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The Bartender’s Tale: How the Watergate Burglars Got Caught
Think you know everything about Watergate? Leave it to a barman to add a surprising twist to Washington's most enduring story. By Craig Shirley
PW's Saloon on 19th Street Northwest, was known for its heavy pours and good vibes. Photographs courtesy of Bill Lacey.
Comments () | Published June 20, 2012

On Friday, June 16, 1972, the annual assault of heat and humidity on Washington had already begun. An undercover DC police vehicle, a light-blue 1972 four-door Ford—car #727—was cruising Georgetown with Sergeant Paul W. Leeper and officers John B. Barrett and Carl M. Shoffler, all dressed as hippies, on the lookout for street criminals doing drug deals and the like. It was best to approach possible criminals in an unremarkable car and disheveled civilian clothing.

Earlier that evening, the cops had spotted two men on Wisconsin Avenue walking briskly behind two women. Suspicious that the men might be purse snatchers, they turned their headlights off and pulled alongside the damsels in potential distress to warn them. The two women wheeled around, muttered “Narc,” and gave the cops their middle fingers. Only a handful of crimes were reported that evening, including a series of stickups by two armed men. At Cardozo High School, a $150 calculator was reported stolen. These misdeeds were soon forgotten—but another crime committed that night remains legendary.

Though not reported on the Washington Post’s police blotter on June 17, five burglars, dressed in suits but wearing surgical gloves, would be arrested at the Watergate complex in Foggy Bottom by three plainclothes police officers from the “bum squad”—setting off a chain of events that changed the course of history.

While much of the story following their arrest is familiar—from the intrepid work of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and the secret tips of the anonymous source Deep Throat to the resignation of President Richard Nixon—the actual story of how the burglars were arrested has never been told.

It’s a tale that begins where all too many end: in a bar, this one not far from the Watergate and a favorite among police.

When the Watergate call first came from the dispatcher, Officer Shoffler radioed back, reluctantly taking the case. The address was not their primary responsibility—why wasn’t squad car 80, the vehicle responsible for the area, answering? The reply came back that car 80 was “temporarily out of service.”

In the movie All the President’s Men, the dispatcher said squad car 80 was getting gas. In their book of the same name, Woodward and Bern-stein never addressed the matter. Officer Barrett recalls the dispatcher’s saying, “Any detective car or any cruiser anywhere, [see] guard at the Watergate Hotel . . . in reference to the possible suspicious circumstances.”

Actually, squad car 80 was not out of gas. But the uniformed police officer who drove it was definitely out of service—at least according to a co-owner of PW’s Saloon, Bill Lacey.

• • •

A number of break-ins and attempted break-ins at DNC headquarters in the Watergate had been reported in the weeks leading up to that June night. Security guards had periodically found tape on interior doors, put there to keep them from locking—but applied horizontally and therefore easy for security to spot and remove. The bright boys on the Watergate break-in team just kept replacing the tape. In fact, several doors up the stairwell had been taped in such ham-fisted fashion.

The guard that night, Frank Wills—after removing the tape only to find it replaced 20 minutes later—had phoned in a report of “suspicious circumstances” to DC police just before 2 am.

The undercover cops pulled up in front of the Watergate in their unmarked car and sauntered in. The three officers thought nothing odd at this point. Hell, most of the calls they received were false alarms anyway.

The officer in charge that night, Sergeant Leeper, had on a golf hat and an old jacket bearing a George Washington University logo. At 33, he was a ten-year veteran of the force.

Across the street in the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, a “spotter” for the burglars, Alfred C. Baldwin III, was glued to the TV watching a horror movie, Attack of the Puppet People, on Channel 20—oblivious to the situation developing across the street. Baldwin was holed up in a disheveled seventh-floor room with a window facing the Watergate. If squad car 80 had been in service and pulled up in front of the Watergate with lights flashing, siren wailing, and a uniformed police officer emerging from it, that surely would have pulled Baldwin’s attention away from the horror movie and likely given him time to notify the five burglars via walkie-talkie so they could have escaped and the illegal entry gone unnoticed.

Instead, by the time Baldwin noticed that things had gone awry across the street, it was too late. As Officer Barrett recalls, “We were up on the sixth floor of the DNC walking around with guns out” when Baldwin finally got on the radio and asked how Watergate burglar James W. McCord Jr. and his men were dressed.

“We’re wearing suits and ties,” McCord replied.

“Well,” Baldwin said, “you’ve got a problem because there are hippie-looking guys who’ve got guns.”

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  • larryjrmarlyn

    I'd read that the bldg. security guard had noticed that an entry door was taped in order to prevent it from locking and so he removed the tape , walked across the street and ate dinner, THEN phoned the police. During the 15+ odd minute time frame between the guard removing the tape and the cops eventually arriving, one of the burglars noticed his tape had been removed.
    After reporting this to the other burglars, they seemed disinterested. It seems they'd grown rather comfy going into the Watergate before and had seemingly lost their sense of danger. Just Imagine if the media showed half the interest in the IRS scandal or Fast & Furious as they did the Watergate caper...

  • Jakealxva

    Obviously, Shipley knows very little about the workings and equipment of the DC Police. What a hoot this article is................

  • Lorzpf

    Not very plausible, small clues set off warnings - A calculator in 1972?, maybe an adding machine. Deep Throat was a composite, Mark Felt made a career - literally- of taking credit for things he didn't do. Woodward and Bernstein brilliant, they were both chosen for their ease of manipulation. Cute story just like Paul Revere's ride (look up Penobscot Bay Fiasco - the true Paul Revere) Maybe you have some ideas for a new Novel or Hollywood "B" script. Watergate is layer after layer of disinformation, but it did work. The truth really never would have made it in the Publishing or Movie Industries, it always needed embellishment.

  • Chris

    Side-splitting reaction here by right-wingers who clearly spend too much time watching Fake News and reading the daily spew from Drudge/Breitbart/etc, etc.

  • Sorry, Chris-- but the Jon Stewart show is not a news program. And his brother is a total mover and shaker on the New York Stock Exchange-- the ultimate 1%er

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Posted at 06:05 PM/ET, 06/20/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles