A Look at Mitch WerBell and the JFK Assassination
He was the real McCoy. Bantam-sized, sporting a handlebar moustache and carrying a swagger stick, Mitchell Livingston WerBell III was a wealthy bon vivant, international arms dealer, designer of silencers, and right-wing covert operator. Based at his 60-acre Powder Springs, Georgia, estate, WerBell loved guns, fine whisky, and freelance coup d’etats. He was referred to as the “Wizard of Whispering Death,” (1) for being the preeminent designer of the modern-day silencer, his work credited with enabling the widespread use of silenced sniper rifles in the Vietnam War. (2) There are those who suspect that in the John F. Kennedy assassination some of the rifle shots (officially there were only three, fired by alleged lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald) may have been fired in Dealey Plaza using sound suppressors. Was the U.S. intelligence community (or rogue agents thereof) involved in the assassination conspiracy, as many researchers believe? If so, what role, if any, was played by this Powder Springs wizard called "the armorer of the CIA"? (3)
In their book Deadly Secrets, Hinckle and Turner describe WerBell, the son of a wealthy Czarist cavalry officer, as “at once the most stylish and the craziest man” they have ever known. His life, they note, was “like an Errol Flynn movie with Max Steiner music in the background.” (4) In World War II, he served as a secret agent in the China-Burma theater of operations for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, forerunner of the CIA, making WerBell, in Gaeton Fonzi’s words, “a dues-paid life member of the Old Boys network of American secret intelligence”). (5) Photos from the 1960s show WerBell in South Vietnam demonstrating weapons with his patented silencers for Vietnamese army officers. In the late 1960s he traveled to and from Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, with a high security clearance and the temporary rank of U.S. Army general, to confer with the appropriate CIA or foreign officials on the subject of “programmatic liquidations.” (6 ) Among his freelance foreign intrigues, WerBell did covert work for Cuban dictator Batista in 1959 and for military strongman Imbert in the Dominican Republic in 1965; in the mid-1970s he helped some Bahamian secessionists try to set up their own country on the island of Abaco; and he traveled to Central America in 1982 to support Mario Sandoval Alarcon in an attempted coup in Guatemala. (7)
In 1966 WerBell served as adviser on Project Nassau, a planned invasion of Haiti by Cuban and Haitian exiles to oust the dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. CBS was going to film the invasion, indeed was basically financing the project through its production budget in exchange for the filming rights. (8) Project leaders included Cuban exile Rolando (“El Tigre”) Masferrer, who planned to use Haiti as a base to invade Cuba, and Father Jean Baptiste Georges, who planned to be the new President of Haiti. (9) The project was aborted in January 1967 with the arrest of 75 of the would-be invaders for conspiring to violate the Neutrality Act. Project leaders were tried and convicted, but the charges against WerBell were suddenly dropped, thanks presumably to his CIA links. There was a Congressional investigation of CBS on the question of aiding and abetting illegal acts. CBS successfully argued in part that WerBell’s CIA ties implied government sanction of the planned invasion, recalling the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. (10)
In 1967 WerBell went into business with Gordon Ingram, designer of a small submachine gun, slightly larger than a conventional pistol, on which WerBell suppressors were mounted, for a quiet and compact weapon with military contracts in mind. (11) In 1973 WerBell’s arms company Defense Services, Inc. and his son Mitchell IV were indicted for allegedly trying to sell some of the silenced Ingram submachine guns to a federal undercover agent. The case was eventually thrown out of court, but the indictments happened to coincide with WerBell being subpoened by a Senate committee that was investigating Robert Vesco, a fugitive financier living in Costa Rica. Vesco had sought through an intermediary to purchase 2,000 silenced Ingrams from WerBell, with the intent, some suspected, of taking over Costa Rica. (Also temporarily residing in Costa Rica at this time were Mafia don Santo Trafficante and anti-Castro Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch.) The indictments prevented WerBell from testifying before the Senate committee, and WerBell himself believed that the indictments were a gag order to keep him from talking about Vesco. “From now on, call me Mitch the Fifth,” WerBell said after the indictments were dropped. Bitter that his family had been dragged into the affair, WerBell soon got out of the arms sales business, concentrating instead on security work and counter-terrorism. (12)
In 1976 WerBell was in trouble again. He and four other men were tried in Florida on charges of conspiring to import marijuana from Colombia for a profit of $100,000 each. WerBell’s lawyer Edwin Marger said that WerBell would never get involved in a conspiracy to import marijuana. “Guns, revolutions, maybe even assassinations,” Marger said, “but he’s not being tried for that.” (13)
The defense argued that WerBell and the others were actually working undercover in President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs. (14) Lucien Conein, the legendary CIA agent and an old friend of WerBell’s from their days together in the OSS, had joined Nixon’s new Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1972. (White House consultant and former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt had considered hiring Conein for the team that bungled the 1972 Watergate burglary. “If I’d been involved,” Conein later said, “we’d have done it right.”) (15) The defense claimed that WerBell and Conein were “putting together assassination devices for the DEA” to use against drug smugglers. (16) (The Senate in the mid-1970s investigated allegations that the DEA was preparing to arrange the assassination of drug lords, but nothing was ever proved. According to Fonzi, Conein indeed set up a DEA safe house or “office suite,” funded by the CIA, on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC, where WerBell admitted being in business with two former CIA men “manufacturing ultrasophisticated assassination devices.”) (17) The defense even moved to subpoena Nixon and top White House aides John Ehrlichman and Egil Krogh. Only Krogh testified, and denied any knowledge of the defendants’ alleged undercover operation. Conein was subpoenaed but was not called to the witness stand. (18) It should be noted, before leaving the subject of Conein, that either he or a remarkable lookalike can be seen in a photograph taken as the presidential limo was driving past him in Dallas only moments before the JFK assassination. (19)
The prosecution’s star witness in WerBell’s trial, convicted drug-smuggler Kenneth Burnstine, was killed before the trial started when a plane he was flying mysteriously stalled and crashed in an air show in the Mohave Desert. Burnstine’s last reported words were “Oh no!” His death was a serious blow to the prosecution, and WerBell and the other defendants were acquitted (20). “The government tried to frame us all,” said defendant John Nardi of Cleveland, “but the jury didn’t buy it” (21).
WerBell’s friend Nardi was a Teamsters Union official who had allegedly ordered the murder earlier that year of Cleveland mobster Leo Moceri (22). Nardi and “Irish mob” leader Danny Greene were reportedly trying to take over control of the Cleveland organized crime family (23). Moceri had recently become underboss of the family, which was headed by James “Jack White” Licavoli (24). Moceri had also told a government agent that Chicago mobster Sam Giancana and former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa had both been killed to protect the secret of the CIA-Mafia plots to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (25). (According to government informant Charles Crimaldi, Hoffa was the original liaison between the CIA and Mafia in the Castro plots.) (26) The late Chauncey Holt (who claimed to be the oldest of the three “tramps” photographed in Dealey Plaza) alleged that Leo Moceri was in Dallas on the day of the JFK assassination, having driven there with Holt, Charles Nicoletti, and Joe Canty from Pete Licavoli’s Grace Ranch in Arizona. (Holt also claimed that Rolando Masferrer, WerBell’s later associate in the aborted invasion of Haiti, was one of the intended recipients in Dallas of false Secret Service credentials allegedly delivered by Holt.) (27)
According to Moceri, John Nardi had five associates who were killing people in the Cleveland crime war by putting bombs in their cars. (28) Soon after returning to Cleveland from his Florida trial, Nardi was shot at by assailants in two cars but came away without a scratch. (29) In May 1977, Nardi’s legs were blown off in a car bomb explosion. “It didn’t hurt,” Nardi said, and died minutes later. (30)
Another interesting friend of WerBell’s was Gordon Novel, who some JFK researchers suspect was the so-called Umbrella Man in Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination. Novel lived with WerBell in 1976. When Novel was arrested for arson in 1977, it was WerBell who bailed him out of jail. (31)
Other WerBell associates whose names are familiar from the JFK assassination literature are Gerry Patrick Hemming and Bernardo de Torres. Hemming is a 6’5” ex-Marine who was the leader of Interpen (Intercontinental Penetration Force), a group of anti-Castro guerrillas who trained at No Name Key in the Florida Keys in the early 1960s. Hemming claims that he was made monetary offers by Guy Banister and others to kill JFK, which he did not accept. (32) De Torres is an anti-Castro Cuban exile referred to as “Carlos” by Gaeton Fonzi in his book about the JFK investigation by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). Carlos was alleged by a source in a Florida prison to have been “involved to some degree in the Jack Kennedy thing” (33) For a time Hemming and de Torres were both representatives of Mitch WerBell in his arms sales business (34).
