Saturday, November 13, 2010

Echo From Dealey Plaza: Abraham Bolden

                                           Echo from Dealey Plaza- Abraham Bolden

                                                     John Delane Williams

Abraham Bolden is a name known to most JFK researchers. Bolden was the first African-American assigned to the White House detail of the secret service. His appointment to the White House detail was facilitated by President Kennedy. Bolden had previously been a Pinkerton detective and then an Illinois State Policeman before entering the Secret Service in 1960. He was stationed in Chicago where his main efforts were in regard to investigating counterfeiters. In the spring of 1961, the president was visiting Chicago. The Secret Service was responsible for every aspect of the president’s security. Bolden’s assignment was among the least desirable; he was guarding a rest room Kennedy might use. It was from this short encounter outside the rest room that Kennedy thought having a black (the word used in 1961 was “negro”) agent in the Secret Service White House detail would be a good move.

Bolden began his service at the White House on June 5, 1961. As it happened, President Kennedy went to Florida shortly thereafter; Bolden was not part of the security detail, and a memo from the Miami Chief of the Secret Service explained why; blacks were not allowed in the motel where the White House detail was staying. It was simpler to not take Bolden than confront the bigotry. President Kennedy tried in several ways to personally make Bolden’s service more memorable. Bolden was introduced to Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Bobby Kennedy, Evelyn Lincoln and Pierre Salinger by the president. On the other hand, Bolden was aware of laxness in attention to security by agents. When on duty, agents were to avoid alcohol.  This rule seemed to be continually violated. There was also the bigotry within the secret service regarding blacks, both in and out of the Secret Service. In mid-July, Bolden was having an exit interview from the White House detail; his stint was only for thirty days. He chose to go back to Chicago rather than request staying at the White House. In that exit interview he went over problems, as Bolden saw them, in the Secret Service White House detail. He spoke of racism, and particularly being referred to as a “nigger”. He thought the training was inadequate. He mentioned the drinking while on duty, and he named names and times. [1]

                           The Chicago Assassination Attempt

Bolden’s book does not go into much detail about his role in thwarting a plot to assassinate Kennedy in Chicago. Fortunately, detail can be found elsewhere, particularly in Waldron & Hartman’s book. [2] JFK was scheduled to be in a motorcade from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Soldier Field on November 2, 1963. At Soldiers Field he was to watch the Army-Air Force football game with Mayor Daley and other dignitaries. On October 30th, the Secret Service in Chicago was alerted to an assassination attempt on November 2nd. This alert came from the FBI, not known for cooperating with the Secret Service. Chicago Secret Service Chief Maurice Martineau reported to other agents that the head of Secret Service, James J. Rowley called, and ordered: There were to be no written reports; Martineau was to communicate any information by phone to Rowley, and no file number was to be used for this case. Photographs of the four suspects were given to each Chicago agent. As it happened, there was an additional person who was considered a threat, Thomas Arthur Vallee, who had a strikingly similar background to Lee Harvey Oswald. Vallee was an ex-Marine, involved with training anti-Castro Cubans with the intention of assassinating Castro. Given the information now available, it would be a possibility that Vallee was to serve as a patsy for the actual assassins. Valle was kept under surveillance by the Chicago Police Department. JFK’s motorcade was cancelled at in a telephone call to newsmen in Washington by Press Secretary Pierre Salinger.

                               The Lost Secret Service Commission Book

Just after the assassination, a Dallas police officer encountered a well dressed man at the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza. When questioned, the man presented a leather-bound commission book identifying him as an agent of the U.S. Secret Service. At the same time, there were rumors within the Secret Service regarding an agent losing his commission book, perhaps at a strip club, on November 21, 1963, in Dallas. In January, 1964, all Secret Service agents were required to turn in their commission books. The replacement commission books were almost identical to the ones that were replaced. The word “The” was added to the title of the book, and a new photograph was included. It was suspected the new version was released to cover up for the missing book. [3]

