At 94, former Miami Beach mayor and still active Miami-Dade Senior Judge Seymour Gelber is among the few who remember Miami police informant No. 88, Willie Augustus Somersett.
“Willie was just a garrulous guy,” said Gelber, who worked with Somersett while serving as a top assistant to Dade State Attorney Richard Gerstein in the 1960s. “He’d come in and joke, and [Assistant State Attorney] Arthur Huttoe and I would take his testimony.”
Somersett has been dead 43 years. But in the half-century of assassination lore that’s grown up around the murder of President John F. Kennedy, Somersett has attained a kind of immortality as the man who heard about it first.
You won’t find Somersett’s name in the 26 volumes published by the Warren Commission, the official government investigation that concluded Lee Harvey Oswald was Kennedy’s lone assassin.
Yet 13 days before that dark day in Dallas, Somersett elicited a chilling, police tape-recorded threat from a right-wing racist who talked of how the President would soon be shot “from an office building with a high-powered rifle” and how “they’ll pick up somebody within hours after…just to throw the public off.”
Extremist Joseph A. Milteer, of Quitman, Ga., made the threat against Kennedy in the kitchen of Somersett’s small apartment in downtown Miami. Was it dumb luck or advance knowledge? Milteer’s uncanny prediction remains unexplained to this day.
In the late 1970s, the House Assassinations Committee had experts analyze a photograph taken in Dealey Plaza moments before the first shot of an unidentified motorcade spectator “who bears a strong resemblance” to Milteer. The experts, however, concluded the man was not Milteer, who died in 1974.
But now, a retired FBI agent who says that within hours of the assassination he was assigned to locate Milteer has told BrowardBulldog.org the man in the photograph is indeed Milteer.
“I stood next to the man. I interviewed him and spent hours with him,” said Don Adams, who spent 20 years with the FBI before working as a police chief in Ohio. “There is no question in my mind. As soon as I saw that picture I almost fell off of my feet.”
Congressional investigators never contacted Adams, even though he was identified in several FBI reports as having interviewed Milteer. Instead, the record indicates they relied on a probability study rather than live witnesses who actually knew Milteer to determine what the photograph showed.
Adams, now 82, says he saw the Dealey Plaza photograph for the first time a decade after his 1982 retirement from the FBI. The photograph renewed his interest in the case and ultimately led him to write the book, From an Office Building with a High-Powered Rifle, published last year by TrineDay. His insider’s account raises disturbing questions about the FBI’s investigation of Kennedy’s death.
Events leading to Willie Somersett’s Nov. 9, 1963 recorded talk with Milteer began 21 months earlier after a bomb exploded outside the home of Miami Herald Editor Don Shoemaker. The city’s entire detective force was assigned to the case, according to news accounts at the time.
Somersett, a part-time union organizer with right-wing ties and a track record as a paid FBI snitch, came forward to point the finger. Gelber credits the information he provided with leading authorities to identify and convict the bomber – a Nazi sympathizer who worked as a meter reader for the city of Miami.
Records show the FBI had dropped Somersett for a while as an informant in 1961 “for indiscretions…which threatened to expose a reliable Bureau informant.” By 1963, however, the FBI had given him the code name “T-2” and reports described him as “a source who has furnished reliable information in in the past.”
In the months following the Shoemaker bomb case, Somersett remained on the Miami PD’s payroll as part of a broader investigation into extremist and racist groups suspected of engaging in violence that authorities feared might spill into Miami.
It was at an April 1963 meeting in New Orleans of the Congress of Freedom Party, a confederation of right-wing political groups, where Somersett hooked up with Milteer, an old friend and a representative of the notoriously violent Dixie Klan faction of the Ku Klux Klan.
Somersett saw Milteer again in Indianapolis in October at the convention of the far-right Constitution Party. As a member of that group’s board of directors, Milteer helped formulate “plans to put an end to the Kennedy, (Martin Luther) King, Khrushchev dictatorship over our nation.”
Gelber, the father of former State Sen. Dan Gelber, kept a diary back then about his work as a prosecutor. He wrote, “Somersett frequently uses the expression ‘the most violent man I know’” to describe Milteer. “I am beginning to suspect he is intuitively separating the talkers from the doers.”
Following the meeting in Indianapolis, Gelber suggested police tape-record Milteer during an upcoming trip to Miami.
Detective Everett Kay, Somersett’s police contact, set up a tape-recorder in a broom closet in Somersett’s residence in a building in the 1300 block of North Miami Avenue. Today, the former apartment building is a giant billboard.
What follows is a partial transcript. You can listen to the tape and read the entire transcript by clicking here.
Somersett: Kennedy’s coming here, I think, on the 18th or something like that to make some kind of speech…
Milteer: You can bet your bottom dollar he is going to have a lot to say about the Cubans because there are so many of them here.
Somersett: Yeah, well, he will have a thousand bodyguards. Don’t worry about that.
Milteer: The more bodyguards he has, the more easier it is to get him.
Milteer: The more bodyguards he has the more easier it is to get him.
Somersett: Well, how in the hell do you figure would be the best way to get him?
Milteer: From an office building with a high-powered rifle…
Somersett: They are really going to try to kill him?
Milteer: “Oh, yeah. It’s in the working…
Milteer mentions the name of a Klansman who might do the job, someone he claimed had stalked Dr. King, “but couldn’t get close enough to him.” Shortly, the conversation returned to the President.
