Robert Maheu

Robert Maheu

Robert Maheu was born in Waterville, Maine, in 1918. After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, in 1940, he joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation. During the Second World War he posed as a Nazi-sympathising Canadian and infiltrated New York's German-American Bund, passing disinformation to spies who were eventually arrested.

In 1947 Maheu established his own investigative company. Maheu also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. He was later to admit "The CIA was my first steady client, giving me `cut-out' assignments (those jobs in which the agency could not officially be involved)." This work brought him into contact with Howard Hughes and in the late 1950s worked for him on a freelance basis. This included intimidating would be blackmailers and obtaining information on business rivals.

In 1954 Maheu was hired to deal with a starlet attempting to blackmail Howard Hughes after their relationship had soured. Hughes also employed Maheu to spy on Ava Gardner. While working for Hughes he met Edward Bennett Williams, who in turn introduced him to Johnny Rosell, the mob's frontman in Las Vegas. Maheu and Roselli became close friends.

Maheu served as Hughes's bagman and among those who received money was Bebe Rebozo, a close associate of Richard Nixon. Hughes via Maheu also provided $205,000 to the politician's brother, Donald Nixon in January 1957.

In 1960 Richard Bissell and Allen W. Dulles decided to work with the Mafia in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. Maheu was employed by the CIA to organize the conspiracy. The advantage of employing the Mafia for this work is that it provided CIA with a credible cover story. The Mafia were known to be angry with Castro for closing down their profitable brothels and casinos in Cuba. If the assassins were killed or captured the media would accept that the Mafia were working on their own.

In August 1960, Colonel Sheffield Edwards contacted Maheu. As Maheu explained in 1995: "In the winter of 1959-60, however, the CIA still thought it could pull off the invasion (of Cuba). But it thought the odds might be better if the plan went one step further - the murder of Fidel Castro. All the Company needed was someone to do the dirty work for it. Professional killers. A gangland-style hit."

Maheu offered the contract to Johnny Rosell. He in turn arranged for a meeting on 11th October, 1960, between Maheu and two leading mobsters, Santo Trafficante and Sam Giancana. As Maheu pointed out, "both were among the ten most powerful Mafia members" in America. Maheu told the mobsters that the CIA was willing to pay $150,000 to have Castro killed.

On 12th March, 1961, Maheu arranged for CIA operative, Jim O'Connell, to meet Roselli, Trafficante and Giancana at the Fontainebleau Hotel. During the meeting O'Connell gave poison pills and $10,000 to Rosselli to be used against Fidel Castro.

Maheu began full-time work for Howard Hughes in 1966. He moved to Las Vegas where he ran Hughes's casinos. Maheu explained later what his role was in the operation: "When he came here, he wanted to tie up all the property on the Strip to develop it properly. He didn't want it to be honky-tonk or like Coney Island. Hughes was a catalyst in the city cleaning up its act." Maheu arranged for Hughes to become Nevada's third-largest landowner. Maheu once said: "He was the King of Vegas and as his surrogate, I wore the crown."

After losing his job with Howard Hughes in 1970 Maheu eastablished a new company in Las Vegas called Robert A. Maheu and Associates. In 1972 Hughes accused Maheu of being "a no-good son of a bitch who robbed me blind". Maheu sued for defamation and Hughes settled out of court.

In 1993 Maheu published the book, Next to Hughes. According to Michael Carlson he"became one of Las Vegas's leading citizens.

Robert Maheu died of congestive heart failure at Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas on 4th August 2008.

Primary Sources

(1) Mark Fisher, Howard Hughes (April, 2003)

As fantastically wealthy manipulators go, Howard R. Hughes was king. The billionaire's Midas touch had less to do with his fabled technical and financial genius than with endless secret deals and covert political bribes. "I can but any man in the world," Hughes liked to boast. Indeed, Hughes's conspiratorial authority stemmed from his ability - and eager inclination purchase loyalty from anyone, including the president of the United States, in a position to advance his, well, idiosyncratic designs.

