Excerpts from James Kirkwood's interview with James Phelan
So I started talking to Perry and, right off -- the first time I talked to him -- first off, I realized his house was bugged. I spotted the thing almost immediately. He reached over to the record player. Whenever I'd come into the room he'd jump up and say, "Oh, let us play some music!" And he'd go over and fiddle with the phonograph and he'd start a record up and he'd only let it run like fifteen seconds and he'd say, "Oh, the hell with that!" He'd go and turn it off. So I realized he had the "on" switch for the bug rigged up in the record player. So we'd sit around and I'd talk about baseball and patriotism and mother and the flag and apple pie and so on. Then whenever we'd really want to talk we'd walk out of the house.
I took him down to the poolroom the first night, about a block and a half from his house, and we shot a couple of sticks of pool. Then we started walking back to the house, got about halfway back and he stopped, all of a sudden, and just blurted it out. He said, "Boy, if Jim Garrison knew what I told my priest up in Baton Rouge after the preliminary hearing!" I said, "You want to tell me about it?" He said, "Yes, I told him I want to see Clay Shaw." I said, "You want to see Clay Shaw, Perry -- why?" He said, "So I'd be sure." I said, "Man, what are you talking about? You got up in that preliminary hearing in the courtroom and put your hand over his head and positively identified him under oath and now you want to know if this is the right guy?" He said, "Well, I'd like to just sit in a room with him. I don't want to talk about the case. And no fucking lawyers. No fucking lawyers! I just want to hear him breathe, listen to him talk and then I'd know." I said, "You want to see Shaw, I think I can arrange it." He said, "Yeah, I'd like to talk to him." I said, "Let me work on it."
So the next day I called Shaw's lawyers and we met down in Wegmann's office and Shaw was there and I told them what Perry Russo said. Shaw immediately agreed, right like that. He said, "As a matter of fact, I'd like to talk to this kid myself." He said, "I don't know what he's up to myself, he baffles me." At first his lawyers were dead set against it, thought it was some kind of entrapment. I said, "Look, I told Perry I'd set up the meeting with the provision that I'd be there. I'll set it up and we'll have Shaw in a room and I will bring Perry Russo in and when I bring him in I will say, 'Perry, you wanted to talk to Clay Shaw, here he is.'" I said, "We'll lock it down so it was Russo who sought the meeting and not Shaw." And the lawyers agreed to this. We discussed the ways and means and the technical problems and Shaw said he'd hold himself in readiness.
I went back to Russo that evening and as soon as I told him I'd set it up, he backed off. Russo said, "Oh, the hell with it. If we do it, it'll get back to Garrison and Garrison'll clobber me." He said, "The hell with it." The last time I saw him, about five nights later, the last thing he said to me as I was getting ready to leave, he said, "I lied to you about why I didn't want to see Clay Shaw." I said, "I know, I figured." He said, "The real reason I didn't want to see Shaw was that I knew if I sat down in a room with him, talked to him, listened to him, that I'd know he's not the guy and then all I could do is go on the run, go to Mexico or go out to California and become a beatnik -- but I couldn't run from myself."
In the interim he told me a lot of things. He talked very obliquely. You could never get him to face up to things squarely. He talks all aroudn the edge. But he told me that when he came down from Baton Rouge and before the hypnotic session, he said, "They asked me a lot of questions and I'm a pretty perceptive guy. I was able to figure out what they wanted to know from the questions they asked. And when they got through asking me questions, I asked them a lot of questions, like Who is this guy? Who is that guy? Why is this so important?" He said, "In addition, I read every scrap of stuff that was in the papers about the case." I said, "You know, in your second hypnotic interrogation, that was the first time you mentioned Shaw setting up the alibi about going to San Francisco and you didn't come up with that until after Garrison had discovered the fact [that Shaw had made a business trip to the coast at that time] and it had been printed in the paper." I said, "Perry, that one really rattled my tin ear. You know, come off it."
He told me he was caught in the middle on 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 [Garrison had flatly told Russo so during a grand jury session of March 27, 1967. -- DR] 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. He'd keep still and never say a thing about it. He never got in such a mess in his life. I said, "Look, boy, I told you on the phone, I've told you over and over, there's only one way to do this and just tell the truth. Just tell the truth about what happened, that's all you got to do. You do anything else and you're in trouble. Tell the truth about it!" He told me, "I no longer know what the truth is. I don't know the difference between reality and fantasy."
The last evening I talked to him I took him and [his friend] Steve Derby out to the lake. I think it's called Fitzgerald's, a seafood place. I told Steve to try to get a table for us. I figured it would take fifteen or twenty minutes. I walked Perry over by the lake and I went over the whole thing with him. All the things that were wrong with the story. When I got through he said, "You know, all the things you've told me have been rumbling around in my head for weeks now. I'm much more critical of myself than you've been of me in discussing this. I wish I'd never got into the goddamn thing." But he never actually said, "Yes, I lied." And more important, he never said, "Look, it happened the way I told it." Never once! He could have gotten rid of me just like that if he'd only said that. I'd put it to him over and over again and he'd never respond to it directly.
