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  • Writer's pictureFred Litwin

Perry Russo Talks - in Baton Rouge, Part Four

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

Richard Billings with Robert Blakey

Dick Billings was an editor at Life Magazine and for a while, was working with Garrison on his JFK investigation. The arrest of Clay Shaw started to sour the relationship and Life terminated their cooperation with Garrison. Things really fell apart when the magazine ran a series on organized crime in New Orleans in September 1967.

But Billings was a witness to the early part of Garrison's probe and like Tom Bethell, he also kept a diary.

Tom Bethell wrote lots of letters to Sylvia Meagher, and in some cases, he enclosed diary excerpts and other various reports he had written. In March 1968, he wrote Meagher with a short memo on meeting Dick Billings in New Orleans, after he had fallen out of favor with Garrison.

Billings confirmed to Bethell that when Andrew Sciambra came back from interviewing Perry Russo in Baton Rouge, he did not mention any assassination party which David Ferrie and Clay Shaw [or Clay Bertrand] supposedly attended. Of course, Sciambra also did not mention the assassination party in his memo about his interview with Russo.

Let's start at the beginning.

Billings had contacted Garrison to tell him he was coming to New Orleans and wondered if they could meet. Garrison wrote him this letter:

Garrison writes above that "I have no enthusiasm, as you know, for the employment of trick shots - whether it be hidden recording devices or obtaining legal service on individuals who have come into town to see me or whatever."

Garrison writes that "if anyone were to try to jail him [David Chandler, a writer for Life Magazine] I would defend him as strongly as I could." But many people were scared of going to New Orleans because they might be subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury, and then possibly be indicted for perjury. It was a favorite Garrison tactic. Garrison had subpoenaed Chandler to appear before the grand jury. Chandler realized it was a trap and he took Garrison to court to avoid testifying. He ultimately won his case.

I will be posting the Life Magazine articles on organized crime in the near future. I love Garrison's last line:

At all events I will be happy to meet you whenever you can get down this way - and it will not be necessary for you to hire a bodyguard or carry a gun.

Yup, Clay Shaw certainly had been having "some bad luck lately."

Bethell writes:

As for the Garrison investigation, Billings was more guarded, but I sense that he feels that: 1. Shaw is most probably completely innocent. 2. Garrison sincerely believes everything he says. 3. Garrison is not motivated by political ambition, but that his motives are much more complex, or maybe, much more simple. 4. Garrison, regrettably, has too much of a butterfly approach, and instead of concentrating on a few important areas, such as Oswald's Cuban connections, hops around from storm drain theories to the Minutemen, without really exhausting one line of inquiry. I believe that Billings is correct in all of these assessments.

In the next segment, Bethell writes:

I note that no investigative report in Garrison's files is dated earlier than December 1966, and so I conclude that the investigation did not seriously get under way until early December, although there may have been some unrecorded investigation before that. Billings feels that Garrison was in possession of important and convincing information implicating Ferrie very early on in the investigation, because Garrison was so positive and sure about Ferrie. He feels Garrison may never have made this information available to anyone. I do not believe this for one minute. Garrison has a way of being positive about things on precious little evidence.

Note Bethell's paragraphs on the FBI:

Also, Alcock, Sciambra and Ivon have all attested at different times to the efficiency of the FBI's investigation. It is hard to think of anyone of any relevance who was not interviewed by them within a week or two of the assassination.
(This has been I am sure, a source of great disappointment to the DA's office, although Garrison himself has never admitted as much. When all the books and articles came out criticising the Commission, I think many people in the DA's office thought they were exploring virgin territory when they first looked into Oswald's background. On the contrary, they found that the FBI had always been there, 3 years ahead of them.)

At the end of the page, Bethell gets into what happened after Sciambra returned from his interview of Perry Russo in Baton Rouge:

By chance, Billings was present with Garrison on the night of Saturday, March 25, 1967, having dinner at Broussard's restaurant. Andrew Sciambra joined them later in the evening and related that he had just interviewed Perry Russo in Baton Rouge. Sciambra was excited about the results of the interview because Russo said he had seen Shaw and Ferrie together - in a car at Ferrie's gas station. He also said he had seen Shaw at the Nashville St. wharf on the occasion of President Kennedy's visit. No mention was made of the third meeting at the party at Ferrie's home, no mention was made of Oswald, and no mention was made of Clay or Clem Bertrand. Thus, Billings description accurately described the contents of the controversial memorandum publicised by Jim Phelan in the May 6, 1967 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Moreover, it precisely contradicts Sciambra's explanation of why he didn't include these vital points in his memo, which in essence is that he rushed to tell Garrison the story of the conspiracy meeting in person, and therefore it was not necessary to include it in the memo. Billings, who was present when Sciambra told Garrison about his interview, affirms that Sciambra did not in fact mention anything about a conspiracy meeting.
Billings concludes from this that Sciambra is "a liar", and I am forced to agree. The Phelan article always struck me as the most serious criticism of Garrison's case, and I now conclude that it is correct, namely that Russo did not relate seeing Shaw with Ferrie and "Leon Oswald", discussing the assassination and using the name Clay Bertrand until he had been hypnotised and given sodium pentothal. Thus, Garrison's explanation of these tactics - as "objectifying" the witness' testimony - is a euphemism: apparently they were used to elicit the testimony.

Bethell writes:

Taken in conjunction with Dean Andrews' denial that Shaw is Bertrand, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is no basis at all for supposing that Shaw is guilty.

I just realized that I have never posted James Phelan's article on the Garrison investigation from the May 6, 1967, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. I will post it shortly.

However, I have posted several pieces on Sciambra's first interview with Perry Russo in Baton Rouge.

Russo went to the press before he was interviewed by Sciambra.

James Phelan wrote a memo about the contradictions in Perry Russo's story.

An interview with Perry Russo from 1971.

The last post above also contains a memo written by Tom Bethell about an interview with Matt Herron, who was with Phelan when he interviewed Russo in Baton Rouge. Herron said that Russo confirmed that he did NOT tell Sciambra about any assassination meeting.

Russo spoke with Shaw's attorneys in 1971, and wasn't even sure of his identification of Shaw at Ferrie's gas station.

By the way, Sciambra took notes of his interview with Russo. Guess what happened to his notes?

Stay tuned for tomorrow's blog post.


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