The CIA, the JM Kaplan Fund & a 1971 Prison Breakout in Mexico (Melvin Belli, too)
Compiled by Alex Constantine
The Kaplan Fund (Financiers of National Public Radio) and the CIA in the 1960s
The Administration: Pandora’s Cashbox
Time Magazine | Mar. 3, 1967
” … despite the academic community’s outcry over CIA “subversion” of students, among the organizations receiving money from apparent CIA conduits were several trusteed by distinguished educators and scholars—including the Harvard Law School Fund. Even the National Council of Churches gathered a few dollars. More than a score of dummy fronts, such as the Gotham Foundation, the Beacon Fund, the Borden Trust, the Michigan Fund, the Edsel Fund, the Andrew Hamilton Fund, fed money from CIA into legitimate foundations such as the J. M. Kaplan Fund, the M. D. Anderson Foundation, the Hoblitzelle Foundation and the David, Josephine, and Winfield Baird Foundation, which, in turn, completed a supposedly secret “triple pass” by dispensing money to various organizations deemed needy—and worthy—by CIA. … ”
The 10-Second Escape
Time | Aug. 30, 1971
Most of the 136 guards at Mexico City’s Santa Maria Acatitla prison were watching a movie [The Altar of Blood] with the prisoners last week when a Bell helicopter, similar in color to the Mexican attorney general’s, suddenly clattered into the prison yard. Some of the guards on duty presented arms, supposing that the helicopter had brought an unexpected official visitor. What they got was a different sort of surprise. As the chopper set down on the paving stones, two prisoners dashed out of Cell No. 10. The men were airborne in less than two minutes. One of the most enterprising jailbreaks in modern times had been accomplished without a shot being fired.
The more notable of the two escapees was Joel David Kaplan, 44, a New York businessman and nephew of Molasses Tycoon Jacob M. Kaplan, whose J.M. Kaplan Fund was named in a 1964 congressional investigation as a conduit for CIA money for Latin America. The younger Kaplan had been convicted in 1962 for the Mexico City murder of his New York business partner, Louis Vidal Jr. Kaplan claimed at the trial that Vidal, who had been involved in narcotics and gunrunning, had constructed an elaborate plot to disappear. The murder victim, Kaplan maintained, was not even Vidal, and indeed, serious doubts were raised about the body’s identity. When Kaplan took it on the lam, he was accompanied by Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro, a Venezuelan counterfeiter.
The escape plans had apparently been completed the day before when an American man visited Cell No. 10 and looked over the prison yard. He was accompanied by both men’s wives. (Kaplan had married a Mexican woman—the only way he could have visitors, he said—without bothering to divorce New York Model Bonnie Sharie.) After the escape, Kaplan and Castro switched to a small Cessna at a nearby airfield and were flown to La Pesca airport near the Texas border, where two more planes awaited them. One flew Castro to Guatemala; the other flew Kaplan to Texas and then on to California. Kaplan used his own name when he passed U.S. customs at Brownsville. Both the helicopter, which was later found abandoned, and the Cessna had been bought in the U.S., at an estimated cost of $100,000.
No James Bond. At week’s end neither man had been caught. Kaplan’s Mexican attorney declared that his client was a CIA agent and that the rescue had been engineered by the agency. But a spokesman for Jacob Kaplan pooh-poohed all that. “People are determined to substitute James Bond for the Kaplan family name,” he said, though he could offer no explanation of just who had carried out the spectacular stunt. In Mexico, meanwhile, Attorney General Julio Sanchez Vargas was forced to resign, and prison officials and all 136 guards were arrested for questioning. The movie, after all, had been the first shown at the prison in two years.
Also see: The 10-second jailbreak;: The helicopter escape of Joel David Kaplan – “Breathtaking true adventure story of Joel David Kaplan – American businessman, gunrunner, accused espionage agent and convicted murderer whose 9 year ordeal ended in the most dramatic prison break of all time.”
Welch’s Grape Juice Heir/CIA Collaborator JM Kaplan didn’t Care for his Nephew’s Left-Wing Politics, Abandoned Him
THE 10-SECOND JAILBREAK: THE HELICOPTER ESCAPE OF JOEL DAVID KAPLAN by Eliot Asinof, Warren Hinckle and William Turner — This 1973 book and real event inspired that Charles Bronson and Robert Duvall film BREAKOUT, right down to the helicopter landing in the middle of a prison yard. Unlike the movie, the book focuses more on Kaplan and how he ended up in the prison itself. From all accounts, it looks like he was set up — a patsy in a murder plot in which the victim turned out to be still alive.
