Ferrie, Oswald, Seal: ‘Committing Journalism’ in New Orleans
Leading up to this weekend’s Oswald Conference in New Orleans, over the next few days I will be publishing interviews and video of eyewitnesses who knew three men Americans were violently prevented from hearing.
David Ferrie, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Barry Seal—each with intimate knowledge of the plot to kill JFK—met at a two-week Louisiana Civil Air patrol summer camp at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport Louisiana.
It turns out a lot of people in New Orleans— pilots, aviation professionals, and former members of the Louisiana Civil Air Patrol—still remember them.
“Dude, you’re harshing my mellow”
Fifteen years ago I left my home for more than a decade in Newport Beach California to spend two years in and around New Orleans Louisiana investigating the life and brutal assassination of a life-long CIA pilot who Federal prosecutors called the “biggest drug smuggler in American history.”
His name was Barry Seal.
At least initially, I was just looking for eyewitnesses who knew him from his role in the explosive growth of cocaine trafficking during the 1980’s.
I was driving a beat-up ’83 Audi and clutching a Sony camcorder that had been dropped on its head, and now delivered images that seemed to glow in the dark.
It hadn’t always been like that.
Before I became interested in Seal, I was producing a business TV show airing internationally, documentaries and new product introductions for major American companies whose names are household words, and, it almost goes without saying, driving a BMW.
“Definitely second unit meat”
I even went to Cannes for a few years. Not the glamorous Festival de Cannes; I went to MIPCON, the more-subdued and less classy TV version. Still, I partied on a few yachts, and distinctly remember carousing at an all-night MTV affair under a full moon in a 12th Century castle perched high above the city overlooking the Mediterranean.
Those days are gone. No more helicopter shots. Hell, no more dolly shots, even. No more 2-or-3-man crews, no editing sessions in Hollywood with catered lunches. Its pretty much been what a huge red-haired bear of a sound engineer once described to me with a grimace as “definitely second unit meat.”
Still, even with all that, today I wouldn’t change a thing. I was an eyewitness to history, Well, maybe not exactly. Instead, I was able to interview several dozen people who were eyewitnesses to our—to America’s—secret history. Many had never before spoken—or even been approached—to tell anyone about what they’d seen.
What happens in New Orleans
What’s odd about that is that those in the mainstream media who are only too eager to use labels to discredit anyone with the temerity to question the official story, are never keen—or even curious—about interviewing any eyewitness who possesses what called “inconvenient knowledge.”
Here’s what I learned: What happens in New Orleans doesn’t absolutely have to stay in New Orleans. But good luck trying to get any of the really juicy bits out.
And if you do, prepare to be called a “conspiracist,” or a “conspiracy theorist.”
“And I thought Hollywood was a ‘Company’ Town”
Something strange was going on in the Louisiana Civil Air Patrol in the mid-Fifties that leads like a trail of bread crumbs through the signal events of America’s secret history during the second half of the 20th Century.
In New Orleans, I found and interviewed eyewitnesses to America’s secret history: pilots, aviation professionals, and former members of the Louisiana Civil Air Patrol, who in those long-ago days in 1955 trained with David Ferrie, Lee Harvey Oswald, and/or Barry Seal.
For example, the story of how David Ferrie recruited Lee Harvey Oswald and Barry Seal into America’s “clandestine services” has long been a well-kept secret, and for good reason.
No more. A picture of 16-year old Barry Seal preparing to step onto a US Air Force plane bound for a two-week summer camp of the Louisiana Civil Air Patrol at Barksdale Air Force Base in July of 1955 where he will meet fellow cadet Lee Harvey Oswald, and where both will fall into the orbit of the freakish David Ferrie was published in “Barry & ‘the boys.’”
A close perusal offers more than a glimpse into what really happened: While still an impressionable teenager both Barry Seal and Lee Harvey Oswald came under the tutelage of a man you wouldn’t want your worst enemies’ kid to know, pedophile David Ferrie.
Had no one known? Of course they had. They’ve just been afraid to talk.
High Concept: Interview eyewitnesses. Write down what they say.
