Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox reportedly once said the case was like a jigsaw puzzle, and Frank Sturgis was a piece of the puzzle that didn’t quite fit.
Sturgis is best known as one of the five men arrested 50 years ago, on June 17, 1972, while breaking into, bugging and burglarizing the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington’s Watergate office and hotel complex. But Watergate was, in my view, one of the least egregious misdeeds in the mysterious and intriguing career of this shadowy figure.
Sturgis served 14 months in a Florida federal prison after being convicted of the crime. In 1976, as associate producer of an ABC late-night newsmagazine, I somehow convinced his probation officer to let me fly Sturgis up to New York for an appearance on the show.
We got along well during that first meeting, and for the next 17 years, I periodically interviewed Sturgis about his involvement in some of the most dramatic events in 20th-century history – and I never knew whether he was telling me the truth.
Frank Sturgis was, by far, the most fascinating of the five Watergate burglars. (He’s played by Don DiPetta in the Starz limited series “Gaslit.”) Born Frank Fiorini in Virginia in 1924, he legally changed his last name in 1952 – either because it was the name of his stepfather or because he was enamored of the fictional hero Hank Sturgis in a 1949 novel written by none other than E. Howard Hunt, his longtime CIA contact who became ringleader of the Watergate burglars.
Nobody knows which reason is accurate; the one thing I knew I could trust about Sturgis was his account of the break-in, as other eyewitnesses told a similar story. “The police made so much noise… I heard them first,” he explained to me, “then I saw their lights, and I went back to where the men were working. We went as far back in the offices as we could. There was no escape, so we hid in one office behind some desks and chairs. When they came in the room and flipped the lights on, I heard someone say ‘This is the police; freeze!’ and I looked up and there was this one officer with his gun pointed at us. I hollered, ‘Don’t get nervous; no one here has a weapon.’”a
Not having a weapon was a rare occurrence in Sturgis’ life. At the age of 17, he joined the Marine Corps and fought in the Pacific theater during World War II. After the war, he became a police officer, subsequently joining the U.S. Naval Reserve and later the U.S. Army. In 1956 – and this is when it begins to get murky – Sturgis moved to Cuba, and the next year to Miami. The Cuban wife of his uncle supposedly connected Sturgis with supporters of Fidel Castro.
By 1958, Sturgis was working directly with Castro to overthrow the Cuban government; after Castro gained power in the 1959 revolution, he chose Sturgis for the role of Air Force security and intelligence chief, and put him in charge of Cuba’s gambling casinos as well. Early that year, a Castro-sanctioned firing squad executed 71 of the communist leader’s opponents; there is a photograph of Sturgis standing atop the mass grave, holding a rifle.
Sturgis told me he was unaware that Castro would turn Cuba into a Communist country – and once he realized that was the case, he claimed he became a double-agent for the CIA, heading the agency’s futile efforts to kill the dictator. (The 1975 Rockefeller Commission, which investigated CIA activities, stated that Sturgis was never an employee or agent of the CIA. Many familiar with his saga find that assertion implausible).
“Allegedly” and “reportedly” are words that should precede any list of Sturgis’ ventures, but there’s ample evidence to bolster his accounts of training the people who assassinated the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo along with playing a prominent role in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
On the 20th anniversary of that unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Castro regime, I asked Sturgis why it was such a disaster. “I believe to this day that the plan was made to be defeated,” he said. “Eisenhower wanted the invasion to be successful, but the new administration under Kennedy made a secret agreement with the Russians to make the brigade fail in its attempt. That’s why Kennedy ordered the withdrawal of all American military forces from the Cuban shoreline.”
Did the CIA know about this? “Yes,” Sturgis replied. “I believe people at a high level in the CIA knew that the invasion was going to fail. These people betrayed other CIA people who were working for a successful invasion.”
Betrayal was a word Sturgis frequently used when telling his tales. In 1979, he told me he was bitter about spending time behind bars for Watergate. “When we were sitting in jail, we took the brunt of the bad-mouthing from all these idiots that were around President Nixon. They were trying to protect themselves. But we realized we were being betrayed. They betrayed us, by trying to cover up their ill deeds.”
Nixon, of course, resigned after it was revealed how deeply he’d been involved in the Watergate coverup. But I asked Sturgis if he thought the disgraced president had prior knowledge of the break-in itself. Again, he gave somewhat varying answers in our interviews. Once he said, “The information that I received was that he not only knew about it, he more or less sanctioned it.” Two years later, his response to the same question was: “I’m not sure, because I was never in the White House talking to the president. But according to people who were close to him, they feel that he knew about it, and that he inadvertently ordered it.”
Then there is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Critics of the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone have pointed to other possible suspects, including the Mafia, CIA operatives, and anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Sturgis had strong ties to all three communities (and directly to some of the mob figures named in the 1979 report of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which concluded a “probable conspiracy” was behind the murder). Allegations about a potential Sturgis link to JFK’s death have circulated for half a century.
Sturgis always contended he was home in Miami the day of the assassination. At one point in the 1980s, I visited him at the small video store he owned there, and noticed that on the wall directly across from his desk was a poster for a documentary about Kennedy’s life. Had Sturgis been involved, I thought to myself, the placing of that poster in his line of view would be the ultimate act of chutzpah for this soldier of fortune, whom I believe was utterly amoral to the core.
Sturgis, however, made himself out to be an altruist. About Watergate, he insisted, “We were not politicians; we were strictly agents working for the United States government at that time. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. I was always taught to serve my country.”
This week, I asked former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman – one of the House Judiciary Committee members who recommended articles of impeachment against Nixon in 1974 – what she thought of Sturgis and his nefarious colleagues. “The burglars undoubtedly believed that they were helping America by their crimes,” she said. “Just like the insurrectionists on January 6. But democracy is based on the concept that the ends don’t justify the means. Rejection of that principle takes us to fascism.”
In late 1993, I called Sturgis for a comment on one of the numerous historic schemes to which he’d been linked. He sounded the same as always, but shortly after our conversation, he was admitted to a Veterans Administration hospital for treatment of lung cancer. He died a week later, at age 68. Even then, a publicist connected to Sturgis wrote: “The possibility of foul play has not been ruled out.”
In one of our chats, I asked Sturgis if he’d ever reveal everything about his life and career. “Frank Sturgis will never tell everything he knows,” he said with a smile. “Maybe one day after I’m dead, who knows what will come out?”
In the early 1980s, Sturgis was summoned to Washington to testify about the Cuban government’s connection to drug smuggling. I asked this self-described spy where he stayed when he was back in D.C. “Oh, at the Watergate Hotel,” he said. “Brings back memories”.