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Context of 'December 8, 1972: Wife of Watergate Plumber Dies in Suspicious Plane Crash'

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Frederick LaRue.Frederick LaRue. [Source: Spartacus Educational]Two White House aides, Frederick LaRue and G. Gordon Liddy, attend a meeting of the Nixon presidential campaign, the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), where it is agreed that the organization will spend $250,000 to conduct an “intelligence gathering” operation against the Democratic Party for the upcoming elections. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] The members decide, among other things, to plant electronic surveillance devices in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters (see April-June 1972). LaRue is a veteran of the 1968 Nixon campaign (see November 5, 1968), as is Liddy, a former FBI agent. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007; Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] LaRue decides to pay the proposed “Special Investigations Unit,” later informally called the “Plumbers” (see Late June-July 1971), large amounts of “hush money” to keep them quiet. He tasks former New York City policeman Tony Ulasewicz with arranging the payments. LaRue later informs another Nixon aide, Hugh Sloan, that LaRue is prepared to commit perjury if necessary to protect the operation. A 1973 New York Times article will call LaRue “an elusive, anonymous, secret operator at the highest levels of the shattered Nixon power structure.” [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] The FBI will later determine that this decision took place between March 20 and 30, 1972, not 1971 (see March 20-30, 1972). In this case, the FBI timeline is almost certainly in error, since the “Plumbers” break-in of the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist came well before this date (see September 9, 1971).

Entity Tags: Hugh Sloan, Tony Ulasewicz, Frederick LaRue, ’Plumbers’, Committee to Re-elect the President, Democratic National Committee, G. Gordon Liddy

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate, Elections Before 2000

President Nixon authorizes the creation of a “special investigations unit,” later nicknamed the “Plumbers,” to root out and seal media leaks. The first target is Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press (see June 13, 1971); the team will burglarize the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, in hopes of securing information that the White House can use to smear Ellsberg’s character and undermine his credibility (see September 9, 1971). Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, who supervises the “Plumbers,” will later say that the Ellsberg burglary is “the seminal Watergate episode.” Author Barry Werth will later write, “[L]ike all original sins, it held the complete DNA of subsequent misdeeds.” During the upcoming court battle over the documents, Nixon tells his aide Charles Colson: “We’ve got a countergovernment here and we’ve got to fight it. I don’t give a damn how it’s done. Do whatever has to be done to stop those leaks.… I don’t want to be told why it can’t be done.” Whatever damaging information the “Plumbers” can find on Ellsberg will be itself leaked to the press, Nixon says. “Don’t worry about his trial [referring to Ellsberg’s arrest on conspiracy and espionage charges (see June 28, 1971) ]. Just get everything out. Try him in the press… leak it out.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 84-87] As he is wont to do, Nixon refers to his own success in convicting suspected Communist spy Alger Hiss in 1950. “We won the Hiss case in the papers,” he says. “We did. I had to leak stuff all over the place. Because the Justice Department would not prosecute it.… It was won in the papers…. I leaked out the papers. I leaked everything.… I leaked out the testimony. I had Hiss convicted before he ever got to the grand jury.” [Kutler, 1997, pp. 10; Reeves, 2001, pp. 337-338] In July 1973, FBI deputy director W. Mark Felt, the notorious “Deep Throat” (see May 31, 2005) will tell reporter Bob Woodward that Nixon created the Plumbers because the FBI would not do his bidding in regards to Ellsberg. Had the FBI agreed to investigate Ellsberg to the extent Nixon wanted, he would not have created the “Plumbers.” “The problem was that we [the FBI] wouldn’t burglarize” (see June 30-July 1, 1971), Felt will say. Ehrlichman will later testify, “Those fellows were going out as substitutes for the FBI.” [Woodward, 2005, pp. 107]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, ’Plumbers’, Alger Hiss, Daniel Ellsberg, Richard M. Nixon, W. Mark Felt, Lewis Fielding, Bob Woodward, John Ehrlichman

