Charles N. Shaffer Jr. did just about everything right in representing John W. Dean III, the onetime White House counsel whose riveting testimony before a Senate committee in 1973 directly implicated President Richard M. Nixon in the Watergate break-in and coverup, leading to Nixon’s resignation the following year.
But Shaffer, who died at age 82 at his home in Woodbine, Md., on March 15, may not have felt that way about his work as a staff member of the Warren Commission in 1964.
In an interview with author Philip Shenon following the publication of his 2013 book on the assassination, Shaffer said he had come to believe that there probably was a conspiracy to assassinate JFK, which, Shenon noted in an article for the Washington Post, made him “the first commission insider to say so publicly.” (According to Shenon, however, Shaffer continued to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman in Dealey Plaza and did not question the single-bullet theory laid out in the commission’s report.)
“The Warren Report was an honest report, based on what we knew at the time,” Shenon quoted Shaffer as saying. “But nothing should have been written in stone. There were developments that convinced me that maybe we missed something.”
One of those developments, apparently, was the assertion of mob lawyer Frank Ragano, in his 1994 memoir, that Santo Trafficante Jr., the Tampa-based Mafia boss, had confessed to him in 1987 that he and Carlos Marcello, his counterpart in New Orleans, were responsible for the assassination.
Shaffer, Shenon wrote, knew Ragano and thought his account seemed credible. “If you credit what Ragano says, there was a conspiracy,” Shaffer told him. “It sounds right.”
Shaffer told Shenon that Chief Justice Earl Warren’s biggest mistake as the chairman of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy was his refusal to allow Jack Ruby, the strip-club operator who killed Oswald two days after the assassination, to testify in Washington. (Ruby had pleaded to be taken from Dallas to Washington, saying, “I want to tell the truth, and I can’t tell it here.”) Shaffer branded Warren’s decision “ridiculous,” saying that in so doing the commission missed a “golden opportunity” to see if Ruby was willing to expose a conspiracy.
Before joining the Warren Commission’s staff, Shaffer worked as a Justice Department lawyer and assisted in the prosecution of Teamsters president James R. Hoffa in 1964 for jury-tampering, which led to the union leader’s first and only criminal conviction. Shaffer told Shenon that he was detailed to the commission by JFK’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to be “Bobby’s spy” on its staff.