt and Jack Ruby, at a Dallas CIA "safe house" the night before the assassination. The jury ruled in favor of Spotlight, a right-wing newsletter that had implicated Hunt in the assassination.
Leslie Armstrong, the jury forewoman, said defense attorney Mark Lane “was asking us to do something very difficult. He was asking us to believe John Kennedy was killed by our own government. Yet when we examined the evidence closely, we were compelled to conclude that the CIA had indeed killed President Kennedy.” 7
One of the most intriguing mysteries of the JFK assassination is the great likeness between Hunt and one of the “Three Tramps” photographed near Dealey Plaza in the aftermath of the assassination. Hunt was a renowned master of disguise (during Watergate, the CIA gave him several appearance – and even gait-changing devices). Is the short hobo decked out in what appears to be a circus clown costume Howard Hunt?
The House assassination committee—a successor to the Church panel—looked into the short hobo and concluded: “Tramp C, from his battered fedora to his worn-out shoes, has managed to achieve a sartorial effect similar to what one would expect had he been fired from a cannon through a Salvation Army thrift shop.” The committee conceded the outfit could have been a disguise.
The biggest apparent difference between Tramp C and photos of Hunt from the Watergate era centers on the tramp’s protruding ears. The answer to that mystery could reside in a statement by Teamsters/Mafia heavyweight Frank Sheeran in I Heard You Paint Houses: “(In 1961, JFK assassination suspect) David Ferrie told me that the war material (destined for the Cuban exiles) being loaded was from the Maryland National Guard” and was to be taken to a dog track outside Jacksonville, Fla. “He said I’d be met there by a guy with big ears named Hunt.”
Sheeran revealed, “Hunt also got some kind of operation on his ears because the next time I saw him his ears were closer to his head.”
In the Nixon White House, Hunt—often with help from his anti-Castro group—engineered, or at least plotted, myriad “dirty tricks” that went far beyond the criminality of Watergate. These included an alleged plot (confirmed by both Hunt and fellow Watergate felon, G. Gordon Liddy) to kill columnist Jack Anderson, a plan that was canceled at the last minute.
Hunt filed for bankruptcy protection in June 1995. He died at a Miami hospital after a long bout with pneumonia in 2007.
|Bernard “Macho” Barker Watergate Mugshot
Watergate burglar and CIA agent Bernard “Macho” Barker was so close to “Eduardo” he was known as “Hunt’s Shadow.” Frank Sturgis stressed the tightness of the Hunt-Barker relationship in a True magazine article in August 1974:
The Bay of Pigs, hey, was one sweet mess. I met Howard Hunt that year (1961); he was the political officer for of the exile brigade. Bernard Barker was Hunt’s right-hand man, his confidential clerk—his body servant really; that’s how I met Barker.
Sturgis later vigorously denied saying those things—which conflicted with earlier contentions by Sturgis and Hunt that they did not meet until the Watergate era. A chain-smoker, Sturgis was 58 when died of lung and kidney cancer.
As for Barker, JFK assassination witness Seymour Weitzman identified “Macho” as the man on Dallas’s grassy knoll who posed as a Secret Service agent and kept people out of the area. 8 And, believe it or not,Barker was also a close friend of his Key Biscayne, Fla. neighbor Bebe Rebozo—President Nixon’s best friend. Barker died of lung cancer and heart problems in 2009. He was 92.
Will we ever know whether Frank Sturgis was telling the truth when he allegedly confessed to Marita Lorenz that “We killed Kennedy” in Dallas? Or will we ever know whether Sturgis was leveling with New York City Police Detective Jim Rothstein? The detective took Sturgis into custody (“We put a gun to his head”) in connection with what Rothstein described as a “sanctioned” CIA murder of Lorenz. Rothstein said after he had gained Sturgis’s confidence, “He did tell me that he was one of the (JFK) assassins.” 9
Gaeton Fonzi, the congressional investigator who had befriended Sturgis, was once introduced by Frank to one of Sturgis’s Miami pals. When Sturgis explained that Fonzi was with the government committee looking into the assassination of President Kennedy, Sturgis’s’ friend quickly observed, perhaps tellingly: “Oh, you mean the guy you killed.” 10
Perhaps the only way to determine the answers to this, and to the bigger question—“Who Killed JFK and Why? —is to set up a modern-day Church committee.
The original committee found a stunning array of CIA abuses—above all, attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Castro. It found that the agency enlisted the aid of the Mafia in its assassination plots against the Cuban leader.
The committee took public and private testimony from hundreds of witnesses, collected huge volumes of files from federal intelligence-gathering agencies, and issued 14 reports in 1975 and 1976. Since the passage of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act in 1992, over 50,000 pages of Church committee records have been declassified and made available to the public.
As a result of pressure from the Church committee, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order that banned U.S.-sanctioned assassinations of foreign leaders.
At least one current U.S. congressman, New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt, says it is well past time for a fresh in-depth probe of the CIA. He declares, "I think any new investigation will produce revelations that are as jaw-dropping as those that were uncovered by the Church committee." 11
1. Gaeton Fonzi, The Last Investigation, page 76.
2. According to a memo sent by L. Patrick Gray, Director of the FBI, to H. L. Haldeman in 1972: "Sources in Miami say he (Sturgis) is now associated with organized crime activities". In his book, Assassination of JFK (1977), Bernard Fensterwald claims that Sturgis was heavily involved with the Mafia, particularly with the criminal activities of Santos Trafficante and Meyer Lansky in Florida. (These citations are found on the Education Forum Web site.) In Mafia Kingfish, Mob expert John Davis reports that both Sturgis and Barker “were closely associated with organized crime, and especially with associates of (New Orleans boss) Carlos Marcello’s, Meyer Lansky and Santos Trafficante.” Page 402.
3. Rolling Stone, “The Last Confessions of E. Howard Hunt,” April 2, 2007.
4. Fonzi, 76.
5. Sturgis’s testimony is available at the Mary Farrell Foundation Web site: http://www.maryferrell.org/wiki/index.php/Confession_of_Howard_Hunt
6. Fonzi, 76.
7. Spotlight, March 1992, “’Secret’ Trial in Libel Case Ties CIA Figure to JFK Assassination.”
8. Encyclopedia of the JFK Assassination, Michael Benson, page 23.
9. Jim Rothstein interview with Greg Szymanksi, January 15, 2007, “Investigative Journal.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7cFqDjPluo
10. Fonzi, 82.
11. Holt interview with the Star-Ledger, a Newark area newspaper, July 15, 2009.