“Wisdom requires not only the investigation of many things but contemplation of the mystery.” – Jeremy Narby
Gerald Posner is an author and investigative journalist originally from San Francisco and living today in Miami. He has written twelve books and has had his work as a freelance journalist published by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Esquire, and Time.
His first book, Mengele: The Complete Story (written with John Ware), was an investigation into the history of Auschwitz physician and “angel of death” Josef Mengele, who performed experiments on human subjects and selected many who were sent to gas chambers.
Among Gerald’s subsequent books are Case Closed, which recorded his investigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination and concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone; Killing the Dream about the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination; Secrets of the Kingdom, detailing relationships between the United States government and the Saudi ruling family; and God’s Bankers, a history of The Vatican Bank.
Visit Gerald’s website: www.posner.com
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[Note: This interview was conducted on May 15, 2017.]
OR: Gerald, thank you so much for joining us today.
Let’s begin with the Vatican Bank, the subject of your most recent book God’s Bankers. I was curious what led you into writing that. Was it all of the changes that have taken place with the new Pope?
GP: I wish that I could claim some wonderful sort of visionary insight before I started the project to know what God’s Bankers turned out to be, but I can’t. So many writers have a germ of an idea that ends up sitting there for a while and then it takes a long time until you finally find the opportunity to write about it.
In the 1980s, I’d gotten access to federal police archives in Argentina. The military junta had been thrown out after the war with Britain in the Falklands and a new civilian government was taking shape. I happened to be there researching Josef Mengele as part of a pro bono lawsuit and it turned out that I got access to these files late one night when the federal police came to pick me up and take me to central headquarters. And in those archives were files that not only opened up ten years of Mengele’s life but included information about some other Nazis that got into South America with the assistance of Father Anton Weber in Rome. That seemed to me to be a really fascinating side story about Nazis who may have reached South America. This research ended up becoming part of the basis for my first book, which was about Josef Mengele. I had a chapter in the Mengele biography about these Nazis and their relationship with Rome in the original version.
Nazis making their way to Argentina was so off topic that my editor at the time, Tom Quinn at McGraw-Hill, convinced me that although it was really interesting it wasn’t part of the Mengele story, and he was right. So we left it out. And I always thought I’d return to it.
At one point in the 1990s I pitched it to Random House and they weren’t quite interested and then in 2005 Simon and Schuster was interested in it, so I signed a contract with them to do that book, which became God’s Bankers.
The research grew into a larger story than I realized it was at the beginning. It involved not just how Church leaders helped a handful of Nazis flee to Argentina, but also the larger issues of WWII and Pope Pius XII and it ultimately led me to the Vatican Bank.
I remember saying to Trisha, my wife who works with me on all of my projects and who recently published a book on Victor Capesius – the so-called “pharmacist of Auschwitz” – that the Vatican Bank is key here and that we’ve got to go back to when the Church regained its sovereignty from Mussolini in the 1920s and when it lost it in the 1870s.
So, ultimately it turned into a book about two-hundred years of the Vatican’s finances. I actually started the book while Benedict was still Pope and finished after Francis had become Pope.
So the question you asked at the beginning – No, it wasn’t started because of the attention that came to the bank with Francis. It’s really important to work with the right publishers when you’re an author and I was very grateful to have partners that let me go out and find what the story is and give me leeway to discover the theses of my books after I start writing them.
OR: That’s the only way you can write an honest story. There’s no sense starting with your conclusion in mind. That defeats the purpose of the investigation and you just get left with junk research.
GP: Just like if you’re a lawyer, if you take the evidence that only supports your position then you can make a case for almost anything, but you are not likely to arrive at historical truth.
If, say, James Comey called you and asked you to write his story then you’re not going to get counter viewpoints and dig, because your purpose is not historical truth. It’s to tell Comey’s story. But if you’re writing about history then you do yourself and readers a disservice by not examining the case from both sides.
OR: The Vatican Bank starts in WWII. If I remember correctly from your book, the bank was started in order to give the Vatican the ability to continue doing business with both sides during the war. Why was it so important to the Vatican that it continue doing business with the Axis countries?
GP: The Vatican had a brilliant financial advisor that Pius XI chose, the Pope immediately before the wartime Pope. That advisor was hired to manage the equivalent of $1 billion that the Vatican received in a settlement with Italy, from the agreement where Mussolini gave the Vatican its sovereignty back. The money was compensation for the Papal States having been absorbed into Italy when Italy became a unified country. The Pope realized that he didn’t know how to manage all of this money and so he hired this advisor, whose name was Bernardino Nogara.
Nogara knew exactly how to manage money in wartime, which is you don’t just pick a side and invest in who you think will win or who you want to win. Instead, you invest in both sides, which is exactly what the Vatican did. They invested in the Americans by buying stock in some of the top American corporations. They invested in Britain by purchasing property in London, some of which they still have. And they also invested in Germany and Italy.
Both the United States and Britain had very aggressive blacklists that prevented any country from investing in Germany and Italy. Those that did were barred from owning American or British assets. The Vatican was at risk of losing all of their American and British investments if their German and Italian investments were revealed. The only way to stay off the radar was to stay completely out of the international banking system and the only way to do that was to form your own bank.
During the course of WWII, the Treasury Department placed sanctions on a series of countries, including ones that were officially neutral. Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, and even little San Marino were blacklisted. The Vatican was the only neutral country that doesn’t get put on a blacklist because of the Vatican’s brilliance in forming the Vatican Bank in 1942.
OR: American and British intelligence must have had a pretty good idea what was happening, didn’t they?
