Excerpts from James Kirkwood's interview with James Phelan
From James Kirkwood, American Grotesque, 1992 ed., pp. 161-73:
[James Phelan's account of his involvement with the Jim Garrison investigation, recorded by James Kirkwood]
When I got down here [in New Orleans in March 1967] it took me about three or four days to get to Garrison, what with all the other press here. I left a message for him and he finally called me, we met and had a couple of short sessions. And he said, "Oh, hell, let's get out of here. I need a rest, meet me in Las Vegas." So I flew out there and a day or so later I met him at the airport, drove him into town, and checked him in at the Sands, where he registered under the name of W. O, Robertson, which is Willard Robertson, the Truth and Consequences [sic] guy.
So we talked, had a long session and I simply -- the more he talked, the more I began to lose faith -- he simply couldn't make any sense. He just rambled in every direction. He found it enormously significant that Dave Ferrie didn't put on his ice skates at the skating rink in Houston on Ferrie's trip the weekend of the assassination. That was one of the big pieces of evidence he'd picked up that the FBI missed. [Ironically, Ferrie did skate that Saturday; it was Winterland rink manager Rowland Charles Rolland who believed Ferrie did not. -- DR] In fact in my notes I underlined that, because he made such a big point of it. I said, "All right, so he didn't put on his ice skates, so what?" He says, "Well, this is like -- you know how you take a thread on a coat and pull it and unravel the whole coat?" He said, "This is the thread that I got hold of and helped me solve the whole case" -- that Dave Ferrie didn't put on his ice skates! "He hung around the phone there," Garrison said, "and so that had to be the message center." I said, "What message center, did somebody call him?" "Well," he said, "no, we haven't tracked that down, but this was obviously the message center." [Garrison never did 'track that down.' The phone records from the payphone at the Winterland Skating Rink were never sought or subpoenaed, and the "message center" theory was dropped completely in Garrison's 1988 book, On the Trail of the Assassins. -- DR] And he rambled on like this and then jumps over to something else and I make all these notes and when I get through I begin to think this guy is off his rocker. He cannot tell a coherent story. He apparently has no evidence. I think he sensed this because I'd say, "Well, then, that means you've got proof that so-and-so did this or that?" "Well, no, it didn't work that way." I kept pushing him for some kind of evidence. I think this is why he gave me the two documents. We went up to his room and he said, "All right, I've got two documents for you. You take 'em home, read 'em tonight, because this is the heart of my case." The two things he gave me were the memorandum of [assistant DA Andrew] Sciambra's when he first interviewed Russo in Baton Rouge and the second one was a transcript of Russo's answers when he was hypnotized by Dr. Fatter.
Russo tells two different stories. Up in Baton Rouge he, one, doesn't say anything about knowing Clay Shaw as Clem Bertrand, two, he says nothing about Shaw knowing Oswald and, three, he says nothing about Shaw and the party at which the assassination talk supposedly -- he doesn't mention the assassination! So I took them back and I read them and I read them and read them and read them. I kept reading them, thinking I've missed something here. I read each one of them very carefully about three or four times and then I realized how they had procured Perry Russo. Either he was a born liar or a suggestible witness. One or the other. Most important, he hadn't had anything at all of any incriminating nature when he appeared and then he was processed into this other thing. Of course, at this time we're ten days before the preliminary hearing and I don't know what he's going to say when he gets on the stand. I was to meet Garrison at ten the next morning and return the documents. When he gave them to me he did not put any restrictions on them. He knew I was writing a piece. He said, "You'll now understand my case when you read them." So I got up early and made a call to Bob Maheu at the Desert Inn and told him I needed a Xerox and needed it fast. I had to have two documents Xeroxed and I did not want anyone else reading them or knowing they were being copied. They Xeroxed the copies for me and I returned the originals to Garrison and made no comment about the thing. I wanted to wait for the trial.
I immediately called the Post, talked to the chief editor, Don McKinney, and told him I had a bomb in the case and it would blow Garrison's key witness right out of the water, that I had a problem with my conscience because I knew they were taking Shaw to the preliminary hearing and if his lawyers had this they could knock Russo right off the stand. But I was employed by the Post and what should I do? He said he'd call me back and he went and talked to Otto Friedrich, the managing editor of the Post, who was an assassination buff, and he called me back and said, "I have a message from Friedrich, he says tell Phelan to try to refrain himself from telling Garrison how to run his investigation." So I was thereby put under wraps with what I had, insofar as the defense was concerned.