[At this point, Kirkwood asked Phelan if he felt sorry for Russo.] Oh, I felt sorry for him at the outset, but -- that thing he said about not being able to run from himself, that was the only instance in all the times I spoke with him that he expressed any kind of concern for what he'd done. The rest of the time it was What's going to happen to me? What's going to happen to me? I talked to him about justice, the truth, the objective truth, and what he was doing, and what he was doing to Shaw, if his story was phony.
He asked me once if I'd heard about the Dreyfus case. He said, "What was it? I hear people talking about it." I said, "Well, it's a famous case, an instance of an innocent man getting railroaded into prison, Devil's Island, down in the Caribbean, a French guy accused of selling out his country. It was a famous case." I said, "He was finally sprung by a writer by the name of Emile Zola, who wrote a pamphlet called J'accuse." I said, "It's interesting that you raise this, because if your story is false and if Clay Shaw is innocent -- you're going to go down as a little footnote in history as a piece of shit that turned Clay Shaw into another Dreyfus." He said. "Oh [Phelan laughed]! Oh!" But after a while I lost any sympathy I had. I really did. I think what he's done is too enormous. I'm sorry for him -- that's he capable of doing such a thing -- but I think he ought to be in jail. I think it's a monstrous thing.
[Kirkwood asked Phelan if he had ever seen Garrison after this.]
Two or three days before the NBC documentary [on Garrison's investigation] was shown, I read in the paper that Garrison would be up at the Laurel Country Club in the Catskills addressing a state convention of New York district attorneys. So I thought I'd call him. Hell, I hadn't seen him since I'd talked to Perry. I thought I should tell him what Perry was saying. At any rate, I went up to the Laurel in the borscht belt. They had a large press table set up there and they had all these DAs and their wives and Jim was the featured speaker. I sat at the press table, which is right on the aisle, and I kept watching the door and here came Big Jim. Oh, I had talked to a CBS producer the previous week -- Garrison was in New York taping his part of that CBS thing on the assassination -- and I said, "Did he ever mention me?" And he [the CBS producer] said, "Yes, I asked him about you, what does he think, and he said, Well, he thinks you're wrong but he thinks you're an honest man and that of all his critics you'd still be welcome in his house." SO when Garrison came in I got up and walked over to him and said, "Hiya, Jim. I haven't seen you in a long time!" He turned to the guy with him and said: "This is my most severe critic." I said, "The guys at CBS told me you thought I might be wrong but you thought I was an honest man." "Yes," he said, "I think you're an honest man." "Well," I replied, "if you think that, you better listen to what I have to tell you, because I've got some information you ought to have." He said, "Meet me after the convention and we'll talk."
It broke up about eleven-thirty, so I picked him up and we walked over to another part of the Laurel, a little bar, and sat down. I talked to him for maybe an hour and a half, told him everything I told you here about Perry. First off, before we got into that, he said, "You know, that question you asked me out in Las Vegas. I have been thinking about that and thinking about that." Well, the question was -- now we're talking about ten days before the preliminary hearing -- I said, "Jim, you know you described Shaw and Ferrie as kind of super criminals. Why did these super masterminds, why, when they discussed the assassination, did they do it in front of a square like Perry Russo, who's hanging around waiting for a ride home, a guy who could be expected to run gibbering to the FBI or, as he subsequently did, come to you and incriminate them?" I said, "These are super criminals! Clay Shaw is a man of means. Why didn't he reach into his pockets and give Russo two bucks and say, 'Hey, take a cab home, we got some business to talk over.' I don't dig it." Garrison said, "Hey, that's a good question." He'd never thought of it. He said, now at the Laurel, that's the first thing we talked about and "I've got the answer to the question you raised in Las Vegas." He said, "Perry Russo had to be a part of the conspiracy, that's why they talked about it in front of him. He's not telling the whole story. He's in the plot, too." I said, "For Christ's sake, come down off the wall! You mean you're going to take your star prosecution witness and make a co-defendant out of him!" I said, "What kind of motive would Perry Russo have if he were a part of a conspiracy? Ferrie's dead and the only two co-conspirators left are him and Clay Shaw. What kind of motives would he have for fingering his co-conspirators and coming forward? He's home free. The conspiracy has succeeded and now he's going to finger his co-conspirator?" I said, "If he does that, how does he know that Shaw isn't going to turn around and finger him back? And they both go down the tube." I said, "Come on, man, you know you're overheated." And he dropped it.
Then we go on and I told him all the stuff I told you. When I got through Garrison said, "Well, I'll tell you, I'm going to have to take a harder look at Moo Sciambra when I get back down there. It's obvious to me that Russo's got two stories. He's talking out of both sides of his mouth. He tells you one story, he tells me another. Look, I got nothing against Clay Shaw. I'm after bigger game. I'm after the Warren Report. What on earth good would it do me to go into the ditch against the wrong man?" He said, "That's crazy. I got a small staff, I don't have any critics [among the staff]. You know, the best way to make an investigation is to have somebody shooting holes in it and playing devil's advocate. I welcome a critical press. I don't have enough money to have a big enough staff to have a devil's advocate," he said, "but it occurs to me that I have a very good one in you. I value what you're doing. I welcome it."
