Unredacted: The FBI files on John Caesar Grossi (II)

In my last post I discussed my interest in John Caesar Grossi and did a lengthy review of case file 43-5359, the first FBI file on Grossi in the ARC (hereafter File 1). In this post, I originally planned to review case file 88-30913, the second big FBI file on Grossi in the ARC (hereafter File 2).1There are a couple of very short files between these two; see below for details

The problem is that File 1 and File 2 are separated by a gap of 18 years. File 1 starts with Grossi’s first federal arrest in 1944 and ends in 1946, when he is sentenced to two years in a federal prison for impersonation. File 2 begins 18 years later, in July 1964, and ends in November 1965. File 2 starts with Grossi indicted by Texas for leasing a car and forgetting to return it. Texas convinces the AUSA to issue a federal arrest warrant and Jack is on the run for several months, pursued by the FBI from New York to California, with side-trips to Canada. File 2 documents the chase, and I trust it won’t spoil the story to reveal that the G-men finally catch up with Jack.

Without knowing what Jack Grossi was up to in the 18 years from 1946 to 1964, File 2 is tough to read, and even tougher to summarize coherently. I will therefore push back my review of File 2 to the next post, and for this post I will try to fill in Jack’s story during those 18 years. In an attempt to anchor these posts to the JFK assassination, I will also cover the material on Grossi in the FBIHQ file on Oswald, which fits in at the end of this period.

Much of the material that I will use in this post is from File 2, but it is scattered in a dozen or so documents, in rap sheets, fingerprint records, and miscellaneous reports and memos that are irrelevant to the main narrative of the file. File 2 is actually a simple story of Jack Grossi on the run for car theft. Better, then, to abstract all this miscellaneous background material and use it here to show how Jack got into such a pickle.

This post will also use a non-ARC document: Grossi’s file from Leavenworth USP. This document (hereafter “Leavenworth” or LW) is invaluable in understanding Grossi’s rocky career in this period. The writer(s) of LW also spent some time trying to figure Grossi out, asking him questions I would have asked him too. As a result, LW gives one much insight into what made Jack tick.

LW is available at archive.org,2https://archive.org/details/johngrossiprisonrecord/mode/1up and is discussed at John Simkins’ JFK forum.3LW is discussed in several places at the forum. I think this is the first discussion. From the discussion there, I believe it was first acquired and posted online by John Kowalski, a Canadian JFK researcher. Thanks to John for a very interesting document (and my apologies if I’ve got any of that wrong.)

Terre Haute to El Reno

The previous post ended with the conclusion of File 1, which saw the 18-year-old Jack sentenced to 2 years in a federal penitentiary for impersonating a gunner’s mate in the USN. This heavy sentence was surely influenced by the fact that he relied on his USN uniform to pass lots and lots of bad checks.

File 1 did not record where Jack served his time. According to File 2, he was incarcerated at the Terre Haute USP from April 1946 to January 1947.4FBI file number 88-30913-6, released as ARC record 124-10213-10238. This long document includes Grossi’s FBI Identification Record; p. 20 gives dates for Grossi’s various arrests and releases in this period. This means that Grossi served only nine months of his two year sentence. LW puts a little flesh on the bones, telling us that Grossi was assigned to the education department as a teacher in art classes.5LW, p. 5 His good record in Terre Haute perhaps explains his early release, not to mention the fact that it was his first stay in a federal facility, and he was only 19.

After release, Grossi told LW, he worked as a cartoonist for a couple of years, but LW had no verification of this.66LW, p. 5 FBI File 2 has no records on this either. It does show that Grossi was fingerprinted at the Sheriff’s Office of Borger County, Texas, in October 1948, when he applied for a job as a storekeeper at a gas station.7ARC record 124-10213-10238, p. 20 There is nothing else in Grossi’s FBI files that reflects this period.

The next entry in Jack’s FBI identification record is from the Minneapolis Police Department on July 29, 1949. The MPD is holding him for violation of the Dyer Act, aka the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act (NMVTA).8ARC record 124-10213-10238, p. 20 In other words, he stole a car and took it across state lines. There is almost nothing in the official records on this new act of outlawry.