Then I attend the preliminary hearing and I sit there and listen to Russo tell this marvelously detailed story about the party that he'd not mentioned when he first appeared as a witness. The following day I called Garrison at his home and told him there something depply troubling me and he said, "Come out here and tell me about it." I went out to his house and he was there with his wife and children and shortly after I got there Bill Gurvich and his wife came out and I told Garrison that -- I said, "How come Perry Russo told two different stories? How come when he first appeared he did not identify Shaw as Bertrand, he did not say Shaw knew Oswald, and he said nothing at all about an assassination plot at any party." His mouth kind of dropped open and he said, "He didn't?" At that point I realized Garrison had not read the memos he'd given me. He said, "Well, I'll have to get Moo-Moo [Sciambra] out here and explain it."
Sciambra comes out there -- they shoo the women out of the room -- and sat down and Garrison said, "Okay, tell him your problem." I did, and Sciambra came back at me real hard and said, "Mister, you don't know what the shit you're talking about!" I said, "Look, I've got some bad news for you, Moo." I said, "I've read your memo, I've got a copy of your memorandum, and I've read it six, seven, eight times. I can almost recite it from memory and there ain't nothing in there about the assassination plot. I'll tell you how sure I am." I said, "I'll make a deal with you. If that memo isn't the way I've described it, I'll resign from the Saturday Evening Post tomorrow -- if it is the way I described you, you resign from the DA's office tomorrow. We'll shake hands and then read the memo and tomorrow one of us is going to be out of work." At that point he immediately backed off, like that [Phelan snapped his fingers]. I said, "Jim, get a copy of the memo" -- because I'd left mine in the safe down at the hotel -- so Garrison is rummaging around in the drawer alongside his desk trying to find the memo.
Then Sciambra changed his story. Now he says, Well, he wrote the memo in a big hurry and he said maybe he forgot to put in about the assassination plot. And I told him to come down off the wall! I said, "Come on, now, you found a witness to the crime of the century and you come down and write a 3,500-word memo and leave the crime out of it -- put in all this other chicken-shit stuff -- but you leave the crime out!" I said, "Nobody can be that stupid. . . . Besides, this hypnosis transcript shows how the thing was pulled out of him." So we ding-donged it back and forth and Gurvich sat there and never said a word, over in the corner. I said, "You know the thing that really hangs me up is that you said Russo said he saw the man [Clay Shaw] twice and named the two times, once on the Nashville Wharf and once in a car with David Ferrie. So if he told you about the party you not only had to forget to leave out about the party but you also had to change the number of times to conform with what you told here, and that won't work." Sciambra was pretty hostile. We broke up and nobody was very friendly with anybody else. I said, "I'll call a cab and go back." And Gurvich says, "No, I'm going back to town, I'll drive you back."
I get in the car with Gurvich, who was his chief investigator, and this thing made a terrible impact on him. He said, "Man, you have just blown up the only witness we've got." He said, "I'll never forget Sciambra sitting there lying to you." He said, "This little son of a bitch, this [memo] was his little magnum opus and he sits there telling you he had a half-dozen other things to do. This was the one big thing that this little SOB did and he sat there saying, "Maybe I forgot!" Gurvich said, "Man, he worked that memo over and polished it and repolished it." Gurvich was terribly upset.
The day after the meeting out at his house Garrison called me up and had me go to lunch with him at Broussard's. He was upset by my reaction and we talked about it. Again I told him I thought he had a suggestible witness on his hands. He said, "Well, that's no problem, because we never make suggestions to anyone."
I went over to the office in the afternoon, I looked up Sciambra and said, "Look, we can resolve this thing very simply. If he told you about the three missing points, particularly about the assassination plot," I said, "you made notes up there, just show me your original notes and if you can show me where it is in your notes -- then I'll agree you forgot it and didn't put it down in your memo." He told me he'd burned his notes, didn't have them. I said I wanted to talk to Russo. Sciambra said Russo wouldn't talk to anybody without their permission. I said, "Well, call him up and tell him I'm coming to talk to him." He made a call in my presence but was unable to get Russo. I called Sciambra later on in the day and he said he'd been able to reach Russo and he'd see me if I came up there. I said, "Did you tell him what the problem was?" And he said, "Yes, I told him." I said, "Well, that's a dumb thing to do -- you tip off a guy who's screwed up his testimony how he screwed up and he's got a lot of time to think up an answer." I raised this point with Garrison. I said, "For Christ's sake, Sciambra told him what's wrong!" Garrison said, "Well, why bother to go up?" But I decided to go. I thought it was a futile trip and in all probability Moo -- well, Moo probably didn't really understand how he screwed up so he probably couldn't explain it to Perry -- and I went up with Matt Herron, who was a photographer with the Post.
