The upcoming September trial of suspected Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh has prompted predictions that his case will captivate the attention of legal experts nationwide because, as one Associated Press article stated, “it is rare, if not unprecedented, that an American citizen is captured behind enemy lines during a war and charged in the U.S. criminal justice system.” Rare perhaps, but not unprecedented if inquisitive experts were to consider the similarities between Walker’s case and that of American soldier of fortune and alleged CIA agent William Morgan.
Thirty-three years before his brutal execution in a desolate Cuban field, William Alexander Morgan was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 19, 1928. The son of affluent parents, Morgan was a particularly troubled teen-ager. He was expelled from four high schools, repeatedly ran away from home and was arrested on grand larceny charges, all before his 16th birthday. Shortly after his 17th birthday, he was arrested in San Antonio, Texas, where he had hitchhiked as a lark. He was returned to Toledo, Ohio, where police suspected him of armed robbery. One law-enforcement official later described the blond-haired, blue-eyed youth as “a superannuated juvenile delinquent.”
After he turned 18 years old, in a bid to begin anew, Morgan enlisted in the Army. He took basic and advanced infantry training stateside and then shipped out to occupied Japan, where he spent time at the Atsugi Army-Air Force base. After only a few weeks in Japan, Morgan married an attractive Japanese woman who worked in a nightclub. A short while later, he went AWOL at least twice, was court-martialed on Nov. 7, 1947, and thrown into the Kyoto stockade for three months. He promptly escaped after overpowering a guard and stealing his uniform and weapon. Recaptured, he was again court-martialed, found guilty of escape, assault and robbery, and sentenced to five years of hard labor.
Declared a “recalcitrant military prisoner,” Morgan was transported to the maximum-security disciplinary barracks at Camp Cooke, Calif. (today Vandenberg Air Force Base). At Camp Cooke, he entertained other prisoners by spinning fanciful stories about his being a direct descendant of another William Morgan who, in 1826, became quite notorious after vanishing from his upstate New York home. Morgan’s chatter soon earned him the nickname “Gabby.”
After his sentence was reduced to three years, Morgan was transferred to the federal correctional institution in Chillicothe, Ohio. There he was placed in solitary confinement for attempting to escape, fighting and refusing to work. He spent his last months of imprisonment at the federal facility in Milan, Mich., and was released on April 11, 1950.
A confidential FBI memorandum dated May 5, 1959, states that Morgan was given a dishonorable discharge from the Army in 1950, and that “he reportedly is [a] veteran of the Korean War and is described as a judo expert.” Oddly, none of Morgan’s surviving family remember his being in Korea. His brother-in-law, Edric Costain, said, “I don’t know where that came from. He was an Army veteran, not one that anyone is very proud of, who had been in Japan, not Korea.”
Following his release from prison, Morgan headed back to Toledo, Ohio, where he had grown up. After a succession of menial jobs, he took up a nomadic lifestyle. Said a former friend, who declined to be identified, “Jack Kerouac was still imagining life on the road while Morgan was out there living it.”
Morgan’s wanderings took him all over the United States and included a stint as a sword swallower in a traveling carnival. He fell in love with the carnival’s snake charmer, Teresa Bethel, and married. By 1957, the couple had two children together, a son, William Jr., and a girl, Anna. But fatherhood did nothing to quell Morgan’s wanderlust and, after failed attempts to work in electronics, he began disappearing for months at a time, leaving his family to live with his parents.
About this time, Morgan reportedly developed a keen sense of righteous indignation and a longing for social justice. He is said to have despised the oppressive regime of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Baptista, as well as the peculiar cabal that kept the dictator in power. In the 1950s, Havana served as a hedonistic playground for the world’s elite, producing huge gambling, prostitution and drug profits for American Mafiosos, corrupt law-enforcement officials and their politically elected cronies. Drugs, be it marijuana or cocaine, were so plentiful at the time that one American magazine, in a 1950 article, proclaimed: “Narcotics are hardly more difficult to obtain in Cuba than a shot of rum. And only slightly more expensive.” In the grandiose hotels and casinos that lined Cuba’s beaches, it was common to find U.S. narcotics officials and congressmen hobnobbing with the likes of underworld mastermind Meyer Lansky and crime boss Santo Trafficante Jr., both of whom oversaw the redevelopment of Cuba’s lodging and casino industry with over $100 million in assistance from Batista.
William Morgan arrived in Cuba in late 1957, a precipitous time in the island’s rapidly shifting political and economic climate. The conventional story about why Morgan journeyed there turns on the age-old tale of consummate adventurer drawn to the place of action, like a moth to the flame. But the real story is more involved than that.