There is, however, some information on the arrest outside the official record. According to a newspaper article from the Portland Oregonian dated July 31, 1949,9Researcher Tom Scully found this article and posted it at the JFK Assassination Forum (see the bottom of the post (here). “smooth talking Texan” Jack G. was arrested in Minneapolis MN after acquiring a new car from Francis and Hopkins Motors in Portland OR, financing the deal by trading in a vehicle he had borrowed from his employer in Dallas. F&H failed to note that the car did not belong to Jack because Jack had also borrowed his employer’s ID.

Why Jack was in Minneapolis and how the feds caught up with him is not explained in the available records.10There may have been an FBI file on the case, but FBI files on Dyer Act violations (classification 26) were so numerous it was probably disposed of long ago; according to Haynes and Langbart, as of 1978 there were over 400,000 Dyer Act case files at FBIHQ and over 2 million files at all field offices. Needless to say, there had been substantial destruction of this huge pile of paper by 1976-78, when the HSCA asked the FBI for Grossi’s files. Jack was moved from lockup to lockup, Minneapolis to St. Paul to Dallas, where he was sentenced in Sept. 1949 to three years in the El Reno USP.11LW, p. 5

He was incarcerated at El Reno for 25 months, from October 1949 to November 1951.12LW, p. 5-6 At the time, El Reno took only male inmates 18 to 26 years old.13See “Federal Correctional Institution, El Reno.” Wikipedia, 12 May 2020. It had a reputation for prisoner reform programs, and Grossi benefitted from these. According to LW, “Grossi was assigned as editor of the inmates’ publication at El Reno and his work was outstanding and he received meritorious good time and pay.” He also managed to complete high school, and his “overall institutional adjustment” was rated very good.14LW, p. 5

El Reno to Leavenworth

Following his release from El Reno, Grossi says he worked as a photographer at the Wally of Hollywood Studio in Dallas, then moved to nearby McGoldrick Studio. (Leavenworth cautions us again that there is no verification of this.)15LW, p. 6 Some time in this period, Grossi was married and had a son. Leavenworth redacts all details of this, but an ARC record gives the name of an ex-wife, Miss MK, as a lead to follow up in the File 2 investigation.16ARC record 124-10213-10234, p. 7.

The marriage soon ran into problems. As Mrs. Grossi told LW, “Grossi was good to her and their son when things went his way but when they went contrary to his desires, he often had temper tantrums.” By the time the LW writers spoke to her in 1953, she was already remarried and did not care to contact Jack again. Their son went with her.17LW, p. 6

Faced with marital difficulties, Jack did what many men in similar circumstances have done; he quit his job and moved. It was the way he moved, however, that created problems. In August 1952, he stole a car in Lubbock, TX belonging to Charles Bishop. Unfortunately, Mr. B. left some blank checks in the car. Jack, succumbing to temptation, used these to “finance his escapades” and set off across the country. At this point, LW asks the question I ask: where was he going? Jack’s answer: “he had no particular destination in mind, but just wanted to run away from everything.”18LW, p. 6

You can’t say Jack’s not consistent.

Returning to Dallas in October of 1952, Jack was promptly arrested and spent several months in the county jail. When he finally came up for trial in February 1953, he pleaded guilty and got two years for “Interstate transportation of a stolen motor vehicle”, and two more years for “interstate transportation of stolen property.”19ARC record 124-10213-10238, p. 20 Apparently the second charge was for forging Mr. Bishop’s name on the checks. Cashing these Texas checks in another state made it a federal offense. In a heavy hit, these two sentences were to run consecutively, not concurrently. His new residence for these four years was to be Leavenworth USP.

