Kennedys inaugural address on January 20, 1961 was a call to service, a signal for a new generation to assume leadership, and his words resonated with America. Tired of Eisenhower, shocked by the Soviet Unions Sputnik, angry and concerned about the Cold War, and determined to bring civil rights to African-Americans, the time for action had arrived. The silent generation would be replaced with activists in many areas.
When Johnson was sworn in that same day, the new vice president was nervous, reading his speech poorly. He was unhappy to be out of power, but he had other problems that were far more serious than being inaugurated Vice President of the United States. His true concern that day was that his many schemes with unsavory partners would surface, and one was particular concern, that of Billy Sol Estes. Trouble loomed ahead, this time threatening to be far more destructive than Doug Kinser had ever been. Clark had contained the Estes problem last year, in 1960. With the election now over, some very dangerous yet necessary steps would have to be taken to preserve Johnsons personal victory.
Ed Clark had arrived in Washington several days before the inaugural ceremonies were held, ostensibly to help celebrate. Clark never had time for such pleasures; he was always too busy exercising power. Among other things, he was there regarding the ongoing investigation by the Department of Agriculture into Estes handling of cotton allotments. Although recognized as an asset for Johnson as early as 1958, Estes was by 1960 out of control, enriching himself from government price controls by innovative means. The USDA had been trying to get ahead of him and trap him, but Estes repeatedly changed his financing approaches to deceive them with new schemes. Agriculture officials were doing their best to close the gaps in their regulations and to nail Estes.
Time and again, the successive cash schemes enriched both Estes and Johnson with large sums transferred to the then Senate Majority Leaders political re-election accounts. Those same sums were later transferred to the Brazos-Tenth Corporation administered by my law partner, Don Thomas for "investment -- 20/20/40."
Johnson was thoroughly aware of the fact that Estes was the target of an investigation. In those days, word of criminal reviews were routinely reported to top government officials known to be involved with the suspect. Just to keep politics out of the investigation, nothing had been done by USDA during the 1960 campaign; however, a top USDA inspector, Henry Marshall, had been assigned to see what was going on and his efforts were approaching critical mass. Johnson knew it was only a matter of time.
Two days before taking the oath of office as vice president, at an evening inaugural celebration at his Washington home, Johnson met in the backyard with Estes and Clifton Carter, Johnsons man at the Democratic National Committee and one of Clarks former Army buddies. A new snow had moved through Washington and the evening air was freezing. Despite the cold the three met outside because complete privacy was required. For the moment, the visiting dignitaries and well-wishers were forgotten. There was no celebrating.
Johnson was inwardly furious at Estes because the promoter did not know how to enrich himself from government and get away with it. Johnson, through Clark, knew how far to take corruption and how to use the attorney-client privilege to protect the money. In Estess case, however, stolen land already subject to government control is not easily concealed. There was just too much of an audit trail. The problem for Johnson was the fear that Estes would disclose everything, that he would squeal. The soon to be inaugurated vice president of the United States was ready to agree to anything so that Estes would not take him down any further.
At the meeting Johnson was briefed by Carter and the three men then reviewed their options, none promising. Johnson was not yet convinced the final action Carter and Estes were suggesting was necessary. Agent Marshall would have to be "taken care of for good" only if he probed further and could not be deterred. The final decision was ambiguous but final, that Marshall must somehow be stopped.
The three men realized that a scandal like this was political poison; it would mean the end of Johnsons career. Because Johnson had further ambitions, that disaster could not be allowed to happen. Estes was told to get Wallace to meet with Marshall and try to make the man see reason. If it meant a payoff, okay. Just get him to quit stirring up trouble. Estes was assured he and his family would be protected so long as Johnson was never mentioned.
In those vague terms, those words of art, those code words used by the politically sophisticated, the three agreed that Estes was empowered to let Wallace take whatever action was necessary. Under that guise, a fatal mistake was made.
A few days later Estes reported back to Johnson that everything was fine as Marshall had assured him there were no problems. Johnson, however, was not as certain as the ever-optimistic Estes. Nervous for his future, he wrote the new USDA Secretary Orville Freeman. Johnson got the factsall was not well with Estes.