In 1956, Morgan began popping up in Tampa, Fla., and points further south in the Florida Keys. According to Michael Falcone, a former numbers runner for the Trafficante crime family, Morgan “was a familiar face around here in the mid-’50s.” Says Falcone, “He was with the outfit that was running guns to Cuba, a pretty lucrative undertaking back then.” Other sources confirm Morgan’s gunrunning and say that for about 16 months, he traveled between Tampa and Miami, and occasionally to Houston, Texas, and Hope, Ark., arranging large shipments of Cuba-bound weapons.
Confirming this are 1978 transcripts from the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations. These transcripts reveal that Morgan had dealings with Robert Ray McKeown, a Texas-based businessman and convicted gunrunner, who in 1957, had been deported from Cuba by Batista. McKeown was a close friend of former Cuban President Carlos Prio Socarras, whom he allegedly helped spirit $300 million into the U.S. when Prio moved to Miami. McKeown was also quite close with Fidel Castro. In 1959, on a visit to Houston, Castro went out of his way to meet with McKeown.
Morgan is also believed to have been involved in the arms-smuggling operations of Cleveland mobster and twice-convicted gunrunner Dominick E. Bartone. After supplying Castro with arms for two years, Bartone was arrested by U.S. Customs Service agents in May 1959 in Miami. Charges included arranging the shipment of guns and 11 C-74 planes to Trujillo’s Dominican Republic. According to records of the U.S. Senate’s McClellan Committee, Bartone financed Morgan for aircraft-smuggling operations involving Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa.
Morgan’s first several months in Cuba are shrouded in mystery, but if one is to believe the highly fictionalized account of his life portrayed in Alex Abella’s novel, “The Great American,” an unwitting Morgan was literally recruited off Havana’s streets for work with the CIA. While Abella’s book makes for wonderful reading, it is far more likely that Morgan was vetted for covert work while still in the United States.
Indeed, in interviews with journalists in Cuba, Morgan vaguely alluded to contacts he had in Florida with the militant group Directoro Revolucinario, which operated with CIA support. Former intelligence officials say that while Morgan was in South Florida, he also had contacts with CIA operatives there that included future-Watergate burglars Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis, and Mafia go-between Johnny Rosselli.
In February 1958, Morgan turned up in Cuba’s lush highlands in the Escambray Mountains looking to join the anti-Batista rebels headquartered there. Former rebel Roger Redondo told a Time magazine correspondent that he suspected Morgan worked “for the CIA or FBI” but that the American was allowed to stay and assist with training.
Within a few weeks, “the gringo from Ohio” was leading rebel bands in ferocious attacks against Batista’s troops and was quickly promoted to the rank of major in the National Second Front of the Escambray. Fidel Castro praised Morgan at the time and said that he was “the kind of American that Cuba needs.”
As news of his exploits filtered out, Morgan became an international celebrity and media darling. Accounts of his exploits were sensationalized by New York Times reporter Herbert L. Matthews, who dubbed Morgan “the Yanqui Commandante.” Matthews failed to mention Morgan’s dismal Army record and dishonorable discharge and embellished Morgan’s allure by telling readers that he was a master paratrooper and Korean War veteran, thus confusing even the FBI.
Many young Americans idolized Morgan, including a Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald. Like Morgan, Oswald was stationed in Japan at the Atsugi base. Edward Jay Epstein has reported that in August 1959, Oswald’s hero, as expressed to fellow Marine Nelson Delgado, was William Morgan. Oswald, Epstein writes, was especially attracted to Morgan’s achievements as “a double agent.” Further, Oswald suggested to Delgado that they both go to Cuba and “emulate Maj. Morgan.” Delgado, a Cuban-American, reported that Oswald actually wrote to and visited the Cuban consulate in Los Angeles in pursuit of this objective.
Gen. Fabian Escalante, former head of Cuban State Security and today an adviser to Castro, claims that he has a thick intelligence dossier on Morgan that firmly establishes he was a CIA agent under the control of the agency’s former Western Hemisphere Division chief, Col. Joseph Caldwell King. However, Escalante says, Morgan’s cover legend of being a chronic disciplinary problem for the Army and perennial outsider was too close to reality, and Col. King and CIA personnel operating out of the embassy in Havana were unable to control him. Writes Escalante: “Morgan was undisciplined and reported little, greatly displeasing the CIA station, which complained about him constantly.”
The CIA’s displeasure soon prompted the agency to dispatch another agent to Cuba who could watch over the unpredictable American. That agent, operating under the alias John Maples Spiritto, was a former “special employee” of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. In the early 1950s, Spiritto also had been employed in Manhattan as part of the CIA’s top-secret Artichoke Project.
