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Episode 7.5 “JFK: DOA” (part 5), feat. conspiracy skeptic Fred Litwin

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

“The Curious Case of the Man Who Knew Too Little”

(Paranoid Planet podcast, Season 2, Episode 7.5)

*** This essay is based on an unpublished section from Thinking Critically About the Kennedy Assassination: Debunking the Myths and Conspiracy Theories (Routledge, 2022)***

One of the most intriguing characters in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK is a nameless ex-military intelligence officer who identifies himself as Mr. X (played by actor Donald Sutherland, who recently returned to the Oliver Stone Universe to narrate part of his documentary, JFK: Revisited).

You may remember Mr. X as the man in the dark trench coat who meets with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison on the Washington Mall (played by an affable Kevin Costner), informing the D.A. that he is dangerously close to exposing the men who killed Kennedy—a consortium of CIA and military “sacred cows”. And if you’ve been listening to Paranoid Planet for a while, you may also remember Episode 2.2 in which we talked about the late U.S. Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, the man who inspired Oliver Stone’s Mr. X character and who popularized the theory that a Deep State (or, as he called it, a “Secret Team”) is in control of the world, using the CIA as its evil tool to start wars, murder presidents, rig elections, control the media, and well, do lots of other bad stuff.

But this essay is not about Fletcher Prouty. Rather, it’s about the original Mr. X who, according to Jim Garrison’s 1988 book, On the Trail of the Assassins was the real man who met with the New Orleans DA back in 1968 to tell him that CIA-connected anti-communists in New Orleans had murdered Kennedy and tried to pin the blame on him, but ended up framing Lee Oswald instead.

That man’s name was Richard Case Nagell, a Korean War veteran who, according to Kennedy assassination buff Dick Russell, was also a double agent for the CIA and KGB who knew Lee Oswald personally and was charged by the Russians (or was it the CIA?) to kill Lee Oswald before he could get to Kennedy and thus save the president’s life.

Russell’s 1992 book, The Man Who Knew Too Much, offered a version of Nagell’s James Bond-like secret life that clashed on many points with the version reported by Garrison just five years before. It was also called a “ten-pound plate of assassination spaghetti” by Kirkus Reviews. Nevertheless, our last guest, Paul Bleau took Russell’s book at face value to identify Richard Nagell as part of a small group of CIA-groomed patsies that included Lee Harvey Oswald, Thomas Arthur Vallee, Gilberto Policarpo Lopez, and a half-dozen others to prepare an entire series of assassination attempts against president Kennedy. If Garrison, Russell, and Bleau are correct, then that could mean that Richard Case Nagell is one of the most important whistleblowers of modern history. He could, of course, turn out to be a con man, a madman, or, for all we know, the second shooter on the grassy knoll. So who exactly was Richard Nagell?

As the famous radio journalist Paul Harvey used to say, "And now, let’s hear the rest of the story…"

Richard Case Nagell was one of the many peculiar characters to approach New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s office during his investigation of the Kennedy Assassination in 1967-68, hoping to serve as a witness in the Shaw trial. A decorated veteran of the Korean War, Nagell had suffered a severe head injury in 1954 during a plane crash that landed him in a coma and left him partly disfigured. In 1967, he sent a letter to Garrison’s office claiming that he had befriended Lee Oswald while the two men had served in Japan in November 1957, and again in Mexico City in 1963.[1] He had also been a paid CIA informant during that time, or so he claimed, then became a double agent for the Soviets at the urging of his CIA handlers.[2]

Oswald was also a double agent as early as 1957, he told Garrison. In fact, Oswald’s entire communist persona, he explained—from his learning Russian and reading Karl Marx while he was in the Marines, to his defection and residency in the USSR, and his later activism for Castro’s Cuba—was a false double identity carefully crafted by the CIA until the day his superiors gave him the orders (or, Nagell argues elsewhere, they brainwashed Oswald [3]) to assassinate the President. In addition, Nagell reportedly informed Garrison that Clay Shaw, the late David Ferrie, and late Guy Banister, as well as several local Cuban counter-revolutionaries, were all part of the plot—exactly the people Garrison was hoping to blame in the trial of Clay Shaw.