Somersett: Hitting this Kennedy I’ll tell you is going to be a hard proposition, I believe. Now you may have it figured out how to get him…an office building and all that, but I don’t know how them Secret Service…they’d never cover all them office buildings and anywhere he’s going. Do you know whether they do that or not?
Milteer: If they have any suspicion they will, of course. But without suspicion the chances are they wouldn’t….You wouldn’t have to take a gun up there…take it up in pieces. All those guns come knock down and you can take them apart.”
Before the end of the tape, the conversation returned to Kennedy.
Somersett: Boy, if that Kennedy gets shot we’ve got to know where we’re at because you know that would be a real shake if they do that.
Milteer: They wouldn’t leave any stone unturned there, no. No way.
Somersett: Oh, hell no.
Milteer: Hell, they’ll pick up somebody within hours after, if anything like that would happen, just to throw the public off.
Somersett: Well, somebody is going to have to go to jail if he gets killed.
Milteer: Just like Bruno Hauptmann in the Lindbergh case, you know.
President Kennedy came to Miami on Nov. 18 without incident and attended the Inter-American Press Association dinner at the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour. In his diary, Gelber wrote that police assured him the Secret Service knew Milteer’s whereabouts.
The 1979 report by the House Assassinations Committee says Miami police intelligence officers met with Secret Service agents on Nov. 12 and provided a transcript of the Somersett recording. The Miami Secret Service case agent forwarded the report and a copy of the recording to headquarters in Washington.
On Nov. 18, Miami Secret Service Agent Robert Jamison of Miami had Somersett call Milteer to verify that he was home in Georgia. He was.
But Milteer’s threat “was ignored by Secret Service personnel in planning the trip to Dallas,” according to the House report. Detective Kay and other former police officials said a planned motorcade in Miami was abandoned because of Milteer’s threat, but the House committee later found that was not the case.
Gelber, a senior judge in Miami-Dade’s child support enforcement division, said the FBI, too, was notified.
While it was Gelber’s belief the FBI didn’t immediately follow up, they did. FBI Agent Adams, based in Thomasville, Ga., said Atlanta Special Agent In Charge James McMahon told him about a threat to the president and on Nov. 13 ordered to him to do a “top priority” background investigation on Milteer. Adams says he submitted his report on November 18.
Word of Milteer’s threat may even have reached President Kennedy himself.
In testimony before the Warren Commission in May 1964, former presidential aide Kenneth O’Donnell said the President talked of such an assassination scenario in his Fort Worth hotel room 30 minutes before leaving for Carswell Air Force Base and the short flight to Dallas.
O’Donnell: Well, as near as I can recollect he was commenting to his wife on the function of the Secret Service and his interpretation of their role once the trip had commenced, in that their main function was to protect him from crowds, and to see that an unruly or sometimes an overexcited crowd did not generate into a riot, at which the President of the United States could be injured. But he said that if anybody really wanted to shoot the President of the United States, it was not a very difficult job–all one had to do was get a high building some day with a telescopic rifle, and there was nothing anybody could do to defend against such an attempt on the President’s life.
Five hours after the assassination Atlanta Agent-in-Charge McMahon sent an “urgent” FBI teletype to his counterparts in Dallas and Miami and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover citing a “threat to kill Pres. Kennedy by J.A. Milteer at Miami, Fla., Nov. nine last” and reporting, without attribution, that” Milteer’s whereabouts at Quitman, Ga. this date ascertained.”
Adams, however, says that’s not true. He says he knows because within hours of the assassination McMahon assigned him to locate Milteer for the Secret Service, and by about 4 p.m. he was knocking on Milteer’s door in Quitman. Milteer was nowhere to be found.
Adams spent the next four days canvassing Milteer’s “known haunts” in southern Georgia before locating him in nearby Valdosta, Ga. on Nov. 27. Adams called Agent Kenneth Williams for backup and later that evening the two men stopped and questioned Milteer.
The report, and documentation about it, shows the agents never confronted Milteer with his words from the tape-recorded threat. Adams says that’s because his FBI superiors never informed him that a tape of the threat had been made, and limited the scope of the questioning.
Instead of charging Milteer with making a death threat against the president the FBI’s McMahon told Adams to release Milteer “since there was no indication he was involved in the assassination.”
Meanwhile, police in Miami learned that Somersett rendezvoused with Milteer in Jacksonville the day after the assassination before traveling together to Columbia, S.C. for a KKK meeting.
Milteer was jubilant about Kennedy’s death, Somersett told the Miami Police.
“He said, ‘Well, I told you so. It happened like I told you, didn’t it?’” Somersett said, according to one report. “I said, ‘That’s right. I don’t know whether you were guessing or not, but you hit it on the head pretty good.’ He said, ‘Well, that is the way it was supposed to be done, and that is the way it was done.’”
An FBI memorandum sent Nov. 27, 1963 to Assistant Director Alan H. Belmont, the agency’s No. three official, “Milteer reportedly told Somersett he had been in Fort Worth and Dallas as well as other southern cities. He did not indicate the dates of his visits to these cities.”
Somersett last heard from Milteer on Dec. 4 when Milteer called to say the FBI had questioned him and some of his extremist pals about Kennedy. Somersett became fearful, thinking Milteer suspected him of being an informer, and apparently never saw Milteer again.