Last Wednesday marked the passing of Sam Papich who died in his Albuquerque home at age 90. I met Mr. Papich about 20 years ago at an Albuquerque Dukes (Dodger’s AAA) baseball game. He seemed a normal enough guy. But that’s the signature of the great spies: they’re disguised by their own obviousness.
The 29-year FBI veteran was an unknown legend. He ran counter-intelligence ops against the Japanese and Germans in Brazil during WW2, operating undercover and running spy networks. But most of his career was spent spying on the spies.
As J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI liaison with the CIA, Papich acted as the go-between in America’s inter-agency battles over various arenas: Soviet defectors, double agents, the communists, the mob. In the early 1960s, the FBI was making a case against Chicago organized crime leader Sam Giancana. Papich was approached by CIA representatives who were working with Giancana in hopes of assassinating Cuban leader Fidel Castro. While one agency is trying to nail him, another agency seeks his help. This kind of government chicanery is what he dealt with daily.
In 1963, he coordinated CIA information for FBI agents investigating Lee Harvey Oswald. It was Papich’s job the determine is JFK’s assassination was conducted by a single ex-marine or by right-wing extremists in league with acting president Johnson. Was is the KGB? Was the FBI informant known as “Solo”, working in the Cuban Embassy, telling the truth when he reported that Oswald had offered to kill Kennedy? And what about the 1961 warning about KGB General Rodin plotting the death of a "Western political leader”? Papich and the FBI were offered to take on the JFK/KGB investigation because CIA’s Soviet Division was believed was compromised by soviet moles. Ah, life in the Cold War was anything but boring.
Years later, Papich remained convinced that Oswald acted alone. But that was just one of the many revelations that he encountered. Think of all the CIA projects over the 60s and 70s: the Shah of Iran, numerous failed attempts at Castro’s Life, Vietnam, Nicaragua, MKUltra (CIA's experiments of using LSD on unwitting subjects). Just maybe, memos pertaining to all of these or even one came across Papich’s desk. Oh, the tales he could have told. Yet he remained silent, faceless, unknown. The perfect spy.
And this is why we listen to, write down and re-tell yesterday’s stories. So they’re not forgotten tomorrow. Each day, amazing folks like Sam Papich leave us. It’s up to all of us to make sure they don’t leave without their tales being told.