Our Man in Havana

The Inspiring Story of How the Late St. Louis County Detective Pete Vasel Nabbed “Alleged” Commie Terrorist Verne Lyon

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At approximately 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 17, 1966, a shoe box containing two sticks of dynamite wired to a wind-up alarm clock exploded in the waiting area next to the Ozark Airlines ticket counter at Lambert Field in St. Louis. Fortunately, before the bomb went off police cleared the airport terminal and no one was killed or injured. The explosion did, however, do extensive property damage, destroying a bank of seats and a number of large windows. Three days later, a young engineer employed by McDonnell Aircraft was arrested for the bombing. The long-forgotten incident would shape the course of the accused man’s life.

After 27 years, the convicted bomber is asking President Bill Clinton for a presidential pardon. This is his story.

Lyon was born in Boone, Iowa. The time was 50 years ago. Somewhere World War II raged and the Cold War waited. Not in Iowa, though. No, the wake of these events would move at a glacial pace across the plains of the upper Midwest. Seasons turned. Lyon grew. Following high school, he headed east on U.S. Route 30 to the state university at Ames. The nascent Space Age had nurtured an interest in rocketry. He majored in aerospace engineering. But it was Lyon’s extracurricular activities on campus that ended up having more of a lasting effect on his career.

According to Lyon, the CIA recruited him as a student to be a part of Operation Chaos, an illegal domestic espionage network during the Vietnam era. The job of spying on campus anti-war activities paid $300 a month and came with a guaranteed draft deferment, Lyon says. After college Lyon says he decided to sever ties with the CIA, but the agency continued to contact him even after he moved to St. Louis and began working for McDonnell Aircraft. Ultimately, his stint of college intelligence work would lead to being falsely accused of the Dec. 17, 1966 bombing of the St. Louis airport, Lyon says.

After he jumped bail, Lyon eventually went to Cuba, where the story of the bombing was used by the CIA to support his fake identity as an anti-war radical, he says. Lyon’s rearrest and subsequent convictions would be postponed for more than a decade. But he finally served almost six years in Leavenworth, he says. During all this time, Lyon has steadfastly maintained his innocence and claimed that none of this would have transpired had he not been set up by the CIA initially and then later persecuted for breaking agency protocol.

“Everybody in the agency, I think, was watching my situation very closely,” says Lyon. “(I) had resigned, been a hard target, broken several of the agency‘s unwritten rules. Did so very deliberately. Defied them. Evaded them for two years. … So I think they had a long list of reasons why they wanted me back. But I think the primary (reason) was to make an example of me and to show me that they were in control not me.”

On these points, it is difficult, if not impossible to confirm whether Lyon’s life was manipulated by the U.S. government or simply swept up in Cold War politics through his own volition. The truth is likely somewhere in between and still moving into the uncertain political milieu of the 1990s. To some students of the intelligence field, there is no such thing a “former” CIA agent. Other critics of Lyon question whether the agency would risk sending an employee on such a dangerous mission. It is more routine for the CIA to hire contract operatives for such purposes, they say. These caveats must be weighed in this case. But regardless of his veracity or motivations, Lyon’s interpretation of events represents an intriguing pawn’s-eye view of the zeitgeist of the 1960s.

If there is anything that hasn’t changed over the years, it may be Lyon’s voice. His speech is still steeped with the flattened upward inflections peculiar to natives of Northern states. The endemic accent remains despite years spent south of the Tropic of Cancer — Havana to be exact.

From 1968 to 1975, Lyon worked as a scientist for the Cuban government, conducting cloud-seeding experiments in an effort to increase the island’s agricultural production. At the same time, Lyon says he passed an array of information to the CIA.

Since returning to Iowa 11 years ago, Lyon has worked for the Hispanic MInistry of the United Methodist Church, a social services agency that provides support to Latino aliens in the Des Moines area. He is also an active member of the Association of National Security Alumni, an affiliation of former CIA and FBI agents who have become critics of the intelligence community.

Lyon is now seeking a presidential pardon over the St. Louis airport bombing and his subsequent flight. “What I’m doing now has raised enough mitigating circumstances that the government has the capability of saying, `Ok, let’s put the past where it belongs and give you a fresh start. That’s basically what the pardon does,” says Lyon.
One person who believes Lyon was guilty as charged is retired St. Louis County chief of detectives Frederick Jacob “Pete” Vasel.

Vasel, 64 (in 1995), was at the scene in 1966 when the bomb went off. Eleven years later, he testified against Lyon at his trial. According to Vasel’s account, he walked up to the shoe box containing the dynamite and noted its contents. The government’s appellate brief states what happened next: “After walking a matter of 15 to 30 feet away from the device, it exploded, knocking Major Vasel down.” In a recent interview, Vasel recalled that the explosion hurled him back 14 or 15 feet. “It scared the shit out of me,” he says.

When asked whether the CIA had a hand in the bombing, Vasel says: No goddamn way. He (Lyon) wasn’t set up.” Vasel did say that on occasions he himself had contact with the CIA. His cooperation included providing profiles of individuals to the agency. But in Lyon’s case, there was no CIA interest whatsoever, according to Vasel.