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Frank Wills, the security guard who discovers the taped doors and alerts the DC police.Frank Wills, the security guard who discovers the taped doors and alerts the DC police. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Five burglars (see June 17, 1972) are arrested at 2:30 a.m. while breaking in to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Headquarters offices in Washington’s Watergate hotel and office complex; the DNC occupies the entire sixth floor. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]
Discovery - They are surprised at gunpoint by three plainclothes officers of the DC Metropolitan Police. Two ceiling panels have been removed from the secretary’s office, which is adjacent to that of DNC chairman Lawrence O’Brien. It is possible to place a surveillance device above those panels that could monitor O’Brien’s office. The five suspects, all wearing surgical gloves, have among them two sophisticated voice-activated surveillance devices that can monitor conversations and telephone calls alike; lock-picks, door jimmies, and an assortment of burglary tools; and $2,300 in cash, most of it in $100 bills in sequence. They also have a walkie-talkie, a shortwave receiver tuned to the police band, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35mm cameras, and three pen-sized tear gas guns. Near to where the men are captured is a file cabinet with two open drawers; a DNC source speculates that the men might have been preparing to photograph the contents of the file drawers.
Guard Noticed Taped Door - The arrests take place after a Watergate security guard, Frank Wills, notices a door connecting a stairwell with the hotel’s basement garage has been taped so it will not lock; the guard removes the tape, but when he checks ten minutes later and finds the lock taped once again, the guard calls the police. The police find that all of the stairwell doors leading from the basement to the sixth floor have been similarly taped to prevent them from locking. The door leading from the stairwell to the DNC offices had been jimmied. During a search of the offices, one of the burglars leaps from behind a desk and surrenders. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972] The FBI agents responding to the burglary are initially told that the burglars may have been attempting to plant a bomb in the offices. The “bomb” turns out to be surveillance equipment. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 pdf file]
Last Mission for Martinez - One of the burglars, Cuban emigre and CIA agent Eugenio Martinez, will recall the burglary. They have already successfully burglarized a psychiatrist’s office in search of incriminating material on Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see September 9, 1971), and successfully bugged the DNC offices less than a month previously (see May 27-28, 1972), but Martinez is increasingly ill at ease over the poor planning and amateurish behavior of his colleagues (see Mid-June 1972). This will be his last operation, he has decided. Team leader E. Howard Hunt, whom Martinez calls by his old code name “Eduardo,” is obviously intrigued by the material secured from the previous burglary, and wants to go through the offices a second time to find more. Martinez is dismayed to find that Hunt has two operations planned for the evening, one for the DNC and one for the campaign offices of Democratic candidate George McGovern. Former CIA agent and current Nixon campaign security official James McCord (see June 19, 1972), the electronics expert of the team, is equally uncomfortable with the rushed, almost impromptu plan. Hunt takes all of the burglars’ identification and puts it in a briefcase. He gives another burglar, Frank Sturgis, his phony “Edward J. Hamilton” ID from his CIA days, and gives each burglar $200 in cash to bribe their way out of trouble. Interestingly, Hunt tells the burglars to keep the keys to their hotel rooms. Martinez later writes: “I don’t know why. Even today, I don’t know. Remember, I was told in advance not to ask about those things.”
Taping the Doors - McCord goes into the Watergage office complex, signs in, and begins taping the doors to the stairwells from the eighth floor all the way to the garage. After waiting for everyone to leave the offices, the team prepares to enter. Gonzalez and Sturgis note that the tape to the basement garage has been removed. Martinez believes the operation will be aborted, but McCord disagrees; he convinces Hunt and the other team leader, White House aide G. Gordon Liddy, to continue. It is McCord’s responsibility to remove the tape once the burglars are inside, but he fails to do so. The team is well into the DNC offices when the police burst in. “There was no way out,” Martinez will recall. “We were caught.” Barker is able to surreptitiously advise Hunt, who is still in the hotel, that they have been discovered. Martinez will later wonder if the entire second burglary might have been “a set-up or something like that because it was so easy the first time. We all had that feeling.” The police quickly find the burglars’ hotel keys and then the briefcase containing their identification. As they are being arrested, McCord, who rarely speaks and then not above a whisper, takes charge of the situation. He orders everyone to keep their mouths shut. “Don’t give your names,” he warns. “Nothing. I know people. Don’t worry, someone will come and everything will be all right. This thing will be solved.” [Harper's, 10/1974; Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/7/2007]
'Third-Rate Burglary' - White House press secretary Ron Ziegler will respond to allegations that the White House and the Nixon presidential campaign might have been involved in the Watergate burglary by calling it a “third-rate burglary attempt,” and warning that “certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is.” [Washington Post, 5/1/1973] The Washington Post chooses, for the moment, to cover it as a local burglary and nothing more; managing editor Howard Simons says that it could be nothing more than a crime committed by “crazy Cubans.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 19]
CIA Operation? - In the weeks and months to come, speculation will arise as to the role of the CIA in the burglary. The Nixon White House will attempt to pin the blame for the Watergate conspiracy on the CIA, an attempt forestalled by McCord (see March 19-23, 1973). In a 1974 book on his involvement in the conspiracy, McCord will write: “The Watergate operation was not a CIA operation. The Cubans may have been misled by others into believing that it was a CIA operation. I know for a fact that it was not.” Another author, Carl Oglesby, will claim otherwise, saying that the burglary is a CIA plot against Nixon. Former CIA officer Miles Copeland will claim that McCord led the burglars into a trap. Journalist Andrew St. George will claim that CIA Director Richard Helms knew of the break-in before it occurred, a viewpoint supported by Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon campaign director John Mitchell, who will tell St. George that McCord is a “double agent” whose deliberate blunders led to the arrest of the burglars. No solid evidence of CIA involvement in the Watergate conspiracy has so far been revealed. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]