Everything about Hughes was larger than life, including his paradoxical legend. Heir to a Houston fortune based on a drill bit patent that revolutionized oil mining, the dashing young Hughes captured the American imagination during the Great Depression years. Cowboy aviator, Hollywood playboy, patriotic military contractor, maverick financier, Hughes was a comic book hero whose can-do exploits knew no limits. Later in life, as his eccentricities metastasized into madness, the darker portrait emerged: the stringy-haired old man, a real lunatic with a mortal fear of germs holed up in a penthouse hermitage.

Throughout his life, Hughes's obsession with control expressed itself in a mania for espionage and spookery, especially as it applied to nurturing his substantial neuroses. However, despite his seeming omnipresence in the eye of many a stormy conspiracy, Hughes was just as manipulated by others. Known to spooks as the "Stockholder," Hughes fronted for CIA covert operations, sometimes unknowingly; Hughes, the demented shut-in, saw his empire manipulated by remote control.

We join the Hughes saga during the late 1950s, with the arrival of the shadowy and some sleazy Robert Maheu, fountainhead of many real and imagined Hughes conspiracies. In the fifties, Hughes hired Maheu to intimidate would-be blackmailers and spy on dozens of Hollywood starlets toward whom Hughes felt possessive. Maheu was a former FBI man whose private security firm fronted for the CIA on ultra-sensitive (read: illegal) missions. By the time he became Hughes's private spook, Maheu already had impressive credentials supervising contract kidnappings for the CIA and acting as the Agency's literal pimp, hiring prostitutes to service foreign dignitaries and their peculiar sexual appetites. Maheu's most notorious CIA job was a go-between in a failed 1960 plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, which recruited the Mafia to do the "hit." Friendly with the darndest folks, Maheu enlisted the aid of Vegas mobster John Roselli ("Uncle Johnny" to Maheu's children), Chicago godfather Sam "Momo" Giancana, and powerful Florida mob boss Santos Trafficante. Apparently, Hughes had no involvement in Maheu's freelance CIA work but delighted in the spook's exploits and connections, which only enhanced the billionaire's reputation and influence. (According to journalist Jim Hougan, Maheu informed Hughes of his efforts on behalf of the CIA to kill Castro.) By some accounts, however, the Stockholder was the Agency's largest contractor. In dedicating his resources to the CIA, though, Hughes wasn't guided entirely by selfless motives. During the late sixties, he asked Maheu to offer his empire to Agency as a CIA front. At the time the Hughes fortune was threatened by major legal trouble the beleaguered billionaire hoped to deflect the nettlesome litigation with a "national security shield".

(2) Robert Maheu, Next to Hughes (1992)

In the winter of 1959-60, however, the CIA still thought it could pull off the invasion (of Cuba). But it thought the odds might be better if the plan went one step further - the murder of Fidel Castro. All the Company needed was someone to do the dirty work for it. Professional killers. A gangland-style hit.

It was then that the CIA conceived the notion to let the mobsters do it themselves. They'd had a grudge against Castro ever since he'd forced them out of the Havana casinos. It was even rumored that Meyer Lansky had put a million-dollar bounty on Castro's head. CIA Director Alien Dulles passed the ball to his deputy director, Richard Bissell. Bissell handed off to the CIA security chief. Colonel Sheffield Edwards. And then I received the call...

Though I'm no saint, I am a religious man, and I knew that the CIA was talking about murder. O'Connell and Edwards contended that it was a war - a just war. They said it was necessary to protect the country. They used the analogy of World War II: if we had known the exact bunker that Hitler was in during the war, we wouldn't have hesitated to kill the bastard. The CIA felt exactly the same way about Castro. If Fidel, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara were assassinated, thousands of lives might be saved.

