Pershing Gervais and the Attempt to Frame Jim Garrison

Peter R. Whitmey
The Fourth Decade, Volume 1, Number 4, May 1994, pp. 3-7

    On March 1, 1969, exactly two years after being arrested, Clay Shaw was found not guilty by a twelve-man jury in New Orleans of conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy. Despite the fact that Garrison immediately charged Shaw with perjury in denying that he ever knew David Ferrie or Lee Harvey Oswald, [1] the press [2] overwhelmingly attacked Garrison for putting such a well-respected and prominent citizen of New Orleans through an unparalleled ordeal, and it was expected that the District Attorney would quickly disappear from the public stage following his anticipated defeat in the November 1969 primary.
    To the surprise of many, Garrison won the democratic primary with 53% of the vote over Harry Connick, Sr. (the father of the well-known singer/pianist) and two other candidates, and was a shoo-in to capture a third term, over the Republican candidate that coming Spring, given the dominance of the Democratic party amongst registered voters in the parish.
    Even though the Shaw trial for perjury was a faint possibility (although dealt a setback when Perry Russo decided to take the Fifth Amendment during a preliminary hearing [3]), the efforts of Jim Garrison to prove that a conspiracy to kill JFK was hatched in New Orleans now appeared quite discredited, despite continued efforts by Garrison himself to keep the subject alive, in part through his 1970 book Heritage of Stone (G.P. Putnam's Sons: NY). A far more detailed book by Paris Flammonde entitled The Kennedy Conspiracy had been published prior to the trial by Meredith Books of New York, who panicked into believing rumors that Garrison might drop the case because of insufficient assistance from the Justice Department. [4] It was not a big seller, nor were two other books released after the trialThe Garrison Case (Potter: NY) by New Orleans attorney Milton Brener and American Grotesque (Simon and Shuster: NY) by playwright/novelist and one-time actor James Kirkwood—both of which dealt with the trial in exhausting detail, with hardly a kind word for Garrison between the covers of either book.
    Determined to put an end to the "Shaw affair," a federal judge ordered Garrison on May 27, 1971, [5] to "stop prosecuting Clay L. Shaw" on the grounds that Garrison "had a 'significant financial interest' in continued prosecution and in his Kennedy Assassination investigation" (presumably based on the publication of his book six months earlier).
    That appeared to be the final chapter in Jim Garrison's efforts to convince the public, if not a jury, that hidden forces were involved in the assassination and its cover-up, with the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon playing significant roles.
    However, on June 30, 1971, an unexpected move was made by the Justice Department (headed by John Mitchell) with the arrest of Garrison, who was charged with violating the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. Garrison and two police officers were accused of accepting bribes from gamblers in New Orleans involving illegal pinball machines. A U.S. attorney stated to the press that the evidence against Garrison included tape recordings as well as marked bills involved in the bribe, and a former investigator of Garrison's (who had been in the same unit as Garrison during the war) named Pershing Gervais (profiled along with Garrison by Jim Phelan in his 1963 Saturday Evening Post report [6]) was cited as a major witness for the prosecution "who had secretly gone to work for the Government." [7] It was revealed at the same time, however, that Gervais had taken payoffs as a New Orleans policeman in the early 1950s before going to work for Garrison, and had quit "under fire" in 1965, accused again of taking a bribe. Gervais was presently working as a bail bondsman and private investigator, according to the report.
    Reaction to the charge was swift, with the vast majority of New Orleans residents supporting Garrison, who was released on $5000 bail, although both the Metropolitan Crime Commission of New Orleans and the States-Item paper demanded his resignation. Garrison stated to the press that he was convinced from the start of his investigation that the Federal Government would try to either kill him or put him in prison, and that the charge was merely an attempt to further suppress the truth regarding the assassination of President Kennedy. Reflecting his usual sense of humor even during a moment of adversity, Garrison commented upon his release that "he once expected to be assassinated himself for his pains. 'I guess this is better than being shot…I'm ahead of the game.'" [8]
    On December 15, 1971, Garrison and nine other co-defendants all pleaded not guilty to the bribery charge, and were given 60 days to file pretrial motions. Again Garrison emphasized that he was "a victim of repression practiced by '…a Government that was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy'" [9], and that he was being persecuted because of his ongoing investigation—a bold statement for anyone to make in 1971.