Today Collin Hamer is an archivist and librarian at the New Orleans Public Library who still retains attendance records from his time in the CAP with Ferrie and Oswald, where he was one of Ferrie’s protégés.
Oswald attended more than a dozen CAP meetings led by David Ferrie in an Eastern Airlines hangar at Moisant Airport, he testified to the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
He recounted a story to me about how Ferrie came to move his CAP unit from Lakefront Airport to New Orleans International (Moisant.)
“Our CAP unit was all-boy, which was just the way Ferrie liked it,” said Hamer, “until a woman named Gladys Durr brought her girl scout troop over, and we all paired off, boys and girls together. Dave Ferrie didn’t like that one little bit. He and Durr got into a hot clash, and he moved to the Moisant unit.”
One reason Ferrie used the CAP was for the procurement of young boys for what Hamer wryly called “unauthorized physicals.”
A ‘special’ CAP unit for military drills
“The entire reason for the existence of Ferrie’s New Orleans Squadron was national drill competitions. We attended three years in a row,” said Shearer.
“The accent in the New Orleans unit was totally on professionalism. Almost all of Ferrie’s cadets intended to go into the Air Force, and if you had your CAP “Certificate of Proficiency” when you entered, you automatically had a leg up, and began basic training with one stripe already.”
Shearer spent time hanging around the gas station that Carlos Marcello gave Ferrie right after the Kennedy assassination.
“Some people I knew pretty well hung out there, and it was the funniest thing: if you drove in to fill up with gasoline—which is what a gas station is supposed to be for, right?—you could sit in your car for just about forever waiting for someone to come out and tell you they were “closed.”
“Whatever they were doing there, pumping gas wasn’t it.”
Barry Seal owned one, too
In “Heritage of Stone,” he wrote, “Although Ferrie to all intents and purposes was unemployed at the time except for part-time investigative work for a lawyer, an examination of his bank account at the Whitney National Bank revealed that during the three week period prior to the President’s assassination he deposited $7,093.02.”
“Then a few months after the assassination, Ferrie suddenly acquired a large service station.”
“He ran it in much the same way he maintained his apartment. On one occasion he had just filled the gas tank of an acquaintance and then waved him away, turning down payment for the gas.”
“Forget it,” said Ferrie. “The government’s paying for it anyway.”
Skeletons in the closet… and in the backyard
“Dave was a brilliant individual, interested in all kinds of things,” said Shearer. “He had a workshop in his backyard, out back of the house. And I know this sounds weird, but he had a skull out there, hooked up to a skeleton, and he had different colored electrical wire—blue, red, green—to simulate the nervous system, and better understand human physiology.”
Shearer several times met Dave Ferrie’s mother, who was visiting him, and she told Shearer that Dave’s brother was a nuclear physicist. Intrigued, I tracked Ferrie’s only living relative, his brother the nuclear physicist, who was living in California. He was unwilling to talk.
“There were constant examples of Dave Ferrie’s brilliance when I hung around with him,” said Shearer. “For example, he had a little lawnmower that he couldn’t get to start. One day I was out back and he had me repeatedly pull on the little rope that should have started it, while he watched.”
“‘What a waste of efficiency,’ Dave mused out loud. ‘If we could only just get rotary motion from a motor at the start!’”
“This was, remember, years before the rotary engine was patented, before anyone had ever even heard of a Wankel motor. But Dave had had the same idea, just talking out loud.”
Flies to D.C. Returns flashing big wad. Huh.
“There were a lot of things about Dave that just didn’t fit, unless you added them up another way,” says Shearer. “Just his appearance…good god. You have to wonder how Eastern was able to keep him as long as they did.
“I remember him taxi-ing his Eastern Convair one time, on his weekday Houston-New Orleans ‘milkrun.’ He would always pull in way faster than any other airline pilots did, and he’d be leaning out of one side of his cockpit window, looking like a damn railroad engineer.”
Two weekends a month Dave would fly a Constellation up to Washington D.C., said Shearer. “If while he was up there he was meeting with his CIA contacts, it would make sense. Because I was with him on three or four occasions after he returned, and when he opened his wallet, he had hundred dollar bills.”