In 1977 WerBell went to work providing security for Lyndon LaRouche, leader of a right-wing (formerly left-wing) movement called the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC). Major General John K. Singlaub, who retired from the Army in 1978, met with two of LaRouche’s party officials in WerBell’s home, and said that he found them to be “a bunch of kooks of the worst form.” They suggested, he claimed, that “the military ought to in some way lead the country out of its problems,” implying a coup d’etat. Nevertheless General Singlaub, who founded the anti-Communist U.S. Council for World Freedom in 1981, returned to Powder Springs in 1982 to lecture at Sionics, originally WerBell’s arms company with Ingram, and now a counter-terrorist training camp run by WerBell. (Sionics was an acronym for Studies in Organized Negation of Insurgency and Counter Subversion.) At that time LaRouche’s security forces comprised many of WerBell’s trainees. (35)
According to Gaeton Fonzi, who in the 1970s was a staff investigator for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and then for the HSCA, “someone who had been close to WerBell” suggested to the Senate committee that WerBell was linked to the JFK assassination. (36) Fonzi therefore interviewed WerBell in his gun-filled Powder Springs den. Fonzi later described his host as a “delightfully entertaining fellow,” though WerBell’s Sionics was in Fonzi’s view “really a training camp for professional killers.” (37) Trainees at Sionics went through an intensive 10-day course, including instruction in Quick Kill (QK) techniques, at a cost of $3,000 paid in advance. (38)
WerBell was “half bombed when I was talking to him,” Fonzi says, and it was difficult to get WerBell to respond coherently in the day-long taped session. (39) WerBell told Fonzi, “I’ve always cooperated very closely” with the CIA, but “I’ve never allowed them to pay me one goddamned dime. I don’t need it.” He admitted to involvement in some Castro assassination attempts. “I was sittin’ in Miami,” he said, “with a goddamned million dollars in cash for the guy who was gonna take Fidel out.” But WerBell claimed to have no connection to the JFK hit. “Now I didn’t like Jack Kennedy,” WerBell said, “I thought he was a shit to begin with. But I was certain not to be involved in the assassination of an American president, for Christsakes!” (“I was certain not to be involved” is an interesting choice of words, suggesting that WerBell at least knew of the plot.) At one point in the conversation, WerBell said, “This guy Ruby, he called, I didn’t know who the hell he was, but that was years ago.” WerBell then “lapsed into a drunken mumble.” Fonzi felt that the HSCA should have called WerBell for formal questioning in its JFK investigation, but significantly it did not do so. (40)
The late Roy Hargraves told researcher Noel Twyman in a 2001 interview that WerBell supplied silencers used in the JFK assassination. Hargraves was an explosives expert and member of Hemming’s Interpen group. Hargraves said that he was in Dallas on November 22, 1963 as part of a four-man support team led by anti-Castro activist Felipe Vidal Santiago. (Vidal was captured on a mission into Cuba in 1964 and executed.) The team, according to Hargraves, was ordered to Dallas by CIA operative William Bishop, whose instructions likely came from someone at the CIA’s JM/WAVE headquarters in Miami. (41) JM/WAVE’s chief of operations was David Sanchez Morales, who reported to station chief Theodore Shackley. One night in 1973 Morales got drunk on scotch and told three friends, after ranting about JFK, “Well, we took care of that son of a bitch, didn’t we?” (42)
Many of the earwitnesses in Dealey Plaza (74% of the 178 considered by the HSCA) (43) said they heard three shots (the official Warren Commission number), but others said they heard more, ranging from four shots (reported, for example, by railroad supervisor S.M. Holland, who was on the triple underpass, from which he also saw a puff of smoke from the trees on the grassy knoll), to eight shots (reported in a signed sheriff’s office statement by construction worker A.J. Millican, who subsequently received a terrifying phone threat and was not called to testify by the Warren Commission). (44) The echoes that are produced by gunfire in a man-made canyon like Dealey Plaza also made it difficult for people to tell where all the shots came from. In addition, while a silencer suppresses a rifle’s muzzle blast, the sonic boom created by the supersonic bullet is heard only as the bullet is moving past an earwitness, who might therefore think that the shot came from a direction opposite from the actual shooter. (45) The overall confusion and ballistic evidence suggest that more than one weapon was used, and that one or more shots were suppressed, in addition to an unsilenced shot or shots from the Texas School Book Depository Building to draw attention and thus implicate Lee Harvey Oswald.