Lee Harvey Oswald, U.S. Marine (c.1957)

Though this seems like explosive information, all of it was publicly available at the time Nagell contacted the District Attorney, in most cases laid out by Garrison himself during his numerous media appearances. It is reasonable to suppose that Nagell merely regurgitated information he had gleaned from Garrison’s interviews and the writings of other conspiracy theorists. "Nagell's story first began to emerge in early 1967,” writes Jim Garrison critic David Reitzes, “following the announcement of […] Garrison's inquiry into the John F. Kennedy assassination. By his own admission, Nagell followed the press accounts of Garrison's investigation as avidly as he could."[4]

Nagell also claimed that he had been ordered by the Soviets----who only learned through him of the plot to kill Kennedy----to murder Lee Oswald before he could get to the President. They wanted Oswald dead, he presumed, to eliminate support for a second U.S.--sponsored Cuban invasion, thereby preserving the Soviet Union’s foothold in the Caribbean. But fearing that he was now being set up as the fall guy by his CIA handlers, Nagell entered the State National Bank in El Paso, fired his pistol into the ceiling, and waited for the police to arrive and arrest him. Committing a federal crime, he allegedly told Garrison, ensured that he would be locked up in a state prison when the assassination happened—giving him a solid alibi to avoid being framed as a patsy, as Oswald would be, for taking part in the President’s murder on behalf of the Soviet government.[5]

Page 11 of the El Paso Herald-Post , Monday, October 13, 1975

(i.e., During the Church Committee hearings)

Garrison was intrigued by Nagell’s letter and sent investigator William R. Martin to Springfield, Missouri, to interview Nagell in prison, who was then serving a ten-year sentence for his criminal act in El Paso.[6] Martin made some inquiries to fact-check the story and found several inaccuracies. But when he questioned Nagell about these, Nagell accused Martin of being a CIA agent and refused to collaborate any further with him, demanding to speak to Garrison directly. Martin returned to New Orleans, convinced that Nagell was unstable. For once, Garrison seemed to agree with a sceptical investigator and decided not to follow this lead.[7]

Why did Garrison snub such a significant witness? The problem was twofold. The first was that Nagell’s story was inconsistent with the one Garrison was trying to tell. Nagell kept referring to a hit that was initially scheduled to happen in Washington, D.C., in late September 1963. Not only was Kennedy out of the city during that time, this claim, if true, would also make it highly unlikely that Lee Harvey Oswald----a seemingly poor warehouse employee who couldn’t drive----could be credibly framed for the murder without the help of some accomplice. Despite the many JFK buffs who argue that Dallas was not the first time President Kennedy’s political enemies tried to murder him, Nagell’s own version of events would create more problems than it solved for Garrison’s inquest, as it also implied that Oswald was the only shooter in Dallas, which contradicted the story that Garrison had borrowed from conspiracy-chaser Mark Lane, in which Oswald was just a decoy to help other assassins get away.

Nagell also got several facts wrong about Oswald’s life, such as not knowing that in November 1957, Oswald had spent two weeks convalescing in a military hospital because of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, after which he and his unit were immediately sent to the Philippines.[8] There was therefore little time possible for these two men from separate military units to have gone barhopping in Tokyo, and no witnesses to substantiate Nagell’s account. He also didn’t seem to realise that Lee Oswald’s first and only trip to Mexico City occurred in the fall of 1963, while Nagell was already in prison.[9]