Grossi’s gambit

There is evidence that Jack did not sit back and take this passively. The evidence is in the shortest file in the Grossi collection, 89-616, where 89 is the classification for assaulting or killing a federal officer.20 There are only four short serials in the file. These are all released in full as follows: FBI file number 89-616-1, released as ARC record 124-10215-10004; FBI file number 89-616-2, released as ARC record 124-10215-10005; FBI file number 89-616-3, released as ARC record 124-10215-10006; FBI file number 89-616-4, released as ARC record 124-10215-10007 According to a jailhouse informer, Grossi and two other inmates in the Dallas County Jail were going to attempt to escape after their February hearing in Federal Court. The plan was to phone a confederate on the outside before the hearing and give him the license plate number of the US Marshal’s car transporting them. The confederate would hide a gun in the car, and when they were being transported back to County Jail after the hearing, they would overpower the Deputy Marshal driving them, get into a car driven by their confederate, and take it on the run.21BI file number 89-616-1, released as ARC record 124-10215-10004

According to the informer, the gun to be used in the escape had been hocked at a pawn shop by a former prisoner (who was unaware of the escape plan), and would be redeemed by the outside confederate prior to the escape. According to the AUSA, redeeming the gun would be the overt act they needed to charge Grossi and the others with conspiracy to assault a federal officer.22FBI file number 89-616-2, released as ARC record 124-10215-10005.

I have questions about this story. The informer, James Cole, claimed that he was supposed to be paroled prior to the escape, and Grossi offered him $1000 to act as the outside man. Cole claimed he refused and was warned to keep his mouth shut or bad things would happen to him or his wife. Oddly, Grossi later informed Cole that he had gotten Preston Stephens, just released on bail, to act as the outside man, and helpfully gave Cole details such as the pawnshop name and location and the gun’s owner and make. I don’t understand why Grossi would give these details to Cole after he refused to go along with this scheme.

In the event, the gun was not redeemed from the pawn shop and Grossi and his two cohorts were all sentenced on different dates, making any coordinated escape attempt impossible. No overt act, no charges. The would-be escapees were interviewed by SAs from the Dallas FBI office, and denied they had any such plans in mind. Perhaps Cole was fibbing, but some of the details he gave were indeed accurate: the pawn shop was real and had a similar gun, pawned by a man with a similar name.23FBI file number 89-616-3, released as ARC record 124-10215-10006

Dallas tried to follow up on all this by interviewing the supposed outside man, Preston Stephens, but six months later they still had not found him, and the file ends there.24FBI file number 89-616-4, released as ARC record 124-10215-10007

Leavenworth to Kingston

Grossi’s stay at Leavenworth was uneventful. He arrived in Feb. 1953, and from April to November he worked on the New Era, another prison publication.25LW, p. 11. In November he was assigned to the prison’s brush factory where he worked first as a laborer, then as a stockroom clerk until his release in December 1955. Throughout his sentence, Grossi had excellent work reports: “He has displayed an excellent attitude, was very dependable and reliable and is a very conscientious workman.” At least once he sent his mother some money from his work.26LW, p. 12.

Apparently Grossi was eligible for parole earlier than December 1955, but he waived release because the sheriff of Deland, FL had put a detainer on him for forgery.27LW, p. 12. My guess is that while passing through Deland, Jack decided to pass a couple of Charles Bishop’s checks there, too. Deland finally withdrew the detainer in November 1955, and Grossi accepted parole. He signed his papers indicating that he would return to Dallas, where he planned to live alone and find work himself. When he left, he had $153.90 in his prison account. They gave him $106.90 in cash, and later mailed the remaining $47 to F. Ryder in Irving, TX.28LW, p. 11.

F. Ryder is Miss Fleta Ryder, who soon after married Jack.29ARC record 124-10213-10238, p. 9. Her name is given as Fleda in most of the FBI files, but public records say Fleta. Generally I have omitted the full names and locations of Grossi’s wives, using initials as a substitute. This case, however, is an exception. Grossi had a complicated relationship with the Ryders that shows up in later files, and FR’s brother Dial was also interviewed by the Warren Commission.30I don’t see any connection between Grossi helping Oswald get a library card, and Dial Ryder’s statement to the Warren Commission. If you are interested, see the Warren Commission Report, p. 315 All of this makes it difficult to completely leave off names here.

How did Grossi get to know FR? Perhaps he met her before his stay in Leavenworth, which would put it it all the way back in October 1952. Perhaps he got to know her while in jail. This is not impossible; Jack apparently met the wife after FR in just this way. Or perhaps he met FR immediately on his return to Texas, though that would be very fast work, even for Jack.