GP: As a matter of fact, I think they did. But, there’s no monolithic decision making in large agencies. Some in the Treasury department wanted to blacklist the Vatican and others didn’t. A perfect example of this is that there were securities, stocks and bonds, which had been registered in Axis countries and the Vatican forwarded them to their correspondent banks, which were J.P. Morgan and Citibank. Trading on those securities should have been banned because of where they originated. The Vatican sought an exemption on humanitarian and religious grounds. The Treasury had a vigorous debate and they knew that the Vatican Bank was getting around the law and essentially laundering money for blocked countries and persons while taking a generous fee, but they couldn’t prove it because the evidence they needed to prove it was in the Vatican Bank. They actually recommended to Roosevelt that the Vatican be blacklisted and he wasn’t going to have anything to do with that. I wasn’t able to fully investigate why that was the case. It is possible that it was simply because of the Catholic vote, which was large. Pius XII did break all protocol at one point and endorsed Roosevelt for re-election.
OR: You’ve mentioned about how the bank operated as a hybrid between a central bank and an investment bank. How did they really make money? They don’t make any loans. Did they simply take in deposits and then earn money by buying securities with those deposits?
GP: The original idea of the bank wasn’t to make money. I know that sounds weird, it goes against the whole idea of capitalism, but of course, remember, the Church was against the idea of capitalism for a long time. They viewed it as the province of Jews and heretical Protestants.
OR: I suppose communism made them warm up to capitalism in a big way.
GP: Without any question. Socialism might have been all right, or some idea of socialism, but communism made them warm up to capitalism because communism with Marx and Engels and then Lenin was godless.
But, going back to the Vatican Bank, the original idea was not to make money with the bank itself. It was to be a service that allowed them to make money by placing investments in firms that they otherwise would have been blocked from investing in.
The Vatican Bank became the conduit through which the Vatican could invest in both Italian insurance companies such as Generali and German insurance companies. Those insurance companies, starting out in 1943 and into 1944, started escheating Jews of life insurance policies being sent to death camps. Some executives at the largest companies like Allianz and Generali said ‘those people aren’t ever coming back’ and they took the cash value of those policies off the books immediately.
OR: I think they made a Law and Order episode about this. They changed the names of the companies, but the fact pattern is pretty similar.
GP: That’s fabulous. I didn’t know that. I’ve seen many Law and Order episodes but not that one. I’ll have to catch it.
The Vatican was earning outsized profits from these investments in insurance companies. The war started to turn against Germany and Italy by the summer of 1944 and the Vatican Bank began pulling back on its investments in those countries. By the time the war ended, they had none remaining and could say that they never invested in Germany or Italy and only invested in the Allied side. And nobody could prove otherwise.
Immediately after that, the Vatican became strong allies of the West against communism and no one wanted to investigate much further.
So, that’s how they made money. They made money by investing money in ways that otherwise would have been prohibited.
They also made money over the years by allowing the Vatican Bank to turn a blind eye to the use of the bank for money laundering.
OR: I wanted to ask you about money laundering in one second, but before I do, I also wanted to ask whether or not there is any evidence that the Vatican or the Pope himself was aware that some of the insurance companies they were investing in were defrauding Holocaust victims?
GP: No. No evidence that I found. If you asked me my intuition I would say that if you chased this story another few years you would find that no evidence exists because they didn’t want any evidence to exist. Within a hierarchy, people at the top are smart enough to not know certain things.
What the insurance companies were doing was a well-guarded secret. It certainly wasn’t something they advertised. We only know about it because of the war crime trials after the war. I’d be flabbergasted if the clerics running the Church knew.
OR: How did the Vatican justify this in their minds? Clearly, there is enough evidence to say that they were anti-Semitic – certainly, the Pope was. They had a rabid fear of communism. And the Pope was obsessed with Papal power and the role of the Church in the world. Do you think in their minds they were able to justify their actions because they felt it was in service to the work of the Church?
GP: You’ve hit all the key reasons. I’m just a little hesitant to completely agree with that.
I don’t think they weighed it like that. It was never a decision where they received reports about genocide and then said to themselves, ‘Should we or shouldn’t we do something,’ or ‘We have to support this because the commies are worse.’
There was a confluence of events and factors that combined into a perfect storm. You’re right that they would have never embraced Hitler or fascism to the extent that they did if communism didn’t exist, although many of Hitler’s top people were lapsed Catholics. Communism was eradicating everything from synagogues to the Russian Orthodox Church to the Catholic Church. That petrified the Church. But, I also think that it was the overriding desire of Pope Pius XII to be solely responsible for the Catholic Church as the Vicar of Christ on earth. The Church had survived the ransacking of Rome by the Huns. It survived Napoleon. It’s survived 2,000 years and it’s going to survive this war. What was most important to him was finding a way to navigate the war and protect Catholics. Everything else was secondary.
I don’t say that his decisions were right, I just think that’s most likely how he thought. He’s not going to take a stance that would allow Hitler to move against German Catholics. Germany and the Vatican also had an agreement whereby Germany collected funds for the Church as a tax on all Catholics and remitted the funds to Rome. If you were Catholic and German, you paid a payroll tax. It amounted to $100 million a year in today’s money in total. That’s just one more factor that made Germany a reliable partner for them, more so than many others.
You touched on something important, which was anti-Semitism. That’s a more subconscious part of the decision. What I mean by that is that the Church has a long history of anti-Semitism. It had taught that Jews were responsible for Christ’s death. In the time leading up to the war, that anti-Semitism was still present.
There’s also something we have in Catholicism called “divine will.” It’s the idea that if something is God’s will, you can’t change it. There were probably some clerics in the Vatican that thought the horrors falling on Jews was divine will and they couldn’t interfere with it.
OR: Do you agree with John Cornwell’s conclusion in his book Hitler’s Pope that the Vatican was largely aware of what was happening in Europe and chose not to involve themselves?
GP: Yes and no. There are two widely divergent views. If you asked me to pick whether Cornwell or those who argue that the Pope was a Good Samaritan and did everything he could to save Jews are right, then I would have to agree with Cornwell.