The second problem with Nagell’s credibility concerned his troubled life story and other so-called “confessions” he made that were recorded in various government sources, most of which would have been available to Garrison’s investigators in 1967. Sure enough, Nagell’s arrest at the State National Bank in El Paso checked out, though the FBI had recorded a very different motive than the one Nagell later fed Martin and Garrison. As FBI and Department of Justice records show, Nagell had begun to display several psychological and medical symptoms following his 1954 plane accident, which was believed to have caused him brain damage that altered his memory and moods and caused him to fabulate. He was voluntarily discharged from the military in 1959 with a disability pension, shortly after marrying a Japanese national. On his return to the U.S., Nagell briefly worked as an investigator for the California Department of Employment but was fired for erratic behaviour and insubordination. He then had trouble holding down similar jobs and was abandoned by his Japanese-American wife, who assumed sole custody of their two infant children and denied him visitations. Nagell was then arrested on a drunk and disorderly charge after stalking his ex-wife and breaking the door to her residence. She divorced him in 1962, though he later claimed he had no memory of having signed any paperwork. In the following months, Nagell checked himself into various hospitals, suffering of depression, suicidal tendencies, homicidal fantasies against his ex-wife, and a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest (which he told the doctors had been his wife’s doing).

After his 1963 arrest in El Paso, he was evaluated by a psychiatrist to assess whether he was lucid enough to stand trial, and was diagnosed with “a paranoid personality [and] significant functional [and] emotional problems which appear to be of long standing and which definitely interfere, particularly under conditions of stress, with this man’s ability to function at a level commensurate with his intellectual capacity.”[10] In other words, Nagell was profoundly unwell, both emotionally and psychologically, and by his own later admission, his aborted 1963 bank heist had nothing to do with stealing money, and even less with the Kennedy Assassination, the Soviets, or Lee Harvey Oswald. As David Reitzes wrote:

[Nagell’s] nerves were shredded, he was growing increasingly unstable, and he had quit two jobs because he couldn’t concentrate. He tried several times to obtain psychiatric treatment, but invariably refused to cooperate when his requests were granted. He [later] complained to the FBI that his wife refused to comply with a court order granting him access to his children, and later admitted he had no such court order. He appeared at the Outpatient Clinic of a VA hospital in Brentwood and was referred to the Neurological Clinic, where he appeared “tearful, nervous, rigid. Would only utter words ‘Got to see my kids.’“ Desperation was taking hold. […] “My whole purpose of entering the bank in El Paso,” he would state three years later, “was for the purpose of obtaining psychiatric help and treatment […]”[11]

But in 1966, just a few months before Nagell contacted Garrison’s office with his cloak and dagger story about Lee Harvey Oswald, his psychological evaluator for the department of prisons stated that:

[Nagell’s] personality pattern at all of his past court hearings as well as in his past hospitalizations in which he displayed a hysterical nature and a stubbornness would lead one to believe that the patient was and has been mentally ill. […] Nagell, a lifelong paranoid personality under slowly building conditions of stress, went into an actual psychosis (paranoid state) and subsequently went into remission, and is now again a paranoid personality.[12]

Rowdy Roddy Piper also shot up a bank

Nagell’s robbery attempt in El Paso was the act of a desperate and depressed man crying out for help, using the only means he could think of to get it. The stories relating to Oswald and Kennedy were spun later, either as lies or fantasies, after he began hearing and reading about the events of November 1963 and Garrison’s theories in Playboy magazine and other sources.

Considering how eccentric many of Garrison’s other witnesses were, and how careless he was to put confirmed liars and loonies up on the stand, Nagell had to be exceptionally unreliable to fail the New Orleans District Attorney’s audition process. And yet he did, which makes his rehabilitation and makeover in Garrison’s 1988 book, On the Trail of the Assassins----the very book that inspired Oliver Stone’s blockbuster film JFK----all the more astounding. Garrison’s upgraded Nagell is neither a depressive madman or an angry ex-husband crying over his kids, but a mysterious cloak-and-dagger figure not unlike the maverick intelligence agent Colin McFerrin, hero of The Star Spangled Contract, a fictional conspiracy novel Garrison wrote a decade earlier.

