Suspects in plot arrested in Chicago, Tampa in November 1963
Sixty years ago, Abraham Bolden worked as a Secret Service agent, becoming the first African American in that agency to guard a president. John F. Kennedy once introduced him as "the Jackie Robinson of the Secret Service."
On November 2, 1963, Bolden, now 88, was at work in Chicago, monitoring an alarming threat before Kennedy's planned visit to the Windy City. Three days before, an FBI agent had teletyped the Secret Service's Chicago office, relaying a tip from an informant about a potential assassination plot targeting JFK as he rode in a motorcade to Soldier Field, Bolden told investigators with the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. A woman had also tipped off authorities that she rented accommodations to four visitors and observed rifles in the room.
The day before Kennedy's planned visit, Secret Service agents detained two suspects and questioned them late into the night, said Bolden, who saw one of the suspects on November 2 when he entered the office. The man was stocky, "a truck driver type," while the other had a "Spanish-sounding name," Bolden said. The two suspects were turned over to Chicago police, who took them away, he said. Secret Service notes were typed into a report and sent to Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Suspect arrested in Chicago three weeks before Dallas
While records of those two suspects have not been unearthed, the arrest record of another potential suspect in Chicago does exist.
Born in Chicago, Thomas Arthur Vallee shared some remarkable similarities with accused JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. As Oswald moved from Dallas to New Orleans and back to Dallas in 1963, Vallee was arrested for driving while intoxicated that May in Knoxville, Tenn., one week after a man approached Kennedy in Nashville, Tenn., holding a gun under a bag. Vallee then moved in June to start a job as a lithographer apprentice at IPP Litho-Plate in Chicago. The company's office happened to be on the planned November 2 parade route in a downtown Chicago warehouse district through which Kennedy planned to ride in an open-air vehicle. By then, Oswald had landed a job in a school book depository in a downtown Dallas warehouse district along the November 22 presidential parade route.
Vallee had enlisted in the Marines at a young age and was honorably discharged in 1956; Oswald signed up for the same service a week after his 17th birthday in 1956. Both had been stationed at Japan bases that hosted the U-2 spy plane, Vallee at Camp Otsu, Oswald at Atsugi. Both were believed to have been recruited by intelligence agencies, including the CIA. Oswald associated with numerous people with intelligence connections.
Both held extreme views, though John Birch Society member Vallee was openly on the conservative side. Oswald professed to be a Marxist and had defected to Russia before being allowed back to the U.S., a curious development that some believed was part of his deep intelligence cover. Robert Oswald said his brother's favorite TV show had been I Led Three Lives, an FBI-approved spy series based on the life of Herbert Philbrick, an advertising executive who infiltrated the Communist Party to inform the FBI in the 1940s. Philbrick spent much of the episodes denying he was a spy or an FBI informant.
Aided by tips, Secret Service agents targeted Vallee in the days before November 2. On one surreptitious search of his small apartment, officers discovered guns and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. Then on the morning of November 2, Chicago police who aided the Secret Service stopped Vallee after he made a turn without a signal near Wrigley Field. The white Ford Falcon he drove had New York license plates. Police discovered a hunting knife on the front seat and 750 rounds of ammo in the trunk. They took Vallee in for questioning, while other officers drove to his residence to seize more ammunition and weapons.
Vallee was apparently not part of the four-man team tipped off by the landlady. As two of those men remained at large, Kennedy agreed with security advisers to cancel the Chicago trip. Officials cited a diplomatic crisis after the assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem. But Bolden said the decision was made after his boss called the White House and recommended that the trip be canceled.
Vallee and the two assassination-team suspects were soon released. Vallee would be found guilty of a weapons charge but only given probation. Curiously, he would write then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1968 and receive a courteous response, as an FBI official later acknowledged on the letter that Vallee had been arrested in 1963. In 1974, the FBI would report that it tried, and failed, to match Vallee’s photo with some suspects detained by Dallas police in 1963. Vallee died in 1988 in Chicago and never testified before investigating committees.
As for the two other suspects who Bolden said were held on November 2, no charges would be filed. Their names were never released. The Chicago Secret Service would not relay information about Vallee's arrest or any other details to the Dallas Secret Service office.
Bolden, among others, would long believe Vallee was being set up as the scapegoat as the four-man team pulled the triggers. In 1964, the former Secret Service agent was convicted of bribery in what he said was a sham trial aimed at retaliation for his whistle blowing on the JFK assassination.
Bolden would serve three years in prison and be pardoned by President Biden in 2022. The House Select Committee on Assassinations confirmed that Bolden's claim about the bribery case was true. Former Secret Service agent Conrad Cross, who testified for the prosecution in the trial, told HSCA investigators that Bolden was "set up" in that case.
