John Leon

John Leon

John Leon worked as a private detective. Leon was employed by Carmine Bellino to bug the phones of Engelhard Industries for John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential elections. Charles W. Engelhard, a South African diamond merchant, had discovered that Kennedy was having an affair with a nineteen year old student at Radcliffe College. Engelhard had attempted to employ a private detective in Boston to obtain photographs of Kennedy with this student. The detective refused and informed Kennedy of what was going on and this resulted in Bellino organizing the wiretap.

Leon was later convicted of wire-tapping. By the early 1970s he was running a detective agency called Allied Investigators Incorporated in Washington. Lou Russell was one of the men Leon employed.

In March, 1972, Russell purchased $3,000 in electronic eavesdropping equipment from Leon. Russell's friend, Charles F. Knight, was told that this equipment had been purchased for James W. McCord. This equipment was used to tape the telephone conversations between politicians based at the Democratic Party National Committee and a small group of prostitutes run by Phillip Mackin Bailley that worked their trade in the Columbia Plaza.

On 16th June, 1972, Lou Russell told his daughter he had to return to Washington to do "some work for McCord" that night. It was estimated that he arrived back at the Howard Johnson's Motel at around 12.45 a.m. At 1.30 a.m. Russell had a meeting with McCord. It is not clear what role Russell played in the Watergate break-in. Jim Hougan (Secret Agenda) has suggested that he was helping McCord to "sabotage the break-in".

Later that night Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, Bernard L. Barker and James W. McCord were arrested while in the Democratic Party headquarters in Watergate.

Lou Russell was interviewed by the FBI soon afterwards. He claimed that during the break-in he was in his rooming house. The FBI agents did not believe him but none of the burglars claimed he had been involved in the conspiracy and he was released.

According to Jerris Leonard, a supporter of Richard Nixon, Leon told Carmine Bellino, an investigator who worked for Edward Kennedy and the Senate Administrative Practices Committee, about Russell's problems. Bellino phoned Russell. It is not known was was said but as a result of this conversation Russell went to stay with Bellino's friend, William Birely on the top floor of the Twin Towers complex in Silver Spring, Maryland. Birely was also a close friend of Lee R. Pennington. Both men had been active members of the Sons of the American Revolution.

Leon claimed that Russell had been a spy for the Democratic Party within CREEP and that he had tipped off Carmine Bellino and the police about the Watergate break-in. At the time Leon was working on a counter-investigation for the Republican Party. Leon claimed that Watergate was a set up and the operation had been sabotaged from within.

On 2nd July, 1973, Lou Russell died of a heart attack. Leon now began contacting others who had worked with him for Carmine Bellino during the presidential campaign. This included former CIA officer John Frank, congressional investigator Edward M. Jones and Joseph Shimon, a former inspector for the Washington Police Department. Leon and the others provided affidavits claiming that the John F. Kennedy had ordered the bugging of Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential election. Leon now passed this information to Jerris Leonard, an attorney working for the Republican National Committee (RNC).

George Bush, the chairman of the RNC announced there would be press conference on 13th July, 1973. John Leon was to be the star witness. However, Leon suffered a heart-attack and died before he could provide evidence against the Democratic Party.

Primary Sources

(1) Jim Hougan, Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA (1984)

A convicted wiretapper in his own right, Shimon was a partner of one John Leon in a detective agency named Allied Investigators Inc. One of the investigators with whom Shimon and Leon were allied on a part-time basis was Louis James Russell. In December 1971 Russell was working for General Security Services, Inc. (GSS), the private guard service under contract to protect the Watergate offices in which the DNC was located. At that time he was also moonlighting at Allied Investigators and looking for work that was better paid than either job. Apparently he found it because, in March, he quit GSS to join McCord Associates. There he worked for a time as a night guard at the CRP (while continuing to moonlight for Allied and freelancing as a tipster for Jack Anderson). A garrulous man whose experience at GSS raises the suspicion that he was an "inside man" for McCord, Russell may well have bragged to Leon and Shimon about the Republicans' plans to bug the Democrats. That would have been entirely in character for Russell, and from Leon and Shimon it was only one step to the latter's daughter and her boss, A. J. Woolston-Smith.

(2) Anthony Summers, The Arrogance of Power (2000)

Electronic eavesdropping was the other alleged abuse of the 1960 campaign, according to Nixon supporters. It is, however, an allegation with a serious weakness, for the Republican side made the claim only after Watergate, at a time when Nixon's men had themselves been caught bugging Democratic phones. In July 1973, when Watergate had already broken wide open, Republican National Committee Chairman George Bush was to make a long statement suggesting that key figures in his party had been "under surveillance and spied upon" in 1960. The spying, the future president asserted, had been directed by a "Kennedy man... Carmine Bellino." Bellino was now nothing less than chief investigator of the Senate Watergate Committee.

Bush based this allegation on the statements of five private detectives who claimed knowledge of Bellino's activities back in 1960, when he had worked for Robert Kennedy. One of them, John Leon, said Bellino had had him surveil a senior official of the Republican National Committee, Albert Hermann, "utilizing an electronic device known as `the big ear,' aimed at Mr. Hermann's window from a nearby vantage point." Leon quoted an associate, Ed Jones, as stating he had tapped the phones of three Protestant ministers suspected of distributing anti-Catholic literature.

In the most dramatic claim of all, Leon recalled a conversation with colleagues the day after the first Nixon-Kennedy debate. They had agreed, he said, that Kennedy "had the debate all wrapped up," that he was "extremely well prepared." He concluded from the conversation that Jones and another member of the group, former FBI agent Oliver Angelone, "successfully bugged the Nixon space or tapped his phones prior to the television debate."

