Not the Usual Suspects
Ellen Friedell remembers interviewing the Watergate burglars
On Saturday, 17 June 1972, I was 23 years old and had completed my second year of law school. I worked at the District of Columbia Bail Agency in downtown Washington. The bail agency hired law students to interview criminal defendants in the lock-up and prepare reports for the court. The judge would decide whether the defendant could be counted on to turn up for trial, or would have to remain in jail. We did our best to present the facts that would show that defendants could be released.
I drove to the bail agency from my parents’ house in Maryland. I liked working the Saturday shift because there was less traffic and parking was easier. I usually listened to the radio in my car, but I don’t remember learning about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters on the way to work. Maybe that day I listened to music.
When I got to the bail agency I was assigned a share of the files for the morning lock-up. Among the defendants I interviewed that day were the most unusual burglars I had ever seen. A typical criminal defendant in Washington DC was young and black. (A lawyer once insisted that I interview his client first because he was 'blond'.) The Watergate burglars – there were five of them – weren’t young or black, and hadn’t tested positive for heroin or cocaine. All of that made them unusual but what really made them stand out was that they were wearing suits.
One of the reasons I was assigned to interview them was that two of them had Hispanic surnames, and I spoke Spanish. But as it turned out all the Watergate burglars spoke perfect English. They were polite and answered all the standard questions: address, employment, drug use etc. I was used to defendants who tried to seem cool, or who would joke with me, but I always thought it was bravado and that they were really quite scared. I felt sorry for them. The Watergate burglars were unusual in this respect, too. One of them, James McCord, wasn’t at all flustered. I liked him. He referred to the DC jail as the ‘concrete condominium’ and described himself as some kind of security consultant. My father was in the Foreign Service, and we knew people who worked for the CIA. McCord reminded me of them. I asked if he worked for 'the Company'. He smiled. The Watergate burglars were all granted bail.