Entity Tags: Nixon administration, Howard Simons, Lawrence O’Brien, James McCord, Martha Mitchell, Richard M. Nixon, Richard Helms, Washington Post, Ron Ziegler, George S. McGovern, Miles Copeland, G. Gordon Liddy, John Mitchell, Frank Sturgis, Carl Oglesby, Bob Woodward, Andrew St. George, Central Intelligence Agency, Carl Bernstein, Democratic National Committee, Daniel Ellsberg, E. Howard Hunt, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Wills

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate, Elections Before 2000

Dorothy Hunt.Dorothy Hunt. [Source: Spartacus Educational]Dorothy Hunt, the wife of accused Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972), dies in a plane crash that claims the lives of 44 others when it crashes just after takeoff from Chicago’s Midway Airport. Some believe that the plane crash may have been planned, though there is no hard evidence to support this contention.
Blackmailing the White House? - Hunt and his fellow “Plumbers” (see Late June-July 1971) have been regularly receiving “hush money” payments from the Nixon presidential campaign to stay quiet about their activities (see March 20, 1971). With the prospect of going to prison, Hunt threatened to reveal juicy details of who exactly paid him to organize the Watergate burglary. His wife helped negotiate a payoff deal with Nixon aide Charles Colson. Hunt’s fellow Plumber, James McCord, will later claim that Dorothy Hunt said that her husband has information that would “blow the White House out of the water.” She was, Colson later admits, “upset at the interruption of payments from Nixon’s associates to Watergate defendants.” Former Attorney General John Mitchell, the head of Nixon’s re-election organization, arranged to have Nixon aide Frederick LaRue pay the Hunts $250,000 to keep their mouths shut. The day of the crash, Dorothy Hunt had arranged to meet with CBS journalist Michelle Clark, perhaps to discuss the Watergate investigation. Clark, Dorothy Hunt, and Illinois congressman George Collins are aboard the plane, United Airlines Flight 533, when it crashes into a Chicago neighborhood; all three die. Hunt is reported to be carrying $10,000 in cash as a partial payoff for the burglars (see February 28, 1973), but some sources will later claim that she was carrying far more. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] Shortly after the crash, White House aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman tell Nixon that Mrs. Hunt had distributed $250,000 in cash to her husband and the other Watergate burglars. The cash was delivered to Mrs. Hunt by White House courier Tony Ulasewicz, whose standard procedure was to take cash from the White House to Washington’s National Airport and leave the money in a rented locker. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 551] In October 1974, Watergate burglar Bernard Barker will confirm that Dorothy Hunt was the burglars’ connection to the White House. Barker will recall that, months after the burglary, he met her in Miami, where she told him, “From now on, I will be your contact.” [Harper's, 10/1974]
FBI 'Swarms' Crash Site - One reporter, Lalo J. Gastriani, later reports that just after the crash, the downed plane is swarmed by “a battalion of plainclothes operatives in unmarked cars parked on side streets.” The neighbors who report this to Gastriani say that some of the “operatives” look like “FBI types,” and one neighbor recognizes a “rescue worker” as a CIA agent. Gastriani’s account sounds like the worst conspiracy theory and is anything but conclusive, but future FBI director William Ruckelshaus will later admit that his agency had over 50 agents at the crash site. Interestingly, one of Colson’s aides directly involved in overseeing Hunt’s “Plumbers,” Egil Krogh, will be named as undersecretary of transportation one day after the crash; the position gives Krogh direct control over the two agencies responsible for investigating the crash. Another Nixon aide, Dwight Chapin, soon becomes a top executive at United Airlines. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]