“You’ve gotta remember, this was in the Fifties,” Shearer continued. “Anyone who was working back then can tell you, everybody got paid in twenties. Nobody got paid in hundred dollar bills. You hardly ever even saw hundred dollar bills.”
“Every time I think I’m out…”
Shearer received convincing proof of Dave Ferrie’s career in clandestine services five years after his death.
“In 1972 I was asked to join the senior CAP, which is an outfit with no cadets. There I met Herb Wagner, a Navy flier in World War II who’d been recruited by the OSS at the end of the war, and after we got friendly, I’d go over to his house, and sometimes he’d reminisce about things he’d done for the CIA during the mid-’50’s.”
“Herb who told me, ‘Once you’re in the CIA, its hard to get out.’ He’d tried to get out when he got married and settled down. He and his wife adopted a baby girl, and he wasn’t the daredevil he’d once been.
“But still they pressured him to fly for them,” he told me.
“One time I saw him just after he’d received a visit from the CIA asking him to go do something he quite obviously no longer really wanted to be doing. And he was really down, and later I thought that was maybe why he loosened up a bit about Dave Ferrie.”
“He said ‘if the truth was ever known about him, he’ll be recognized as one of the true unsung heroes of the United States.'”
“That’s when I realized that Ferrie had been a regular CIA guy, not just some ‘asset,’ or ‘contract operative.'”
Forget the mice. Look into my eyes.
Of the many fringe controversies swirling around Dave Ferrie’s life—like the one about whether he was attempting to induce cancer in lab mice kept in cages in his apartment—none is “fringe-ier” than his supposed talent for hypnotism.
But the evidence for this was not merely persuasive: it was overwhelming. From numerous sources I heard unsolicited first-hand testimony about his preoccupation with hypnotism, as well as his ability to hypnotize people.
A report on David Ferrie by FBI agents Eugene P. Pittman and John C. Oakes dated December 2, 1963 refers to remarks from Gene Barnes, an NBC cameraman.
Bob Mulholland will later become President of NBC News; “Fairy” (Ferrie), who did own an airline, United Air Taxi Service, will three short years later be dead.
Using it on the kids
“The kid gets up holding his hand, and blood is running all down his arm past his elbow. Dave walked over to him, and put his hand out in front of the kid’s face like he’s giving him a stiff-arm. Then he said, ‘Sleep. You will feel sensation but no pain.'”
“And then we were all waiting for an ambulance to take the kid to the hospital,” Shearer continued, “and the kid is bleeding all over. But he’s not in pain anymore. And Dave goes over to him again, and says, ‘You will stop bleeding.'”
“And he did. Later, when I was in the Air Force, I learned that this is possible, that it can be done. But it can’t be done with a subject unless you’ve been working, hypnotically, with that subject for a pretty long period of time. You can’t just walk over to someone, in other words, and tell them to stop bleeding.”
“So it was clear to me that Dave Ferrie had been working hypnosis with that kid for a long time without anyone knowing it. At least I had never heard of it before, and I spent a lot of time out there, hanging around that airport.”
“The FBI was always struggling to catch up”
“It was back in ’58 and ’59 that Dave became convinced the FBI was tapping his phone. So he warned us not to say anything on the phone that we didn’t want to have overheard. And when he would pick it up before dialing, sometimes we’d hear him swearing a blue streak into the receiver, like he was talking to whoever was tapping his phone.”
Barry Seal and Dave Ferrie were in the same business, and also shared an unusual trait that’s a clear plus for any would-be secret agent. Both had photographic memories. (So, too, for that matter, did Richard Bissell, the CIA agent in charge of the Bay of Pigs disaster.)
So it comes as no surprise that they had similar experiences with Federal law enforcement, and at about the same time. According to Jerry Chidgey, Barry’s roommate and friend, there was quite a bit of federal interest in Barry Seal. The FBI was even following him.
“When I met Barry I owned ‘The Amber Bottle,’ a folk club in Baton Rouge, and that was where Barry used to hang,” Chidgey recalled. “We were capitalizing on the folk craze. We became good friends and ended up living together. One day two FBI guys showed up asking questions while he was gone on a trip.”