Having multiple shooters in Dallas--with silencers used to mask certain positions--was not only necessary to ensure a successful kill, but was consistent with an intent, evident by the continuous efforts to get Castro and by the pre-assassination creation of Oswald’s pro-Castro legend, to paint the assassination as a Castro plot, carried out by a hit team, thus hopefully precipitating a vengeful invasion of Cuba. According to this theory, the lone nut scenario—Oswald implausibly did it all by himself with three shots—was concocted out of panic when Oswald, who had supposedly been destined for elimination either immediately or outside of the country, was taken alive by the Dallas police.
On WerBell’s possible role in the conspiracy, Hargraves told Twyman: “Was WerBell the source of the silencers? Of course! He’s the only clean source. Every other source for silencers would have strings attached to it. If you tried to get it from one of the intelligence agencies, they’d want to know the whole thing. . . . If (WerBell) got nailed he wouldn't give you up. And he knew if you got busted with his stuff, you wouldn’t give him up. There were so many of the sound suppressors in circulation that he had deniability at his end. There’s no way to prove that you acquired them through him.” (46)
In 1980, three years before his death, Mitch WerBell went to work handling security for Larry Flynt, publisher of the adult magazine Hustler. Ironically Flynt had his own connection of sorts to the tragedy in Dealey Plaza. Flynt was a paraplegic after being shot by an unknown assailant in March 1978, two months after offering a reward of one million dollars to anyone who could help solve the mystery of the JFK assassination. The HSCA was in the midst of its investigation in 1978, and Flynt may have been shot because the conspirators didn’t need some minor character in the JFK assassination coming forward to collect Flynt’s reward. (47) Meanwhile Bob Guccione, publisher of the adult magazine Penthouse, charged that Flynt paid WerBell one million dollars to have Guccione assassinated. (48)
Mitchell Livingston WerBell III died of cancer at the age of 65. At the first annual November in Dallas Conference in 1996, Interpen founder Hemming told the conferees that WerBell, Conein, Hemming himself, “and a long list of other people” should have been arrested in the immediate aftermath of the JFK assassination. (49)
One never knows when to take the colorful Hemming seriously. “The thing is,” he once told researcher Dick Russell, “you had so many people planning the Kennedy thing, it was bound to happen” (50). But Hemming also told Twyman, in an interview for Twyman’s book Bloody Treason, “If you want to get to the bottom of the JFK assassination, look at WerBell.” (51)
1. Warren Hinckle and William Turner, Deadly Secrets: The CIA-Mafia War against Castro and the Assassination of JFK (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992), p. 393; Jim Hougan, Spooks: The Haunting of America—The Private Use of Secret Agents (New York: William Morrow, 1978), p. 28.
2. Carol Hewett, “Silencers, Sniper Rifles and the CIA,” Probe, Nov.-Dec. 1995 (http://www.webcom.co...195-hewett.html); J. David Truby, Silencers, Snipers & Assassins: An Overview of Whispering Death (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1972), pp. 108-114.
3. Hinckle and Turner, p. 392.
4. Ibid., p. 400.
5. Gaeton Fonzi, The Last Investigation (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1993), p. 67.
6. Houston, p. 48; for the WerBell photos, see Truby, pp. 9, 11, 86, 106, 110, 120, and http://www.timelapse.../dk/WerBell.htm.
7. Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Hunter, “Growth of Reagan’s Contra Commitment,” in The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1987); Hinckle and Turner, p. 301; on the Abaco scheme, see Hinckle and Turner, pp. 396-397.
8. Hougan, pp. 31-32; Hinckle and Turner, p. 301.
9. “Project Nassau,” Cuban Information Archives. http://cuban-exile.c...2/2pnassau.html.
10. “Project Nassau”; Hinckle and Turner, pp. 308-310.