Here’s my only problem with Cornwell’s book. Pius was largely silent publicly, but you cannot just assume that because he was publicly silent he did nothing. He did do things, he just didn’t do enough. He didn’t do enough, for example, when Nazis were marching Jews from Rome. But he did put out the order that said Jews could be taken into monasteries, which saved hundreds of lives.
I am still very hard on Pius. He was the wrong Pope at the wrong time. He was the last great regal Pope. He wasn’t shy or incapable of a job he believed in, but he was meek and mild publicly when it came to Nazi crimes and for that I condemn him. He really did a disservice to the Papacy.
In the 1940s most Catholics still believed in the absolute decree of the Pope. If the Pope had issued a decree stating that if you murder Jews it is a mortal sin that will not be forgiven by the Church, who knows what would have happened? There were 50,000 or so perpetrators who were part of the machinery of the death camps. Many of those were Catholic. They would have had second thoughts about what they were doing. But, that was never said.
There are people who have come to me and told me, ‘you don’t realize what a difficult position the Pope was in because maybe the Germans would have come and taken him as a prisoner in Germany.’ Let’s assume for one second that that did happen or that they even executed him. We would be talking about him right now as the heroic Pope. We would be saying, ‘Can you believe this Pope that stood up to Hitler and risked his life.’ We would say that even if he was ineffectual in saving a single Jewish or Gypsy or homosexual life because he would have stood up to genocide regardless and would be a symbol of courage. I understand all of the practical reasons why he didn’t do that, but that doesn’t excuse the moral position he put himself in.
OR: Moving past the war a little bit and getting into the money laundering that the bank was involved in…Let’s say that I’m a businessman in Rome and I decide to walk across the street so that I’m now in Vatican City. I make a deposit to the Vatican Bank and now that money becomes untraceable. I understand why I want to do that. What was in it for the Vatican Bank in accepting all this laundered money? Was it just cheap capital?
GP: It’s a really great question and it’s one of the things I tried hard to chase down. The full answer really depends upon who was heading the Vatican Bank at a particular time. One answer is that during the time that the bank was run by American Bishop Paul Marcinkus was that the laundered money provided cheap capital to invest in Italian banks and other foreign companies and also earned money directly for the bank.
In 1966 or 1967, I can’t remember which precise year, there was a tax levied in Italy on earned interest of something like 15%. That tax created a flood of money into the Vatican Bank to avoid it. You didn’t get a free ride by putting money into the bank, but you paid less than you would have to the Italian government. Their commission range was 5% in some cases and not more than 10% in others where the deposits were smaller. So the Bank was directly making money that way. It was easy money.
The great part of all this is that the people running the Vatican Bank justified it this way: They said that all of the money being deposited was earned legitimately and was only being placed in the Vatican Bank to avoid paying a crooked tax in Italy. On the other hand, “dirty money” was money made through crime. They said they didn’t want the “dirty money,” but I think that in some instances they didn’t ask enough questions because clearly “dirty money” ended up in there as well.
There was one additional reason why the Vatican allowed laundered money. They knew what J. Edgar Hoover knew as FBI Director, which was the power that you get from the accumulation of knowledge that you hold privately that nobody else has. In the 1980s and 1990s and increasingly in the early 2000s, the Vatican Bank is used by Italian politicians and other powerful people. The best example I know of this is Giulio Andreotti. He was the Prime Minister of Italy several times and also Defense Chief several times – so we’re probably talking about the most powerful post-war Italian leader. We only found out after his death in 2013 that he was the owner with a Monsignor of a fund in the Vatican Bank called the Cardinal Spellman Foundation. That foundation doesn’t exist anywhere in the world except as an account holder in Vatican records. Over a period of years, $60 million passed through it. Some of that money did go to religious orders, but almost all of it went to friends, business associates, and colleagues of Andreotti. It was a slush fund.
Now, what does the Vatican get for this? They get the power that Andreotti knows that they know. The Vatican could have brought him down if they wanted. And they have this power over not just Andreotti, but over many industry titans, lawyers, and politicians. I’d love to know precisely how that power was wielded more precisely, but when power is used in that way there is not usually a paper trail after the fact.
OR: Very interesting.
Based on your judgment, would you say that today the organization has been reformed and is true to its mission of supporting religious and charitable works?
GP: It may be on its way to being a boring mid-size community bank, but it’s not there yet. It is having to play by the rules for the first time ever, though. Some of that is because of their decision to use the euro in Vatican City.
In 1999 the Italian lira went away and Italy adopted the euro. So, the Vatican had to decide whether or not they wanted to use the euro or introduce their own currency. They went with the euro. They didn’t realize when they made that decision that the Vatican Bank would become subject to financial regulations the same as any other bank in the Eurozone. Brussels imposed international standards on money laundering and financial auditors had to be allowed to inspect the records of the bank. There was a moment in 2003 when the clerics running the bank thought maybe they needed to get out, but by then it was too late. They were committed.
By 2011, the Vatican itself had passed its very first anti-money laundering law. Before that, there was no limit to the amount of cash that you could deposit at one time. Now, there’s a limit of €10,000. They also have a tax treaty now, which only came into effect a year ago, with Italy. So, they’re sharing tax information.
They are cleaning it up and closing fraudulent accounts. I give them credit for how far they’ve come. They are taking a seventy-year-old institution that was operating completely in the dark and bringing it into the light of day.
OR: I wanted to ask you about your book Why America Slept as well. There is research in that book that doesn’t seem to have been widely disseminated suggesting that several high-level leaders in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were at least aware of the September 11th attacks before they happened. Who were those people and what was the basis for the claim?
GP: Based on one key source and one secondary source, an interrogation of a person captured in 2002 was the basis. There are a lot of unanswered questions on many of the details of this, though.
