Howard St. John Hunt remembers the night of the Watergate break-in as a bonding experience with his father.
A sweating and disheveled E. Howard Hunt roused his 19-year-old son from a dead sleep to help him wipe fingerprints from the burglars’ radios and pack the surveillance equipment into a suitcase. Then, father and son raced to a remote Maryland bridge, where they heaved the evidence into the Potomac River just before dawn on June 17, 1972.
“From that point on I felt relevant in his life, that I was the one he could count on,” said Howard St. John Hunt, now 52, who is called St. John.
It also was a turning point for St. John’s brother and two sisters. They learned that their father wasn’t just a Washington advertising executive and former diplomat. He was an ex-CIA agent and veteran of the ill-fated Cuban Bay of Pigs operation who worked for the Nixon White House as part of a secret team of “plumbers” that fixed information leaks.
The unmasking of Hunt, who was convicted in 1973, sent his family into a tailspin: His first wife, Dorothy, was killed in a plane crash in 1972 while carrying $10,000 in hush money from the White House to the burglars’ families; son David was sent to live with his militant Cuban godfather in Miami; St. John later became a drug addict and daughters Kevan and Lisa became estranged from their father.
But before his death at age 88 in January, E. Howard Hunt had reconciled with his children and left the sons one last tantalizing story, they say. The story, which he planned to detail in a memoir and could be worth big money -- was that rogue CIA agents plotted to kill President Kennedy in 1963, and that they approached Hunt to join the plot but he declined.
Unfortunately, when the old spy’s memoir appeared this month, there was something missing.
Before the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office complex, the Hunt family of Potomac, Md., was, to outward appearances, fairly typical for a beltway power player. Their father was in advertising; the mother worked at the Spanish embassy; and the four children, ages 8 to 23, attended private schools.
Watergate was a bomb that detonated under the family.
“Our life as we knew it came to an explosive end,” recalls daughter Kevan Hunt Spence, now 54, of Pioneer, 50 miles east of Sacramento. “Our home was lost. Our financial security was lost. Our mother was dead. Our father was in prison.”
Kevan, who was 20 at the time, and her sister Lisa, then 23, distanced themselves from a father they blamed for their mother’s death and took refuge with friends, away from the besieged family home.
Kevan played her own role in the Watergate fallout. Instead of burning records of White House payoffs as her father had asked, she hid them in her Smith College dorm room for a nearly a year, when her father’s lawyer needed them to prove White House complicity to get her father a reduced sentence.
David, the youngest of Hunt’s children with Dorothy and 8 at the time of the break-in, was effectively orphaned when Hunt went to prison in 1973. At his father’s request, lifelong friend William F. Buckley Jr. spirited David from the house to get him away from Lisa and St. John, who, Hunt notes in a posthumous memoir, were furious with their father.
David left his privileged life to spend three years at the crowded Miami home of his Cuban exile godfather. A Bay of Pigs veteran and anti-communist militant, Manuel Artime would take David on gun-running missions to Central America, letting the boy fire pistols with the bodyguards of right-wing dictators the exile visited.
Hunt’s daughters headed west to create new lives. Kevan came to California, where she has practiced law for 25 years. Lisa became a fundamentalist Christian and runs an insurance firm in Las Vegas.
St. John was estranged from his father from the late 1970s to the start of this decade.
He was convicted twice on felony drug charges in the Bay Area but served no prison time. When he became homeless, he renounced his drug habit, renewed ties with his father and siblings and moved to this Pacific Coast timber and fishing town. He now works assisting elderly patients in their homes and is a student at College of the Redwoods.
David, now 43, also abused drugs after his mother’s death and the years he spent in the violent milieu of Cuban exile politics. He now sells Jacuzzis at a West L.A. spa shop.
The sisters remain estranged from the brothers but all were on good terms with Hunt and his widow Laura and their children, Austin and Hollis, when the veteran CIA operative and spy novelist died.
Hunt had been preparing for publication of “American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond,” released this month.
St. John says it was he who suggested the idea of a memoir when he convinced his father that it was time to reveal anything he knew about the Kennedy assassination.
It had always been suspected that Hunt shared his Cuban exile friends’ hatred of Kennedy, who refused to provide air cover to rescue the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion that Hunt helped organize.
“He told me in no uncertain terms about a plot originating in Miami, to take place in Miami,” said St. John. He said his father identified key players and speculated that then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was responsible for moving the venue to Dallas, where the Texan could control the security scene.
But the memoir’s published passages about the assassination have an equivocal tone. Hunt provides only a hypothetical scenario of how events in Dallas might have unfolded, with Johnson atop a pyramid of rogue CIA plotters.
The brothers insist their father related to them a detailed plot to assassinate Kennedy. Hunt told them he was approached by the conspirators to join them but declined, they say.
That information was cut from the memoir, the brothers say, because Hunt’s attorney warned he could face perjury charges if he recanted sworn testimony. Hunt also had assured Laura before they married in 1977 that he had nothing to do with the assassination.
St. John said he respected his father’s wishes while he was alive but felt no obligation now. He is writing a script about his father, and David is shopping for a publisher for their father’s account of CIA involvement in the Kennedy shooting.
Despite the brothers’ efforts, their father’s role will probably never be known.
The materials they offer to substantiate their story, examined by the Los Angeles Times, are inconclusive.
Hunt answers questions on a videotape using speculative phrases, observing that various named figures were “possibly” involved. A chart Hunt sketched during one conversation with St. John shows the same rogue CIA operation he describes in the memoir. None of the accounts provides evidence to convincingly validate that their father disclosed anything revelatory.
Hunt’s widow and her two children, 27-year-old Austin and 23-year-old Hollis, dismiss the brothers’ story, saying it is the result of coaching an old man whose lucidity waxed and waned in his final months.
Kevan bitterly accuses her brothers of “elder abuse,” saying they pressured their father for dramatic scenarios for their own financial gain. Hunt’s longtime lawyer, Bill Snyder, says: “Howard was just speculating. He had no hard evidence.”
St. John, who sports a mustache and longish graying coif combed back from a receding hairline, has a more personal reason to believe in his father’s disclosures. He said he was instructed by Hunt in 1974 to back up an alibi for his whereabouts on the day Kennedy died, 11 years earlier.
“I did a lot of lying for my father in those days,” St. John said.
The brothers, who both possess Hunt’s piercing pale-blue eyes, concede they would like to profit from their father’s story but insist he meant them to.
“My father died utterly unapologetic about anything he did,” David said.
“People do that kind of thing all the time,” St. John said of the prospect of making money from his father’s deeds. Nor does he think the story will reflect badly on their father. “I don’t think it was terrible that he was approached [with the assassination plot] and turned them down.”
That Hunt, a skilled obfuscator, might have left contradictory accounts of the Kennedy plot to protect friends and preserve the mystery is not lost on his sons.
“That’s the way spies are,” David says with a wry smile, remembering a father he never really knew.
“They lead double lives and maintain cover.”