But in my mind, justified or not, I would still have blood on my hands. I had to think about it. The deal carried a pretty big price tag. I kept thinking about my family. What kind of danger would it put them in? If anything went wrong, I was the fall guy, caught between protecting the government and protecting the mob, two armed camps that could crush me like a bug....

Rosselli's first response was laughter. "Me? You want me to get involved with Uncle Sam? The Feds are tailing me wherever I go. They go to my shirtmaker to see if I'm buying things with cash. They go to my tailor to see if I'm using cash there. They're always trying to get something on me. Bob, are you sure you're talking to the right guy?"

When I finally convinced Rosselli that I was serious, very serious, he sat staring at me, tapping his fingers nervously on the table. I didn't want to pull any punches with the man, so I was totally up-front about the conditions of the deal.

"It's up to you to pick whom you want, but it's got to be set up so that Uncle Sam isn't involved - ever. If anyone connects you with the U.S. government, I will deny it," I told him. "If you say Bob Maheu brought you into this, that I was your contact man, I'll say you're off your rocker, you're lying, you're trying to save your hide. I'll swear by everything holy that I don't know what in hell you're talking about."

Rosselli hesitated at first, but then agreed. Many people have speculated that Johnny was looking for an eventual deal with the government, or some sort of big payoff. The truth, as corny as it may sound, is that down deep he thought it was his "patriotic" duty.

Understand that the world was quite different then. The Cold War was raging. Only months before, Francis Gary Powers had been shot down while flying his U-2 reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union. The relationship between Washington and Moscow was at an all-time low, with Soviet Premier Khrushchev going so far as to openly call President Eisenhower a liar on several occasions.

Once the decision was made, it didn't take Rosselli long to put his plan into motion. On October 11, 1960, we took off for what would be the first of many trips to Miami. We booked ourselves into the Kenilworth Hotel, selected because Arthur Godfrey did his TV show from there. In Miami, Johnny introduced me to two men who would help us - "Sam Gold" and "Joe." Sam was Johnny's backup man; Joe would be our direct contact in Cuba. These weren't ordinary mob lackeys. Johnny didn't bother to tell me that "Sam" was Sam Giancana, his boss within the Mafia and the chief of its gigantic Chicago operation. Or that "Joe" was Santos Trafficante, former syndicate chief in Havana, and the most powerful Mafia man in the South.

I later learned that Johnny didn't just need a little help from these men, he needed their okay. Trafficante was necessary to get Castro because he had the connections inside Cuba, and Giancana was necessary to get Trafficante, because Trafficante had the stature of a "Godfather," and only a man of equal stature - like Giancana - could approach him for help. Johnny couldn't do it on his own. Both were among the ten most powerful Mafia members - a fact I learned only after seeing their pictures in a magazine soon after meeting them.

(3) Jack Anderson, Peace, War and Politics: An Eyewitness Account (1999)

The CIA's Sheffield Edwards was supposed to make the contact with the underworld. He approached a former FBI agent and CIA operative, Robert Maheu, who moved at the subterranean level of politics. Maheu knew his way around the shady side of Las Vegas; he had been recruited by billionaire Howard Hughes to oversee his Las Vegas casinos. Happily, Hughes was a friend who owed me a favor. Intermediaries persuaded Maheu to confide in me. He confirmed that the CIA had asked him to sound out the Mafia, strictly off the record, about a contract to hit Fidel Castro. Maheu had taken the request straight to Johnny Rosselli.

Rosselli had a reputation inside the mob as a patriot; he was quite willing to kill for his country. But as he told me, there was an etiquette to be followed in these matters. Santo Trafficante was the godfather-in-exile of Cuba after Castro chased out the mob. Rosselli couldn't even tiptoe through Trafficante's territory without permission, and he couldn't approach Trafficante without a proper introduction. So Rosselli prevailed upon his boss in Chicago, Sam "Momo" Giancana, to attend to the protocol. Since Giancana had godfather status, he could solicit Trafficante's help to eliminate Castro. The project appealed to Giancana who had commiserated with other dons over the loss of casino revenues in Havana. Killing Castro for the government would settle some old scores for the mob, and it would put Uncle Sam in the debt of the Mafia.