Garrison’s semi-fictional Nagell, whom he vaguely identified as “a former federal intelligence agent”, meets Garrison in secret in New York’s Central Park sometime between March 1967 and March 1969 during Garrison investigation of Clay Shaw (but the book offers no precise date).[13] Nagell then feeds the New Orleans D.A. a string of nebulous revelations about the world of Cold War espionage, covert operations, and assassinations. If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because you saw a version of it in Oliver Stone’s film JFK—except that the film moved this scene from New York to the Lincoln Monument in Washington, and replaced the oddball Nagell with the more stately Mr. X, a high-ranking military officer modelled on the conspiracist guru, retired Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty.[14]

Garrison’s Nagell, however, has just spent three years in jail for attempting to warn the U.S. government that a hit on President Kennedy was imminent. Fearing for his safety, he now refuses to leave New York. (Why New York should be any safer than California, where Nagell lived most of his life, or New Orleans, where Garrison could have subpoenaed him to testify in the Clay Shaw trial and offered him protection, is never explained).[15]

Having been asked by an anonymous superior officer to spy on rogue intelligence agents plotting to kill Kennedy, Garrison’s Nagell soon gets “frozen out” by his handlers. Fearing for his safety, he writes a registered letter to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (no evidence of which was ever produced, either by Nagell or the FBI).[16] The letter goes unanswered, which Nagell interprets as a sign that something is wrong. As Garrison explains it: “He sensed from the silence which his letter had met that there was a very real danger of his being drawn into a trap. After all, he had been in the company of Oswald, and others with him, during much of the summer of 1963.”[17] Again, no evidence is offered to explain how and when Nagell met Oswald. Neither Oswald's wife Marina, nor the fabulist Perry Russo (Garrison's "star witness" who claimed Oswald was a member of the gay/fascist underworld of New Orleans), nor pretty much anyone else who ever knew or claimed to know Oswald, has any memory of seeing these two men together. No evidence has even surfaced that Nagell ever went to New Orleans in 1963. Nor does Garrison make any mention of the fact that Nagell had earlier made claims that the Soviets had ordered him to get rid of Lee Oswald, or that he wrongly identified a San Antonio resident called Harry Power as a Lee Oswald double. Indeed, the Soviets were entirely purged out of Garrison’s version of Nagell’s secret operations. Garrison also described Nagell as handsome and taciturn. Nothing is said of his known facial injuries, or his documented psychological ailments, or his specific intelligence affiliations. (One might argue this was to protect his identity, but then Garrison has no qualms using his real name in print!)

A scene from Oliver Stone's JFK, modeled on Perry Russo's Grand Jury testimony,

featuring "Ferrie", "Shaw", and Willie O'Keefe/Perry Russo

To make a long story short, all of this reeks of a hoax, compounded by Nagell’s willingness to spill even more of these explosive “secrets” to author Dick Russell just a few years after he allegedly feared for his life----secrets that vary greatly with those he allegedly told Garrison. Without questioning the inconsistencies in Nagell’s apocryphal accounts of Lee Oswald’s secret double life, or making any mention of the contents of his military, legal, and medical records, Garrison describes him as “utterly honest and sincere in his account”, an account that is, unsurprisingly, left incredibly vague. “I had studied him closely for all of the three hours or so we were together,” Garrison wrote, “and I was satisfied that weaving a fabricated tale was not in this man’s makeup.” We should wonder then why Garrison made little attempt to get Nagell on the stand in 1969, unless he already knew that the man’s testimony would only torpedo his case.

Being both logically and historically inconsistent, as well as devoid of all verifiable evidence, Garrison’s account of Richard Case Nagell and his secret connections to the CIA and Lee Harvey Oswald is rather thin gruel. Indeed, the story Garrison tells—the one that has been respun and repeated by Oliver Stone, Jim DiEugenio, and Paul Bleau (to name but a few) bears little likeness to any public record about Nagell’s life and state of mind. These include U.S. Department of Justice records, military, State department, FBI and CIA files, as well as psychological prison assessments.

Paul Bleau, Jim DiEugenio, and Oliver Stone at the Quebec City Film Festival, June 2022.

Nagell’s Oswald and CIA links originated instead in a 1968 Ramparts magazine article written by William Turner that had appeared at the height of Garrison’s fraudulent and overhyped investigation of the Kennedy assassination, an article that parroted Nagell’s wild claims with no evidence to support it, much as Garrison and Dick Russell would several years later.[18] Nagell promised Garrison and Russell that he owned pictures, letter receipts, and other evidence to support his claims. None of these have ever turned up. Russell speculates that they are still hidden in a safety deposit box somewhere in Switzerland. You’re free to believe that too, but my guess is that before you get to see any of them, you’ll find a blessing of unicorns inside your bathroom.