All of this is true and truly frightening, when it might have been Kaplan’s uncle who tried to keep his nephew in the Mexican jail. Truth truly is stranger then fiction with this one. From the looks of it, Kaplan was living a sinful life, according to his uncle Jacob, the head of Welch’s — yes, the grape people. Joel supposedly was involved with smuggling guns, while Jacob might have been involved with some CIA goings on. So when Joel is set up for the fall and sent to a Mexican prison, he figured his family could easily pay his way out.
Nine years later, Joel does get out of prison by one of the more daring escapes ever. First, we watch as Joel has failed attempt after failed attempt, from faking illnesses to be taken into town, bribing guards to look the other way in a laundry truck, or even fellow prisoners taking his money and never delivering. Being moved from one prison to another, the only help Joel would get would be from his sister and a Mexican woman named Irma, whom he married while behind bars.
A Soldier of Fortune, the CIA, a Bombing in Haiti and JD Kaplan
The Miami Herald
April 4, 1976, pages 24-46
MIAMI: CASABLANCA OF THE CARIBBEAN
With Cuba, Haiti and the turbulent republics of Central America only a short flight away, South Florida has become a happy hunting ground for that odd breed of 20th-Century adventurer, the soldier of fortune.
By John Dorschner
… CIA’s agents in Miami merely kept an eye on the Americans, following their activities, perhaps clamping down if a plot was not to their liking. At least that was what the soldiers of fortune assumed.
It would certainly be unfair to call them mercenaries. Though most of their schemes held out the promise of money, they never saw much of it. Perhaps a few free meals or a place to stay were given for short periods by wealthy Cuban exiles promoting la causa, but that was all. “There were a lot of plans made, a lot of broken dreams,” says Casey. “But there was never any money.”
When the lack of funds became obvious, the less committed dropped out and the hard core began congregating at a boarding house at 1925 SW 4th Street, run by a gray-haired septuagenarian named Nellie Hamilton. Edens and Casey lived there. So did “Little Joe” German, who was six-foot-three and the son of a Kentucky judge; William Dempsey, a Canadian with a withered arm; and Edmund Kolby, a Finnish-born veteran of the Green Berets. All except German were later arrested for bombing the Presidential Palace in Haiti. …
Casey and the others had already gone through one Haitian plot in 1964, with much Everglades training, before their financing – which, Casey says, was coming into Miami in the form of African francs – evaporated. But that whetted their appetite and; in 1966, Casey, Edens, Dempsey, Skinny and others joined in what was to be known as the “CBS invasion.” …
Dempsey, the Canadian, appeared in at least one other publicized venture, involving the byzantine series of plots undertaken to free Joel David Kaplan, an American in a Mexico City prison, convicted of murder. Several magazine articles referred to Dempsey as “a Canadian,” but a book, The 10-Second Jailbreak, identified him by name.”
Dempsey was supposed to assist Kaplan after he escaped by hanging onto the bottom of a truck (an ambulance or laundry truck, it’s not clear which) that was going inside the prison. According to the book, the plan failed when the truck driver became drunk, and Dempsey returned $6000 in unused funds to Kaplan’s sister (other sources say it was Kaplan’s wife). Dempsey, now living in Canada, says he doesn’t want to comment. He played no part in the later plan, in which Kaplan escaped by helicopter. What is amazing about the story, of course, is that a one-time Miami soldier of fortune would return unused money, but Dempsey’s Miami friends say that he was a highly honest man.
Why did they keep at it all those years? Why do some of them still have dreams? Almost all, certainly, were–and are still–fervent anti-Communists, but there are plenty of anti-Communists who do not spend a decade of their lives training in the Everglades. Certainly, none of the Miami adventurers got rich. The men who bombed the Haitian palace were paid nothing. To the victors belong the spoils, of course, but even if the palace had burned and Duvalier had died, how could they have taken over the country? …
… Victor Stadter once carried business cards stamped “Vic’s Involvements.” They modestly described him as an “equalizer of inequities, entrepreneur, free trader.”
But lawmen across the country describe him another way.
“Sure, I was a smuggler,” Stadter, 70, says in his characteristic growl. “But I was a “legitimate” smuggler…I have never fooled with narcotics; that is something I have never fooled with, and they know it.”
