A colorful New Orleans electronics expert, private eye and business promoter - like a mischievous twin of Forrest Gump - is back on the fringes of history.
His story stretches credibility, perhaps, but the man whose last name is synonymous with fiction is in the news again, this time in connection with controversy over the 1993 federal siege at Mount Carmel near Waco that left about 80 people dead.
Gordon Novel, 61, is the originator of allegations - recently popularized by "conspiracist" documentaries- that federal agents fired upon David Koresh's followers as Mount Carmel was bursting into flames. Because of the charges that Novel developed, government investigators and the media now are looking into the possibility that at Waco, federal agents might have been guilty of attempted murder, not negligence. Sometime between now and April, at the request of the Justice Department's special counsel, former Sen. John Danforth, and at the order of Waco's federal district court, experts will re-enact a scenario intended to prove or debunk Novel's contentions.
But Novel is not the sort of figure whose charges the media or the courts are accustomed to taking seriously, and his background only adds to the furor over the Mount Carmel events.
The trouble begins, perhaps, with his birth. Novel says he is the illegitimate son of showman and songwriter Billy Rose ("Without a Song," "Me and My Shadow"), who famously said, "I sell ballyhoo, not genius." His mother, Novel says, was a chorus girl in Rose's production of Casa Mañana at Fort Worth's 1936 Texas Centennial Celebration. Perhaps if Novel (who pronounces his name No-vél) is given to showmanship, it is because it is in his genes.
His résumé claims that he was the model, inaccurately portrayed, as "Mr. X" in the 1991 Oliver Stone movie "JFK." He has for years been widely identified as an assassination conspirator; he was a bit player in the Watergate scandal; and he has lately been investigating UFO phenomena. In years past, he also has been an adviser to such beleaguered and controversial figures as carmaker John DeLorean and pornographer Larry Flynt. He is the sort of fast-talking raconteur who can spin tales that only space age technology can disprove - or confirm.
The re-enactment, reportedly slated to take place in March at Fort Hood, "is worthy of Cecile B. DeMille," former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark said.
A British company, Vector Data Research, will fly a fixed-wing aircraft at an altitude of about 9,000 feet over an expanse of prairie upon which federal agents and perhaps others will be firing weapons of differing caliber, loaded with a variety of munitions.
The aircraft will be equipped with a Forward-Looking Infrared, or FLIR, camera, similar or identical to one the FBI used to film Mount Carmel's 1993 finale, equipped with a long zoom lens. Dozens of technical experts and lawyers will supervise the show.
FLIR devices record variations in temperature, producing black-and-white pictures that look very much like ordinary movie images.
The FLIR tape at the center of today's debate was declassified by the FBI in 1994, during the criminal trial of 11 Mount Carmel survivors, including five who survived the fatal April 19 fire. Prosecutors argued that the FLIR showed that on April 19, 1993, residents of the complex set three separate fires inside the building.
But in late 1995, while viewing the 90-minute tape with a stepbrother and son, Novel says he saw something in the FLIR that no one else had noticed: flashes on the back side of Mount Carmel - out of the view of news cameras. Novel alleges the flashes are "thermal signatures" of weapons' fire. Whether the FLIR flashes are pictures of gun- and grenade-launcher fire is a critical issue, because FBI spokesmen have always denied that their agents took shots at anyone on April 19.
The question of federal gunfire and of who may be responsible - FBI men or members of the shadowy Delta Force - also are issues that Danforth is now investigating as a special counsel to the Justice Department. The allegation will be litigated this May, when a wrongful death suit filed against the federal government by Branch Davidian survivors goes to trial in Waco.
Among those who put faith in Novel's interpretation of the FLIR is Clark, President Johnson's attorney general, who is representing plaintiffs in the suit.
"It seems clear to me," Clark said from his offices in New York, "that the FLIR tape shows repeated gunfire, toward and into the church complex, from positions where only federal people could have been."
Clark puts such faith in Novel's discovery, in fact, that he has hired Novel as his chief investigator for the case.
But the plaintiff's arguments that government agents tried to shoot Mount Carmel residents is problematic because, thus far, there are no witnesses to federal gunfire, and most observers agree it would be foolhardy to accept Novel's interpretation without corroboration.
Nine people survived the April 19 tank-and-tear-gas assault on Mount Carmel, but of those, only one, Australian Graeme Craddock, crawled to safety on the building's back side after the fire broke out.