Vasel does say, however, that there’s lot’s of mysterious elements to the case.” In his recollection, Lyon escaped from St. Louis in a limousine, and later traveled to the Soviet Union while in exile. The former detective suggests the bombing may have been an act of communist subversion. But he also has another theory on which to fall back. “He was going through a very upsetting time with his girlfriend,” says Vasel.

Vasel himself is somewhat mysterious. In 1963, he stated on a local public service television program that “secret crime societies” were not operating in St. Louis. The following year, his testimony helped convict mobster John Paul Spica of the contract murder of real estate developer John T. Myszak. Spica later died in a car bombing following his release from prison. Prior to his death, Spica gave closed-door congressional testimony on his knowledge of a St. Louis-based plot to assassinate Martin Luther KIng.

During his controversial 20-year career with the St. Louis County Police Department, Vasel was demoted, promoted, fired, reinstated and finally retired. He reputedly commanded the respect of criminals and had a network of informants.

According to the court record, Lyon became a suspect after a police captain from the City of St. Louis tipped Vasel off to rumors floating around McDonnell Aircraft. Vasel tracked down some of Lyon’s coworkers. One claimed he had overheard a telephone conversation in which Lyon talked about dynamite. Another employee said that Lyon had asked him about getting wires soldered to a pair of flashlight batteries.

When law enforcement authorities searched Lyon’s digs, on Wengler Avenue in suburban Overland, Mo., they found wires, blasting caps and dynamite. At the trial, this circumstantial evidence was bolstered by other testimony and exhibits, A hardware store owner from Troy, Mo. swore Lyon had purchased dynamite from him. Receipts were entered as evidence. Diagrams found in Lyon’s office desk were also offered up. His former landlady and another woman told the court that Lyon had asked them for shoe boxes.

But nobody ever saw Lyon at the airport.

As for the possession of the dynamite, Lyon has a plausible explanation. He says he had an interest in amateur rocketry dating back to ninth grade. Lyon bought the explosives for his hobby, he says. At the time, the young aerospace engineer had visions of being an astronaut and had won a NASA technical essay contest. In a newspaper account following his arrest, his younger brother said Lyon had promise to bring more dynamite back to Iowa for some solid fuel experiments.

He never was afforded that opportunity. At a preliminary hearing before jumping bail, Lyon caught a glimpse of what he suspects transpired. “I saw an FBI agent who had been involved in the … search warrant talking to one of my CIA recruiters. It wasn’t long after that I received a phone call to talk to one of the former recruiters,” says Lyon. Later, the CIA asked Lyon to travel to Washington, D.C. Once there, the agency made him an offer, Lyon says. The deal, according to Lyon, was “ the agency would help clear my name, after a length of time, and things had calmed down.” In return, Lyon agreed to work full time for the agency. The CIA “believed a mistake had been made (over the bombing), which always led me to believe that they had been involved,” he says. “Whether it was on purpose or whether it just developed this way, the fact that I was accused of being involved in that incident was later used to develop a legend for me.”

Lyon subsequently underwent training in Washington, D.C. and in Canada, while waiting for Cuba to grant political asylum, he says. After being accepted, Lyon worked for the Cuban Academy of Sciences, all the while funneling economic data and reports on foreign technicians back to the CIA.

Lyon says he was only scheduled to be in Cuba for two years. But during the course of his stay, he married a Cuban woman. The CIA would not allow him to return to the U.S. with his wife so he extended his tour. Then when the agency asked that he spy on his politically-connected inlaws, he refused, Lyon says. After three years, the self-professed spy had become assimilated into the Cuban culture and his attitude had changed. “I came to my senses,” says Lyon. “What we were doing there was not in the best interest of the United States, (and) they were obviously not in the best interest of Cuba or the people.”

Finally, in 1975 the Cubans caught on and deported him to Jamaica, Lyon says. With the United States having already refused to renew his passport and the bombing charges still pending in the St. Louis, he lived first in Canada and then Peru, where U.S. marshals apprehended him in February 1977.

At the trial, defense attorney Leonard J. Frankel subpoenaed all CIA records pertaining to Lyon. At first, United States District Court Judge John K. Regan ruled to allow the evidence. But when two minions of the CIA arrived at the court, their meeting with the judge and the defense counsel was held behind closed doors. They claimed Lyon had no association with the agency. According to the court record, the CIA file on Lyon “was opened as a result of information received from sources outside the agency.” The CIA refused to allow even the judge to see the file. Instead, the agency’s representatives summarized its contents. In some instances, the sources of the information were withheld on the grounds that naming them would compromise national security interests.

As a result of the closed hearing, Regan quashed the subpoena issued to the agency. According to Frankel, the judge’s reversal was most unusual from a legal standpoint and personally out of character. Frankel won Lyon’s appeal, but the decision was based on a faulty search warrant not the CIA issue. In the retrial, Lyon again was convicted and Regan meted out the same 15-year sentence.

More curious perhaps than the Regan flip-flop are the unnamed sources in Lyon’s CIA file. The secrecy smacks of star chamber ethics and leaves the Verne Lyon case open to speculation. Since Lyon’s trials, CIA documents released through the Freedom of Information Act indicate that during the 1960s and 1970s the agency had close ties to local police departments. One memo even mentions a 1967 training session “in the types of explosive devices manufactured from readily available commercial material.”∫

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