For years, Stadter has been the stuff of both legend and infamy, smuggling monkeys, gold, lobsters, lingerie and people throughout the Americas. As he piloted a succession of surplus airplanes across the years and the rugged landscapes, he became known in the mountains of Mexico as “The Ghost of Quintana Roo.” …
And then there was the Kaplan rescue, which went beyond audacity.
“The United States government is the only government in the world that doesn’t do a damned thing to help get its own citizens out of prison,” Stadter says. “Guys like me have to do it.”
Twenty years ago last month, despite his love of relative anonymity, Victor Stadter became a star.
On Aug. 18, 1971, he masterminded and executed a scheme to use a helicopter to snatch Joel David Kaplan, convicted of murdering his business partner, from a maximum security prison in Mexico City.
The wild rescue was the basis for a best-selling book – “The 10-Second Breakout” – and a movie, “Breakout”, starring John Huston, Robert Duvall, and Charles Bronson as Stadter’s character.
The Kaplan case itself was like a tale out of a cheap novel. The heir to a molasses fortune, Kaplan believed that his uncle, the Central Intelligence Agency, or both had framed him to gain control over his part of the fortune. Joel Kaplan’s uncle, Jacob M. Kaplan, controlled the J.M. Kaplan Fund of New York. In 1964 Texas Congressman Wright Patman accused the charitable foundation of being a conduit for CIA funds.
“The 10-Second Breakout” authors Eliot Asinof, Warren Hinckle and William Turner wrote in their book that Joel was frequently involved in sometimes questionable, sometimes leftist activities in Mexico and Central America, working with a partner named Luis Vidal Jr. Vidal, according to the book, was far more enthusiastic about covert dealings than Joel, who considered them merely exciting diversions.
Vidal disappeared from a Mexico City hotel in November 1961, and a corpse was dug up several days later from a shallow grave in the nearby countryside. A mystery woman claiming to be Vidal’s wife arrived at the morgue to identify the body.
An unidentified U.S. State Department official was also on hand, claiming he knew Vidal and providing backup identification.
Never mind that the corpse was that of a tall, brown-eyed, overweight, balding man in his 60s or 70s, and that Vidal was short, trim, 30-ish, blue-eyed and had a full head of hair. When asked about the difference in eye color by police, the woman speculated that perhaps someone had switched Vidal’s eyeballs.
Never mind that, three days after the body was found, a man matching Vidal’s description and apparently using his passport crossed the Mexican border and disappeared into Guatemala. Five years later, he was spotted in Havana.
Joel Kaplan was arrested for Vidal’s murder in Spain and extradited to Mexico. After a year in prison, he was convicted only of concealing evidence in the case, which carried a sentence of about a year. But as he walked out of jail, he was arrested again. He was told that, if he paid $200,000, he could go free. If not, he would be charged with murder.
Joel asked his uncle in New York, Jacob Kaplan, for the money. “Uncle Jack,” as he was known, said no. Mexican officials charged Joel with killing Vidal.
But judge after judge reviewing the facts of the case refused to hear the trial. Recusal became epidemic where Joel David Kaplan was concerned. When a judge finally could be found who would try the case, another year had passed. Joel was tried and convicted, and all appeals were denied.
The millionaire spent nine years in jail before his sister, Judy Dowis, got in touch with Victor Stadter. Dowis spent thousands of her and her family’s money in a series of botched attempts to buy and bribe her brother out of prison – normally something easy to do in Mexican jails. But someone, she and Joel believed, was spending even more money to keep him behind bars.
Dowis now says Jacob Kaplan – who died in 1987 – was the culprit.
“You bet he stood to gain,” says Dowis, who lives in Florida. “He took my father’s business over, which Joel should have done.”
Dowis met with Stadter and told him her brother’s story.
“I thought it was a kind of hippy atmosphere, but you could see there was a lot of money there,” Stadter recalls of his first meeting with Dowis. “I said I would go down there and check it out. I said, `Gimme $5,000 for expenses, what I don’t use, I’ll give back to you. I will see what the situation is.’
“The first thing I find out, we got signed documents where (Vidal) crossed the border three days after he is dead,” Stadter says. “Then we traced him to Cuba.
“I said, `Something stinks here.”‘
Then Stadter learned about the State Department involvement in identifying the corpse, the Kaplan Foundation’s CIA connections and the $100 million Jacob Kaplan controlled as long as his nephew was in prison. [For an explanation, see the Melvin Belli section appended below.]
“It was getting more and more interesting,” Stadter says. “The more I looked into it, the better it looked to me. I just had to do this.