    A remarkable revelation occurred six months later, however, as a result of an interview conducted by New Orleans reporter Rosemary James [10] with Pershing Gervais, the expected "star witness" for the U.S. Government. The interview was conducted in a suburb of Vancouver B.C. (Tsawwassen) for a New Orleans television report on WWL-TV. A front-page story appeared in the Vancouver Sun entitled "Investigator Says He Framed Garrison" [11], following the initial telecast in New Orleans (no reports appeared in the New York Times that week).
    According to Gervais, he had been in Canada with his wife and two young children since July 1971, arriving in Vancouver in Sept., where he was given a "fake" job with General Motors of Canada, paying $18,000 per year, under the assumed name of Paul Mason. He claimed that he had been forced by the U.S. Justice Department to entrap Garrison, but now wanted to tell the truth and face the consequences, which resulted in Gervais contacting Rosemary James, an old friend. Ms. James traveled to Vancouver where she conducted an interview with Gervais to be aired on May 22 and 23, 1972. Gervais stated in his interview that he was forced to both work and lie for the Justice Department against not only Garrison but the other co-defendants, describing the case as a "farce." He went on to state that his trip to Vancouver was paid for by the U.S. Government, and that he had been guaranteed $22,000, tax-free, per year to cooperate, having been selected because he was "the one who could get him (Garrison)."
    The job with GM was set up by the Justice Department, which had the head office in Detroit arrange through the Canadian head office in Oshawa, Ontario, to provide a phony position for Gervais, in which he merely showed up in the Vancouver office once a week, more out of boredom than necessity. Gervais' title was "field traffic manager" and he was introduced to the office manager in Vancouver by the company's director of traffic in Oshawa as Paul Mason. (When contacted by the Sun, the Oshawa director indicated that he would have to take "the Fifth Amendment," which, of course, in Canada does not apply.) Gervais was given a company car, and a place to pick up his mail, but was difficult to locate much of the time, according to the local manager, and of little value to the company. His primary responsibility was to oversee car deliveries in the area. (In addition to the $18,000 salary, Gervais indicated he also received $4,000 directly from the U.S. Government.) Finally, it was suggested that collusion not only took place between the U.S. government and General Motors, but that the Canadian government had been directly involved itself.)
    On May 24, 1972, the Vancouver Sun again reported on the allegations of Pershing Gervais on its front page under the headline of "Here As Oil Company Spy." According to Gervais, he had originally been assigned to spy on the Canadian government for a major oil company, but when the management of the company "balked," he was then given the fake GM position. He was also provided a "minister's permit" enabling him to remain in Canada beyond the sixty-day visitor's limit. He had been introduced to a Canadian official (whom he thought was with the RCMP) originally in Washington DC, at which time the Justice Department suggested that he "hide out" in Canada prior to the trial, and he was given a glowing description of life in Vancouver. According to Gervais, he was to "worm" his way into learning why an unidentified U.S. oil company wasn't being given drilling rights, although on legal advice, the company pulled out of the plan, which allegedly upset the Justice Department.
    After travelling across Canada like a typical tourist, Gervais was flown back to Washington DC to legally change his name, followed by a trip to Toronto to first meet the President of GM of Canada, then go through a three-week training program with the company. After settling into his new residence, Gervais' children, six and fifteen, who were provided phony birth certificates, began attending school at York House, a private school in the city. However, as a result of Gervais' decision to admit his complicity, his 15-year-old daughter flew back to New Orleans at the time of the interview, while Gervais, his wife and their son began returning home by car (he was interviewed by the Sun in Oregon by telephone for the second installment).
    According to the Sun reporter, Jack Brooks (now deceased), the GM President in Oshawa, Ontario, was now working at the Detroit head office and was not available for comment, while representatives of both the Canadian Immigration Department and GM of Canada were looking into the matter. It was also raised in the House of Commons. In the final edition of the day, the Sun reported under the headline "PM Will Prove Fake Job Case" that Prime Minister Trudeau had ordered an investigation of the case after MP Gerald Baldwin of Peace River, Alberta, directly asked Trudeau in the House of Commons about the Government's position. Trudeau indicated that although he had never heard of the "gentleman" in question, he would look into the matter, given the apparent involvement of the Canadian government itself.
    By now, the story had become major news across Canada, with Canadian Press running a summary of the allegations in most major Canadian papers on both May 24 and 25, describing "…the issue (as) a footnote to the 1963 assassination of US President John F. Kennedy…" [12] It was also revealed on May 25 in the Sun that Gervais had been given an RCMP contact person identified as Sgt. Reg Blackmore of the Intelligence Division. [13] Gervais was given Blackmore's office and home phone numbers, both unlisted. (Blackmore had since retired from the RCMP and was working for B.C. Telephone Co. at the time of the interview.) Neither Blackmore nor RCMP Headquarters would comment.
