Thursday, January 5, 2012

ME & LEE Reviewed by Stuart Bramhall

Me & Lee: How I came to know, love and lose Lee Harvey Oswald
Judyth Vary Baker (2010 TrineDay)

"They thought they could frighten Judyth Vary Baker into silence. And for decades they succeeded. But it’s too late to shut her up now. She’s already blown the whistle! And she did it for her friend Lee Oswald. Judyth’s story is a dark odyssey of disease, murder and betrayal, but it is one laced with innocence, hope and love." —Edward T. Haslam

Review by Stuart Bramhall

Me & Lee is a memoir by the only surviving member of a top secret New Orleans research team (also described at length in Ed Haslam’s 2007 Dr. Mary’s Monkey – which I have also reviewed) which attempted, in 1963, to develop a biologic warfare agent to assassinate Castro. Baker’s memoir has a forward by Haslam (see * below) and an afterward by longtime assassination researcher Jim Marrs. It’s also extensively footnoted and cross referenced with photos, news clippings and other documents from Baker’s personal records, Warren Commission testimony, and other records from the JFK archives.

A science prodigy, Judyth Vary Baker was only nineteen when she joined this project. The major strength of Lee & Me is the author’s ability to capture the naive idealism behind Baker’s determination to “conquer” cancer. As much a character study as an expose, the book portrays to perfection the blind, headstrong idealism typical of many young people manipulated into joining off-the-books intelligence-security activities.

Baker’s High School Cancer Research

It was obvious from an early age that Baker had a brilliant mind. Thanks to her extreme precociousness and heavy government emphasis on science education (to “catch up” with the Soviet space program), her high school provided her special premises to convert a science fair project into a long term study of techniques to accelerate cancer growth in mice. Thanks to Florida Senator George Smathers, she came to the attention of national cancer researchers. This led to her recruitment, after one year of college, by the prominent anti-Castro, anti-communist Dr. Alton Ochsner of Tulane University. Baker’s role was to assist cancer researcher Dr. Mary Sherman in a project that was sold to Baker as an effort to develop a vaccine against SV-40. The latter was a monkey virus which contaminated the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines given to children between 1955 and 1963.

Baker arrives in New Orleans in the summer of 1963 and discovers that she will be conducting research in CIA pilot David Ferrie’s apartment, rather Dr. Sherman’s lab. Moreover her assignment isn’t to work on a vaccine, but to help create a virus capable of causing “galloping” cancer. Her job consists of harvesting fifty or more mice every week that have been injected with SV-40 viruses mutated by exposure to radiation. She then grinds up the most aggressive tumors, suspends them in calf serum medium and centrifuges them to extract the viruses. She then transports them to Dr. Sherman’s lab to be re-exposed to high intensity radiation.

Baker’s Relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald

Baker unexpectedly meets Lee Harvey Oswald during this period, who will serve as her escort, riding the bus with her to and from work. In addition to her lab research, Ochsner asks her to take a cover job at the Reily Coffee Company, where her immediate boss is a former FBI agent, who is also heavily involved with the anti-Castro movement. Oswald also seems to be instrumental in persuading Baker to overcome her scruples about her biological warfare research, by revealing there is a right-wing/Mob/CIA/anti-Castro Cuban plot to kill JFK that might be derailed if they succeed in removing Castro from power. The line Oswald, Ferrie and Sherman give her that if Castro is assassinated, the different factions will start jockeying for power over Cuba and this will split the coalition.


Baker’s cover at Reily Coffee Company is that of secretary, though her main role is to ensure that Oswald, who also has a cover job at Reilly’s, gets his time card clocked in and out when he’s in the field. Both spend most of their time at their top secret jobs. Baker, who is mainly at Ferrie’s apartment dissecting mice, is never totally clear what Oswald’s assignment is. She describes him as getting regular payments from the FBI and CIA, as well as unemployment checks from a former job in Texas. He seems to be a kind of errand boy, both for the CIA and the Mafia. Oswald has relatives with the Mob and introduces Baker to New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. The Mafia has lost lucrative Cuban casinos in the revolution and is an eager participant in various conspiracies to get rid of Castro. Oswald also introduces her to Jacob “Sparky” Rubenstein (also known as "Jack Ruby"), whom Oswald has known from childhood.

Inside the Head of Lee Harvey Oswald

I have been reading JFK assassination literature since 1990. Of all the books I have read, Lee & Me provides the most insight into Oswald’s personality and his knowledge of the assassination conspiracy. As Baker portrays him, he comes across as an immature, bookish geek who liked to check out James Bond spy thrillers and quote from obscure literary works. He admitted to Baker that he was ashamed of hitting his wife Marina (for insulting his manhood) but seemed unable to stop. He also had strong personal views about civil rights and routinely sat in the rear, the colored section of buses. In 1963, the South was still militantly segregated. I can see how this might have been extremely irritating to his right wing, racist superiors.
Oswald’s CIA role in New Orleans

According to Baker, he was very much aware that his CIA handlers didn’t trust him following his return from the Soviet Union. He told Baker that fake defectors were never fully trusted, owing to the possibility they might have became double agents. Oswald was never given the name of the CIA officer running the anti-Castro project he was working for. Oswald only knew him as Mr. B and that he was CIA station chief in Mexico. According to Oswald, this pattern of being assigned a number of minor, unrelated tasks without being clear who he was working for was typical for agents suspected of being “dangles” (double agents). Baker states he only learned his superior’s real name a few days before the assassination. In their last phone conversation, Oswald revealed the man’s name was David Atlee Phillips. In 1963 Phillips was CIA Chief of Cuban Operations. In 1954 he played a major role in the CIA coup against Arbenz in Guatemala.

