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.


  • 17 May 2017 at 11:05pm
    Bob Beck says:
    What a great story. Is it true that one reason the burglars were caught was that, when taping back a door hasp during the day, to allow for re-entry after hours, they applied tape not lengthwise along the door edge, which might have been overlooked, but crosswise, where a security guard could easily see it with the door closed?

    If so, then Ron Ziegler was right in a sense he may not have intended. It *was* a third-rate burglary.

    • 30 May 2017 at 6:36pm
      Paladin says: @ Bob Beck
      I arrived in DC on June 16th and read about the break-in in the WaPost the next day (very brief article in a back page). Fast forward to Aug 8 '74, driving through DC on my way to a scientific meeting as Nixon resigned. 26 months - that's all it took. Maybe Trump will go out quicker.

    • 30 May 2017 at 7:15pm
      jimhougan says: @ Bob Beck
      The burglars disagree as to how the doors were taped - and offer reasons as to why it was taped in a particular way. (If vertically along the edge of the doors, to conceal the application from security guards. If horizontally, across the edge and onto the larger surface of the doors, to make it appear as if maintenance men were routinely at work.) What is indisputable and more telling is the fact that James McCord lied to Howard Hunt and his other "colleagues" when asked if he'd removed the tape from doors. He said that he had. In fact, he had not. A security guard named Frank Wills noticed the tape, but neglected tocall the police until much later, when a more senior employee of the security service stopped by the Watergate to see if all was well. Realizing that something was amiss, the second security officer urged Wills to call it in. Wills did so, and plainclothes-police arrived within minutes. (They were "fortuitously" parked a block away.)

    • 8 June 2017 at 1:58pm
      Bob Beck says: @ jimhougan
      Thanks for that. Are the quotation marks meant to suggest that the proximity of these police officers wasn't just coincidental? If I remember right, there'd been an earlier break-in. Were they on alert for that reason?

      Slate magazine has a podcast about political conspiracy movies. The second episode is about All The President's Men. A journalist talking about the movie -- making the point that reporters often break big stories by noticing, and then picking away at, small oddities or inconsistencies -- pointed out another unusual thing about the burglars, which supposedly piqued Woodward's and Bernstein's interest. They weren't relying on public defenders, but had their own legal counsel.