The person interrogated was a top al-Qaeda suspect named Abu Zubaydah, who thought he was being interrogated by Saudi’s, but had actually been captured by Americans who attempted to coax information through a false flag operation. During the interrogation, he kept trying to tell his interrogators to call certain phone numbers and these phone numbers turned out to be the private cell phone numbers of various individuals such as Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, who was a nephew of King Fahd and was someone very westernized. No one could quite understand how this al-Qaeda terrorist was able to give the private cell phone number of a Saudi prince.
When Zubaydah was pressed he gave the names of two other Princes and Mushaf Ali Mir, the Chief of the Pakistani air force.
The long and short of it is that after these interrogations, Zubaydah said that at least two of these individuals, Prince Ahmed and Mir, knew that al-Qaeda was planning an operation in the United States during September, but didn’t know the exact day or details. Prince Salman was actually in the United States on 9/11 to buy a race horse in Kentucky and was one of the Saudis flown out of the country controversially by President Bush.
The story becomes particularly interesting four months later when Americans already disclosed the results of the interrogations to the Saudis and Pakistanis. Through a series of coincidences at the very least and conspiracy at the worst, all of the people named by Zubaydah died. The first was Prince Ahmed who dies of a heart attack, or some say from an infection after surgery. He was in a rehab hospital for liposuction. He was definitely overweight but was only 43 or 44 years old. The next day the second Prince that had been named, Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki-al-Saud, was killed in a one-car accident. A week after that, the third Prince, named Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir, is found dead in a province 55 miles east of Riyadh and the Saudi court announced his death, this is my favorite one, was “of thirst.” I guess he forgot to take a bottle of Evian with him.
Seven months after the cluster of Saudi deaths, in early 2003 the Pakistani air force Chief Mir and his family and closest associates were killed in a plane crash when the plane blew up shortly after takeoff near the Northwest Frontier Province.
By the way, Zubaydah is still a prisoner in Guantanamo. He’s never been tried. It would be very interesting to see what he has to say after all these years. There are some tapes recorded of Zubaydah recorded in the immediate aftermath of his capture. They were officially deleted by ‘accident.’
Everyone in the United States still says that it didn’t happen that way. They say that this was not what they were told. I just believe the source is accurate. Even though there are no recordings, there were notes made of those early interrogations and there’s documentary evidence to detail what Zubaydah said.
The most important and difficult part is determining what, if anything, the cluster of deaths mean. I don’t have a sure answer for that.
There are such a thing as coincidences. Sometimes the one in a million event actually occurs.
OR: The fact that they may have been killed would lead you to believe that if there was corruption, it was not systemic. There just may have been certain actors within governments that were. If it was systemic, why would officials want to get rid of these individuals? Is that fair?
GP: Yes, I think you’re right. It’s very difficult because you’re talking to a guy who believes Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. In my book Case Closed I have a section called “The 103 non-Mysterious Deaths” in which I detailed one by one why all of the suspicious deaths related to the JFK assassination weren’t so suspicious. It’s very hard for me to turn around and say, “Oh, God. I found four mysterious deaths and this means that these governments were behind 9/11.” I don’t go that far. I realize that the odds of winning the Mega Millions are one in four-hundred million, but there are still people who win. There is such a thing as coincidence. Strange things happen, I get that.
But, it’s also possible that these men were truly benefactors to al-Qaeda. The Saudis were clearly sending money to al-Qaeda. They were keeping them away from the Kingdom and wanted them to play jihad elsewhere. The Pakistani military certainly has radical elements, particularly in Pakistani intelligence, and there well may have been individuals that like what al-Qaeda represented and assisted them in various things. These may have been contacts to Zubaydah. Once it came out that these men were connected to nefarious elements, there may have been a coordinated effort to get rid of them on the basis that they were an embarrassment to these countries.
OR: So, there’s a potential cover up, but if there was the motivation could likely not be as nefarious or malicious as it at first sounds. You potentially have forces within the United States who realize that destabilizing these governments would create more trouble than it would solve.
GP: I think that’s right. I think the difficulty as a reporter and a journalist is I always view my obligation, although I will try and go through the process as you just did of thinking about motivations, to the facts. Similar to Dragnet years ago, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In most of my books, I try to take myself out of the story and not just present my opinion. I just lay out the facts in the story and then I let the reader decide. I figure the readers are smart enough to draw their own conclusions and they don’t need me to tell them what to think. But, I do think that’s a very, very plausible scenario, that they’re not going to pursue this because it would destabilize Saudi Arabia.
There are people who may know about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia but turn away because they know what they have now is better than an Islamic Fundamentalist government.
As a side note, one of the things that had driven bin Laden particularly crazy and that embarrassed Saudi Arabia was when in the first Gulf War the United States placed troops to defend Saudi Arabia. The Saudis at that time were the second or third largest buyer of American weapons behind Israel. So, here they are with this big military and all these weapons from the United States and they still ask the United States to protect them. They didn’t feel confident enough with all these arms to stand up to Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden even offered to send in his own Mujahedeen and they said ‘No.’ It infuriated fundamentalists and left some other people just scratching their heads.
OR: You’re book on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Killing the Dream, is definitely among your most fascinating. I interviewed Dan Moldea a short time ago, someone who I have a lot of respect for, and I think he wrote the definitive account of the Robert Kennedy assassination. In the same way, I think Killing the Dream is the definitive account of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination.
GP: I actually wrote a review in The New York Times of Dan Moldea’s book on Robert Kennedy, I gave it a very positive review. It was just after he and the Times were involved in the libel lawsuit and I think that was the first review of a book of his in Times after that. But, you’re right, it is a very good book. I loved it.
I agree with you on the King case and James Earl Ray. I don’t have a favorite book. My favorite book would be whichever book I’m working on at the moment. But for Trisha and myself, and she’s worked with me on every project as a researcher and unofficial book editor, it turned out to be much more fascinating than we had expected. Ray was far more puzzling of a character than Oswald and a more interesting figure than we had ever known.
