Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox reportedly once said the case was like a jigsaw puzzle, and Frank Sturgis was a piece of the puzzle that didn’t quite fit.
Sturgis is best known as one of the five men arrested 50 years ago, on June 17, 1972, while breaking into, bugging and burglarizing the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington’s Watergate office and hotel complex. But Watergate was, in my view, one of the least egregious misdeeds in the mysterious and intriguing career of this shadowy figure.
Sturgis served 14 months in a Florida federal prison after being convicted of the crime. In 1976, as associate producer of an ABC late-night newsmagazine, I somehow convinced his probation officer to let me fly Sturgis up to New York for an appearance on the show.
We got along well during that first meeting, and for the next 17 years, I periodically interviewed Sturgis about his involvement in some of the most dramatic events in 20th-century history – and I never knew whether he was telling me the truth.
Frank Sturgis was, by far, the most fascinating of the five Watergate burglars. (He’s played by Don DiPetta in the Starz limited series “Gaslit.”) Born Frank Fiorini in Virginia in 1924, he legally changed his last name in 1952 – either because it was the name of his stepfather or because he was enamored of the fictional hero Hank Sturgis in a 1949 novel written by none other than E. Howard Hunt, his longtime CIA contact who became ringleader of the Watergate burglars.
Nobody knows which reason is accurate; the one thing I knew I could trust about Sturgis was his account of the break-in, as other eyewitnesses told a similar story. “The police made so much noise… I heard them first,” he explained to me, “then I saw their lights, and I went back to where the men were working. We went as far back in the offices as we could. There was no escape, so we hid in one office behind some desks and chairs. When they came in the room and flipped the lights on, I heard someone say ‘This is the police; freeze!’ and I looked up and there was this one officer with his gun pointed at us. I hollered, ‘Don’t get nervous; no one here has a weapon.’”
Not having a weapon was a rare occurrence in Sturgis’ life. At the age of 17, he joined the Marine Corps and fought in the Pacific theater during World War II. After the war, he became a police officer, subsequently joining the U.S. Naval Reserve and later the U.S. Army. In 1956 – and this is when it begins to get murky – Sturgis moved to Cuba, and the next year to Miami. The Cuban wife of his uncle supposedly connected Sturgis with supporters of Fidel Castro.
By 1958, Sturgis was working directly with Castro to overthrow the Cuban government; after Castro gained power in the 1959 revolution, he chose Sturgis for the role of Air Force security and intelligence chief, and put him in charge of Cuba’s gambling casinos as well. Early that year, a Castro-sanctioned firing squad executed 71 of the communist leader’s opponents; there is a photograph of Sturgis standing atop the mass grave, holding a rifle.