“Later that same year, I think 1960, I flew to Dallas. And two men in black suits followed me, both there and back. And unless they were making a practice of shadowing folk club owners, the only reason I could figure out was it must have had something to do with Barry.”
“Cause it makes your hair ‘do-right.”
James Poche is a pilot and the kind of colorful character Louisiana seems to produce with some regularity, a living embodiment of the laid-back Caribbean ‘Margarita-ville’ lifestyle popularized at some now-dim moment in time in a previous century by singer Jimmy Buffet.
Poche wears sandals, his shirt hangs outside his jeans, and he’s got a ‘do-rite’ rag wrapped around his head. When I asked why it’s called that, he grinned.
“My oldest sister hooked me up with Barry,” he explained. “They went to school together, and I took a couple of flying lessons from him in 1958, and that was how it started. I used to make signs and banners for him.”
“I was the son of a Louisiana state trooper who ran security at the State House in Baton Rouge,” he told me. “So—in the Louisiana way of things— I had some family connections.
Poche became one of Barry Seal’s oldest and best friends, as well as a smuggling buddy. He explained, “I was a young kid and wanted to learn to fly, partly just to have some escape from a dysfunctional family, with all that entails. So I just gravitated towards Barry. He taught me a lot.”
“Find kids whose parents won’t miss ’em much.”
Poche had described a family situation remarkably similar to Seal’s own, which was similarly troubled under the surface. His Father, B.C. Seal, drank, and Seal moved in and out of the house during adolescence.
Had David Ferrie, Seal’s recruitment officer, been looking to recruit boys in just these circumstances?
“He would go off for two or three weeks at a time, and then be back like nothing had happened. And he had a lot of secrets. He seemed pretty mysterious. He was an enigma in Baton Rouge. No one there had ever seen anything like him before, or could ever figure out just what he was really up to.”
James first began working for—and later flying with—Barry Seal in the early 1960’s. Then, in the mid-70’s, he went into ‘marijuana importation’ with him.
“Baton Rouge is kind of a go-nowhere place,” Poche explained. “And Barry had a lot of ‘soldier of fortune-type’ ideas, which made him seem glamorous to kids around the airport. Barry had the James Bond Syndrome.”
James’ sister, Nancy Poche, the childhood friend of Seal’s who’d introduced them, agrees with her brother about the kind of dead-end life available locally.
“Louisiana is the kind of place,” she told me, “where as soon as you cross the Sabine River coming in from Texas, the road begins to go galump, galump, galump. And this is on the Interstate, for god sakes, and you’ve got to wonder: Where does all the money go?”
Even then, Elvis was fixin’ to leave the building
As Barry Seal began jumping in with both feet into the cocaine smuggling business, Poche was mostly content to watch him from the sidelines, especially when Barry began to building an increasingly-paramilitary organization. For as long as he could ( for a long long time) James Poche held on to a romantic ideal: the lone bush pilot and occasional marijuana smuggler.
“Elvis,” some of his buddies were calling Barry Seal. It seemed to describe him. At least the Elvis who once said “Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”
“We would fly down to New Orleans from Baton Rouge for the evening,” Poche said. “Drink at the Playboy Club, visit the sheriff’s brothel in Opelousas, that sort of thing. We were living in his airplane hanger, and hanging out with Johnny Rivers, the musician, who’s from Baton Rouge. And that was how Barry met Elvis, through Johnny.”
By now, Barry was the subject of open gossip among his pilot friends about what he was doing, and for whom. Taking mysterious trips that were never explained, then coming back and hanging out at the Playboy Club as if nothing had happened. Maybe it was Elvis wished he could be more like Barry Seal. After all, he did always want to be a spy.
A “Secret Agent Man” State of Mind
A curious sidelight: many believe, as Poche does, that Johnny Rivers one big hit, “Secret Agent Man,” was about Barry Seal. Today it looks as if this early 60’s cultural focus on “secret agent men” was a way that our national ‘collective unconscious’ found to tell a deep truth about what was happening in America.
It was a more serious truth than anyone realized at the time.