11. “Ingram Mac 10,” AEF Campaign: Operation Phoenix, n.d.. http://www.aef-kampa...ngramstory.htm; “Maruzen M11 Ingram,” Airsoft Dynamics, 2000-2003. http://www.airsoftdy...alogno=MZGBBM11. In the early 1970s the rights to WerBell's and Ingram's weapons system were sold to the Military Armament Corporation (MAC), of which WerBell and his son Mitch IV became president and vice president respectively. When the company failed to meet sales projections, WerBell agreed to leave MAC in exchange for 7,000 of the silenced Ingram submachine guns (half the MAC inventory), which he was free to sell through his own new company, Defense Services, Inc. (Hougan, pp. 45-46).
12. Hinckle and Turner, pp. 397-400; Hougan, pp. 155-158, 187-201
13. Gayle Pollard, “5 Acquitted in Drug Conspiracy Case,” Miami Herald, 1976, reprinted on website of Law Offices of Edwin Marger L.L.C., http://www.edmarger....gConspiracy.htm, n.d.
15. “Lucien E. Conein,” Arlington National Cemetery Website, 2003. http://www.arlington....net/conein.htm.
17. “Conein”; Fonzi, Investigation, p. 71.
19. Allan Eaglesham and Martha Schallhorn, “Familiar Faces in Dealey Plaza,” JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly, October 2000, reprinted at http://www.memresear...iliar_faces.htm.
20. A.J. Weberman, Coup D’etat in America Data Base, Nodule 21. http://www.ajweberma...es/nodule21.htm
22. Angelo Lonardo, Testimony before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Government Affairs, April 4, 1988.
23. House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), JFK Exhibit F-553, v. 5, pp. 394-395.
25. Anthony Summers, Conspiracy (New York: Paragon House, 1989), p. 495; Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p. 172.
26. Scott, p. 171; Summers, p. 493.
27. Chauncey Holt, Transcript of Videotaped Interview by John Craig, Phillip Rogers, and Gary Shaw (JFK Murder Solved, http://www.jfkmurder...com/holt1.html) , October 19, 1991, transcribed by William E. Kelly, April, 1992.
28. HSCA, v. 5, pp. 392.
29. Rick Porrello, To Kill the Irishman: The War that Crippled the Mafia (Cleveland: Next Hat Press, 2004).
32. Noel Twyman, Bloody Treason (Rancho Santa Fe, CA: Laurel Publishing, 1997), pp. 705-712; Richard Russell, “An Ex-CIA Man’s Stunning Revelations on ‘The Company,’ JFK’s Murder, and the Plot to Kill Richard Nixon,” Argosy Interview: Gerry Hemming, 1975. http://www.rose-hulm...osy-hemming.htm.
33. Fonzi, Investigation, pp. 232-242; see also Twyman, pp. 700-702.
34. Fonzi, Investigation, p. 237; “Bernardo de Torres,” Spartacus Educational. http://www.spartacus...k/JFKtorres.htm.
35. Marshall et al.
36. Gaeton Fonzi, Video Interview by the Fort Lauderdale JFK Researcher Group, October 8, 1994.
37. Fonzi, Investigation, p. 67.
38. John Veit, with Robin Brown, “Quick Kill,” Glock World Magazine Online, 1993-2004, http://www.glockworl...m/quickkill.htm.
39. Fonzi, Interview.
40. Fonzi, Investigation, p. 72.
41. Larry Hancock, Someone Would Have Talked (Southlake, Texas: JFK Lancer Productions and Publications), pp. 290-292; Larry Hancock, JFK Research News, http://www.jfklancer.com/Dallas03.html.
42. Hancock, pp. 96-97; on Morales, see also Fonzi, pp. 380-390, and Twyman, pp. 451-454.
43. HSCA 5:502.
44. S.M. Holland, Voluntary Statement, Sheriff’s Department, November 22, 1963, and Warren Commission Testimony, April 8, 1964; A.J. Millican Statement, Decker Exhibit No. 5323, Warren Commission v. 19, p. 486; Jim Marrs, Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1989), pp. 28-29. On the HSCA number of shot statistics, see HSCA 5:502.
45. Hougan, pp. 35-36.
46. Hancock, pp. 273-274.
47. “Larry Flynt and JFK,” Steamshovel Press, n.d. http://www.umsl.edu/...oma/plword3.htm
48. Hinckley and Turner, p. 400, citing the New York Post, October 27, 1988.
49. Gerry Patrick Hemming, The Gerry Patrick Hemming Panel, November in Dallas Conference, November 1996.
51. Twyman, p. 701.
Edited by Ron Ecker, 26 November 2004 - 06:29 PM.