Within two weeks, Estes insisted on another meeting. At the time Johnson was back in Texas. Because Estes had to be contained, Johnson agreed to fly to Pecos.
Early in the morning on February 7, 1962, Johnson called for his airplane. The day was heavily overcast, not safe for flying. His pilots had stayed in Austin the night before to be with their families, knowing they would have to fly to the Johnson Ranch in the morning; however, on seeing the weather, they did not want to fly in the thick fog.
For further insight into the key event, in an exercise of the journalistic novel and an attorneys right in jury argument to develop a case, the discussion between Johnson and Clark is included in chapter 17 on Desperation at page 245. They ordered the pilots to make the trip and, at the same time, Clark realized the depth of the problems Johnson faced. As events turned out after that morning of deep fog at the ranch, Johnson had over a year before the scandal made the headlines.
The pilots had only a few hours. Flying into the muck, they looked for the ranchs airstrip. No luck. Flying too low as they looked for a landmark, the two pilots crashed and died on a hillside near Johnsons ranch. In the dense and rocky brush, the bodies were not recovered for three days.
Apologists for Johnson assert he was a compassionate man. This first tragedy of the assassination underscores, once again, the obvious fact that he was not. When the pressure was great enough, particularly as it was in this case where criminal disclosures were threatened, Johnson would do anything.
In the resulting investigation, Johnson was appropriately distressed, even traveling to the crash site to show his false concern. The families of the two pilots were paid handsomely, the record was sealed, and the matter was closed. Within the next year, it would be reopened.
The death of the two pilots was a forecast of things to come. Johnson had killed men before, he was now responsible for the death of the two pilots, and he would in his desperation kill again. For him, there was no value to human life when it meant saving his future, his ambitions, his reputation, and his life.
Soon after, Johnson would take a military plane to Abilene, Texas, hoping for secrecy as he went to a meet Estes and his representatives. All went well until the plane went off the runway and a report had to be filed. Questions were raised about what had happened, but Johnson simply ignored media inquiries. After all, peace had been preserved with Estes, in person.
Over the next four months as USDAS investigation dragged back and forth, Wallace prepared for his fateful meeting. An important first step had already been taken. Wallace had moved to California, giving him a new cover. His job was with the same group of companies. The move had been made just before the end of January, right after Estes met with Johnson in Washington.
The effort at containing Marshall came to a head when, on June 3, 1961, Wallace arrived at Marshalls small ranch near Bryan, Texas. The confrontation took place in Robertson County, an agricultural area north and west of Bryan. Wallace had driven to the meeting, stopping at a filling station to ask for directions. He then went to the ranch where the two men met in a quiet, isolated place. They had to get to the heart of the matter at a location where they could talk freely, meaning without witnesses.
Wallace was not successful in bringing an end to the investigation. Marshall refused to cooperate. During the heated argument that resulted, acting pursuant to his vague instructions, Wallace attacked.
Angered at an inability to get Marshall to cooperate at all, Wallace viciously hit the man with a pistol. Marshall fell to the ground, the side of his head cut and his eye badly bruised. Since Marshall was unconscious, Wallace felt he had time to stage a suicide. Rigging a plastic liner to the exhaust and starting Marshalls truck, Wallace counted on carbon monoxide poisoning to kill. Marshall inhaled a substantial amount of the exhausts fumes, almost a fatal dose. While the poisoning was underway, Wallace removed Marshalls personal belongings and placed them on the seat of the pickup.
Then Wallace panicked. The exhaust was taking too long. He reportedly heard a truck driving nearby. Although he saw no one and no one saw the crime, Wallace had to get out of there. There was a bolt-action rifle in Marshalls truck so Wallace used the mans own weapon to shoot him five times in the side of his lower torso. Three of the shots were sufficient to kill him. After the fifth shot, finally convinced Marshall was dead, Wallace left.