"Was there a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy?" Bolden wrote on Facebook in October 2023. "Without question!"
Tensions in Florida
As Kennedy prepared for a visit to Florida, the Secret Service issued a memo on November 8 about a slender, white male, around age 20, threatening to kill JFK when he visited that state. “Subject stated he will use a gun, and if he couldn’t get closer he would find another way,” the memo stated, according to a short Tampa Tribune article that would be published without a byline the day after Kennedy was killed.
At least two other people made threats against JFK, and Tampa authorities located and arrested one, Police Chief J.P. Mullins said in the article. He would remain in custody at least until November 23.
On November 9, Miami police convinced Ku Klux Klan informant William Somersett to secretly tape record a conversation with Klan leader Joseph Milteer at Somersett’s apartment. On tape, Milteer claimed there was a plot to assassinate JFK still in the works. He refrained from saying he was involved himself.
In the recording, Milteer and Somersett discussed JFK’s planned appearances on November 18 in Tampa and Miami. At one point, Somersett asked, “How in the hell do you figure would be the best way to get [Kennedy]?”
Milteer replied, “From an office building with a high-powered rifle.”
“You think [Kennedy] knows he is a marked man?” queried Somersett.
“Sure he does.”
“They are really going to try to kill him?”
“Oh, yeah. It is in the working,” Milteer said.
Miami police provided a transcript of the recording to Secret Service agents on November 12. The Secret Service and FBI opened files on the matter and conducted an investigation of Milteer. Donning undercover plain clothes, FBI Agent Donald Adams questioned Milteer on November 16 as the extremist handed out leaflets in his hometown of Quitman, Ga., near the Florida border. Adams said Milteer had attended a meeting in Indianapolis a month earlier where four people discussed killing JFK during his trip to Florida, as well as a "backup plan" in D.C.
The Tampa situation was complicated by other reported threats. Tampa landlord Diane Grybek said tenant Henry Edward Scott, or Enrico Aaron de Dusseldorf, told her he was aware of a plot to assassinate JFK in Tampa. Scott, a tax cab driver who went by “Rico,” was an El Salvador native who had relatives in Cuba. But when FBI agents interviewed Scott, he denied saying he knew of a plot, only that it would have been easy to accomplish in Tampa had someone tried.
Kennedy was preoccupied with the weight of international and domestic issues to worry much about personal threats. After delivering a speech to the AFL-CIO convention in New York City on November 15, Kennedy flew to Palm Beach to relax. He toured Cape Canaveral on November 16 and worked on speeches that he planned to give in Tampa and Miami on November 18.
In Tampa, Secret Service and FBI took few chances in preparing for Kennedy’s arrival. Advance security teams started working on the scene by November 11. Scores of police and agents searched the buildings along the motorcade route for signs of trouble, something officials would not do to the same degree in the downtown Dallas warehouse district a few days later. Kennedy was briefed about the threat, meeting with high-ranking military officers at MacDill Air Force Base around noon on November 18. After a luncheon, he took a helicopter to Al Lopez Field, a minor league baseball stadium that would be razed in 1989 and eventually become the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He briefly addressed about 10,000 people, then spoke to a business crowd at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory and steelworkers at the International Inn.
Then came the more nerve-wracking motorcade that wound through downtown streets lined with cheering crowds and potential gunmen in offices above. Several hundred police from Tampa and surrounding areas manned the streets. Officers with rifles stood watch along overpasses and other potential dangerous locations. There were even more “characters” for Secret Service and police to worry about during that motorcade through Tampa than Dallas, Agent Gerald Blaine told researcher Vince Palamara.
Mafia boss Santos Trafficante was reportedly involved in planning the Tampa plot, but he aborted the mission after observing the stepped-up security, according to authors Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartman. Gunmen had planned to fire upon Kennedy’s motorcade as it made a slow turn in front of the Floridan Palace Hotel in the downtown area, they wrote.
Potential scapegoat escapes
Despite the beefed-up security, most authorities would not learn much about relatively new Tampa resident Gilberto Policarpo Lopez until he made a suspicious trip from Texas into Mexico and then took a plane to Cuba shortly after the assassination. Then, the CIA would be intently interested in him, according to government documents.
Lopez was born in Cuba but emigrated to Florida when he was 20 in 1960. A cousin and Lopez’s wife told the FBI that Lopez was pro-Castro and had a brother in the Cuban army, according to the U.S. Senate Church Committee report in 1975. He married an American woman in 1962, living in Key West, where he worked for Pepsi-Cola and a bakery. They moved to Tampa in June 1963, where Lopez started working for a local construction company about the same time Oswald and Vallee obtained new jobs in Dallas and Chicago, respectively. In August, Lopez’s wife returned to Key West, while Lopez remained in Tampa.