    Gervais, interviewed by phone again from Utah, identified the US Justice Department officials who arranged for his false identity as Gerald Shur, Ries Cash, and Kathy Kimry. Apparently, Cash had some mixed feelings about lying to a friendly government, although Shur was more determined. There were some doubts about the strategy of using Gervais to spy on an oil company, which Gervais now identified as being Gulf Oil of Canada (which was later bought out by the Canadian government and is now Petro-Canada). Both Gulf Oil in New Orleans and GM in Detroit declined to make any statement about the matter. As for the Canadian government's role, MP Baldwin suggested the immigration rules were bent in repayment for the US Government's refusal in 1968 to extradite Hal Banks, who was the former head of the Seafarer's International Union of Canada; according to Baldwin, the Liberal government did not want Banks to return, in fear of what he might reveal in court. Baldwin also stated that the minister's permit was issued under a section that allows the government to waive the law barring persons into Canada who have been convicted of offenses of a "moral turpitude." This would directly involve the approval of the Cabinet, and thus, the Prime Minister.
    By the end of the week, the Gervais case had become even murkier, as reflected in the main Vancouver Sun headline for May 26: "U.S. Uses Canada As 'Security Haven.'" According to reporter Jack Brooks, sources in Washington DC had admitted that the "haven program" had been used in at least 50 cases involving US criminals or informers that the Justice Department wanted to keep "on ice," involving the cooperation of US companies (such as GM) and other friendly governments (such as Canada; no other country was identified). Spokesmen for the US Justice Department, GM and the Canadian government all confirmed use of the "haven program" involving Gervais and others.
    Brooks also reported that, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "local and federal authorities are investigating reports that a Mafia-style contract to kill has been put out on Gervais and the underworld is trying to find an 'appropriate' hit man." In response to this ominous news, Gervais was quoted as feeling that "New Orleans is not New York. I know those guys down there. They don't operate that way. Nobody is out to get me." It was also learned that the present immigration minister, Bryce Mackasey, had reviewed Gervais' case, and that the special permit allowing him into the country was based on "humanitarian grounds on the basis his life might be in danger." (It seems odd that Gervais was allegedly a marked man for testifying against Garrison and yet, also a marked man for revealing the "frame-up.")
    Gervais had apparently indicated in writing that his life was in danger, after being denied landed immigration status initially, due to a previous criminal conviction. Gervais, contacted in Wyoming by Jack Brooks, denied filling out any Canadian forms, or having a criminal record. He would only admit to partially filling out a form for the U.S. Justice Department.
    MP Baldwin meanwhile continued raising the issue in the House of Commons, questioning the former immigration minister, Otto Lang, who insisted that Gervais, indeed, had a criminal conviction, but that the Canadian government had not bowed to pressure from any other government. It was also learned from GM that they had simply filled a request from the US Justice Department to find a position in Canada for someone, resulting in Gervais being hired on Feb. 1, 1972 (eight months after leaving the U.S., shortly after his name was revealed at the time of Garrison's arrest).
    Basically, the effort to hide Gervais temporarily in Canada was part of an ongoing program to fight organized crime, which Garrison was being accused of being involved with. The fact that Gervais appeared to be lying did not seem to be a concern on the part of either the U.S. or Canadian governments. Despite the tremendous coverage of the Gervais affair in Vancouver and across Canada through Canadian Press, the whole matter ended quite abruptly. There were no further reports by Jack Brooks and only a brief CP report appeared on May 31 in the Sun (and in the Calgary Herald amongst others on June 1, 1972), summarizing a Justice Department statement from Ottawa indicating that this was the only case of U.S. influence on Canada to harbor a government witness.
    Although the New York Times had ignored the ongoing allegations about Gervais' role as reported elsewhere in May–June 1972, an article did appear in the Sept. 21, 1973, issue regarding Garrison's trial under the headline "Informant Says Garrison Allies Tried Bribery On His Testimony." Gervais was called to testify over two days as part of the prosecution's rebuttal in order to "clear up a question over the integrity of the government's tapes" despite the objections of Garrison (who was defending himself). Gervais described his trip to Vancouver for the court, and his subsequent decision to return to New Orleans after becoming "disenchanted" with his job at GM. He also stated that he had told an unidentified television reporter that the case against Garrison was a "fraud," but, unbelievably, now insisted that his previous statements to the press had been "irresponsible" and that he now was being "truthful." He felt that he finally had a chance for "a rebirth," making him "forever clean." Gervais went on to accuse Garrison's original lawyers of trying to bribe his lawyer and himself (for $50,000) into agreeing to allow the defense to write "the script."