Maheu had been ordered to keep a tight lid on the involvement of the US government. The CIA was ready with a cover story that the Castro hit had been arranged by disgruntled American businessmen who had been bounced out of their Cuban enterprises by Castro.

On September 25, I960, Maheu brought two CIA agents to a suite at the Fountainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. Rosselli delivered two sinister mystery men whom he introduced only as Sicilians named "Sam" and "Joe." In fact, they were two of the Mafia's most notorious godfathers, Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante, both on the FBI's ten-most-wanted list. They discussed the terms of Castro's demise, with Giancana suggesting that the usual mob method of a quick bullet to the head be eschewed in favor of something more delicate, like poison.

The wily Giancana was less interested in bumping off Castro than in scoring points with the federal government, and he intended to call in as many chips as he could before the game was over.

(4) Spruce Goose, Flight-Line Online (2004)

When America entered the second world war our geographic isolation from the areas of conflict gave us a distinct advantage over our enemies. The technology of the time simply made it too difficult for those fighting against us to mount serious action against our homeland. In the end, this advantage left us the time and manufacturing power to smother our foes with an unending supply of the materials necessary to wage war. But we also had to overcome the vast distances, we had to find ways to safely deliver these materials, and men to use them, to the areas of conflict around the world. At the time, ships were the only way to get the job done and the men doing it were finding that it was very dangerous work! Shipyards across America were at full production but enemy submarines were sinking the critical vessels nearly as fast as they could be built. Something had to be done.

The idea for the HK-1 flying boat came from Henry Kaiser... Head of one of the largest shipbuilding firms of the time, Kaiser thought a ship that could fly over the danger might be the answer. Howard Hughes was known as an innovator in aircraft construction and design. These two men, both legends in their own time, would launch the venture to build the huge craft. (Originally three were to be built. ) The new plane's official name bore the initials of the principals in the project HK-1.... But to most of us it's always just been "Spruce Goose".

The huge plane would be made primarily of wood, saving materials critical to the war effort. The difficulties creating such a large airframe made of wood were unknown at the beginning of construction and would prove to be many. The final product is a tribute to the efforts of the team in overcoming the problems they faced. A structure made of lumber was created that, even on close inspection, bears little resemblance to any form of wood! Hughes would prove to be a demanding taskmaster during the period of development and construction. His attention to detail and insistence everything on the new plane be nearly perfect, was largely responsible for both the beauty of the finished product and it's not being ready to fly until after the war had ended.

The timing of completion and final cost brought Hughes and the project under the critical eye of the post-war congress, one Senator grudgingly referring to the plane as "The flying lumberyard". Howard Hughes was called to Washington D.C. to defend both the project and himself. During a break in the hearings, he flew back to California to conduct a test on the "Goose", it was during this test the accidental flight took place. This event, whether intended or not, put a halt to critics of the project and served as the finale for this gigantic aircraft ...... the project was dead. Though his feathers had been ruffled by the intense questioning he had endured, the flight had vindicated Hughes and the project. The HK-1, which by now would be known forever as the "Spruce Goose", was put into storage . It remained hidden from public view, carefully preserved, until after Howard Robard Hughes death in April of 1976.

(5) Bryan Smith, Chicago Magazine (November, 2007)

Still, until June of this year, the CIA had failed to acknowledge publicly that its plots to murder Castro even existed. Books had been written, congressional testimony given, and newspaper columnists had uncovered detailed evidence. But an official admission to citizens of the United States and the world, no.

