50 Years Ago Today

A Domino Falls, But Hardly The First One

Eduardo was having a bad day at work, though it hadn’t started out that way.

Earlier, he and his employees and colleagues had enjoyed Maine lobster, scotch, and an after-dinner cigar or two – all perks that came with the job. But that was the high point of Eduardo’s day. As things went along after that, his colleagues had made some terrible mistakes and decisions. Eduardo’s own advice to just call it a day had gone unheeded, he and his colleagues would probably need to spend the next week or so cleaning up after themselves.

But as he pulled his car into his driveway at home in the early morning hours of that summer Saturday, Eduardo thought he’d already done some good on mopping up the mess made at work earlier. He’d called another friend from work, Doug, and felt good that the work issues he’d had that day would soon be tidied up. And if Doug couldn’t solve everything, Rich, the new guy, could. And that would be that.

Eduardo went inside his home and put on his pajamas and washed down half a sleeping pill with a cup of water and went to bed. At first he’d been worried, but now as he thought through things he figured that within a few hours or even a couple of days, things would be OK. And so just before sunrise on June 17, 1972, E. Howard Hunt – “Eduardo” to the Cuban ex-patriates whom he’d enlisted to help him stage a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters – went to bed that night thinking that with just a little luck the mess they’d made at the ritzy new hotel complex in downtown DC earlier that morning would blow over pretty quickly.


Frank Wills had an easy job, but he didn’t care for it too much. He worked the overnight security shift at the new Watergate Hotel complex in DC. It was an easy gig – so easy, in fact that he worked alone every night, “armed” with only a can of mace on his belt. His job involved walking around the sprawling buildings and plaza of the “hotel”, which had been designed as a sort of DC answer to Rockefeller Center in New York. In addition to the hotel facilities, the sprawling set of buildings housed apartments and penthouses and restaurants and bars, as well as an upscale shopping area and various business and law offices. Wills’ typical night would have him note in a log “all-clears” for a variety of checkpoints, noting the time on each when he returned to the guard station.
This particular Friday night/Saturday morning was pretty quiet – which Wills kind of expected (he’d worked as a security guard at the Watergate for almost a year, unlike the way it’s portrayed in the series “Gaslit”). The Watergate sits in a nice part of town, and though there’d been a couple of robberies shortly after it had opened the previous year, nothing of note had happened since Wills had taken the gig. The 24-year-old Georgia native had a suspicion that the only reason the hotel had security guys like him at all was due to those high-profile burglaries the year before, right after the luxury apartments in the building had leased. Wills had been told that the President’s own secretary – Rose Mary Woods – had been one of the victims of those burglaries, and had lost a box of expensive jewelry in the caper.


But that was last year, and things had tightened up at The Watergate since. And it was a Friday night/Saturday morning in mid-June. During summers, this part of DC was a ghost town, especially since it was 1972 – an election year. Except for tourists, DC was typically empty for such times. But tourists usually couldn’t afford a hotel like The Watergate, either. It was going to be an easy night.

Some time after midnight as he made his first rounds of the hotel, Wills noticed a door leading from a garage to an interior stairwell at the hotel had duct tape on the lock. This wasn’t unusual, and Wills had seen stuff like this before. Residents of the apartment and penthouse areas would be moving in or out – or moving in new furniture – and tape the door locks during the day during the Watergate’s allowed moving hours and then forget to clean up after themselves. Wills removed the tape from the door lock, completed his rounds and logged his “all clears”, and headed across the street to grab a coffee and sandwich from an all-night place there.

A Domino Falls, But Hardly the First One (continued)

While Wills was across the street fueling up for a boring overnight security shift, a guy named James McCord was also making his rounds for one last check of things before he and his colleagues swung into action. McCord was an army vet of WWII, and had worked at the CIA for over a decade after. He’d left the Agency years before, and was currently working for the Committee to Re-Elect the President (“CREEP” to everyone but the president’s inner circle, who were forbidden from calling it that; they called it “CRP”) in a variety of nebulously defined “security” roles. He was there that night because Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy – the two planners of this operation – had figured his training in “black bag” break-in operations with the Agency would come in handy.

It was McCord who’d originally placed the duct tape over the lock on the door between the Watergate garage and stairwell at around 11:00 pm, so that the rest of the break-in team – mostly Cuban veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion who had known and worked with Hunt for years – could easily enter the hotel complex proper from the garage after leaving the Watergate hotel restaurant where they’d feasted earlier in the night. They’ve also planned to use that door and stairwell to get to the section of the complex with the DNC headquarters – and then back to the room after the job was done. The stairwell led to a hallway with an elevator nearby, and up a few floors from the elevator, Hunt and Liddy had checked into adjoining rooms as a suite for the night.