In 1993, Craddock told a grand jury that clouds of smoke hampered his view, but that he could hear gunshots - whether from his co-religionists or federal agents, he did not know.
Both Garrison and Novel disagreed with the government commission that, in the Warren Report, found that Lee Harvey Oswald was Kennedy's sole assassin. Garrison believed CIA figures plotted to kill the president. After hiring Novel as his security chief, Garrison came to suspect Novel was an operative of the intelligence agency. Novel blamed the FBI for Kennedy's killing, and ultimately charged that Garrison's investigation was part of a cover-up.
Contemporary accounts, and even some present-day conspiracy lore, assign various assassination roles to Novel. He was linked to anti-Castro Cuban exiles, or he was an impersonator of Lee Harvey Oswald, in a "two Oswalds" theory of the killing.
Or he hung out with Jack Ruby, Oswald's killer, or was "the man with the umbrella" who gave the signal for the "real" assassins to shoot the president.
One of the books upon which Oliver Stone based "JFK" reproduces a photo that purports to place Novel on a curb in front of the grassy knoll, seconds before the historic rifle shots were fired from a sixth-floor window in the Texas School Book Depository.
Novel denies any part in any JFK conspiracy, but his denial challenges credibility almost as much as the accusations do. "When Kennedy was killed," he said, "I was sitting in the Toots Shor's restaurant in New York City, relieving Elizabeth Taylor of $650,000 of her money."
His meeting wasn't with the actress, he says - to be precise - but with Michael Todd Jr., her stepson and financial manager. It was part of a project to raise money for the recreation of Bourbon Street scenes at the New York World's Fair of 1964-65, Novel says. He is not nor has he ever been a CIA operative, Novel said, "though me and the CIA do have a mutual admiration society." He calls reports connecting him to JFK's death "horse feathers" or "bull feathers"- inspired by his nearly lifelong enemy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Because he has publicly blamed the JFK assassination on the FBI, the agency has a vendetta to imprison and defame him, Novel charges. "In 1967 the bureau declared war on me," he said, "and they haven't let up yet. They want to get me because I wouldn't help them frame the CIA for the assassination that they carried out." An FBI spokesman declined comment when asked about Novel's claims. Unusual witness Gordon Novel is also an unusual witness to history because he was convicted twice of federal felonies.
In 1969, a federal prosecutor in Reno, Nev., charged him with the unlawful interstate transfer of electronic intelligence equipment. "Novel had in his possession a briefcase with a radio receiver, recorder and microphone at an Indian pyramid tribal council meeting," a newspaper account of the case reported. "I was the first guy to be convicted under that law," Novel said. "Watergate conspirators were the next."
In 1977, he pleaded guilty to the felony possession of a firearm, a federal offense, and spent a year in jail. Between 1976 and 1980, Novel also was brought to trial four times on state arson charges in New Orleans. His first two court dates ended in mistrials, the third in a conviction and three-year sentence.
But Novel presented an appeals court with evidence that tape recordings introduced by the prosecution - tapes produced by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms - had been doctored. Prosecutors did not offer the tapes when Novel's fourth trial opened, and he was acquitted. Novel's legal woes, he insists, all have been motivated by the FBI's desire to take revenge for his betrayal of Garrison.
"I was working as Garrison's chief of security," he explained - a fact that is amply documented -"while at the same time working for the White House to destabilize Garrison's operation."
His role at the White House, he says, involved both installing an "electronic countermeasures system" and keeping then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy posted on the strategy that Garrison was devising for the JFK probe.
"Garrison was working for the FBI," Novel said, "with the object of framing the Johnson administration and the CIA for the murder that the FBI committed."
The effect of the FBI's vendetta in the Nevada case, Novel asserts with pleasure, was blunted by the White House. "I got a year's probation, but I served it on the Pedernales Ranch," he said.
When Novel makes declarations like that, some of those who deal with him weigh his statements with what they call "the Novel factor." "You can't afford to ignore Novel, but you can't take what he says at face value," said Mike McNulty, whose Emmy-award-winning documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" brought the gunfire thesis to public attention. "You have to discount for 'the Novel factor.'"
