Exclusive: Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade was poised to profit off JFK files

Exclusive: Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade was poised to profit off JFK files

01:20 AM CST on Sunday, February 24, 2008

By DAVID FLICK and DAVID TARRANT / The Dallas Morning News
dflick@dallasnews.com ; dtarrant@dallasnews.com

Henry Wade, the legendary Dallas County district attorney known for his no-nonsense style, apparently was not immune to the lure of a little movie magic.

Henry Wade was known for his no-nonsense style as a Dallas County district attorney. But even he, it seems, was not immune to the lure of Hollywood.

And the man with a reputation for unshakeable integrity was agreeable to receiving thousands of dollars in return for giving filmmakers exclusive access to legal documents connected to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, some of which were kept from the public for another four decades.

The existence of 15 boxes of JFK-related material, locked away in a DA’s office safe, was announced Monday by Craig Watkins, the current district attorney, who said his predecessors had kept the documents under wraps even after Mr. Wade’s retirement.

Mr. Wade died in 2001, and several calls to surviving family members were not returned.

Tantalizing new details about the little-known episode of Mr. Wade’s involvement in a movie venture about the Nov. 22, 1963, JFK assassination and the trial of Jack Ruby were found in a Dallas Morning News examination of the long-hidden files, What emerges is a story that sometimes resembles comic opera but contains what appears to be a breach of ethics.

Righting city’s image

Mr. Wade’s involvement in the venture began with a letter to Dallas leaders sometime in early 1967 from Robert Larsen, whose Colorado-based production company made commercials and industrial films.

His Hollywood résumé was brief. It included a 1958 “semi-documentary” on the dangers of narcotics and a 1962 short titled Century 21 Calling , in which – according to a synopsis in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) – “two perky teens explore every inch of the telephone exhibit at Seattle’s fair.”

Mr. Larsen’s letter, addressed simply “to whom it may concern” and written in florid prose, pitched an idea for a documentary film.
[Click image for a larger version] Special to The Dallas Morning News
Special to The Dallas Morning News
Film producer Robert Larsen, seen here during filming of Countdown in Dallas in Dealey Plaza in 1967, touted the project as a way to revive the city’s image, which had been tarnished by the assassination and ensuing media coverage.

Mr. Larsen said the film would use the JFK assassination as a starting point, but he touted the project as a way to revive the city’s image, which had been tarnished by the assassination and ensuing media coverage.

The letter began by appealing to local resentment over the negative portrayal.

“Typically, the Northern press pointed a bloody finger at Dallas,” Mr. Larsen’s letter recounted. “Hundreds of cigar puffing reporters poured from editor’s [sic] offices in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia. Their assignment was clear … ‘Scorch the cocky Texans, blow up that John Birch ad, don’t forget that LBJ comes from Texas, exploit the firearms angle, keep it coming, ring it dry.’ ”

The point of his film would be “to balance the scales,” Mr. Larsen promised.

“The crux of the film will not be a tired rehash of the death of John F. Kennedy. We will use the murder to bait the hook for the more important story; the story of Dallas … Dallas 1967 … a dynamic great city absorbed with the infinite promise of the future.”

The movie, eventually titled Countdown in Dallas, was not intended to be a Cecil B. DeMille epic.

Mr. Larsen proposed a budget of $250,000, modest even in that era. While he promised to enlist an A-list Hollywood star to narrate the film (“Jimmy Stewart would be ideal”), other roles would be taken by local people playing themselves.

Mr. Larsen’s letter found its way to the DA’s office, bringing a quick and favorable response from Mr. Wade.

By early April 1967, the two men had discussed the project in Mr. Wade’s office. The prosecutor sent a subsequent letter assuring the producer of his support.

Within weeks, Mr. Wade, Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry and Bob Denson, chief defense investigator in the Jack Ruby trial, had formed a company that would act as a “vehicle for this venture,” according to a letter from the district attorney to Mr. Larsen.

Making a deal

An April 27, 1967, agreement gave the company – called Flag-Star – the option of buying “the exclusive right to use each and all of our several public, private and confidential files [regarding Oswald, Ruby and President Kennedy] for a construction therefrom of a photoplay….”

If Mr. Wade’s company exercised its option to use the district attorney’s files, Mr. Wade would receive $10,000, plus another $10,000 when the film was completed, plus a percentage of the producer’s gross. Mr. Curry and Mr. Denson would receive lesser amounts.

The copy of the agreement in the files is unsigned. It is unclear if the option was ever exercised, although Mr. Wade said in a letter accompanying the agreement that he and his partners intended to do so.
Jesse Curry (left) and Bob Denson would have shared profits with Henry Wade.
Jesse Curry (left) and Bob Denson would have shared profits with Henry Wade.

Mr. Denson, the only surviving Flag-Star partner, said last week that Dallas businessman Don Lively, who was helping finance the project, later paid Mr. Wade at least $10,000 “for the time he spent on the deal.”

Dallas lawyer Tom Lively said his older brother, Don, passed away many years ago. But in 1967, having just inherited some money from his late father, he wanted to get involved in films. He agreed to become a producer for the movie. Tom Lively also said he remembers his brother saying that he gave some money to Mr. Wade. He also remembers that his brother and Mr. Larsen, the filmmaker, had a strong business disagreement.