However they met, they were soon married. The date of their marriage is hard to track down though. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also at this time that Jack Grossi became Jack Leslie Bowen.31FBI file number 105-82555-2195, released as ARC record 124-10021-10325. The ARC record is not available online, but it is available at MFF in FBI 105-82555 Oswald HQ File, Section 91; see p. 45. The FBI apparently thought it possible that the name came from Foster L. Bowen, one of Jack’s Leavenworth acquaintances.32Foster L. Bowen is listed as one of the leads to contact in FBI file number 88-30913-2, released as ARC record 124-10213-10234 (see p. 6). Apparently they never got in touch with Foster L, however. In any case, this is the name Jack used exclusively for the next 10 years or so, from 1955 to 1965. (Jack used over a dozen aliases during his career.)

It seems that at first Jack found work to fit his skills; a later file refers to him working at Taylor Publishing Company in Dallas in 1956.33See p. 16 of the 2017 release of FBI file number 88-30913-6, ARC record 124-10213-10238. In mid-1956, however, we encounter another startling twist in Jack’s career. On July 3, 1956, he is arrested in Scarborough, Ontario for robbing a bank!34ARC record 124-10213-10238, p. 20.

Details on this uncharacteristic switch in Jack’s modus operandi are frustratingly absent. He used a pistol, and as a result Jack’s FBI files hereafter frequently feature the warning that Jack “should be considered armed and dangerous,” as if he were John Dillinger. In fact, as far as I can tell, this is the only time he was ever caught with a gun in his possession. And despite the large number of women he played fast and loose with, I have not yet run across any complaints that he physically abused girlfriends, wives, or kids. Violence was not a regular part of Jack’s makeup.

Whatever the story here, this was a hard blow for Jack. He received a five year sentence in Ontario’s Kingston Penitentiary,35ARC record 124-10213-10234, p. 4. and to make his misery complete, in October 1956 he received a letter (from FR or his mother) informing him that he had a new-born son.36ARC record 124-10213-10238, 2017 release, p. 16.

Back to Dallas

There is little information in the files on Jack’s time in Kingston. He studied commercial art, bookkeeping and business administration. At one point he attempted to get in contact with one of his old foster families, for reasons not stated in the file.37ARC record 124-10213-10238, 2017 release, p. 16-17. Otherwise, it seems Jack kept his head down and stayed out of trouble.

As was common in Jack’s record, he did not have to serve out his full five year sentence. He was turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in October 1959, after serving 39 months.

At the time he robbed the bank in Scarborough, Grossi was still on probation for his Dyer Act conviction in 1953. Robbing banks was a violation of his release conditions, and immediately after his transfer to the States, Jack went to jail, directly to jail, at the Danbury FCI.38LW, p. 2, begins with a letter stating that Grossi’s file is being transferred to Danbury, in response to the decision to lock him up some more. After a month at Danbury (a low security facility), Grossi was transferred to the Atlanta USP, where he was incarcerated until August 1960.39ARC record 124-10213-10238, p. 21-22

At this point the record becomes confused. A TDC agent showed up at Atlanta at the appointed time to escort Jack back to Texas, where the FBI believed that he was to serve out another four year four month sentence for multiple charges of forgery and theft by conversion. And Jack does indeed next show up at the Texas state pen in Huntsville.

Contrary to expectations, however, the FBI is later informed that Grossi has been released without serving the state charges. They confess their puzzlement, noting that as of 10/25/60, he is free again.40ARC record 124-10213-10238, pp. E-F At least one of the forgery/theft charges is noted as “wrong person”. As for the other charges, I suggest that Texas made a mistake. Forgery and theft by conversion almost certainly refer to the bad checks Jack wrote in 1952 by forging Charles Bishop’s name, but he was already sentenced for this under the National Stolen Property Act, and served his time, too. Can’t lock him up for the same thing twice, no matter how annoyed you are at him.

A close call

As a coda to Grossi’s release from Atlanta, we should note that earlier releases of File 2 showed that something happened at Atlanta which apparently led the FBI to suspect Jack of continuing his bank robbing in the U.S. The details of this were withheld until the latest release of ARC documents, which finally spelled out what this was all about. It seems that when Grossi was confined at Atlanta, he ran afoul of an informer again.