Pressed on the question of his LBJ ranch sentence, Novel admits he spent most of his probationary year in the Dallas-Fort Worth area - but he insists his de facto probation officer was LBJ aide Walter Jenkins, who like other figures whose names Novel frequently drops, is safely dead. Yet Novel is not simply a man who tells tall tales on dead people. In 1979, John DeLorean, designer of the Pontiac GTO, began producing an expensive sports car in Northern Ireland. In 1982, the British government shut the plant, and soon thereafter, DeLorean was arrested in the United States on a federal cocaine-dealing charge.
DeLorean hired Novel as an aide in his defense effort, and when the case went to trial in 1984, the automaker was acquitted, thanks in part to an audiotape that Novel unearthed, revealing DeLorean was the victim of a sting.
Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, whose quixotic 1984 presidential campaign Novel also was promoting at the time, made the tape public, only to be jailed for contempt of court when he refused to reveal its origins. "He went to jail rather than naming me," Novel said. The story is true: "I did refuse to give him up as a source, and it cost me 51/2 months in prison," Flynt said.
After DeLorean's acquittal, Novel and the beleaguered automaker devised a plan to produce a new sports car, but that scheme fell through, DeLorean said, "because about half an hour after we made our announcement, I was arrested for embezzlement."
DeLorean's second federal trial also resulted in an acquittal. Perhaps becau se his legal troubles nearly ruined him - earlier this month DeLorean lost his home in a bankruptcy proceeding - today the exonerated industrialist has only praise for investigator Novel.
"There's only one like him," DeLorean said. "Gordon Novel is sui generis. He's very perceptive and very intelligent."
"I went in to see Colson about a loan from the Western Pension Fund to buy Federal Express, which was in trouble at the time," he said. "Pretty soon, we were talking about the Watergate tapes."
The two concocted a plan to erase the tapes using a "degaussing field canon," a device that could project a magnetic beam over a distance and through walls, scrambling the tapes. Ultimately, they decided not to try the scheme, Novel says, because Nixon nixed it. "We had evidence that John Dean had independently recorded all of the conversations," Novel said. Through Colson, whose association with Novel was documented by prominent columnist Jack Anderson, and other CIA or "company" men, Novel came to know Colby, who was CIA director from 1973 to 1975.
It was the retired Colby to whom Novel turned in 1995, he said, for confirmation that the FLIR flashes were actually gunshot signatures. He telephoned Colby, sent him a copy of the FLIR, "told him, 'if you've got any technology that you could put on it, I'd like to know what it says.'" A few weeks later, according to Novel's account, Colby called to say that, "You've got a positive on this stuff and I've got something that we probably shouldn't have, but I am going to show it to you."
Not long after Colby's call, Novel said, "some company guys show up at the New Orleans airport Hilton, with an IBM laptop and player. The FLIR had been put onto a hard disc and colorized, with fire in green, explosions in blue and gunshots in red. Everything you saw was event-designated." Novel also claims the film showed federal agents "using blinding lasers, firing them at the Davidians coming out of the building in the rear." But that scene, he says, occurs in a five-minute span of the tape that was not in the copy that he had sent to Colby, and that is missing from the version that the FBI has declassified.
Novel has explained the former CIA director's assistance by saying that, "Colby was helping us because he was tired of the CIA being framed for the murder of JFK." He's also said that, "when Colby gave me this intelligence, he wasn't ratting on anybody. He was simply pro-CIA. He was extremely angry about seeing the FBI pushing for a world government." After viewing the colorized FLIR, Novel took his interpretation to filmmaker McNulty, who brought in Edward Allard, formerly an analyst with the Defense Department's Night Vision Laboratory and a pioneer of FLIR technology. Allard's conclusion, after studying a copy of the tape that McNulty provided, was that it "clearly showed gunfire toward the building." His opinion and a subsequent meeting, at which Novel, Allard and McNulty all were present, shortly led to the making of "Rules of Engagement," whose sequel, "Waco: A New Revelation," is spurring much of the renewed attention to the events at Waco.
If, on the other hand, the FLIR camera records no flashes, those who subscribe to the official version of the Waco events will doubtless point out that Novel's credibility was always weak.
The New Orleans private eye and conspiracy-weaver already has prepared for that turn of events. Predicting that the test will be rigged with high-tech gimmickry and gadgetry, he is denouncing it as an "out-and-out sham." If the results of the re-enactment are believed, he says, the truth about what happened at Waco will be like the truth about another favorite subject of "conspiracists," on which he also claims to have an inside track: UFOs and the fabled Area 51.
"It is the blackest, deepest darkest secret of the whole federal government," he said.
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