For previous installments of my irregular series tracing the history of the Watergate scandal, click here. This week, the actual break-in, and the sad story of the man who discovered it.
On June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills apprehended Bernard Barker, Vergilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Sturgis, and James McCord inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building, a combination office, condominium, and hotel complex near the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The men were arrested and locked up until a preliminary hearing the next morning.
At the hearing, the judge asked each of the men their names, homes, and where they worked. James McCord mumbled his answer when it got to where he worked. The judge told him to speak up. “Where do you work?” the judge asked again.
“I work for the Committee to Re-Elect the President,” McCord said. And with those words, the Watergate scandal officially began. As we’ve noted in previous installments of this story, a lot had already happened by this time — the Enemies List, the raid on the office of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, and Operation GEMSTONE. The infamous “two-bit burglary” was the incident that unraveled the entire web.
The June 17 burglary, interestingly, was not the first. During the previous Memorial Day weekend, the Watergate team tried not one, but twice, and failed on both attempts, one because they couldn’t get to the staff elevator before the night alarm got turned on, and the second because Gonzales, a locksmith, failed to pick the lock to the DNC headquarters office door.
On the night of May 28, a third attempt succeeded. The burglars installed a wiretap and room mike in the office of DNC chairman Larry O’Brien, and photographed as many documents as they could. Across the street from the Watergate, in Room 419 of the Howard Johnson’s (now a George Washington University dorm), Hunt and the other mission commander, G. Gordon Liddy, monitored the bugs, but evidently they didn’t work that well. By June 5, they gave McCord new instructions: fixing the room monitoring bug and fixing a problem with one of the phone taps.
On June 17, the team went back in, using the door between the garage and the stairwell. To make sure it didn’t lock, they put duct tape over the latch bolt. Security guard Frank Wills, working the midnight to 7 am shift, spotted the tape on a routine patrol of the building, and removed it. He didn’t think anything else about it, and kept going.
But when he came back on his next round, he found that the tape had been replaced! And so he called the police.
Frank’s story didn’t turn out well. When the Watergate complex didn’t give him a raise for discovering the burglary, he quit. His fifteen minutes of fame lasted a year or so, and after that he wasn’t able to hold a steady job. In 1983 he was convicted of shoplifting. By 1993, he was so broke that he was washing his clothes in a bucket. He died in 2000 of a brain tumor.