                                        Bolden’s Troubles Begin

On May 17, 1964, Bolden, along with fellow Chicago Secret Service agent Gary McLeod, were sent to Washington for overdue Secret Service training. Bolden had intended to talk to J. Lee Rankin to give testimony before the Warren Commission on Bolden’s observations and complaints about past Secret Service agent conduct. Bolden tried to contact the White House switchboard; McLeod was in the next booth, presumably making a call, but more likely listening in on Bolden’s call. When Bolden suspected that McLeod was eavesdropping, Bolden aborted the call. The next day, the first day of the training session, Bolden and McLeod were directed to immediately return to Chicago, with the explanation that they were both needed for a counterfeit investigation. As the trip ensued, it became clear that Bolden was being escorted back to Chicago. When back, he was not allowed to contact his wife or have any food, but little was said about what was going on, other than there was no new counterfeit investigation.  Bolden was informed a warrant had been issued for his arrest, but his request to have his attorney present was ignored.  The questions that were asked addressed his attempt to contact the White House switchboard. Secret Service Inspector Gerard McCann stated, “Listen Abe. Kennedy is dead. We did our best to protect him, and it didn’t work out. We are not going to stand by and let you bury our careers and destroy the Secret Service.” [4]

                                             The First Trial

The trial began on July 6, 1964. The judge was J. Sam Perry. Perry kept a tight reign on Bolden’s lawyer, but gave considerable latitude to the prosecution. Bolden was charged with trying to sell a Secret Service file to Joseph Spagnoli. Spagnoli was a suspect in a counterfeit operation. The file in question, on Spagnoli, was read by Bolden, and as instructed by Agent John Russell, Bolden wrote his comments on the report and give the report to Agent Conrad Cross. Bolden did this. Spagnoli was in the office area that afternoon; Agent Cross then noticed the file was missing. It was concluded that Bolden must have reentered Cross’s office took the file, and Bolden proceeded to try to sell the file to Spagnoli for $50,000; no thought was given  to the possibility that Spagnoli stole the file himself.

The justice system in the US seems to be most effective if the defendant isn’t a minority, if the government feels obligated to treat the defendant fairly, and if the defendant is quite wealthy; Bolden lost on all three counts. Throughout the trial, one might gauge that Bolden faced difficult odds. For example, several items were placed in evidence; a fingerprint expert addressed several exhibits. The expert admitted that none of the exhibits were tested for Bolden’s fingerprints. This did not detract from the exhibits being used by the prosecution. Bolden was also implicated by Frank Jones, a two time convict, with a third charge waiting for him. From Bolden’s point of view, the government was manufacturing documents (and testimony) against Bolden. It is worthwhile to remember that the Warren Committee was still taking testimony at the time of the trial; perhaps they didn’t want to hear from Bolden either. In any event, Bolden would never be allowed to testify to the Warren Commission.

During the trial, Bolden wanted to show that the Secret Service was manufacturing evidence so that the service itself would not be threatened. Bolden wanted to show that the Secret Service had failed in its mission with regard to John F. Kennedy. His attorney responded: ”You have a chance to win this case as it stands now, and I don’t want you to complicate things more than necessary. Judge Perry isn’t going to admit anything about Kennedy or what happened in Dallas into evidence at your trial. The only thing you will accomplish by bringing Kennedy into this is to put your life and the lives of your wife and children in jeopardy. You’re dealing with people who killed the president in the street in broad daylight.” [5]

The jury seemed to be headed in the direction of being a hung jury. Perry concluded a second instruction to the jury with, “I will express to you a comment on the evidence. In my opinion, the evidence sustains a verdict of guilty on counts one, two, and three of the indictment.” [6]

Even as prejudicial as this statement was, the jury remained unable to reach a verdict. The judge set a new trial date for August 3, 1964, just shortly after the first trial ended.

                                            The Second Trial

Before the second trial, Bolden went to a real estate company that he and Agent Cross visited on May 11, 1964, but Cross denied under oath having gone there. The office worker found a record of the two of them being there, but had to ask her employer to make a copy. Both the record of the visit and the employer would be unavailable for the second trial. This trial was less even handed than the first, but with a bizarre twist. The judge ordered everyone out of the building while the jury was deliberating, except himself, the secret service agents, and the government attorneys. Whatever transpired in the building that night, the jury rendered a verdict of guilty the next day.