On November 17, Lopez attended a meeting of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in Tampa, the committee reported. Members showed photographic slides of Cuba on a projector. He was reportedly waiting on a phone call from Cuba to get the “go ahead order” to return there.
Lopez would remain in Tampa until at least November 20 when he received a Mexican tourist card from the consulate there. After receiving $190 from the Tampa FPCC chapter, Lopez would travel from Texas into Mexico on November 23, crossing the border at Nuevo Laredo by auto and arriving in Mexico City by November 25, according to the committee.
He would check into the Roosevelt Hotel, then take a regular flight to Cuba on November 27, apparently with a courtesy visa, and be the only passenger with nine crew members. Mexican authorities would for some reason take a picture of Lopez, wearing dark sunglasses, at the airport. The route would be similar to one Oswald reportedly attempted to take right after Kennedy’s assassination. Lopez would make it; Oswald, who failed to obtain a Cuban and Soviet visa two months before, would not.
After the killing, the CIA and other government agencies would be highly interested in Lopez. In early December, the CIA would issue a request for “urgent traces” of Lopez, noting that a source indicated that the “timing and circumstances” surrounding his travel were “suspicious,” the House Assassinations Committee reported. His wife would receive a letter saying he had made it to Cuba and another later reporting that he was working as an elevator operator in Havana.
The CIA would not tell the Warren Commission about Lopez’s sudden trip. The House Assassinations Committee would conclude that Lopez was not connected with the assassination but did not investigate whether he was being set up as a patsy if the Tampa plot had worked.
After dealing with the Tampa threat, Kennedy flew to Miami to speak at the Inter-American Press Association dinner that evening. Authorities had received a bomb threat and a warning about a gunman with a high-powered rifle there, according to news reports. Some 250 police officers were added to the security force.
Some said Santiago Garriga, who started a FPCC chapter in Miami, was another potential patsy. He had met Cuban officials in Mexico City. He had a CIA pseudonym and was suspected of selling false Cuban passports.
Kennedy only took a short motorcade through Miami. He was soon on his way to Texas.
Other characters of interest
Richard Case Nagell, a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Korea and Japan, claimed he spied on Oswald when they were both in Japan. After leaving the Army in 1959, Nagell worked as an investigator for government agencies in Los Angeles and began spying for the CIA in 1962. He reportedly infiltrated the American Communist Party and Soviet intelligence, becoming a double agent.
In June 1963, Nagell claimed that Vaughn Marlowe, executive officer of the Los Angeles chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, was being set up as a patsy in a plot to shoot Kennedy as he visited LA. Marlowe was a sharpshooter in the U.S. Army and a Korean War veteran. He sometimes used a pseudonym and had visited the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City.
Besides being visited by Nagell, Marlowe reportedly was approached by some Cuban exiles around the time of Kennedy's visit who asked him to join the plot. He declined, and nothing came of that potential threat. Marlowe would live into his late 80s, passing away in 2017.
In August 1963, Nagell claimed he learned about a plot involving anti-Castro Cubans, CIA assets such as David Ferrie and Clay Shaw, and Oswald in Dallas and New Orleans to assassinate Kennedy and make it look like Castro ordered the hit. He said he reported that development to KGB, CIA, and FBI contacts. The Soviets supposedly ordered Nagell to convince Oswald he was being set up as a patsy or to kill him before an attempt on JFK's life. Nagell claimed he met Oswald in New Orleans, and the latter man ignored his comments.
Rather than kill Oswald, Nagell walked into an El Paso bank on Sepember 20 and fired two shots into a wall. “I would rather be arrested than commit murder and treason,” he reportedly told the FBI. He was convicted and served four-and-a-half years in prison. In 1995, he was found dead in his Los Angeles home of an apparent heart attack, soon after the Assassinations Records Review Board contacted him to request to do a deposition.
More recently, former Secret Service Agent Paul Landis told NBC News that he found the "magic bullet" in the vehicle ridden by Kennedy after it was parked at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. During the chaos, Landis said he slipped the bullet into his pocket because he didn't want evidence to disappear and later placed it on the gurney near JFK's feet. He said he also found two bullet fragments in the car that he didn't take.
On Facebook, Bolden was among those who questioned why Landis sat on this development for so long, as it might have answered some lingering questions while raising more. "The people of America deserve to know the truth about the circumstances of the historic incident," Bolden said.