Frank Rumney, a PCI of the Atlanta FBI office, reported in March 1961 that he had been confined with Grossi prior to G.’s release, and G. confided in him that he was going to rob a bank somewhere in the United States soon after his release. Rumney gave no other information, except to say that “he considered [Grossi] to be a psychotic bank robber and car thief, and believed that he was sincere in his statements that he was going to rob a bank.”41ARC record 124-10213-10238 (2017 release), p. E.

Why is Rumney fingering Jack six months after Jack has been released? The answer, I believe, is in an extract from another file that mentions Jack only in passing. This type of file extract is called a “see ref” (abbreviated CR). The file is not captioned with the subject’s name, but mentions him somewhere in the text; these passing mentions can be found using the FBI’s voluminous indices.

In this case, there is a see ref for a file on a bank robbery at Orlando, FL in Feb. 1961.42FBI file number 91-14293-26, released as ARC record 124-10211-10247 The Tampa FBI office was looking for recent prison releasees in the southeastern U.S. who had previously been charged with bank robbery. It seems likely that Atlanta demanded suspects from informants, and Rumney decided to offer them Grossi. Luckily for Jack, they had fingerprints of the robber which made it clear he was not their man.43ARC record 124-10211-10247, p. P

Rebuilding in Dallas

The next we hear, Jack is trying to put together the pieces of his life in Dallas. Apparently he reunited with his wife FR and their son in Dallas for a while, but in a later FBI interview FR confides that they separated in July 1961, and she divorced him that October.44ARC record 124-10213-10261, p. 7.

Jack is not single for long. In December he marries Miss PG, hereafter Pat, a schoolteacher from Ontario who met Jack while he was serving time for bank robbery in Kingston! 45ARC record 124-10213-10283, p. 1 How did Pat meet Jack Grossi, incarcerated in Kingston as Jack Bowen? The files give no answer, but they do tell us that Pat knew at least one person, Dr. Tracy, who taught Jack in Kingston; perhaps this is how Pat got to know Jack too.46ARC record 124-10213-10283, p. 1.

By this time, even someone as slow as me starts to realize that Jack must have had a strong appeal for a fair number of women.

Jack also finds a new job at Jaggars-Chiles-Stovall (JCS), a Dallas graphic arts company already mentioned in the previous post. The exact date of Grossi’s employment at JCS, but in a December 1963 interview, Grossi estimates he was there for two years, leaving the position in August 1963,47The source for this is a December 7 interview with New York SAs Hurley and Lee. See below for a citation. so that he probably began there in August 1961. In the interview, Grossi stated that his position was assistant art director, so the money must have been good.

Assassination researchers have commented on the oddity of someone with an extensive criminal record like Grossi holding such a position. But as we have seen, Jack’s experience and skills were in fact an excellent match for the job.

Jack already claimed to be employed as an artist or cartoonist when he was only 18. He later claimed to have worked several years at both publishing firms and photography studios, and we know that while in prison, he worked on prison publications and in prison art shops, sometimes as an instructor. Later files also show that he worked as a commercial artist after he left JCS as well.

Many of the people who knew him also commented on his skill, even some who were quite casual acquaintances, so that his skill must have been striking.

It is thus not that unusual that he found work in a responsible position at JCS. He must have done well there; he held the position for two years, and after he left JCS, the company told FBI interviewers that they considered him “one of their best employees and a good artist.”48FBI file 88-30913-25, released as ARC record 124-10213-10258, p. 3

Jack probably also received some support on his return to Dallas from his old benefactor Harold Van Buren, who had known Jack since he was a runaway, back in 1944. It may be that Van Buren gave the prodigal Jack help in getting the JCS job. I suggest this because in an FBI interview with one of Jack’s business associates, we learn that Van Buren was the sponsor listed on Jack’s Dallas library card (just as Jack was the sponsor listed on Lee Oswald’s library card).49FBI 105-82555 Oswald HQ File, Section 57, p. 467. This is the December 23 Gemberling report on Oswald, available separately as Commission Document 205.

Jack’s wife Pat also met Van Buren, as an FBI interview with her reveals. She recalled “one H. VAN BUREN had befriended the subject in the past. She described VAN BUREN as being a sort of foster father to not only the subject but to a number of young men who had been involved in difficulties with the law in the past and stated that he was an individual in his early or middle seventies.”50ARC record 124-10213-10242, p. 8.