People immediately focus on the JFK book, Case Closed, and Killing the Dream is often lost in the shuffle. The King book came out on the 30th anniversary of the assassination in April 1998 and just a few weeks earlier James Earl Ray had died. Both of those events put the assassination back on the radar of the media. That book was on the cover of Time and Newsweek. Dan Rather did a special on it, NPR covered it, it was on the front page of The New York Times, and it was on Charlie Rose. It was very widely covered and received maybe more rave reviews than I’ve ever received on a book. And yet it still sold almost nothing because there was very little interest in the case. African-Americans weren’t interested in the book because I concluded that it was Ray with possibly a very small conspiracy. It wasn’t satisfying enough of an answer and many were looking for something bigger. White Americans were no longer concerned with who killed King, at least not enough to spend $30 to read about it.
I very often think of it as the overlooked book. But, the actual reporting was fascinating. I was only disappointed when that book ended because I loved doing it so much.
OR: Maybe if you could just walk through the sequence of events for people not intimately familiar with the case, and we can discuss where the mysteries lie.
GP: James Earl Ray grew up in Alton, Illinois, within the area still referred to as “Little Dixie” along the Missouri River. He grows up in a family of career criminals – his great-grandfather was hanged for his role in the “Plummer’s Gang,” his grandfather was an alcoholic and a bootlegger, his mother suffered from mental illness and long-suffering marital abuse, and Ray himself was the youngest of nine children. It was right in the middle of the Depression and the Ray family was extremely poor. Even amongst poor families, the Ray family was poor. They were considered ‘white trash’ and even his teachers spoke about Ray as “aggressive” and “repulsive.” His sister burned to death when he was nine. He starts hanging out with his uncle and prostitutes at flophouses when he was 14 and he became a petty thief.
Then he joins the army and goes to Europe and becomes an admirer of Hitler. He liked that there were no Jews and no blacks in his army unit. He starts hustling and just does what he’s good at, which is being a two-bit hustler. You look at his record and he at one point gets gonorrhea, at another time he gets syphilis. He’s constantly drunk. Finally, he gets a general discharge. When he gets back to the United States, he goes from doing small robberies to slightly bigger ones – things like holding up taxi drivers.
When he goes to the Pontiac Correctional Center we learn more about how he feels about race because he’s offered an opportunity to get a better position by accepting an assignment that would include black co-workers and he refuses. When he is released, he goes right back to pulling off robberies, now targeting dry cleaners. He gets caught and goes to Leavenworth for three years and once free goes right back again to doing what he was – grocery store crime, paycheck crime. And this time he goes away in 1960 to Missouri State Prison.
Anybody who is reading this interview should just Google “Missouri State Penitentiary,” it’s an 1800s looking gothic prison, one of the toughest in the United States. So, what does Ray do? While he’s doing time, he starts dealing in drugs and works his way up to amphetamines. He’s got a relationship with someone in the hospital who’s able to help him get the drugs.
There was talk on the inside of the prison about bounties on Martin Luther King, Jr. and about how King was a black terrorist. In 1966, Ray is able to escape, but they catch him right away. And one of the valuable things that comes from that attempt is that there is a record afterward of a psychiatric interview with Ray. You very seldom get a psychiatric analysis of an assassin before they commit the assassination. He tested at an IQ of 105, so pretty average. He wasn’t going to set the world on fire, but he’s certainly not dumb. The psychiatrist concludes that he suffers from a sociopathic personality and that he’s anti-social and suffers anxiety and depression.
OR: By “sociopathic,” you mean that he couldn’t identify with other people? He lacked empathic ability?
GP: That’s exactly right. The psychiatrist that interviewed him was dead at the time I investigated, so I couldn’t speak with him, but from other professionals I’ve shown the analysis to, they say that that is exactly what they take that to mean, that Ray was likely to act for his own benefit without worrying about what it cost somebody else.
In 1967, Ray escapes again by sneaking onto the back of a bread truck. He goes almost immediately to see his two brothers, Jerry and John, both of whom are repeat felons by this point. The three brothers are close and they have something in common, they’ve survived that horrible and disgraced family background. It’s never been proven, but it’s been thought that right after his prison escape Ray and his brothers robbed a bank in Alton, Illinois which provided Ray the funds he needed to go to Canada.
You listen to this quick summary of his life and you say, ‘OK. How does this guy of average intelligence that comes from a “white trash” background, with no formal education, go to Canada?’ The difference with Ray is that he’d been there before, back in 1959. He knew from being a con in Canada that it was an easy crossing and a safe haven. It had the advantage that everyone spoke English.
OR: Actually, my question is not ‘Why would he go to Canada?’ it’s ‘Why did he come back after he got there?’ He was home free.
GP: That’s a great question and I laugh a little because I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of someone like Ray and I still can’t answer it. There’s a lot of things Ray does that I can’t explain. My speculation is that he felt it was safe to come back because he thought he was off the radar.
He comes back in, I want to say, August 1967 after spending a couple of months in Canada and he gets plastic surgery, goes to Birmingham, and rents a rooming house. Very importantly, he has $2,000 in cash – all in $20 dollar bills – to buy a 1966 Mustang, it was a pretty good car. So, he obviously made some money along the way.
He then signs up for a locksmithing correspondence course. That makes sense. He might have planned on breaking into some places. Then he takes once a week dance lessons, which is kind of interesting. A little weird.
OR: Maybe he was hoping to date?
GP: Yeah, lonely hearts club, has to be. He also spends $400 to buy some sex manuals and movie equipment. That was a lot of money for Ray. It’s the most I’ve ever seen him spend outside of when he bought the Mustang. I believe he was planning on earning money from sex films. By October, he leaves the country again to visit Mexico.