“I went back to Judy and I said, `I will take it.’ She asked, `How much?’ I said, `Forget it. I’ll be getting my digs at the whole government system.”‘
Stadter first tried a number of schemes to spring Joel, many he’d used in the past to free friends, operatives and others from Mexican jails. But each time, prison officials got wind that something was about to happen and foiled the attempt.
Meanwhile, Joel Kaplan was dying. He had developed a bottle-a-day dependency on alcohol. When he couldn’t buy a bottle in the corrupt Mexican prison system, he and his cellmates would brew their own jailhouse rum. He had recurring bouts of hepatitis and a raging staph infection. Time was running out.
Just who came up with the idea to use a helicopter is a matter of dispute. “The 10-Second Breakout” credits Joel with suggesting it in a moment of frustration. Stadter says, “Well, a lot of people have claimed my ideas. He’s dead now. He can have that one.”
But wherever it came from, Stadter seized upon it. He bought a high-powered, luxury helicopter in Wyoming for $65,000 and flew it to Houston, which became the rescuers’ base of operations.
The aircraft was stripped down to bare essentials; even the doors were removed. The prison was 7,200-feet above sea level, making the air thin and thus treacherous for a chopper.
Stadter and his crew painted the aircraft blue, the same color as the helicopter used by the Mexican attorney general.
Stadter then turned to a Vietnam veteran named Roger Hershner, to fly the helicopter.
Stadter had gotten word to Joel Kaplan to be walking around the prison basketball court for a half-hour at 6:30 each night for three nights, beginning Aug. 18. He was to carry a newspaper under one arm so Hershner would recognize him. Kaplan, meanwhile, had insisted that his cellmate – a forger named Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro – come along. Stadter was furious, but Kaplan was adamant. No Castro, no Kaplan.
Hershner and Stadter figured they had 30 seconds to pull the caper off. The first 10 seconds would be the time that guards in the prison would be able to hear the chopper’s approach. The second 10 would be the time allowed on the ground for Kaplan and Castro to climb aboard. The final 10 would be the time required to get over the wall and out of rifle range.
The second 10 was the most crucial. Hershner was instructed to wait 10 seconds, no longer, and then lift off, with or without his passengers.
Kaplan and Castro were in place at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 18, 1971, strolling around the basketball court. The other inmates, and most of the guards, were in the cafeteria watching a film, “The Altar of Blood.”
At 6:35, Hershner piloted the chopper over the wall and settled it onto the basketball court. The guards who were present, according to Stadter, saluted: “They thought it was their boss, the attorney general.” Castro and Kaplan climbed on board, and the chopper lifted up and away, heading toward a rendezvous with Stadter, his waiting Cessna 210 and history.
Victor Stadter says he hasn’t smuggled anything in years – in fact, he sold his last airplane two years ago. Instead, he’s played the entrepreneur, opening businesses, getting them going and then selling them off.
“I love to start businesses, but I hate to run ’em,” he says. He’s dabbled in everything from seafood restaurants to barbecue pits to petroleum surveying to crop-dusting to a Houston-based gift manufacturing company called Mother Lode.
In fact, it was through the latter that he met his wife, artist Peggy Sue Dungan, in the mid-1970s.
Charlie and Ruth Harrison of Houston have known Stadter for 15 years, and knew Peggy long before that. There is no way, they say, that he could be the man federal drug agents claim he is.
“Oh, no way, no way,” says Charlie, a former broadcaster at Houston’s Channel 13. “He’s too busy doing other things.” Among those “other things” are a host of inventions, including a floating platform that turns an ordinary car into a boat. “Seawheels” had its maiden voyage last December in San Francisco Bay, with the power provided by a 1980s-era Ford LTD. Stadter says he hopes to market the device for $25,000. It’s presently at Morgan City, La., undergoing modifications.
Ruth Harrison describes Stadter as “a kind of MacGyver,” referring to the popular TV character who engineers high-tech devices seemingly out of thin air. Among her favorite Stadter creations is a car dubbed the Wallaby, a 63-inch-by-64-inch Jeeplike vehicle that collapses to fit into the luggage compartment of a converted Greyhound bus.
Stadter says he built it from scratch, except for the Dodge Colt engine that powers it. It’s got Texas plates, he says, and is perfectly “street legal.” It will do up to 90 mph on the straightaway.
Then there’s Oink Inc., the smoked meats store, which Stadter hopes to turn into a chain. At the time he was approached to spring Joel David Kaplan from prison, Stadter was operating several smoked fish stores in California called “The Old Crab.”