And with Wills now across the street from the hotel, McCord noticed on his own final walk through – just minutes before the break-in is set to commence – that his tape has been removed from the door lock. And in this moment, James McCord – a CIA veteran, once described by Allen Dulles as “one of the best men we have” – does something so profoundly stupid that it’s difficult to comprehend what in hell he was thinking. He’d originally placed the tape just two hours earlier. Now, in a moment of blinding stupidity, he replaces the tape to block the lock again.

To his credit, McCord grudgingly reports the stupid thing he has just done to Liddy and Hunt, just as the “mission” is getting ready to kick off. And Hunt is apoplectic. No way should they go forward with things; they may have been noticed. But Liddy is still all in on forging ahead. He’s ostensibly the guy in charge of this operation, and his team is costing money that is eating away at the budget he’s been allotted for these campaign “espionage” tricks. They’ve already had to scrub a couple of “missions”, including one to break into Democratic nominee George McGovern’s DC HQ, and flying Hunt’s team of ex-Bay of Pigs Cubans back and forth between Miami and Washington isn’t cheap.

Thus, Liddy talks Hunt back into the break-in proceeding as scheduled. No one on the team has yet grasped the degree of stupidity in McCord replacing the tape on the door lock. To them, the big issue was the tape being removed initially. No one in Liddy and Hunt’s hotel room is thinking about the implications of a hotel employee finding the tape on the lock replaced after it had been removed. Especially if the person making this discovery was the person who’d originally removed the tape, and had done so after midnight in the first place.

And if there’s anything that Liddy is unconcerned with right there and then, it’s Watergate Hotel security. That’s why everyone on the break-in team is carrying sequentially-numbered hundred dollar bills. $2400 worth, to be exact. Should an underpaid hotel private security guy discover them breaking in, Liddy figures they’ll just peel off a few hundos and bribe some silence. They likely needn’t have worried, though; the 6th floor DNC offices weren’t even on the regular overnight security patrol beat, other than a cursory walk-by around dawn.

No one even thinks to have McCord go back to the door and just remove the tape. It was a too-hasty shortcut, and they didn’t need it there. And had he done so, it is unlikely anything untoward would have been discovered that night.

Attack of the Puppet People

Attack of the Puppet People probably isn’t a very good movie. It sounds like the kind of goofy, black-and-white late-1950s horror/sci-fi flick you see on MST3K or Rifftrax these days. But in room 723 at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in downtown Washington, Al Baldwin had the movie on. Every other TV station in DC had played the national anthem and shut off for the night, so this was it. And though Baldwin knew he had an important job and had earlier been wide awake with adrenaline, now he’d become worried he’d fall asleep at his post. He’d turned on the TV in his room and somehow become interested in the plot of Attack of the Puppet People.

Some time around 1:00 am that night (now Saturday the 17th), the transceiver in room 723 had crackled awake. In his typical, clipped faux-military numbskull terseness, Liddy announced the mission was ON. Baldwin was the lookout for the gig, stationed in his room at the cheap Howard Johnson’s across the street from The Watergate Hotel. Using his binoculars, he had an excellent view of the DNC headquarters, and soon saw the flashlights of the break-in team through the exterior windows, moving through the 6th floor offices in the hotel. Baldwin noticed nothing to be concerned about, and returned his attention to Attack of the Puppet People, which seemed to be reaching a story climax. Or something.


At around 1:30 in the morning, Frank Wills returned to the hotel from having grabbed himself some dinner from across the street. The only thing of (mild) note he’d seen on his first rounds of the hotel earlier in the evening had been the tape on the door. He decides to swing past the door again to start his second set of rounds…and sees that there’s tape on the door lock. Again.

Wills might not have formal training in criminology, but he’s not a dummy, either. No one is moving furniture into The Watergate between midnight – when he’d first removed the tape – and 1:30 in the morning on a Saturday when he’d found it replaced on the lock; this was something maybe not so innocent. He knows that the place has had break-ins before.

Wills knows one more thing: his sole armament is a can of mace. Whatever this is, it is probably above his pay grade. He hustles back to the hotel lobby and picks up the phone to dial a police dispatcher.

PW’s Saloon

If you’re the type who believes in the whole Butterfly Effect thing, what happens next is a pretty amazing example of it on a historical scale. At 1138 19th St NW, the owner of the just-opened PW’s Saloon (a western-themed bar that had just opened and would over the years become a favorite of congress-persons, cops – both on- and off-duty, and all variety of government folks) was behind the bar slinging drinks. One of his customers was an on-duty police officer whose patrol area included the area from PW’s to the Potomac River. It was an easy beat; George Washington University sat right in the middle of it, and they had their own university policemen so there wasn’t much to do.