There is pretty good evidence based upon Mexican files that he was dealing low-level drugs there like pot, probably just to pay bills and he certainly spent time seeing prostitutes at bordellos in Puerto Vallarta. He’s only there a month before he comes back to the States and heads to Los Angeles.
This is the fascinating part. We’re talking about when he was five months away from the King assassination and what’s Ray doing? He’s signing up for ballroom dancing lessons in Long Beach and hanging out at a bar called the Sultan Room, where he gets in a fight once when he’s praising George Wallace and somebody doesn’t like it. Christmas of 1967 is spent in New Orleans where I think he hooked up with Jerry. Jerry’s always denied that, though.
Ray then subscribes to this Rhodesian newsletter from the John Birch Society and he’s seeing a psychologist for self-improvement. In the midst of all this, while he’s still in dance school, he pays $250 to enroll in Bartending School.
Now, if you’re going to be an assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., you might want to track him. In late March 1968, Ray heads east to Selma and then on to Atlanta. King was in both of those places while Ray was. Now, Ray said it was a coincidence, but I’m not so sure. So, the question is ‘what turned this guy, who was taking bartending and dance and locksmith classes, to a stalker all of a sudden?’
There is a point you reach in the King assassination in which the best you can do is postulate from the evidence you have what you think likely happened. There is no doubt that Ray took it to his grave. Ray is probably more difficult to understand than an Oswald, or Sirhan, or Hinckley. They are often in their 20s and they think they can change the world. But, Ray is 40 years old, just one year older than King when King dies. He’s a lifetime criminal, but not a violent criminal. Oswald, on the other hand, had already tried to kill General Edwin Walker. Ray goes from non-violent crimes to all of a sudden committing a murder after he appears to want to stay free and enjoy life. Yes, he was racist, but he came from an area in which all of his family and friends would have had the same denigrating view of blacks. He would have thought that blacks were the only ones lower on the social rung than him. They would have thought that was just natural.
OR: But, this racism is largely a form of self-esteem. It doesn’t seem like this racism alone is an adequate motive.
GP: There’s little doubt that you’re right. Racism is a form of self-esteem for these people that somebody has to be lower on the totem pole than they are. There’s also little doubt that he’s motivated by factors beyond racism, even though the racism may have allowed him to be enticed into the idea that killing King is a lottery ticket.
Ray’s brothers, John and Jerry, have always denied any involvement and they’ve never been charged with the crime. But, I have my suspicions. The Rays have always been motivated by money. That was the primary thing with them. And I think a combination of factors turned the switch for James Earl Ray from having no apparent interest in King to suddenly stalking him and shooting him, including money. We’re talking about a bounty of $50,000 that the Rays may have learned about.
People are flabbergasted when you say $50,000, they think that’s nothing. That was a fortune for Ray and it was convenient that it was for killing a black man that was helping blacks into a new era, which let him rationalize it.
OR: Is there any evidence that Ray or anyone in his family tried to collect on the bounty?
GP: We don’t know whether anyone in his family tried to collect on the bounty, but we know for sure that Ray didn’t. The reason I can be sure is because of how Ray was captured. Ray drives from Memphis to Atlanta after the assassination. He saw police as he was leaving the rooming house in Memphis and he wants to get out of the country, so he wipes all of the prints from his car and leaves it in a parking lot in Atlanta. He goes back to Canada by bus and wants to go to Rhodesia or South Africa – white supremacist countries at the time. But, when he checks the price of a ticket, I think it was about $800 or $850 to fly to South Africa and he doesn’t have the money, so instead he buys a ticket to London, where he figures he can raise the money to travel on to Rhodesia or South Africa. The fact that he didn’t have the money for the ticket indicates pretty clearly that he hadn’t collected on the bounty. If somebody else collected it on his behalf, it never got to him, because if he had gotten the money, he would have been gone.
OR: So, this is someone who’s of average intelligence, but very street smart. He seems to be trying to find himself, something of himself that he could be proud of, where he could feel special through either criminal or non-criminal activities. He’s trying to find an identity and he’s failing. The combination of the money, being a hero in the eyes of his brothers and people in white supremacist movements, leaving his mark and gaining notoriety, and delusions of grandeur within him fueled by successfully escaping prison all collided together to produce the King assassination. Is that a fair synopsis?
GP: I think that’s partially right, but at the same time I think most of those were subconscious motivations. The primary one was the possibility of money. I don’t think it was more complicated than that.
I don’t think that he necessarily wanted to be in the history books or be the martyr that Oswald did. Oswald viewed himself more as a revolutionary figure who was going to strike a blow against the machine. Ray wasn’t looking to start a political movement and he wasn’t looking to write a manifesto. Yes, he didn’t like King and yes, he was going to strike a blow against the black movement, but at the same time, this was just a more ambitious job than the robberies he performed earlier.
OR: Was Raul a real person?
GP: I know that the Raul that Ray picked out before he died was a real person and an innocent person, but I think that Ray invented this mysterious character to be able to tell his story. Raul was probably an amalgam of several other people that Ray met. I have no doubt that there was nobody named Raul there the day that King was shot. But, Raul may have been several people. Ray spent a lot of time alone and we don’t know what he’s doing for long stretches of time and the only people we know he’s in contact with are his brothers and they are of dubious credibility.
OR: I think after he gets to England, he flies back and forth to Portugal, right?
GP: Yes. He goes to Portugal because he believes that Portugal could be a great way to get to Africa since Angola was still a Portuguese colony. Before he leaves, he holds up a jewelry shop in London. This is one more way we know he never collected on the bounty. He holds up this jewelry shop to steal about $200-$250 not very long before he’s captured at Heathrow. He was obviously out of money. He would never have risked robbing a jewelry store as a fugitive on the run unless he absolutely had to. But, he takes the money and uses it to get to Portugal, but he can’t get a visa while he’s there, so he goes back to London with a plan to return to Portugal with a visa in a few weeks. But he gets caught at Heathrow on June 8th, or around then.