As a coda to what seems to be one of the few smooth patches for Jack in his FBI files, Pat told interviewing FBI agents that they had a son in September 1962,51ARC record 124-10213-10238, p. 17. and Jack told other interviewers that his wife was employed in the Dallas public library.52See citation for December 7 interview with Hurley and Lee below. Sadly, for reasons that are mentioned nowhere in the files, and really aren’t our business, Pat left Dallas sometime in the summer of 1963 and returned to her home in Canada.53ARC record 124-10213-10238, p. 17 Jack left JCS in August of that year, and began looking for other work, with frequent visits to Canada for several months thereafter.54I will give citations for this in the next post.

This sets the stage for Jack’s next major case file, but that is a story for another post.

Jack meets Lee Harvey Oswald

I will wind up this very long post with the only event in Jack’s career that seems to justify including his records in the ARC: he was the sponsor for Lee Harvey Oswald’s Dallas library card (see my previous post for a picture of the card). In fact, this card was one of the first pieces of information Dallas police had about Oswald: he had it in his wallet when he was arrested, along with a draft card that he had forged in the name of Alek Hidell.55See Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History (Norton, 2007), p. 107.

This naturally drew attention to Jack, and he was one of the first JCS employees interviewed when the FBI began their investigation of Oswald.56I have gone through the FBIHQ on Oswald, and Bowen and the library card are first mentioned in SA Robert Gemberling’s Nov. 30 report, FBI 105-82555 Oswald HQ File, Section 21, p. 140. (This is Commission Document 5.) By Dec. 2, Inspector Don Moore is on the phone, asking for info on Bowen; Dallas SAC responds they are looking for him and will respond ASAP. (FBI 105-82555-1159, p. 3, in Oswald HQ File, Section 53.

Jack was interviewed on December 7 by New York SAs Hurley and Lee.57FBI file number 105-82555-744, released as ARC record 124-10010-10218. MFF has almost no ARC releases from this file, but they do have a 1980s release of the 105-82555 file. This particular report is available in section 37, pp. 92-93. It also appears in SA Robert Gembling’s December 23 report, FBI 105-82555 Oswald HQ File, Section 57, p. 469. (This is Commission Document 205.) As the interview begins, Jack tells the SAs he is in New York City on business, staying at the Martinique Hotel. We learn Jack’s history and position with JCS and his recent departure from the company. He recalls that Oswald began work in the late fall or early winter as a camera trainee, and says he found Oswald “a withdrawn, asocial person,” who was not liked by his coworkers.

He learned about Oswald’s desire for a library card when he heard Oswald talking with Dennis Ofstein, a co-worker in the photography department. Jack knew that a reference was required for a card, and gave his name and address to Oswald to use as a reference. Apparently the SAs ask quite a bit about this, because they record that his wife works at the Dallas public library, but that she never met Oswald, that he never lent his card to Oswald, but that Oswald could have used his (Bowen’s) name to apply for a card, and that his own card is now with one Eddie Reddell.

Jack tells them that Oswald never talked politics with him, but he does know a few personal details about Oswald. (These are all accurate.) Jack never met Oswald outside work, but he believes that Ofstein did. He knows that both Oswald and Ofstein were interested in the Russian language, and recalls one instance where Oswald explained Russian map symbols to Ray Hawkins, foreman of JCS photography department, who was preparing maps for the U.S. Army. He also recalls a phone call from a Dallas bank asking about a check Oswald drew on a New Orleans bank, which he referred to the JCS Secretary-Treasurer. And that’s it.

The FBI did not let any of these details go; they interviewed Reddell, Hawkins, and Ofstein, and later dug up other names of Oswald’s co-workers as well.58Most of these interviews are collected in Commission Document 205 (pp. 467 and following. At this point, it seems that the FBI was not aware that Jack Bowen was aka Jack Grossi, nor were they aware of his previous criminal record. They discovered this in the next round of interviews conducted with Jack’s friends and associates in February 1964. Jack himself was not interviewed about Oswald again, for reasons that we will see in the next Grossi post.

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