Baker mentions that Oswald helped to organize a shipment of weapons smuggled into New Orleans for the anti-Castro Cubans the CIA was training as paramilitaries. She also talks about an assignment in which Oswald posed as a pro-Castro member of Fair Trade for Cuba to collect names of Castro sympathizers to turn over to the FBI. He was also identified as the agent who would smuggle the fatal viruses into Cuba. This meant that Baker had to train him to change the culture medium necessary to keep them alive.

Baker is Fired from the Project

Eventually Sherman, Ferrie and Baker succeed in isolating a tumor virus capable of producing “galloping” cancer (killing them in weeks, rather than months) in mice. They then inject it into marmoset, rhesus and African green monkeys, where it proves to be equally virulent. In August 1963, Clay Shaw (the CIA contractor district attorney Jim Garrison prosecuted in 1967 for his involvement in the JFK assassination), Oswald and Ferrie transport the virus to the East Louisiana State Mental Hospital, to inject it into a “volunteer” from the Angola Penitentiary. Baker is initially told the patient already suffers from terminal cancer. She subsequently learns that he’s perfectly healthy. It also becomes clear from the blood samples she’s asked to analyze for cancer cells that numerous volunteers have been injected with the lethal virus.

Baker writes an angry memo informing Ochsner that this type of experimentation on human subjects is unethical. He immediately terminates her from the project and threatens her life if she has any further contact with Oswald. By this point the two of them have become lovers. Although Baker returns to Florida with her husband, she and Oswald make plans to leave their respective spouses and elope to Mexico after Oswald smuggles the fatal virus into Cuba.

Oswald Realizes He is Being Set Up

Oswald, meanwhile learns that his assignment is changed, that he is only to transport the virus to Mexico City and hand it off to a second courier. When his contact fails to show in Mexico City, he makes a desperate attempt to get a Cuban visa to deliver the virus himself, which is denied. He is now genuinely concerned about his own safety. The information he possesses makes him a clear liability to the people he works for unless they have a specific use for him. He becomes convinced, at this point, that they are trying to set him up to look like a pro-Castro agent in the plot against JFK.

Despite the promise he has been given to be transferred to Mexico City, his superiors order him to return to Dallas to spy on “right wing nuts” interested in killing Kennedy. He and Baker continue to maintain phone contact, using pay phones and a complex phone wheel they use to synchronize call scheduling. On October 19th, Oswald is invited to join the assassination conspiracy – planned for three alternative locations – Miami (a right-wing informant blows the whistle on the Miami plot and Kennedy forgoes a motorcade to be transported by helicopter), Chicago and Dallas. Oswald plays along, believing he can pass details of the conspiracy to trusted FBI agents who can foil the assassination attempts.

Following the records release under the 1992 JFK Act, it was learned that a tip-off regarding an assassination threat caused the secret service to cancel JFK’s November 2nd visit to Chicago. Oswald told Baker back in 1963 that he was responsible for this tip off. On November 16, he told her that he also passed information regarding the Dallas assassination plot to an FBI contact. Oswald’s wife Marina later confirmed this in a letter to the Chairman of the JFK Assassination Records Review Board. According to an FBI clerk Garrison interviewed during his investigation, the FBI contact telexed the information to the Dallas FBI field office, where it mysteriously vanished.

Validating Baker's Story

Edward Haslam, author of Dr. Mary’s Monkey, has exhaustively investigated her story and defends her for the following reasons:

1. He has confirmed her identity and her claims about doing cancer research in high school through the microfilm file at The Bradenton Herald, while employed there managing their market research.

2. He has sighted the W2 slip she provides for her period of employment at the Reily Coffee Company and confirms that they are genuine.

3. He has personally interviewed Anna Lewis, wife of CIA agent David Lewis, who worked with Oswald, Jack Martin and Guy Bannister in New Orleans’ anti-Castro movement. She confirms that Baker and Oswald were romantically involved in 1963.

I found this book quite convincing and very well documented. It was affecting to read of Judyth's horror at seeing the man she loved shot down by another man she had met in New Orleans. Research by experts on the assassination have established that Lee was framed and that the efforts to implicate him to the exclusion of other parties were based upon fabricated evidence, including the so-called "back yard" photographs. It is clear that justice has not been done to Lee, Judyth, or the American people.

* To protect her five children, Baker kept silent about her involvement with Oswald until her last child left home in 1998, she broke her silence. Her revelations on the Internet provoked a firestorm of controversy, both from pro-conspiracy researchers and Warren Commission diehards, who accuse her of fabricating her story from the wealth of detail on the JFK assassination circulating on the Internet.

Judyth Vary Baker maintains a blog at http://judythbaker.blogspot.com/ And fifteen interviews with her can be found on-line at JamesFetzerNews.



Stuart Bramhall is a prolific author and journalist, who maintains several web sites, including "The Most Revolutionary Act". She currently resides in New Zealand and has also been interviewed twice by Jim Fetzer on "The Real Deal", on 7 February 2001 and on 10 August 2011.

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