Morgan and Spiritto met on a regular basis at Havana’s Capri Hotel, which was infamous for its proximity to a number of the city’s better brothels and porn houses. A 1961 Florida Organized Crime Bureau report claims that Mafia boss Trafficante held an interest in the Capri’s gambling operations, but Trafficante denied this.
As it turned out, Spiritto, who spoke fluent Spanish as well as French and Italian, had his own undisciplined habits. He incessantly cavorted with women of ill repute, socialized extensively with known narcotics traffickers and most unfortunately killed a rebel officer in a fight over a woman. The ensuing fallout caused the CIA to terminate his services.
In recent months, Spiritto has been named as the prime culprit in the assassination of hugely popular Colombian opposition leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. Gaitan was shot and killed on April 9, 1948, in Bogota amidst the 9th International Conference of American Republics, which was attended by U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall.
Of course, the CIA strongly denies that Spiritto had anything to do with Gaitan’s murder, maintaining, as it has for decades, that Gaitan was killed by Juan Roa Sierra, an occult-obsessed madman who was acting on a family grudge.
Historian and Gaitan expert Paul Wolf also discounts the Spiritto stories, despite the fact that Gaitan’s daughter maintains she has viewed a filmed confession to Gaitan’s murder made by Spiritto in Cuba. Said Wolf, “There are endless conspiracy theories about the Gaitan assassination, and this is a popular one. However, like most of the theories, there isn’t much evidence it’s true.”
Interesting to note is that Fidel Castro, then a 22-year-old Havana University student and budding agitator, was in Bogota the same day Gaitan was killed. The riots that immediately followed Gaitan’s death, called the Bogotazo, caused over $150 million in damages, hundreds of deaths and produced a civil war that has resulted in over 200,000 additional deaths and is still very much felt in Colombia today. In 1957, Dr. Guillermo Belt, Cuba’s representative to the 1948 Bogota conference, told U.S. Ambassador to Cuba Earl E.T. Smith that Castro “was accused of committing several murders at the Bogota uprising.”
Paul D. Bethel, who was the press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Havana during Castro’s rise to power, revealed in his 1969 book entitled “The Losers” that William Morgan produced great consternation among U.S. officials in 1959 when he began “keeping company with a very unwholesome American who lived at the Capri Hotel,” whom others described as a “gangster.”
Federal Narcotics Bureau documents strongly suggest that this was an associate of Spiritto’s who frequently stayed at the Capri Hotel using a false U.S. passport bearing the name Samuel Rowland. This was actually Paul Damien Mondoloni, a former French intelligence agent turned international narcotics trafficker. Mondoloni, who is also believed to have been an occasional CIA contractor, was a silent partner in the El Morocco Club in Camaguey, Cuba, which was also partly owned by Meyer Lansky and Isadore Shadletsky. Mondoloni had been deported from Cuba to France in February 1957 to face criminal charges but quickly returned to Havana where he often brokered heroin shipments using convicted New York City traffickers Adela Castillo and Milton Abramson.
In September 1959, the U.S. State Department, at the insistence of Pennsylvania Rep. Francis E. Walter, revoked William Morgan’s citizenship. Walter, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, demanded the action based on a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that forbids U.S. citizens to serve in foreign armies. Morgan was said to be devastated by the action. He argued that he had never done anything against the interests of the U.S.
But, several months prior, Morgan had publicly declared that he would “kill any American Marines” who attempted to invade Cuba or to interfere with Castro’s objectives.
Following Castro’s takeover of Cuba – which was duly celebrated when William Morgan marched arm-in-arm with Che Guevara and Castro down Havana’s main streets as thousands cheered – Morgan reportedly decided to settle down and raise a family. Earlier, in November 1958, Morgan had married a 23-year old Cuban rebel named Olga Rodriguez. With a $70,000 loan from Cuba’s Agricultural Ministry, he and Olga began developing a frog farm. By early 1960, they had nearly a half million croaking creatures ready for export. But the past wouldn’t leave Morgan alone.
Morgan was ordered arrested by Castro on Oct. 16, 1960. The charges against him to this day remain vague but appear to have turned on his perceived betrayal of Castro. Some Cuban officials say bluntly that Morgan was “a traitor” to his adopted country, reminding people that the American had been officially bestowed Cuban citizenship by Castro.
Victor Dreke, a former Cuban rebel who went on to fight with Guevara in the Congo, says that after Castro’s victory Morgan “took up arms against the revolution.” Further, Dreke claims that Morgan, at the direction of his CIA handlers, “murdered peasants and raped women during the war in the zone where the [Escambray Front] operated.”
