Figures in Kennedy assassination had many links to Las Vegas

Some days it seems all roads lead to Las Vegas. That includes one of the darkest days in American history, Nov. 22, 1963.

The voluminous Warren Commission Report from 1964 officially found that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman and not part of a conspiracy. After many interviews and accessing FBI wiretap surveillance of key mob figures, the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s determined just the opposite: Oswald was likely a small player in a larger plot to assassinate the president.

One element isn’t in doubt. Both efforts uncovered numerous links to Las Vegas and members of what was once euphemistically called the “sporting crowd.” That includes hoodlums, hustlers, and even suspected hitmen. The connections are numerous, the interviews voluminous, but the most intriguing question — Did people associated with our mobbed-up gambling community play a role in the assassination? — has no clear answer even half a century after the fact.

One of the more intriguing characters with links to Las Vegas is R.D. Matthews. A World War II Marine veteran with long ties to casino man Benny Binion in Dallas and Las Vegas, Matthews called himself no more than a “passing acquaintance” of Jack Ruby. Both men were very familiar with the gambling crowd in Havana and Dallas in the late 1950s. Ruby, the Warren Commission found, made “preliminary inquiries, as a middleman, concerning the possible sale to Cuba of some surplus jeeps located in Shreveport, La., and asked about the possible release of prisoners from a Cuban prison.”

Although Matthews denied doing business with Ruby, the commission discovered that Ruby had placed a call to Matthews’ ex-wife in Shreveport on Oct. 3, 1963. Ruby and Matthews denied ever meeting Oswald during his eccentric, pro-Cuba days.

More than a decade later, on April 3, 1978, at the U.S. District Courthouse in Las Vegas, Matthews was interviewed by the House committee with defense attorney, Binion friend and future U.S. District Judge Harry Claiborne at his side. Although Matthews again downplayed his relationship with Ruby, the veteran casino man had to admit he knew plenty members of the Dallas mob community. At one time, Matthews had told the FBI he had known Ruby for a dozen years, but later said he had barely made his acquaintance. In the late 1970s, investigators had no trouble illustrating that Ruby and Matthews shared a circle of notorious friends in common.

Perhaps one day someone will fully explain the role of mob-connected gambling figure Lewis J. McWillie in the assassination’s big picture. McWillie, whose underworld contacts reached from Cuba through Dallas and all the way to Fremont Street and Binion’s Horseshoe Club, clearly intrigued investigators.

“In September 1959, Ruby traveled to Havana as a guest of a close friend and known gambler, Lewis J. McWillie,” the Warren Commission said, and later mentioned that Ruby had purchased a pistol for his friend and sent it to him in Nevada. In a separate interview, Ruby said in the late 1950s he bought four rifles for McWillie, which later was thought to be four “Cobra pistols” bound for Havana. Before the House committee, McWillie denied he was sent the weapons but then admitted Ruby had sent him a pistol from Dallas to Las Vegas.

During his testimony in 1978 in Las Vegas under questioning by committee Chairman Louis Stokes, McWillie flatly denied the “four guns” story.

McWillie: This never happened, sir, and there is no way I could call Jack Ruby and ask him to send guns over there because every call was monitored in Havana, every call, and I would hate to get caught with a gun in Cuba when I was there.

Stokes: How about Las Vegas?

McWillie: He sent me a gun there, yes, and I didn’t take it out.

Stokes: Sir? Pardon me.

McWillie: I called him. They were having a lot of holdups there. I was working on the late shift. I would get up at 2 o’clock in the morning and get off at 10, and the holdup men had beaten several fellows up because they didn’t have enough money for them, and so I called Jack and asked Jack to send me a gun out there, and in the meantime my kids were small and my wife wouldn’t let me take the gun out and so it went back.

Based on his testimony, it would appear McWillie didn’t realize how readily available guns were for purchase Las Vegas.

Originally from Tennessee, McWillie worked for Meyer and Jake Lansky in Havana. He also worked as a dealer in Dallas before moving to Nevada, where he was employed in Reno, Lake Tahoe, and in Las Vegas at Binion’s.

Then there are late members of the Strip’s entertainment fraternity, PR man and former Dallas Morning News columnist Tony Zoppi and longtime lounge performer and show producer Breck Wall. Both were well-acquainted with Ruby in Dallas, were interviewed at some length by officials, and wound up spending the remainder of their working lives in Las Vegas.

The presence of the enigmatic Chicago mob representative Johnny Rosselli takes the Las Vegas connection to the Kennedy assassination to another level, at least according to the House committee. (He isn’t mentioned by the Warren Commission.) It interviewed Rosselli about his role in a CIA-backed plot to kill Fidel Castro. It also was intrigued by the level of anger high-ranking members of the Chicago Outfit and other mob groups had for Kennedy in the weeks and months leading up to his assassination.

Rosselli was a fixture in Las Vegas for many years, and his friend and associate Robert Maheu used him in the failed attempt to silence Castro. Instead, it was Rosselli who was silenced shortly after his first trip before a congressional committee attempting to explore the mob’s CIA-Cuba connections.

Add to that eclectic mix the statement of Las Vegas investigator and former casino publicity man Ed Becker, who swore under oath that more than a year before the assassination he heard New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello admit Kennedy was going to be eliminated. The late Becker is the co-author with Charles Rappleye of the well-researched investigative biography of Rosselli, “All-American Mafioso.”

During our long friendship, Becker often repeated the Marcello story. Although some authorities discounted its ultimate meaning, and even its veracity, the noted mob authority remained steadfast.

This is just a sample of the ties investigators developed.

No one can tell you with dead certainty what any of it means, but does it mean nothing at all?

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.