    The NYT report also indicated that a professor of psychology and speech at City University of New York had concluded that tapes allegedly recording Garrison in his own home were, in fact, fraudulent. An IRS agent who had monitored the conversation insisted, however, that the tapes had not been altered. Fortunately, the jury had the good sense to recognize the bankrupt state of the government's case against Garrison (although three codefendants did earlier plead guilty), and he was found not guilty of the charge, although he later had to go through a second trial for tax evasion, involving the money he did not accept as a bribe. He also won that case. [14]
    Given the opinion of both G. Robert Blakey and Richard Billings that organized crime boss Carlos Marcello was likely behind the plot to kill Kennedy and not factions of the U.S. government itself, it is not surprising that they include a highly biased account of the pinball bribery trial in the forward of Fatal Hour (Berkley: NY)—a paperback edition of The Plot to Kill the President (Times Books: NY). They give the impression that Garrison was actually guilty after all, but benefitted from a weak witness in Gervais and his own skills as an attorney (who couldn't be cross-examined).
    As for Pershing Gervais, he was still a bondsman at the time of the publication of On The Trail of the Assassins (Sheridan Square Press: NY) in 1988, living in Baton Rouge, LA. I wrote to him in regard to my research for this article, but did not receive a reply. Upon the death of Jim Garrison in Oct. 1992, Gervais (in a Times-Picayune interview) made no reference to his own lack of credibility, but was quite willing to give his assessment of Jim Garrison: "I cannot say anything but evil about him…He was a menace, and anybody who thinks he was an honest man is insane." [15] It seems to me that this description more accurately describes Pershing Gervais.

    1. When Shaw spoke to the press and the television audience after his arraignment, he actually stated that he "did not know Harvey Lee Oswald," a variation on the name that appears elsewhere in the assassination literature; see The Garrison Case (Potter: NY) by Milton Brener, p. 114.
    2. Some examples: The Nation, March 17, 1969; Newsweek, Mar. 17, 1969, p. 105; National Review, Mar. 25, 1969, p. 267; New York Times Magazine, April 20, 1969, p. 29 (a lengthy report by Edward J. Epstein); Look, Aug. 26, 1969 ("The Persecution of Clay Shaw" by Warren Rogers); Penthouse, Nov. 1969 (interview conducted by Jim Phelan, sent to me by him).
    3. Scandals, Scamps, and Scoundrels (Random House: NY) by Jim Phelan (1982), p. 175. Note: Perry Russo comments on the reasons behind his decision in a three-part audio interview I conducted with him in 1991 that is now available from Ulric Shannon in Hull, Quebec.
    4. Conversation with Paris Flammonde in 1993; note: the NYT headline on Jan. 19, 1969, about the Shaw trial stated: "Speculation Rises That Garrison May Abandon The Investigation Of President Kennedy's Assassination," p. 27.
    5. NYT, May 27, 1971, p. 10.
    6. "The Vice Man Cometh," Sat. Eve. Post, June 8, 1963, p. 67.
    7. NYT, July 2, 1971, p. 30.
    8. Newsweek, July 12, 1971, p. 52.
    9. NYT, Dec. 16, 1971, p. 71.
    10. Co-author with Jack Wardlaw of Plot or Politics (Pelican: New Orleans), 1967, about the Garrison Case.
    11. Vancouver Sun, May 24, 1972, p. 1.
    12. Calgary Herald, May 25, 1972.
    13. Blackmore was the RCMP official who interviewed Ralph Smele on behalf of the Seattle FBI office in regard to his long distance phone call to Sgt. Patrick Dean in Dallas about a film he had allegedly taken. He admitted to having used the name "Ralph Simpson" and that the call was a hoax. Thanks to Sheldon Inkol for pointing out the pertinent FBI report in the appendix of Six Seconds in Dallas after reading my article "The Long Distance Telephone Call," TTD, Mar. 1991.
    14. See On the Trail of the Assassins (Sheridan Square Press: NY) by Jim Garrison (1988) and specifically chapter 19, pp. 298–319, for a detailed description of the trial from his point of view. Also see Destiny Betrayed (Sheridan Square Press: NY) by Jim DiEugenio (1992), pp. 268–269 for brief references to Gervais and the trial.
    15. New Orleans Times-Picayune, Oct. 22, 1992, pp. 1, 10 (sent to me by Perry Russo at my request).

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