Others, who knew Morgan and fought alongside him, deny this as “communistic nonsense” and say that Morgan was “a freedom fighter” who, for the sake of “political expediency,” was “betrayed by [U.S. Ambassador to Cuba] Philip Bonsal.” To support this charge, they point to once-secret State Department documents that reveal that, shortly before Morgan’s arrest, Bonsal surreptitiously sent word to Castro that Morgan was organizing a secret army to push Castro from power.
After his arrest, Morgan was confined to La Cabana prison in Havana, where he eventually was tried and sentenced to death. Morgan wasn’t the only American held in La Cabana. There were others, including John V. Martino.
Martino had been an occasional government contractor as early as 1951, when he worked for the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps at Fort Totten in Queens, N.Y. His expertise was in the areas of security systems, electronic surveillance and surreptitious recording. One of the CIC officers Martino schooled, Allan Hughes, went on to attend the infamous November 1953 CIA-Fort Detrick gathering at Deep Creek Lake, Md., that allegedly resulted in the bizarre death of Frank Olson.
Martino, who was related to Philadelphia crime boss Angelo Bruno, also did electronics work in a number of Atlantic City and Manhattan hotels, which gained him entree to Trafficante. Hired by Trafficante in the mid-1950s, Martino traveled to Cuba to install security systems in a number of Havana hotels and casinos.
Martino was arrested by Castro’s security agents on July 23, 1959. He was charged with gunrunning and being a covert agent for anti-Castro forces based in the United States. He strenuously denied the charges. Nonetheless, he was convicted at trial in December 1959 and given a 13-year sentence. Held in a number of Cuban prisons, Martino was moved to La Cabana after Morgan’s placement there.
Martino, who would be released after 40 months in Cuba, told of his time in prison with Morgan in a book he wrote in 1963. According to Martino, Morgan told him that he had informed Castro about his being recruited for counter-revolutionary aims and that he had agreed, at Castro’s request, to “go along with the plot to find out what was really behind it.”
Martino wrote that Morgan told him he had decided to conspire against Castro sometime during “the early months of 1960,” after the U.S. government took his citizenship away. Morgan further told Martino that he had made several secret trips to the U.S. and then said: “Men have been infiltrating into Cuba for two or three months now. They are working closely with the CIA.”
William Morgan was executed on March 12, 1961, one month before 1,500 U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Fidel and Raul Castro attended Morgan’s execution, which took place in the middle of the night. Over the years, there have been reports that Guevara was also present, but this has never been confirmed.
According to eyewitnesses, Morgan was led out into an open field to face a firing squad of seven men. Standing with his hands tied behind his back, several floodlights were focused on him. A voice, out of the darkness, ordered him to kneel down. Morgan refused by shaking his head.
“Kneel and beg for your life,” the voice again commanded.
“I kneel for no man,” Morgan shouted back.
Then an order was given, some say by Castro himself, and a member of the firing squad stepped forward and shot Morgan in his right knee. Morgan still did not go down, and another round was fired into his left knee. Morgan fell to the ground withering in pain. Forcing one of his wrists into his mouth, he bit down hard so as not to cry out in pain. Six years later in Bolivia, Guevara would do the same thing after he was shot as a CIA agent looked on.
With Morgan on the ground, the voice shouted, “There! You see, we made you kneel.”
Morgan spat blood in response, and another marksman fired a round into his right shoulder. When Morgan still made no sound, his left shoulder was shattered by another bullet.
Then the captain of the firing squad approached and fired a full clip from his machine gun into Morgan’s chest. Needlessly, another soldier fired five revolver rounds into Morgan’s head. A local priest, Rev. Dario Casado, who helped bury Morgan’s body in nearby Colon Cemetery, said that there was nothing left of Morgan’s face.
The location of Morgan’s body, like that of the 19th century namesake he bragged about at Camp Cooke, is today unknown. Sometime after 1971, Morgan’s grave was disturbed and his remains taken to an undisclosed site or, worse yet, destroyed.
Last month, Morgan’s Cuban-born wife, Olga Goodwin (she has remarried) announced that she was going to petition the Cuban government for the return of her husband’s body. Goodwin, who today lives in Morgan’s boyhood city of Toledo, Ohio, says she also wants the U.S. government to restore her husband’s citizenship.
Cuban officials have yet to respond to Goodwin because they say they “have received nothing official about Morgan from anyone.” The State Department and the CIA are remaining silent for now about Goodwin’s anticipated requests and refuse to discuss Morgan. One State Department spokesperson, who declined to speak on the record, said “Morgan is ancient history, and we’d like to see him stay that way.”
Today, it seems quite likely that the world may learn the ultimate truth about John Walker Lindh long before William Morgan’s complete story is ever revealed.
H.P. Albarelli Jr. is an investigative journalist and writer who lives in Florida.