Entity Tags: Egil Krogh, United Airlines, William Ruckelshaus, E. Howard Hunt, Dorothy Hunt, Charles Colson, Tony Ulasewicz, Bernard Barker, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard M. Nixon, John Mitchell, Lalo J. Gastriani, Frederick LaRue, George Collins, H.R. Haldeman, Michelle Clark, Frank Sturgis, James McCord, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Dwight Chapin, John Ehrlichman

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

E. Howard Hunt, the leader of the seven Watergate burglars (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) currently on trial, tells fellow burglars Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Bernard Barker (sometimes called the “Cubans”) that if they plead guilty and keep their mouths shut, the White House will financially take care of their families. Hunt will plead guilty the next day; the others will plead guilty days later (see January 8-11, 1973). [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] Hunt has been pressuring the White House for executive clemency—in essence, a presidential pardon—for himself in return for his and the burglars’ guilty pleas and subsequent silence. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 557-558] Watergate burglar Bernard Barker will write of the decision to plead guilty in October 1974. He will recall Hunt as being thoroughly demoralized by the death of his wife Dorothy (see December 8, 1972), and telling Barker, “Well, you do what you want, but I am going to plead guilty.” When Barker asks why, Hunt replies: “We have no defense. The evidence against us is overwhelming.” Barker asks, “What about Liddy and McCord?” asking about the two accused burglars, G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord, who are being tried separately. Hunt replies: “Liddy and McCord are in a different sector. We are in one sector and they are in another. They have their own plan.” Barker then asks the Cubans’ lawyer, Henry Rothblatt, what his strategy is. Rothblatt confirms that they have no defense against the charges (see Early January, 1973), but he intends to “aggravate that Judge Sirica [John Sirica, presiding over the trial] to the point where I am going to drive him out of his cotton-pickin’ mind, and he is going to make so many mistakes with his arrogance that this will be a perfect case for appeal.” Unimpressed, Barker says he will follow Hunt’s lead and plead guilty. Rothblatt insists that Barker not trust Hunt and the others, saying: “They are a bunch of b_stards. They’ll double-cross you. They’ll sell you down the river.” Nevertheless, Barker and the other three burglars agree to follow Hunt’s lead and plead guilty. Rothblatt resigns from the case. Apparently, Barker is unaware at this time of Hunt’s negotiations with the White House for executive clemency for himself. [Harper's, 10/1974]

Entity Tags: Henry Rothblatt, E. Howard Hunt, Dorothy Hunt, Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martinez, G. Gordon Liddy, John Sirica, Virgilio Gonzalez, James McCord, Frank Sturgis, Nixon administration