OR: Once he was caught and began reading press reports, it must have dawned on him that this could be worse than he thought in terms of his chances of having a decent life in the future and of what others would think of him. Stories like Raul perhaps were means to protect his brothers from their involvement, while at the same time be a means to offer some explanation to people. Although, if he’s a sociopath, he might not care about that. But, self-survival may have kicked in.
GP: I could be wrong about this, but I think with cons like Ray it’s just self-survival that kicks in. I don’t think it’s as deep as we lead ourselves to believe when we think about stuff like this. It’s just like someone with a substance abuse problem will sometimes lie and cheat to hide their addiction; people who are in and out of prison will do the same thing. Every time Ray got picked up, he denies his guilt. One time in Los Angeles he’s picked up with the actual proceeds on him and he still denies that he’s guilty. He does what every con does which is never tell the cops anything.
The Ray that I see after his arrest in London is very surprised at how quickly the FBI is able to put the pieces together and track him. Putting together that Ray was using Eric Galt as an alias and then figuring out that he had gone through Canada and then to London. He thought that it would take the FBI several months to figure all of this out and by that time he would be in Rhodesia.
The amazing thing is that for a moment, even for a moment, he pleads guilty. It was the first time in his life that he had ever taken responsibility for anything and he confesses to the most serious crime he’s ever been charged with. The very next day he recanted and I believe that he confessed only to avoid the death penalty and he figured that once the death penalty was off the table he could get that case reopened, but that turned out to be more difficult than he thought it would.
OR: Has the King family ever been in contact with you?
GP: No. I tried to interview them at the time I was doing the book but wasn’t able to. It was a shame for me because I think the King family has an amazing legacy. I understand why many of them feel it was a larger conspiracy involving the U.S. government because we’ve learned over the years the degree to which the FBI conducted a war against King and Hoover’s pathological hatred of King. It’s completely understandable that they feel the hatred from Hoover and the FBI was so great that it led to the FBI being involved in the murder of King. I looked at this hard when I investigated, but I just don’t think that there’s evidence for that. In the end, I think they became very clouded by evidence that William Pepper put forward, who was Ray’s attorney. We have to remember that guys like Pepper, just like Mark Lane who wanted to be Oswald’s attorney, are advocates for their clients. That’s their job.
The most distressing thing for me personally was to watch Dexter King shake hands with James Earl Ray before he died. Because, Ben, I have to tell you that I may just be a writer, but there is no doubt in my mind that the man who pulled the trigger that day in Memphis was James Earl Ray. We can argue all day long about motivation and why he did it, but the fact remains that he did. When King’s son goes and shakes the hand of the man that killed his father, to me that was Ray’s last laugh. He didn’t ever get out of prison but after thirty years he had not only pulled off the assassination but in his mind, he fooled the King family. That must have been some kind of Pyrrhic victory for him.
OR: I don’t want to get into the weeds of the JFK assassination because I don’t think there’s a whole lot more that could possibly be said. But, in some ways, Jack Ruby is as a mysterious of a character to me as Oswald is. A lot of the reason for that is that I’ve never been able to comprehend his motive in my own mind. Why do you think he shot Oswald, for seemingly no personal benefit?
GP: There was a personal benefit to Ruby for shooting Oswald. The benefit was that in Jack Ruby’s mind he thought he would be a hero for shooting Oswald.
He was always a wanna-be tough guy. He was always at the edge of the tough guys and hanging out with them and trying to make it as one, but never quite being there. He had been in Dallas since after the war (World War II) and been arrested a number of times on low-level charges. He loses money on every club he owns except his last, the Carousel Club. But, he never stopped trying to be someone.
He was talking to people at the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Herald and always inviting cops over to his clubs and hanging out with local politicians. Once Oswald is arrested, Jack Ruby does exactly what you think he would do, which is go down to the jail and place himself in the middle of the action and he starts handing out his business cards to the press and others at the jail. Jack Ruby never stopped trying to be somebody and on that Sunday, the third day after the assassination, Ruby ends up a couple of blocks away from the jail where Oswald is being transferred from. Ruby needed to go downtown to send a Moneygram to one of his strippers and he ends up just a couple of blocks from the jail where Oswald is being transferred. He sees the crowd gathering outside of a parking garage and he realizes that he has his opportunity to put himself in the history books. He really thinks that people are going to say, “Jack, you did a great thing. That no good rat Oswald killed the President and put a stain on Dallas.”
It wouldn’t have mattered to him if he had to do a little prison time either. In Texas, at the time they had a charge, “Murder without malice.” At most he would have done five years, and who could really say that he actually acted with malice in killing the assassin of the President.
OR: Wasn’t he offered “Murder without malice” as part of a plea deal and he rejected it?
GP: Yes. He became so full of himself and Melvin Belli, who was a famous attorney from San Francisco represented him and told him that he could get him off through an insanity plea. You might be able to convince a Texas jury that Ruby was guilty of murder without malice, but you are never going to convince them that Jack Ruby was crazy when he shot Lee Harvey Oswald.
Here is what I always point to regarding that day when Oswald was being transferred. There was a pretty large crowd that assembled outside of police headquarters for the transfer, which was supposed to take place at 10:00 am. It actually happened at 11:30 am. They were running an hour and a half behind because a postal inspector had arrived to interrogate Oswald.
When word spread on the street that Oswald had been shot, you see people breaking into cheers and applause. It’s a chilling scene. We forget more than fifty years later that moment before conspiracy theories started spreading that people actually thought that the police had arrested the actual assassin. I’m not saying everyone felt like that, but Ruby stepped into a position that wasn’t as crazy as it might seem today.
OR: Norman Mailer gave a great interview, I can’t remember where I saw it, where he said that Oswald was prepared to use his trial as a megaphone for his viewpoints and that changed when he had to shoot the cop. He became a cop killer. Do you agree with that?