In a subsequent case, Joseph Spagnoli was on trial, and admitted that he lied when testifying against Bolden in the two earlier cases. J. Sam Perry was also the judge in the Spagnoli trial. Spagnoli asserted that one of the government lawyers, Richard Sikes, had told him to lie. One might think that this revelation might cause a re-investigation. Bolden’s appeal lawyer, Ray Smith, was able to get a copy of an exhibit that was in Spagnoli’s and Sikes handwriting regarding the perjured testimony. Spagnoli had stolen it from Sikes. In an appeal of Bolden’s case a Judge John Hastings directly asked Sikes, “…did you solicit perjured testimony in any of the Bolden trials before the court of District Judge J. Sam Perry?”  Sikes response was, “Your honor, I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that my answer might tend to incriminate me.”

 And yet the conviction was let stand.  Bolden stated, “My conviction had to stand undisturbed in order to silence the echo from Dealey Plaza.” [6]

                                        Post Trial and Prison

Before going to prison, Bolden was placed in the Cook County jail. While there, an inmate told Bolden that another convict said a friend of Spagnoli was placed on the second jury. The night before they voted, the friend called Spagnoli and asked him how he should vote. Judge Perry spoke to the jury (after the defense was removed from the building) just before they voted. Also, the deputy marshal went into the jury room while the jury was deliberating, and discussed the case with them.

It should be remembered that a policeman is at a greater risk in incarceration. It is not unlikely that he would run into convicts whom he’d played a role in their conviction. Perhaps in this sense, Bolden was luckier than some; he would run into those who would like revenge, but he did live to tell his story. Part of that story was told to
Mark Lane
, who included Bolden’s story in Rush to Judgment. [7] Bolden went to several prisons during his incarceration, beginning with Terre Haute (Indiana), then Leavenworth (Kansas). Bolden was then transferred to the Springfield (Missouri) Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, where he would be evaluated  for a mental imbalance- such a diagnosis could lengthen his sentence and render him less believable. While there, he was interviewed by a person introduced to him as Mr. Burt, from Jim Garrison’s office in New Orleans. After Burt’s interview, only family members and Bolden’s lawyer were allowed to speak to Bolden, though Bolden’s lawyer managed to bring another of Garrison’s investigating lawyers with him in a subsequent visit. He would eventually be transferred to a prison camp at Maxwell Air Force Base (Alabama). Bolden was paroled on September 25, 1969, with just four months remaining in his sentence, meaning he would have two years of probation; had he served his full term, there would have been no probation.   

After his release from prison, Bolden continued to try to get his conviction expunged. He first tried to get the transcripts of his trials; no copies could be found. It turned out that someone from Judge Perry’s office checked them out, and they were never returned. Bolden was interviewed by two investigators from the House Select Committee on Assassinations. The committee concluded that the Secret Service was deficient in the performance of their duties, vindicating to some degree Bolden’s efforts. (See also Palamara [8]). The Bolden trial transcripts were finally located in 1995. Bolden attempted to get copies of the transcripts, but his request was denied for failure to fill out the correct forms. Perhaps a future president will give Bolden a pardon; we can only hope such an event occurs within Bolden’s lifetime.

1. Bolden, A. (2008). The Echo from Dealey Plaza: The true story of the first African American on the White House Secret Service detail and his quest for justice after the assassination of J FK. New York: Harmony Books.
 2. Waldron, L. & Hartman, T. (2005). Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, the plan for a coup in Cuba, and the murder of JFK. New York: Carroll & Graf.
3. Bolden.
4. Ibid., p.74.
5. Ibid., pp. 145-146.
6. Ibid, p. 221.
7. Lane, M. (1966). Rush to Judgment: A Critique of the Warren Commissions Inquiry into the Murders of John F. Kennedy, Officer J.D. Tippet, and Lee Harvey Oswald. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
8. Palamara, V.M. (1993). The Third Alternative: Survivor’s Guilt: The Secret Service and JFK’s Murder. Pittsburgh: Self.

In Dealey Plaza Echo. (2008). 12, 2, 51-54.

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