It was a predictably boring Friday night/Saturday morning on the mostly summer-deserted beat, and this patrolman had stopped by PW’s around 1:15 am to have a drink and shoot the shit. He and the owner had got to talking and pretty soon the patrolman has finished his bourbon and coke. The owner poured another and they continued. By the time the policeman’s radio squawks to life, the officer knows he’s maybe overdone it on the generous pours at PW’s. A midnight radio call is completely unexpected – the rarity of it is why the cop felt he could maybe stand a drink in the first place.

The cop is kind of sweating it. He may not be in great condition to handle a call. The bar owner tells him not to worry about it: just radio in that he’s filling his cruiser up on gas. The cop does just that, and the dispatcher changes the call to any units, marked or unmarked in the area to respond to a security guard at the Watergate reporting a possible burglary in progress.

Had the cop in question – even sober – taken the call that night, it’s likely he’d have had Frank Wills show him the taped door, and then written up a report, hung out for a bit in the lobby, and called it a night.

Instead, the secondary call from dispatch came over the radio of three undercover detectives, vaguely dressed as long-haired “hippies” in a blue Ford LTD. They had grown their hair long and matched that with clothes purchased from second-hand thrifts to try to complete the look. They’d had a dull night as well, so when the Watergate call came over the radio they decided they’d respond. And they were detectives. They weren’t going to just look at the door lock and write up a report. They were going to go in.

Attack of the Puppet People redux

A confession: I have not seen Attack of the Puppet People. It may actually be the Citizen Kane of horror/science fiction/puppet movies. And in room 723 of the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, it had certainly captured the attention of Al Baldwin. In fact, the lookout for the burglars was so glued to the movie at this point that he missed it when a blue Ford LTD pulled up in the restricted, no-parking area right at the entrance to the Watergate, and three suspicious-looking “hippies” exited the vehicle with postures that looked obviously cop-like, checking their weapons and holstering them upon entering. Perhaps if it had been a marked squad car that had pulled up. But…perhaps not. When Puppet People attack, that can be awfully riveting I guess.

Baldwin didn’t realize they had a problem until he saw the flashlights of the three detectives moving through the 6th floor. The three undercover cops had been doing a straight floor-by-floor check that had been pretty routine. But when they got to the 6th floor they spotted tape on yet another door lock – this time going into the DNC suite of offices

(The door and with the taped lock leading to Suite 600 at the Watergate – also known as the HQ for the Democratic National Committee. Frank Wills hadn’t found this door taped yet, but the detectives did.)

Possibly distracted by attacking Puppet People, Al Baldwin didn’t notice the undercover guys until the officers got to the 6th floor. Baldwin, his pulse shooting into the mid-100s finally radioed James “Tape on the Lock” McCord to ask how the burglars were dressed. (A particularly stupid question, since Baldwin had seen the five men earlier in the evening and had glimpsed them through the windows.)

McCord told the lookout that the burglars were in suits and ties. No sooner had Baldwin radioed back “You’ve got trouble then…” did McCord say quickly and quietly on the same frequency: “They’ve got us.” (Al Baldwin went to his grave maintaining in the years following the break-in that he’d given the burglary team “at least twenty minutes” worth of notice, ample time for them to get out. McCord and the other four men arrested that night inside The Watergate have disputed that fabulation strenuously.)

Sgt. Paul Leeper, one of the undercover detectives conducting the search heard the radio static, saw shadows move, and thought he heard a whisper. He yelled “Freeze!” and ordered what he thought was a single suspect to show hands. He was taken aback, then, when five pairs of hands were slowly raised from behind desks. It was a weird scene. Leeper and the other two officers knew they were inside the DNC headquarters which was hardly the kind of place that got robbed by thieves looking to get rich. And thieves didn’t typically wear suits and latex gloves. (The gloves themselves were a bit of a tip-off; in the early 1970s, you couldn’t just go to Walgreens or CVS and buy them. You had to get them from clinics who ordered them from surgical supply houses. It’s believed these gloves were secured through a sympathetic local DC veterinarian.)

In their room in the Watergate, Hunt and Liddy were getting a blow-by-blow from Baldwin. Minds were racing. Hunt realized that Barker had a key to the double room that Hunt and Liddy currently occupied. The two men rapidly tried to break down the room and pack up everything they could find and then got out. They went across the street to collect Baldwin as well. The timing was just right enough that just as they’d entered their own car parked down the street, they saw the five burglars led from the Watergate to a waiting paddy wagon.