GP: I don’t agree with that. Sometimes when you look at pictures of Oswald in custody he looks like the Cheshire cat that just swallowed the canary. He’s having fun knowing that he just pulled it off. He didn’t want to be captured either, that much is clear. This wasn’t a suicide mission.
We don’t know exactly where he was off to when he encountered Tippit, the police officer he shot. That police officer threw everything off and the murder of J.D. Tippit made him go on the run and once he’s caught, he was done. This was a guy who had failed at everything in life. He went into the Marine Corps and was called Mrs. Oswald by the other Marines because they thought he was gay, and was called Oswaldovitch by the same Marines because he read a Russian newspaper. This was a guy who defected to Russia and thought he would be a hero there, but was rejected and told to get lost and who became so downhearted that he tried to kill himself. This was a guy who got tired of Russia and so came back to the United States to do a series of odd jobs and decides to put himself into a revolution by killing General Edwin Walker, who he thinks is the next Hitler, and he even fails at that, because the bullet goes through the window frame and misses Walker. This was a guy who spent the summer of 1963 in the sweltering sun in New Orleans to advocate for Fidel Castro and he gets zero converts and when he goes to Mexico City, the Soviets and Cubans reject him again. He comes back to Dallas, he’s just 23 years old, and his wife is estranged from him and he is having difficulty getting her back, and all the time he has a job that he hates.
All of a sudden he realizes that he’s working at a place where the President of the United States will be passing in just a few days. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to put his name in the history books. This guy who failed at everything succeeded on the day of the assassination because he passed his most serious test – he didn’t lose his nerve. He had never before seen a Presidential motorcade when he saw it turn into view of the Texas School Book Depository and there was the President sitting behind the Governor with his Stetson hat on and the Governor’s wife, and Jackie in her pink Chanel suit. The Secret Service is in the car behind the President and you’ve got the Vice President a couple of cars behind. His heart has to be beating fast and the blood pressure moving sky high. He could have, at that moment, become too nervous to do it. But, he’s not. He follows the car and fires, missing the first shot. Then, he’s poised enough to take the second shot and wound the President. Finally, he’s still poised enough to take the third shot and it’s the fatal head shot.
It’s rather remarkable that he pulled it off and I don’t say that in admiration. I don’t want you to misunderstand. But, I think for him he is bursting with pride and he feels like turning to all those Marines that taunted him, and those people in Russia that said “No” to him, he wants to turn to all of them and say, “I just killed the President of the United States and now I’m going to have some fun with this.”
I wish he had lived so there would have been a trial and we could have heard Oswald tell some great story. There’s no doubt he would have had one.
OR: I get the sense he saw himself like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.
GP: Yea, in some ways. I do think that Mailer is right that the killing of a police officer made it completely different, but I’m not sure that without Tippet’s death he wouldn’t have been having the same fun and saying what he did to the Dallas police and the press.
OR: He saw himself as superior to the people interviewing him?
GP: Yes. I really do believe that.
You know that when doing reporting you sometimes have to chase down a story line that turns out to be fruitless. There was a short time when I was doing the research for Case Closed when I thought that it was possible that Ruby was setup to kill Oswald and make the timing look coincidental. The reason was that Ruby was doing a favor to some local police because they knew they were giving up custody of Oswald that day and they were furious – not about the President, but about the murder of a fellow officer, J.D. Tippet. He was the first Dallas policeman killed in, I think, three years. They viewed it as a cold-blooded execution.
I was never able to prove that and I don’t have any evidence for it. It was just suggested and I tried to track down any evidence to corroborate it. I just pass it along to you as a story. Most people would have been stunned if it could be proved that Ruby was involved in a conspiracy, but not about Kennedy.
OR: I also wanted to ask you about your current research. I believe you’re writing a book on the pharmaceutical industry at the moment.
GP: I’ve been working on this project for about a year and a half right now. I’m at the stage I get to for every book which is the “Oh my God, I’m never going to finish it” stage.
I haven’t found the narrative spine of the book. When I was writing about the Vatican, the narrative spine turned out to be the Popes, because you could follow them from one to the next and have some continuity. If I was following a single company, like a Johnson & Johnson, I could follow the CEOs, but that’s not the case if you’re profiling the whole industry. There’s so much material I’ve collected, but not a lot of continuity and I don’t want to write just a collection of chapters, where one is about price fixing and another is about the FDA approval process, and another is about side effects. I’d like to write about all those things, but within a framework that is narrative and connected.
OR: Did Josef Mengele also lead you to have an interest in pharmaceuticals? I believe there were some very important German chemical and pharma companies going in to the war.
GP: No it didn’t, but you ask a wonderful question. In 1985 when I did the book I met Mengele’s only son Rolf and he came to New York and we did the Phil Donahue show together. If you do a Google search for “Rolf Mengale Gerald Posner Phil Donahue” you will find an 18-minute clip of that show from 1986. It was actually pretty riveting television. My wife Trisha is Jewish and she faced anti-Semitism growing up in school and she was just uncomfortable with Rolf, but she also understood intellectually that children are not responsible for the crimes of their parents. He told us about his father and how he escaped to Argentina with the help of two pharmacists from Munich, who knew what had happened at Auschwitz, but still helped him. Trisha and I talked, way back then, about doing a book on this. It turned out that one of the pharmacists from Auschwitz worked for Bayer when it was a part of IG Farben.
I had wanted to do a book that included the history of IG Farben and Simon and Schuster was interested in the tale of American pharma from World War II to the present day. So, I told Trisha, you could do the Auschwitz part, and she spent two years writing it and published this past January. It’s a wonderful book. My challenge, instead, is researching the U.S. industry from the time the war ended.
OR: Gerald, you’re incredibly fascinating to talk to. I’ve enjoyed your books and will be on the lookout for your book on pharma when it’s released.