The documents examined by The News do not shed light on whether the money was for partial fulfillment of the agreement, and they do not indicate whether Mr. Wade or any of his partners ever received additional money.

Robert Schuwerk, past chairman of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct Committee, said he was not familiar enough with the judicial ethics code that existed in 1967 to know if Mr. Wade had violated it by accepting money for public documents.

“But this does seem to me to be questionable,” said Dr. Schuwerk, now a professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center. “After you’ve left office and want to write your memoirs, that’s one thing. But I don’t think that while you’re still in office you can profit from what is essentially exercising a part of your duties, and it seems to me that’s what was happening here.”

Mr. Wade kept the deal quiet, even from his own chief prosecutor, Bill Alexander.

“Henry concealed that from me. He didn’t want anyone to know about it,” Mr. Alexander said last week.

In any case, the project seems to have quickly fallen into financial trouble. Mr. Denson said the businessman later pulled out after he was unable to raise enough money for the project.

Mr. Wade said Marina Oswald, with daughters Rachel (right) and June, “made a favorable impression in television appearances.”

In the meantime, Mr. Larsen plowed forward.

In correspondence over the next few months, Mr. Wade offered advice, provided lists of residents who had played prominent roles in the real-life drama of the assassination and kept track of the film’s progress. He also offered to encourage real-life participants to cooperate.

He made at least one casting recommendation – the wife of the presidential assassin.

“Marina Oswald made a favorable impression in television appearances, and I believe she would make an excellent contribution to history and to the film by appearing live,” he wrote to Mr. Larsen.

It was advice well-taken: A Los Angeles Times story during that period described Ms. Oswald as the film’s star, and one contemporary news account mentioned she was given a screen test.

‘A bad taste’

Not all local leaders shared Mr. Wade’s belief that Countdown in Dallas was a good thing for Dallas. City officials declined to allow the film crews on municipal property, and Parkland Memorial Hospital officials also declined to cooperate.

The director of the Texas School Book Depository was quoted in the Times story as saying the concept of the movie “left me with a bad taste in my mouth.”

Later, he acknowledged that he had asked producers for $2,000 to appear in the movie and $5,000 for use of the building.

Although preliminary filming had begun, shooting was shut down in early August with no public explanation.

After a brief period of renewed optimism in early September, the deal finally fell apart by the end of the month.

It was in that period that Mr. Alexander, the chief prosecutor, said he first learned that his boss had been involved in making a movie.

He went to see the district clerk to retrieve some of Ruby’s personal items after a probate judge ordered them returned to the former nightclub owner’s family. The district clerk told Mr. Alexander that some of the items had already been shipped to the filmmaker.

By late September 1967, Mr. Wade wrote in a personal letter that the film project was “a dead issue.”

One item that did not surface in the files revealed this week by Mr. Watkins – at least in those viewed by The News –was the script to Countdown in Dallas.

But Mr. Larsen gave a copy of the script to Dick West, the late editorial page editor of The News. Elizabeth West now has her grandfather’s copy.

She described the photoplay as “trite,” and “one of the worst things I’ve ever seen,” said Ms. West, a New York graphic artist.

“If you went to film school and took a class on documentary, this is everything you should not do,” she said.

She contradicts a theory expressed by Mr. Watkins at the Monday news conference that a disputed “transcript” – allegedly a conversation between Ruby and Oswald plotting the president’s death – might have been part of the movie script.

Ms. West said the purported dialogue appears nowhere in the screenplay.

Motive?

An unanswered question is why Mr. Wade got involved in the movie venture in the first place.

A letter from John Bartholomew, the film’s writer, to Mr. Wade implies the prosecutor saw the project as a way to ensure his legacy.

“I think that all men want a memorial to their stay on earth,” Mr. Bartholomew wrote. “They like money and they like power, but the closer they get to their God, the more they crave a lasting memorial that will mark their contribution.”

In a return letter, Mr. Wade thanks Mr. Bartholomew, but does not respond to that argument.

Mr. Larsen’s pitch that the film would help restore Dallas’ image seemed to carry little weight with Mr. Wade, who never uses it in letters defending the project.

Instead he seemed more interested in getting the facts correct as when he writes a letter to one of the film’s financial backers, saying that Countdown in Dallas “historically will be of great service to the people of this city as well as the nation and the world.”

Mr. Alexander, 88, speculated that Mr. Wade’s motive was simple: He may have needed money to help pay off old campaign debts.

Asked if accepting money for public documents would have been illegal or unethical, Mr. Alexander said: “I won’t say what he did was illegal. But I will say it was stupid and in bad taste.”

Mr. Denson, 80, who now lives on a ranch in the Hill Country, strongly denies that Mr. Wade, who stepped down in 1986, was in the deal for the money.

“He did it to help the city,” Mr. Denson said. “I’ve known Wade for a long time, and I don’t think I knew a man with more integrity. I can tell you that he would never do anything for the money.”

John Larsen, the filmmaker’s son, said his 82-year-old father now lives in California and didn’t want to discuss the movie.

The experience left his father, who had seen the Kennedy film as a big career opportunity, deeply disappointed. And he never fully understood why the deal collapsed.

“It’s something he’s been thinking about over the years,” said Mr. Larsen, a filmmaker like his father. “He was very earnest about it … [but] very politically naive.

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