“Though Barry, I met a lot of the ‘players,’” said Poche. “I knew Dave Ferrie; and flew around with him a couple of times. He was a friend of mine. Me and another friend, Charlie Heck, bought a Cessna 170 and kept it out at Lakefront, where Ferrie was based. In fact, I’ve even got copies of David Ferrie’s signature in my log books.”
What is today known as “Lakefront Airport” was not—back in the early Sixties—just the small public airport it appears to be today. It was, instead, a Naval Reserve facility where Cubans trained as pilots before the Bay of Pigs invasion.
“We used to live together in (Barry’s mother) Mary Lou’s spare bedroom. Barry was involved in all sorts of things. One time I remember helping him figure out how to drop 50,000 leaflets over Baton Rouge with pictures of apples with a worm in them.” Poche grinned. “It got a guy named “Apple” Sanders un-elected from the State Senate that year, that’s for sure.”
“You gotta remember: Barry smuggled for the Democrats.”
What football is to Nebraska, state politics is to Louisiana. It’s a contact sport, and Barry Seal was a player, at Grady Partin’s behest. James Poche told us, “Barry was hanging out at Grady Partin’s (a famous Teamster, and enemy of Jimmy Hoffa) during ‘62 and ’63.
An old Teamster official confirmed Barry’s friendship with Partin, which he said explained Seal’s frequent appearances with him at the local Teamster hiring hall.
“Hell, back then we was kings in this state,” says Butch McKeown, today a bail bondsman. “We absolutely ruled this state back then.”
Who was the “we” Butch was referring to? When I learned more about Grady Partin, I was less puzzled. Later still, Butch told me, in one sentence, more than I’d learned poking around the drug trade for a year.
“You gotta remember,” Butch said to me, looking serious, “Barry smuggled for the Democrats.”
Three cheers for drug abuse
After Jimmy Carter’s election, his White House Strategy Council on Drug Abuse was worried about the influx of drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were stonewalled by the CIA, and reportedly denied access to all classified information on drug trafficking, even as the CIA and the Army jointly set up a special aviation operation called “Seaspray.”
This was old news to local and state police in high trafficking areas, where the cynical manipulation was used to flood America with a river of drugs.Barry Seal was there during a period which saw the growing clout and importance of Special Forces. In late 1961 the Air Force set up—as part of this increased emphasis on Special Forces— a Special Ops Air Base in the middle of Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle, pulling in aircraft and crews from the world-wide “Air America” system.
His pilot’s logs reflect the change. He began flying regularly to a destination which he coyly listed as “Pensacola,” the town nearest the base. At the age of only 22, Barry Seal was learning tradecraft.
“Barry would call me from the road every so often,” said James Poche. “Once I got a call from him, and he was all excited. ‘I’m in Karachi, Pakistan,’ he said. ‘You should come right over.’”
In 1987 New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh revealed that when the Reagan Administration sought to expand covert paramilitary operations in Central America, the CIA was “forced” to rebuild its capabilities illegally,relying on outside assets like Barry Seal.
They called it Operation Seaspray.
The CIA and the Army jointly set up a special aviation operation called “Seaspray.” Every pilot was handpicked by a group of Army and CIA officers, among whom were experienced pilots and special operations personnel. However this was already old news to local and state police in high trafficking areas, being flooded with a river of drugs.
Over Colombia, Seal’s by-now small fleet of planes flew through “windows” in Colombian airspace: precise periods, paid for with $25,000 bribes, when the military would “look the other way,” although they must have had to look straight down at the ground to avoid seeing the dozens of flights which took off every night at dusk.
“You would be sitting in your plane overlooking the sea, on a runway hacked out of a mountainside,” smuggler pilot James Poche told us. “Then as if on cue, as soon as the sun went down you would see dozens of tiny specks taking off and flying out over the water as soon as the sun went down, heading north.”
Pilots returning to the US over the Gulf with a load of dope often flew just 60 feet above the water, with waves from the Gulf splashing up onto the windshield, in what was— except for the dim lights of the instrument panel—total darkness.
When law enforcement authorities debriefed convicted “drug smuggler” Seal in late 1985, one of the cops present spoke to Seal brusquely.
He said, “We already know about Seaspray.”