Jones, an electronics specialist, admitted having worked for Bellino on two surveillance operations during the 1960 campaign but denied any bugging. Angelone quoted Bellino as saying the Protestant ministers had been bugged but denied having taken part in the operation. He denied it again in 1999, when interviewed for this book. Bellino, for his part, admitted having ordered physical surveillance but not bugging or wiretapping.

The truth can probably no longer be determined. A Senate subcommittee that probed the allegations found no proof of electronic eavesdropping. As president, however, Nixon repeatedly declared himself "convinced that wiretapping had been a key weapon in the Kennedy arsenal during the campaign of 1960." In old age he still talked of how he had been "victimized by all kinds of dirty tricks." Robert Kennedy, he said, "was the worst. He illegally bugged more people-and started it-than anyone. He was a bastard."

(3) Jim Hougan, Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA (1984)

It was at about this time that Russell received a telephone call from a prominent man - Carmine Bellino, an "investigative accountant," whose life had been spent in close association with the Kennedy family. He had known Lou Russell when the latter had been chief investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and he was telephoning Russell at the suggestion of a mutual friend, John Leon.

Leon later said that Bellino had wanted to learn everything he could about the attack on the DNC. Knowing of Russell's employment by McCord and suspecting his involvement in the break-in, Leon urged Bellino to contact the private detective. At the time, Bellino was the de facto point man of the congressional investigation then impending. Under the authority of Senator Edward Kennedy, the then chairman of the Senate's Administrative Practices Committee, Bellino was laying the groundwork for the day when he would be appointed chief investigator for the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (the Ervin committee).

We do not know what Bellino said to Russell or what Russell said to Bellino. Soon after the call, however, a Good Samaritan came to Russell, offering sanctuary. The Samaritan was William Birely, Bellino's close friend and longtime stockbroker. Asked if there was any connection between his friendship with Bellino and his subsequent generosity to Russell, Birely insists that there was not. Similarly, Birely says, his friendship with Lee Pennington was also a coincidence: both he and Pennington had long served together as executive officers in various patriotic societies based in Washington.

It was "out of the goodness of my heart," Birely recalls, that he offered to rescue Russell from his squalid quarters in the capital. Russell accepted the offer, and was soon resident in an apartment on the top floor of the Twin Towers complex in Silver Spring, Maryland, just across the District line. Provided with "walking around money" and a better car than he had been driving until then, Russell found that his situation had improved dramatically.

"I pitied him," Birely told me. "There was nothing more to it than that. Lou had just picked himself up. He'd stopped drinking. He had great hopes for his work with McCord and then, all of a sudden, he was out of a job. The Watergate business just devastated


In fact Russell was not "out of a job." Despite McCord's arrest, and the apparent dissolution of McCord Associates, Inc., Russell remained in the employ of the Watergate burglar, albeit under different auspices. On June 9th McCord had rented office space at the Arlington Towers complex in Rosslyn on the Virginia side of the Potomac. There McCord established a new firm, Security International, Inc., headed by a former CIA officer named William Shea (whose wife, Theresa, had previously worked as McCord's secretary). The new firm was to achieve remarkable success; whereas McCord Associates had won only two clients (the CRP and the RNC) after two years of trying, Security International signed twenty-five to thirty (never identified) new clients in its first nine months of existence. Moreover, even while the Arlington Towers were unusually secure, so also was the suite of offices that McCord had rented for his new firm. The doors of that firm were kept locked around the clock (even while its employees worked inside), and no outsiders were permitted to enter. Salesmen and others who called in person were told that all business had to be transacted over the telephone. It was while living at the Twin Towers in Silver Spring as a guest of William Birely's that Russell continued to work for McCord under the auspices of Security International. According to Russell's daughter, Jean Hooper, "Mr. McCord was a pallbearer at my dad's funeral (in July i973). And when it was over, Mr. McCord came to me with my dad's last paycheck. I think it was for $285-something like that."

Which raises the question: Why did - how could - McCord keep Russell on the payroll for more than a year after the Watergate arrests and, indeed, even after the detective was incapacitated by a heart attack (in April 1973)? If we are to believe the impression given at the time, McCord was in desperate financial straits. Raising bail was said to be a serious problem, his family was allegedly hard put to make ends meet and so forth. And yet, despite these difficulties, McCord was able to pay Russell a good salary and, what is more, to reject a $105,000 publishing advance for what appear to have been artistic reasons.

(4) Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (1984)

Russell had knowledge, not only of the Rikan call-girl ring and of successful taps on the phone line, but also of McCord's plans to break into the DNC. Russell was apparently present at the scene of the June 16 break-in, and may have been source of a detailed warning to the Democrats about it the previous April (via Joe Shimon, Jack Anderson's source when breaking the Martino-Rosselli story).

Whatever Russell's role, to which Hougan devotes fifty inconclusive pages, he was sought as a witness by the Republican minority staff on the Ervin Committee. On May 18, 1973, one week after declining a committee subpoena for his records, Russell suffered his first massive heart attack. On July 2, 1973, soon after he was approached again about his knowledge, he had a second, and died. The Republican investigator who approached him, John Leon, was "convinced that Watergate was a setup, that prostitution was at the heart of the affair, and that the. .. burglary had been sabotaged from within." He too died of a heart attack: one month later, on July 13, 1973, the day he was scheduled to hold a Watergate press conference.