That changed with the release of what The Company called its Family Jewels - 693 pages of declassified top-secret memos confirming some of the CIA's most infamous and illegal past activities. The Jewels grew out of the anger of CIA director James Schlesinger, who had learned through the press that his agency had provided support to two ex-CIA agents arrested in the Watergate break-in (E. Howard Hunt and James McCord). In May 1973, Schlesinger ordered "all senior operating officials of this agency to report to me immediately on any activities now going on, or that have gone on in the past, which might be construed to be outside the legislative charter of this agency."

That charter barred the CIA from spying inside the United States, but did not expressly forbid assassination plots against foreign leaders. Instead, the vaguely worded National Security Act of 1947 permitted the CIA to collect and analyze intelligence and perform "other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security."

"It is through the loophole of those [last] vague 11 words that hundreds of major covert actions were undertaken, including efforts to assassinate foreign leaders like Fidel Castro," says Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a private research group in Washington, D.C. (The group was instrumental in getting the Jewels declassified, having filed Freedom of Information Act requests some 15 years ago.)

The violations revealed in the Jewels are "unflattering," admitted the current CIA director, Michael Hayden, in a public statement after release of the documents. Not to mention embarrassing. The documents, in fact, confirm plots against Castro that are so absurd, so harebrained, they seem more like fantasies dreamed up by drunken frat boys than the product of the best and brightest minds in the intelligence community. Exploding cigars, poisoned wetsuits, chemicals to make Castro's beard fall out - even a phony Second Coming - all were brainstorms of The Company's masterminds. The plots do indeed "go beyond James Bond," says Don Bohning, author of The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba. "They are really screwy."

Which raises the question: How did such schemes come to dominate the plotting? "You have to realize the enormous pressure the intelligence community was under to do something about Castro," says Bohning. "The people above them were willing to consider about anything."

As it happens, almost all of the masterminds have died, as have the people tapped to carry out their plots. Old age has claimed some; causes suspicious and violent, others. Robert Maheu may be the last living major player, the sole survivor who can bear witness to this bizarre intelligence undertaking.

Which is how I find myself at a dining-room table in Las Vegas with a plate of homemade blueberry muffins in front of me, listening to the voice of Patsy Cline drift down from ceiling speakers, while the grandfatherly spymaster across the table from me - The Fixer, Bob Maheu - unravels the tale of how he presided over the star-crossed marriage of the Chicago mob to the feds.

Though much of the thinking surrounding the Cuba Project seems bafflingly, almost comically flawed, the decision to tap Maheu as the intermediary between the CIA and the Mafia made sense. Born in Waterville, Maine, a small mill town best known as home of the Hathaway shirt, Bob Maheu stumbled into intelligence work. In search of a little extra money while in college, he applied to be a translator for the FBI. Desperate to get men into the field, the FBI hired him as an agent.

After working under cover during World War II, he quit the bureau at the end of the war to open his own intelligence gathering firm. His first clients were old FBI friends who had gone to work for the CIA. Howard Hughes heard about his success and put him to work handling minor blackmail cases from starlets Hughes had bedded. Eventually, Maheu became Hughes's most trusted adviser. Among the perks of the $500,000-a-year job were mansions to call home, access to Hughes's fleet of limos and private jets, and an introduction to a glittering Hollywood life in which he gained a first-name acquaintance with stars such as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore.

One assignment required Maheu to serve a subpoena on the elusive owner of a prominent Las Vegas hotel. Maheu asked his friend the lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, who had represented mobsters, to pull some strings. The man who ended up obliging Maheu was a fast-talking, sharply dressed, silver-haired Mafioso named Johnny Roselli.

(6) Renato Pérez Pizarro, Miami Herald (5th August 2008)

Robert A. Maheu, who in late 1960 served as go-between with the Mafia in a CIA plot to kill Fidel Castro, died Tuesday in Las Vegas. He was 91. Maheu, who in 1960 was an aide to industrialist Howard Hughes, was asked by the CIA to find someone who might assassinate Castro. Maheu turned to Las Vegas mobster John Roselli, Chicago godfather Salvatore Giancana and Florida mob boss Santos Trafficante.