Hunt knew their “intel-gathering” operation within CREEP was over. They hoped that was as bad as things would get.

(More manana!)

Very nice write-up. I eagerly await more!

Great stuff! I used to drive by the Watergate all the time, though I don’t recall ever going in actually.

Well, certainly not at night with latex gloves at least…

I love it! Is it going to be a real-time retelling?

I’m gonna try. Especially the tentpole “days”, where some really important stuff went down.

BTW, I’m using All the President’s Men and The Final Days as primary source material, but also Garrett Graff’s really, really excellent new Watergate book heavily as well.

Plus the Slow Burn podcast. Plus the Bag Man podcast. Plus videos on Youtube of senate testimony in the summer of 1973 that hopefully I get to.

And also lots and lots of autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs of key Watergate folks. Many of whom, given the chance to set the record straight, lied like goddamn rugs in their own books. (Looking at you, Kissinger, Magruder, Stans, and Ehrlichman).

This is very, very good. In many ways, could be the (unforeseen) beginning of the end of the Republic.

Nice writing!

Thanks @triggercut this is really interesting. I don’t know much about the history of US politics. I wonder how many people today would take Nixon over currently what the republicans have to offer.

One of the things I’m going to try to do is spend time highlighting events and occurrences that weren’t maybe necessarily known to have happened even as late as the 1980s. If you stopped at All The Presidents Men and The Final Days, you miss out on some really good stuff.

For instance, though we finally got all the secret White House tapes (those infamous tapes), it took decades for them to all be released and then painstakingly transcribed. Like, literally into the new millennium. And there were some fascinating discoveries made from those.

And the story about the beat cop being too drunk to take the Watergate burglary call, for instance, didn’t really come out until 2012. (It had long been a favorite Watergate conspiracy that the DNC Headquarters were a honeypot operation, and that the entire thing was set up by the Democrats or the CIA or the FBI – and that’s why the responding officers were undercover detectives, hardly the officers you might expect to respond to a call like that. It turns out that, no, probably not. A dispatcher call for any officers to respond wasn’t uncommon at all, and from all available evidence, that’s what happened here. And the three undercover cops do NOT seem like agents. They seem to act and talk and carry on very much like you would expect lifelong DC police detectives to do.)

And I also think it’s useful to point out all the criming, and why the criming is SUPER important to make note of. It’s easy to dismiss Watergate as “just” a break-in. And to fall back to a defense that the Nixon folks used time and again: “Everybody does it.”

Some VERY serious crimes were committed. Crimes that sure could seem fairly treasonous. Crimes that led to the deaths of thousands of people. Crimes that I would like to think that even today in our poisonous political environment, that party faithful would have to grudgingly acknowledge after a time.

Indeed, if I remember right, Watergate was the tail end of a long string of criming. The great film touches on this, when Woodward or Bernstein are asking themselves why the Nixon team would have bothered with such a disarrayed Democratic opposition at that point in time. The answer was that it wasn’t a one-off; that they’d been doing that sort of thing all along.

Oh, and one final “June 17, 1972” note on timing and anniversaries and such.

Because this crime technically began on Friday, June 16 in 1972 (just before midnight on that night) and really occurred and the folks got arrested after midnight (which was technically Saturday the 17th), it’s possible for there to be some confusion. One account I read involved two (eventually married) investigators who worked for Archibald Cox, the first special prosecutor. They talked about their first dinner date coincidentally happening on June 17th as being the “night of the Watergate break-ins” in All the President’s Men. Which, kind of, but also kind of not, if you see what I mean. The actual evening of the 17th was a pretty quiet one in Watergate lore.

Hunt and Liddy were keen to get going before midnight, but a couple of DNC staffers stayed and worked late until just after 12:15 that fateful night. The break-in crew got started shortly after they finally left.

Super fascinating writeup. Bookmarked and thanks @triggercut! I might read this to my kids.

Great write up!

This is also good source material…

I always meant to rent that from Hollywood Video or Blockbuster. Never got around to it. But the totally innocuous Google search “where is Dick streaming” tells me that I should be able to watch it easily and freely.

Great idea for a thread, trigger. We all loved your 100 Years Ago World War 1 thread all those years ago.

Great stuff triggercut, thanks.

I watched most of Attack of the Puppet People a few weeks ago on Svengoolie. Never heard of it before then.

Very much so, which is what the “A domino falls, but hardly the first one” references. I’ll get to it pretty soon-ish, but the previous criming kind of made something like Watergate inevitable (because the administration had kind of gotten used to the crimes – the first one is the hardest one, after that it’s a breeze). But those other crimes also were the impetus for the Watergate cover-up too.

Nicely done. Kudos!