I told Russo, "Look, I got a copy of the memo Sciambra wrote about the interview with you and I'm going to use it for the article in the Saturday Evening Post. I want you to read it and tell me whether it's an accurate account of your interview with Sciambra."
So Russo sat down there and read that thing line by line and made two or three corrections on it. And none of them had to do with Shaw. They were just peripheral matters. I had underlined the statement where Sciambra had written, "I then showed him a picture of Clay Shaw and Russo said he'd seen this man twice." I had a ballpoint pen and when I'd read it I'd underlined that because that to me was the key to the whole thing. So it was the only thing underlined in the whole memo. When Russo got down to it, he said, "Well, I should have said three times, counting the party. I'm usually pretty careful about what I say, but maybe I only said two times." Then he shrugged and went on and finished the memo. I said, "Other than the corrections you've made, is this an accurate account of what you told Sciambra?" He said, "Well, we talked for a long time, talked about a lot of different things." And I said, "No, I mean in terms of this case and what you knew about it." He said, "Yes." I said, "Then you first mentioned the assassination plot and the party when?" He said, "Down in New Orleans."
At that point, I'd verified the whole thing. I was so astonished actually that he'd say this, especially after Sciambra had called him. I couldn't believe it. As soon as we got out in the car I said to Matt Herron, "Did you hear that?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "Burn it in your head, kid. I mean, right now, burn it in your head because someday you're going to be in court on this and I'm going to have to tell this story and you're my witness."
The next morning I flew out, went to New York and wrote the article. I mean I was satisfied. So about a week or so after the article came out, in May, I called Matt Herron and asked him what the reaction was. He told me at that time he'd had a couple of calls from Perry Russo and I said, "How's Perry taking the article?" He said, "Oh, he's very friendly. He doesn't understand what all the shouting's about and he said he'd like to talk to you, told me if you're ever down in New Orleans, come and see him, give him a call."
Herron gave me Russo's number and I called him. By this time he'd moved from Baton Rouge and was down in New Orleans. He was very friendly to me, told me he didn't see what all the hullabaloo is about and he said, "People tell me I ought to get a lawyer. What do you think, what do you advise me?" I said, "Perry, there's only one thing I'm ever going to tell you and that's -- tell the truth about this thing. You're going to hurt yourself if you don't." He said, "Well, if you ever come down here, give me a ring." Shortly after this I was approached by the NBC people and I told them about this conversation and this is what intrigued them -- that after having written this article, the guy still wanted to talk to me and that was it. They hired me and I came down here.
By this time, they'd indicted Dean Andrews. Garrison had told me in Las Vegas -- he didn't tell me Andrews' name -- he said, "There's a lawyer, friend of mine, I'm going to knock him on his ass because of what he's doing to my investigation." And then they indicted him for perjury. Garrison had a rep for clobbering people and I talked to my lawyer on the West Coast. He advised me not to come here [to New Orleans], said, "Stay out of the jurisdiction." I talked to the attorney for the Saturday Evening Post. He said, "Stay out of the jurisdiction." He said, "I know you're not going to do it, I know you too well."
When the Post article appeared, Moo Sciambra went on TV and challenged me to come down here and appear with him before the grand jury, but I was never asked by the grand jury to come down. Garrison had my home phone number, he knew the address and phone number of the Post, and nobody ever asked me to come before the grand jury. Sciambra just got up and shouted it out. So I figured when I came down, they'd just yank me before the grand jury and I'd tell what happened and Sciambra and Garrison would lie about what happened and they'd indict me for perjury. I expected it. So I told Pershing Gervais [Garrison's former chief investigator], said I wanted to get this monkey off my back right away, said, "Tell Big Jim I'm in town and if he's going to take me before the grand jury, here I am." I found out later they had a meeting the next day and they decided -- I got word back -- that they wouldn't take me before the grand jury unless I provoked them. I asked my informant what would provocation consist of? He said, "If you hold a press conference and say you are publicly in town and defy them to take you to the grand jury, then they'll do it." And I wasn't about to -- I'm not crazy!
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