Stadter and his employees smoke their meat on his ranch and bring it to the Leakey store fresh each day.
“We use no nitrates, no coloring, none of that junk,” Stadter says. “This is all-natural smoked meats, like they used to be made.”
He was scheduled earlier this month to open a second Oink Inc. store in Ingram Park Mall on San Antonio’s affluent and growing North Side.
His recent indictment and the subsequent notoriety have changed the way the residents of Leakey think of him, he says. That wasn’t helped by the presence of federal investigators who descended on the town, asking questions about Stadter’s operation and telling the locals they were checking out an alleged drug smuggler.
One day last July, as Stadter chatted with a visitor, a Leakey resident came into Oink Inc. to ask for a loan. The man, named Perry, said he wanted the money to buy a used Lincoln Continental he’d found for his wife.
Perry also told Stadter he didn’t believe the stories the feds were spreading. Stadter told Perry he didn’t have the money to lend him.
“Ever since that damned indictment,” Stadter growls, “people here think I’m loaded with money, that I’m rich. Well, I’m not. I wish I was. But I’m not.”
Although Stadter says he was not paid for the rescue of Joel David Kaplan, the millionaire became, in essence, his bank. When Stadter needed money for a business or deal, he often turned to the man whose life he’d saved.
“I paid him back, too, every penny and interest,” Stadter says.
Kaplan died in Miami in 1988. He’d gone deaf, become a recluse and his health had deteriorated. He died lonely and rich.
The uncle Joel believed kept him in prison for 9 1/2 years, Jacob Kaplan, died the year before. There was never a reconciliation between them.
The 20-year-old adventure, nevertheless, continues to dominate Stadter’s life. A Hollywood screenwriter – Yabo Yablonski, best-known as the co-author of the Sylvester Stallone film “Victory” – spent almost a year with Stadter, working on a book about his life. The two had a falling-out late last year, prior to the indictment.
“Creative differences, as we say in Hollywood,” jokes Yablonski.
Yablonski has nothing but glowing words for Stadter, and when told of his most recent legal troubles, expressed astonishment.
“I spent an awful lot of time with that man, drunk and sober, and there was never any implication even remotely that anything like that was going on,” Yablonski says. “We spent lots of time together. My ears would perk up at something like that.
“You would have to travel a long way to meet a more fascinating man, and I believe with my heart of hearts that he has absolutely nothing to do with narcotics.”
Watching the helicopter coming down in the disastrously wrong place, Stadter rushed back to his waiting plane and began flashing its landing lights. There was a Cadillac convertible parked next to the plane, and Stadter ordered its driver also to flash its headlights.
The pilot apparently saw the signal and halted his descent, pulling the chopper back into the air and moving it to the other end of the runway. There, it settled just a few feet from Stadter.
First out was the millionaire, Joel David Kaplan, who rushed the brief distance between the two aircraft and dived into the Cessna 210. Next came the forger, Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro, who tried to follow Kaplan but was stopped at the Cessna’s door by Stadter.
“No, goddamnit, get in the Caddie,” Stadter yelled, and had to push Castro twice toward the waiting car.
At the other end of the runway, the Mexican aeronautic officials watched in wonderment at this sudden and chaotic scene. Before they could decide what action to take, the Cadillac was driving away from them, the chopper was lifting off yet again – and the Cessna was coming right at them!
Stadter, with darkness all around him, was using the truck’s headlights to take off, the soft glow illuminating the end of the runway. Just as the airplane reached the truck, it pulled up into the night.
Within seconds, Joel Kaplan’s nearly 10-year nightmare was over.
Victor Stadter – scoundrel, smuggler, mercenary, equalizer of inequities – reached into a bag and pulled out a bottle of scotch. He handed it to Joel, who took a long swig and said: “Excellent. The timing was excellent.”
As lightning flashed around them and the plane climbed higher into the Mexican summer storm, Stadter turned north and headed for home and freedom.
Enter Jack Ruby’s Attorney, Melvin Belli
” … One plausible reason given for [JD Kaplan’s] escape was that Kaplan had to be returned to the U.S. in order to draw on a multimillion-dollar trust fund. As it happens, the celebrated and ingenious San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli now has power of attorney over Kaplan’s one-third share of the trust fund. Kaplan’s sister is a friend of a lawyer in Belli’s firm; she’ is believed to have been instrumental in making this arrangement. … “