“And now you know, the rest of the story.”

Michel J. Gagné, June 2023.

[1] According to Garrison's account, it was the unnamed "relatives" of Nagell who contacted him. (Garrison: On the Trail of the Assassins, 212-216). In Garrison’s account, Nagell is far more reluctant to talk openly about his alleged CIA connections than he actually did according to official FBI, State Department, and Department of Justice files. In addition, Nagell's medical history reveals he had broken off all ties with his natural family and had no contact with his ex-wife or children at the time he became known to the New Orleans District Attorney's office, making Garrison's claims highly questionable. According to Doctor Joseph F. Alderete, Chief of Psychiatric Service, who examined Nagell in 1966: "His father is allegedly deceased and no information is available about the father. His mother resides in Los Angeles, California and alleges that she has not seen her son since August of 1963 when he is said to have stated that he did not wish to have anything more to do with his family because of its interference. She is reported to have remarked that her son had a brilliant career in the Army until severely injured in an accident in November, 1954 and that after the accident he underwent a severe personality change and has been in continued difficulties since then." ("Richard Case Nagell: Report Of Psychiatric Examination," United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons: Classification Study 0-1029-H, June 17, 1966) [2] None of this information was ever substantiated. David Reitzes: "Truth or Dare: The Lives and Lies of Richard Case Nagell," (n.d.); Fred Litwin: “Was Richard Case Nagell the ‘Most Important Witness There Is’?On The Trail of Delusion, Oct 11, 2021.

[3] See Jim DiEugenio: "Richard Case Nagell: The Most Important Witness," (part 2), (n.d.) Kennedys and King, 16 June 2009.

[4] Reitzes: "Truth or Dare…” Part 3,” citing William R. Martin, Assistant District Attorney: "Memorandum to Jim Garrison, District Attorney, April 18, 1967."

[5] Reitzes: "Truth or Dare…”

[6] Nagell’s sentence was reduced the following year on appeal, from robbery to criminal mischief. He was released early when the courts, upon the advice of prison psychiatrists, considered him to be no longer dangerous.

[7] Gerald Posner: Case Closed, 443.

[8] Posner, p.22-23.

[9] Reitzes: "Truth or Dare…" (part 3)

[10] His 1966 psychiatric assessment reads: “Nagell himself admitted that he had some psychiatric symptoms and stated that he has never denied that he had such psychiatric symptoms. […] A paranoid personality is characterized by many traits of the schizoid personality, that is a tendency of avoidance of close relationships with others, an inability to express direct hostility, coupled with an exquisite sensitivity in interpersonal relationships and with a conspicuous tendency to utilize a projection mechanism, expressed by suspiciousness, envy, extreme jealousy, and stubbornness, all of which Nagell displays. […] The paranoid state is characterized by paranoid delusions. It lacks the logical nature of systemizations seen in paranoia; yet it does not manifest the bizarre fragmentation [and] deterioration of schizophrenic reactions. It is likely to be of short duration, though it may be persistent and chronic. […] This examiner is of the opinion that Nagell was able at the time of the offense to distinguish between right and wrong but that he was incapable by reason of a mental disease (paranoid state) of adhering to the right and refraining from doing wrong. Whether or not there is any evidence of brain damage cannot be stated or disputed.” Joseph F. Alderete: "Richard Case Nagell: Report of Psychiatric Examination," (Emphasis added)

[11] David Reitzes: "Truth or Dare…"

[12] Alderete: "Richard Case Nagell: Report of Psychiatric Examination," (Emphasis added)

[13] Jim Garrison: On the Trail of the Assassins. Warner Books, 1991. 212-216. A footnote tells us that Garrison made this trip secretly, paying for the flight with his own money, thus accounting for the lack of witnesses and paper trail to confirm such a trip ever happened.

[14] On Fletcher Prouty, see Paranoid Planet, Episode 2.2.