He said, "Now here's what I want you to do. I have to go back to New York for a day or two, from there back to New Orleans. Within ten days I'll call you in California and I want you to come down to New Orleans and we'll have a conference and a confrontation with Perry Russo." He said, "I'm not going to tell my staff about it, Perry won't know you're going to be there. I'm just going to set it up in a hotel room and he can come in expecting to talk to me and when he walks in the room -- you be there. You confront him with the things you told me and if he cops out to half of it, I'll drop the case against Shaw."
I said, "Great." I said, "Jim, you know I feel better about you now. Jim, this needs to be done. We're in a unique position to evaluate this case. Whenever you're ready, Jim, I'm ready. All I need is about twenty-four hours. It only takes about about four or five hours to fly down there. Call me and I'll come. I'll keep myself loose so I can come." And I said, "I'm happy, I really am. Come on, I'll buy you a drink, I feel better about you."
He conned me, he really did. So I go back and I wait like about three weeks and I try to call him but can't get through. I wrote him a letter and reminded him of this, no answer. Then I wrote and quoted from his passage in the foreward to Crime and Law Corrections, in which he referred to the Kitty Genovese case about the thirty-eight gray mice who peered down from their windows while Kitty Genovese was killed and these thirty-eight gray mice might have been peering down in safety upon the destiny of their race. In other words, people have to come forward and be involved. So I quoted that quote and I said, "There are many Kitty Genoveses in this world and there are many ways to close your windows on their screams for help. If Perry Russo is a liar, you are making a Genovese out of Clay Shaw. You've suggested the confrontation and here a month has gone by. Maybe you thought I didn't have the guts to come down there and confront this kid. You couldn't be more wrong. I told you I'm ready whenever you are and," I said, "I guess you aren't going to be ready." I said, "Jim, if you want to play the thirty-ninth gray mouse, stop demeaning the other thirty-eight." That's when I got the five-page letter saying, Of course, there would be a confrontation, because he had given me his word. "Meanwhile, though," Garrison writes, "I've discussed this at length with Perry Russo and I now know he's telling the truth."
So I wrote him a final letter. And I said, "You've destroyed the basis for a confrontation. What's more, you have prejudged the confrontation before it occurred."
Jim Garrison will believe anything if it fits in with his preconceptions. He's totally uncritical, he has the sloppiest mind. This is the last guy in the United States who should be district attorney of anything, let alone a major city. This is a man that decided something happened and then sets out to prove himself right. He has a tremendous ego. Pershing Gervais told me, "Jesus, he never would have got on this if I'd been in that office. I'd have stomped the thing down so fast." But Pershing was out of there by then. [Gervais is hardly a trustworthy figure himself. -- DR]
But I think Perry felt that I had actually figured the whole thing out, really the way it happened. People were saying, Why is this kid lying? Well, a part of it is true. I think he thinks he saw Shaw in a car with Ferrie. I think he thinks that some little prick that was hanging around Dave Ferrie's probably did kinda look like Oswald. I mean, I think this much of it is true. Because this is what he came forward with. So all he has to do is move over and throw in that party. And with the party he throws in things that Dave Ferrie had told him earlier, independently, about being obsessed with Kennedy and about carrying the newspaper clippings around and how it would be easy to kill the President. So all he has to do is populate the party with the roommate and Shaw and let Ferrie say these things and he threw in a few things from the Mark Lane book.
And I know the way Garrison would put it. He'd say, Man, you're the one missing piece. We've been working this jigsaw puzzle and we knew that Shaw was the mastermind, we know that he and Ferrie plotted together. And here you dropped the piece right in there. And, Oh, boy, Russo thinks, I'm a big man and I'll help. And he thinks there's a whole lot else. He told me he was bothered about how much corroborative evidence there was. So he probably thought he's just going to invent a little something that's going to help them along, not much -- there's going to be eighteen other witnesses and all kinds of other stuff to back him up. He got stuck with the thing. He got stuck with himself. He told this dirty little lie, thinking, Well, I'm helping a great big case that was built like a brick shithouse, solid as can be. I'm just one little old brick and there's all this other stuff. He got suckered into it. And, in turn, he suckered Garrison into it. Because the story he told in Baton Rouge, without the party, was a pretty damn good story, because Perry Russo is the only man on the planet who puts Dave Ferrie and Oswald together, the only one. Now we have some people later who come along that put Shaw and Oswald together, but Perry is the only one that ties Ferrie and Oswald. I don't think Lee Oswald ever knew Dave Ferrie. He might have been at some innocent thing, but I don't think he ever knew him. And Russo's the only guy. So what does Garrison do? Garrison has this preconception. He's already decided which way the plot went without any evidence. Dave Ferrie was first the getaway pilot and when that didn't work out, he's something or other. Just won't let him go, because the FBI squeezed him and threw him away and he's going to show the FBI what a real investigator is. So he just arbitrarily decided.
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