At the first phone he could find, Wallace called Carter to let him know what happened. Carter told Wallace to stick around, to see if anything else needed to be done. They had to get word from Clark.
Later that afternoon, Marshalls cousin discovered the body. He was with a man from Cliff Carters Pepsi Cola bottling company in nearby Bryan. The body was near the exhaust, the rifle nearby. Personal effects were on the seat of the pickup. There was no suicide note.
The next day, the coroner ruled the death was a suicide. Working with Carter, the local authorities took quick action to cover up the crime. There was no need for an investigation. Somehow, it was accepted that a man nearly dead could work a bolt-action rifle several times, to fire bullets in his own body. Only a fix with the justice of the peace could do it, and, as we have seen, that just happened to be Clarks modus operandi.
Wallace, believing everything was okay, went back to the filling station the next morning, to tell the attendant he had not really needed to go to the Marshall ranch and had not gone there. He then returned to California, his perfect cover, out of reach of Texas criminal authorities.
Over twenty years later, a grand jury was again convened to investigate the Marshall death. It concluded murder had been committed and that Johnson, Carter and Wallace were the co-conspirators in the murderer.
Unfortunately, this startling decision by the grand jury was not issued until 1985. Johnson was not charged because he was dead. The other two other conspirators had also passed on and escaped justice. Estes had immunity and told what had happened in 1961, from January in Washington to June in Robertson County. The key testimony and evidence was not just from Estes; the jury also heard from Texas Ranger Clint Peoples, finally able to obtain Estess testimony and fit the facts together.
In the history of any event, what happened is usually told chronologically. Since the indictment report was not issued until 24 years after the murder, the all-important chronology of Johnsons motivations in 1961 may be difficult to appreciate. The public record is very different when Clark was not there in 1985 to provide the needed defense. By placing the grand jury action where it belongs, the motivations for what followed should be far easier to understand.
Historians will play games with history. One will write the story of what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War. Another will write what life in America would be like if he was living in a nation where the South won and he was trying to figure what it would be like if the Union won. Still another imagines Hitler had conquered England and Russia.
Johnsons history has a similar feature. Events did not happen they way they should have. To avoid guessing, the belated indictment is placed where it belongs. What we have to do is assume the indictment was returned in the summer of 1961, and that law enforcement acted in a timely and proper way. If so, one of those different worlds historians imagine would be still here, one in which John Kennedy remained president and Lyndon Johnson was convicted of murder.
Remarkably, even into the 1990s, apologists for the Warren Commission oppose efforts by Estes to tell his story. Houston attorney Doug Caddy was enlisted to seek immunity for Estes in return for his testimony to the Department of Justice. All was well when the government attorneys arrived to interview Estes. Notice was received, however, that a state district attorney had refused immunity for Estes, and the interview was canceled.
We know what happened with the Marshall murder and with the indictment. The murder plan started with an argument, and, when Marshall proved intractable, he was killed. This may not have been according to plan and was done out of anger and frustration. Marshall had to be taken care of for good. Clarks agents then moved quickly to cover up. The murder was then buried for over twenty years. Only on distant hindsight do we finally have the benefit of knowing Johnson was behind the murder of Henry Marshall and that Wallace was the gunman. We also see how Clark worked his machinery to control the key legal system.
In 1961, in the real time of Johnsons history, Marshall was ruled a suicide. The local authorities readily accepted the ruling. The death of a federal investigator working on a high-profile political case, however, did not end the case. Many eyebrows were raised in Washington, and the USDA was determined to keep looking. Fully appreciating the many political overtones, USDA officials knew a solid case had to be developed. Marshalls death required that his work had to be started over. The new investigators went to work. Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, gave his full support to the effort.
Estes would cooperate because he was sure he could convince them nothing wrong had happened. He could convince anyone, he believed, of anything. With his allotments program under intense review, however, money could not be obtained from USDA. He turned to his ongoing scheme of leasing fertilizer tanks that did not exist. Again, he hoped to get enough money to pay off his debt. As it turned out, the clock was running on his timetable for financial recovery.
Copyright © 2003 Barr McClellan