[15] Garrison investigator William Martin visited Nagell in 1967 at a penitentiary in Springfield, Missouri, not in New York. Nagell's primary residence was in California at the time of his arrest and throughout most of the following decade. Nagell's conviction for bank robbery was overturned in April 1968 (on account that he did not steal any money but only engaged in criminal mischief). He flew to New York on April 27, 1968, and then flew out to Zurich, Switzerland, on May 30, 1968, and remained in Europe until November 2, 1968. This gave the two men a brief four-week window to arrange a meeting and meet in New York. It also makes Garrison's claim that Nagell was afraid to leave New York hard to swallow. Surprisingly, a Department of State cable dated June 6, 1968, has Nagell telling authorities at the U.S. Embassy in Zurich that the purpose of his trip there was that he had been told—by none other than New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison!—that his life was in danger. Nagell was later arrested wandering erratically in East Berlin. Both East German and American intelligence operatives who participated in his return to the West perceived Nagell as a confused man, not a spy. A December 10, 1968, CIA memorandum (201-746537) states that Nagell "alleged that his fear that the CIA might try to 'eliminate' him was planted in his mind by Mr. Garrison." Finally, according to Nagell himself, he went to New Orleans in early February 1969, at which time he visited the NODA's office and expressed his desire not to testify against Shaw. Given the lack of contextual evidence for much of the information discussed above, it is difficult to know which of the two men, if any, is telling the truth. Nagell then returned to Europe where U.S. embassies in Zurich, Madrid, and West Berlin reported several displays of erratic, paranoid, and threatening behavior on his part. Reitzes: "Truth or Dare…” (Part 4). One can therefore safely assume that, if Nagell and Garrison did in fact meet in New York in the spring of 1968, their conversation was probably significantly different than the one described in Garrison's book.

[16] Nagell told Dick Russell he sent the letter to Hoover on September 17, 1963. That was three days before the shooting incident at the State National Bank in El Paso, hardly enough time for the FBI to respond, and even less for a stable person to consider this delay unusual. Dick Russell: The Man Who Knew Too Much, 55, 442, 722, cited in Reizes: "Truth or Dare…" (part 3).

[17] Garrison, 215.

[18] William W. Turner: "The Garrison Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy,” Ramparts, January 1968.

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Documents related to this episode:*

1. Skeptoid podcast with Brian Dunning.

3. JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass (Ingenious Media, 2021). Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by James DiEugenio.

5. Jim Garrison: On the Trail of the Assassins. Warner Books, 1991.

7. "Kennedy, Oswald and The Man Who Knew Too Much," (interviewed of Dick Russell by Tyrel Ventural). Buzzsaw. The Lip TV. 5 November 2013.

9. Fred Litwin: "Was Richard Case Nagell the 'Most Important Witness There Is'?" On The Trail of Delusion, October 11, 2021.

10. David Reitzes: "Truth or Dare: The Lives and Lies of Richard Case Nagell," (n.d.) The Kennedy Assassination, edited by John McAdams.

11. United States National Archives: Richard Case Nagell documents. (CIA file, declassified in 1998). 104-10305-10005

12. Fred Litwin: Oliver Stone's Film-Flam: The Demagogue of Dealey Plaza (NorthernBlues, 2023).

13. Fred Litwin: On The Trail of Delusion (blog).

14. House Select Committee on Assassinations: Final Assassinations Report,1979.

15. "The Zapruder Film is Shown on Good Night America," ABC-TV, March 6, 1975. Featuring Geraldo Rivera, Robert Groden, Dick Gregory, and Ralph Schoenman.

16. Fred Litwin: Conservative Confidential: Inside the Fabulous Blue Tent (NorthernBlues Books, 2015).

17. Monty Python's The Life of Brian (HandMade Films, 1979). Directed by Terry Gilliam. Featuring John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Michael Palin.

18. "Oprah Winfrey Interview With Prince Harry and Meghan Markle," CBS/ITV, Harpo Productions, 2021.

19. Death to Smoochy (Warner Bros., 2002). Directed by Danny DeVito. Featuring Edward Norton and Robin Williams.

* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.

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