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

President Nixon and White House counsel John Dean discuss several topics surrounding the Watergate investigation. The conversation is secretly recorded. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]
Watergate Conspiracy Could be Criminal, Dean Warns - According to his later testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee (see June 25-29, 1973), Dean warns Nixon of how serious the Watergate affair can become from a legal standpoint. “I told him that I thought he should know that I was also involved in the post-June 17 activities regarding Watergate,” Dean will testify. “I briefly described to him why I thought I had legal problems in that I had been a conduit for many of the decisions that were made and therefore could be involved in an obstruction of justice. He would not accept my analysis and did not want me to get into it in any detail.” If Dean’s testimony is accurate, Nixon has just been told by his lawyer that the Watergate cover-up could involve crimes, but brushes that aside. [Time, 7/9/1973]
Hunt's Wife Carrying Burglar Payoffs - The conversation turns to the plane crash that killed the wife of Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt (see December 8, 1972). Dean says that Dorothy Hunt was flying to (actually from) Chicago with $10,000 to give to “the Cubans,” referring to the Cuban burglars working under Hunt. Dean says, “You’ve got then, an awful lot of the principals involved who know. Some people’s wives know. Mrs. Hunt was the savviest woman in the world. She had the whole picture together,” possibly referring to Dorothy Hunt’s alleged threats to expose the entire Watergate conspiracy. Nixon, who knows the conversation is being taped, says of Dorothy Hunt’s death, “Great sadness. As a matter of fact there was discussion with somebody about Hunt’s problem on account of his wife and I said, of course commutation could be considered on the basis of his wife’s death, and that is the only conversation I ever had in that light.” Dean concurs: “Right. So that is it. That is the extent of the knowledge.” [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, E. Howard Hunt, Dorothy Hunt, John Dean, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

E. Howard Hunt.E. Howard Hunt. [Source: Michael Brennan / Corbis]Convicted Watergate burglar and former CIA operative E. Howard Hunt (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) denies that his requests for money from the Nixon White House ever amounted to blackmail or “hush money” (see Mid-November, 1972 and January 8-9, 1973). Writing in Harper’s magazine, Hunt says his situation was comparable to a CIA agent caught and incarcerated in a foreign country. Those agents, he says, are entitled to expect that the government will financially support their families and continue to pay their salaries until the agents are released.
Comparisons to CIA Agents Captured by Foreign Governments - He compares himself to American pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 surveillance plane was shot down over the Soviet Union during the Eisenhower administration, and who was financially supported by the government until his release. Another agent, John Downey, was kept prisoner for 20 years by China; when he returned, Hunt notes, he was paid twenty years’ worth of back salary. Hunt says that his situation is no different, and that not only was his efforts to secure large sums of cash from the Nixon administration understandable in the context of these captured intelligence agents, but something that should have been expected and handled without comment. “It was this time-honored understanding that for a time buoyed the hopes of the seven men who were indicted—and in two cases tried—for surreptitious entry into Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate,” he writes. “That their attorneys’ fees were partially paid, that family living allowances were provided—and that these support funds were delivered by clandestine means—was to be expected.”
Dropoff of White House Support - He names then-Nixon campaign chairman John Mitchell, Mitchell’s deputy Jeb Magruder, and then-White House counsel John Dean as the “official sponsors of their project.” The fact that the White House and the CIA paid on Hunt’s demands “clearly indicates,” Hunt claims, “a perception on the Haldeman-Ehrlichman level of the appropriateness of clandestine support.” (H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were then-President Nixon’s top aides and closest confidantes.) It is only because “[a]s time passed, however, the burden of providing moneys was assumed by less sophisticated personnel” that Hunt’s “urgent requests for overdue support began to be interpreted as threats, i.e. ‘blackmail.’” He says that Dean and perhaps Nixon “misconstrued” the situation. Since there was no question that the “Watergate Seven” would be granted immunity from prosecution, “there was no question of buying silence, of suppressing the truth with ‘hush money.’” He concludes: “The Watergate Seven understood the tradition of clandestine support. Tragically for the nation, not all the president’s men were equally aware.” [Harper's, 10/1974]
Conflict with Other Versions of Events - Hunt’s reconstruction of events directly clashes with others’ recollections and interpretations, as well as the facts themselves (see June 20-21, 1972, June 26-29, 1972, June 29, 1972, July 7, 1972, July 25, 1972, August 29, 1972, December 8, 1972, January 10, 1973, January 10, 1973, March 13, 1973, March 21, 1973, March 21, 1973, and July 5, 1974).

Entity Tags: Francis Gary Powers, E. Howard Hunt, Central Intelligence Agency, Eisenhower administration, H.R. Haldeman, Jeb S. Magruder, John Mitchell, John Downey, John Dean, Nixon administration, John Ehrlichman

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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