According to CIA archives declassified in 2007, Giancana recommended "some kind of deadly pill, something to be put into Castro's food or drink." He "indicated that he had a possible candidate in the person of Juan Orta, a Cuban official who had been receiving bribery payments in the gambling racket and who still had access to Castro." Trafficante delivered "six highly lethal pills" to Orta. "After several weeks of attempts, Orta appears to have chickened out and asked to be taken off the mission," the CIA narrative says. "He suggested another candidate, who made several unsuccessful tries."

(7) Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times (6th August 2008)

The son of a grocer, Maheu was born Oct. 30, 1917, and grew up in Waterville, Maine. He majored in economics at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts before entering Georgetown University law school. In 1940 he joined the FBI and during World War II worked in counter-espionage, posing as a German sympathizer. He left the FBI in 1947.

After opening his own investigations firm in 1954, the CIA became his first steady client. He was given "cut-out" assignments, jobs involving illegal actions that could not be traced back to the agency.

His most infamous assignment was to arrange the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Maheu recruited two top Mafia bosses, Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana, who suggested a scheme to poison Castro, but the plot was ditched after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. "The plan was always subject to a 'go' signal, which never came," Maheu told a Senate intelligence panel in 1975.

(8) Matt Schudel, Washington Post (6th August 2008)

Mr. Maheu disclosed that in 1970 he delivered $100,000 to Charles G. "Bebe" Rebozo, a close friend of President Richard M. Nixon's, in return for possible future favors for Hughes. Mr. Maheu entertained Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, on his yacht and regularly played tennis with then-Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt (R), who became a U.S. senator.

But Hughes spread his political largess to both parties, contributing $100,000 to 1968 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey. Mr. Maheu said he personally placed a briefcase containing $50,000 cash -- from receipts at the Hughes-owned Silver Slipper casino -- in Humphrey's limousine. The contributions were legal at the time because they were considered private donations from an individual, not corporate contributions.

Mr. Maheu said he twice turned down requests from Hughes to arrange $1 million payments to Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon - payable after they left office - if they would agree to stop underground nuclear testing in Nevada, where Hughes lived until moving to the Bahamas in 1970. (He died at age 70 in 1976.)

"In '57, when I agreed to be his alter ego," Mr. Maheu told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1992, "I thought it would be very challenging: representing him at presidential inaugurals, handling multimillion-dollar deals in his behalf.... In reality, you're living a lie."

Robert Aime Maheu was born Oct. 30, 1917, into a French-speaking family in Waterville, Maine. After he graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., he analyzed aerial photographs for the Department of Agriculture before joining the FBI.

During World War II, the FBI assigned him to monitor a French spy who became a double agent and helped deceive the Nazi high command with false radio transmissions. By the mid-1950s, Mr. Maheu said he did undercover work for the CIA - "those jobs in which the agency could not officially be involved," he wrote in his autobiography.

Recently declassified CIA files confirm that Mr. Maheu was present at a 1960 meeting in Miami Beach, Fla., between organized crime bosses Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante Jr., as part of an abortive CIA effort to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The plan was dropped after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

"If anything went wrong," Mr. Maheu wrote in his memoir, "I was the fall guy, caught between protecting the government and protecting the mob, two armed camps that could crush me like a bug."

(9) Michael Carlson, The Guardian (20th August 2008)

When Maheu was hired to serve a subpoena on an elusive Las Vegas casino owner, the legendary Washington fixer Edward Bennett Williams introduced him to Johnny Roselli, the mob's frontman in Las Vegas. Maheu and Roselli became close friends, and, in 1960, when the CIA decided to use the mafia to try to assassinate Fidel Castro, they turned to Maheu. Maheu and Roselli brought the CIA together with mob bosses Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante, who initiated the series of attempts on Castro's life. The conjunction of mobsters and CIA agents, disaffected after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, in 1961, is often cited as the root of the many conspiracies to kill President Kennedy.