Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Robert Maheu, Who Hired the Chicago Outfit to Kill Castro, Dies at 90

For one simple reason, nearly all of the notable and notorious from Robert Maheu's life couldn't make it to his funeral over the weekend.

They were dead.

At age 90, Maheu outlived the oddballs and Outfit members who made him a legend in law enforcement circles. Howard Hughes, the richest-man recluse with fingernails as long as his bank statement; Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro who ended up 6-feet under; Johnny Roselli, the crafty gangland killer; and Sam "Mooney" Giancana of Chicago mobdom fame. They were all Maheu associates who preceded him in death.

The one surviving celebrity from Mr. Maheu's storied past who might have shown up in the pews at St. Viator Catholic Church in Las Vegas on Saturday, didn't come.

Fidel Castro.

Of course Mr. Castro is preoccupied back in Cuba with his own health problems, those pesky reports of his personal demise and that continuing U.S. trade and travel embargo.

The fact is if Maheu's biggest professional project had succeeded, Cuba today would be more a popular tourist haven than the Bahamas and Castro would be a name carved onto an ornate Havana gravestone.

Maheu (pronounced May-hew) worked for the FBI during World War II in counter-espionage. He opened his own private-eye firm in 1954 and the Central Intelligence Agency was his best client, paying him a $500 retainer. The CIA handed him "cut-out" assignments that involved illegal tactics, which if exposed would be untraceable to the federal agency.

Maheu's most spectacular cut-out assignment from the CIA was to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro by murdering him. Thirteen million was budgeted to instruct paramilitary soldiers outside of Cuba for a guerrilla assault. Dozens of those rebels were trained in a Chicago warehouse, according to law enforcement officials cited in an ABC7 investigative report a few years ago.

As the soldiers-for-hire trained, Maheu recruited two top Chicago Outfit bosses, Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana, to carry out the Castro assassination. Roselli and Giancana preferred a scheme to poison Castro.

Giancana was the perfect candidate to eliminate Castro. He had the power, the firepower and the persona. In his autobiography, Maheu recalls how the mob boss enjoyed playing gangster. Once, when a young tough walked up to him, the Outfit boss put him in place.

"Without even looking at the punk, Giancana grabbed his necktie and yanked him close. Sam stared right into the kid's eyes and said, 'I eat little boys like you for breakfast. Get your ass out of here before I get hungry.'"

Recently declassified CIA records reveal that the government covertly offered Giancana $150,000 for the gangland hit on Castro but that Momo, as he was sometimes called, refused the money and wanted to do the job for free. The Chicago Outfit and the New York Mafia had an interest in getting rid of Castro.

"They'd had a grudge against Castro ever since he'd forced them out of the Havana casinos," Maheu recalled in a 1992 autobiography. "It was even rumored that Meyer Lansky had put a million-dollar bounty on Castro's head. CIA Director Allen Dulles passed the ball to his deputy director, Richard Bissell. Bissell handed off to the CIA security chief. Colonel Sheffield Edwards. And then I received the call..."

"They used the analogy of World War II," Maheu wrote. "If we had known the exact bunker that Hitler was in during the war, we wouldn't have hesitated to kill the bastard. The CIA felt exactly the same way about Castro. If Fidel, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara were assassinated, thousands of lives might be saved."

CIA memos show that at least two assassination attempts were made on Castro in early 1961 with CIA-supplied lethal pills and organized-crime support, but both failed. Testimony and evidence presented at congressional hearings in 1975 revealed that the CIA tried to kill Castro at least eight times in the early 1960s.

The attempts all failed just like the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Castro survived. Those who masterminded the plots against him didn't.

Except Robert Maheu. Until last week when he died of old age. "It's been a helluva ride," Maheu was quoted as saying in a fascinating story written in last November's Chicago Magazine by Bryan Smith, the fine freelance reporter.

Despite the morals and ethics that always tugged at his conscience, Maheu said that he might do it all again. "If I were called upon tomorrow again, and I thought it would save one American life, I think I'd be tempted."

Thanks to Chuck Goudie

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