The Annals of Unsolved Crime: The Submerged Spy

I became interested in spies after I met James Jesus Angleton, the legendary head of CIA counterintelligence in 1976.  We met in Kensington Nursey outside of Washington DC. Orchids were, as I was to learn,  Angleton’s living metaphor for deception. I also learned from Angleton that intelligence services  have been known to engage in what he termed  “surreptitiously-assisted deaths.”   These were murders disguised to look like suicides.  He told me “Any thug can commit a murder, but it takes the talents of an intelligence service to make a murder appear to be a suicide.” He explained that they work because coroners tend to look for a murder signature, such as rope burns or bruises, and those signatures can be easily erased.    


All the conditions of a “surreptitiously-assisted death.” can be found in the drowning/shooting of John Arthur Paisley, a fifty-five-year-old former deputy director of the CIA’s Office of Strategic Research.  Although it was ruled an apparent suicide, I believe it was murder. – Edward Jay Epstein 

On September 24, 1978, the Brillig, a thirty-one-foot sloop, was found off the western shore of Chesapeake Bay. No one was aboard the vessel. Its owner, and last known passenger, was John Arthur Paisley, a fifty-five-year-old former deputy director of the CIA’s Office of Strategic Research, who had worked on ultra-secret assessments of the CIA, such as “B Team,” a unit of the president’s foreign intelligence advisory board. In his last known communication from the boat, Paisley informed a friend, Mike Yohn, over the ship-to-shore radio that he had an important report to write. Aboard the Brillig, which Paisley had named from the “Jabberwocky” poem in Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking Glass, was a telephone directory from the CIA and other documents.

Then, on September 26, 1978, Paisley’s body bobbed up in the nearby Patuxent River. Strapped to the body, which had been disfigured beyond recognition by its immersion, were diving weights weighing thirty-eight pounds. The autopsy established that the cause of death was a gunshot wound behind the left ear. There were also rope burns on the neck. But since there was no evidence of anyone else aboard the Brillig, the death was ruled a suicide by Calvert County, Maryland coroner, Dr. George Weems. Since no weapon had been found on the ship, and there was no blood or brain tissue anywhere on deck, the theory of the Maryland State Police was that Paisley must have strapped thirty-eight pounds of weight on his chest, positioned himself in the water next to the boat, and then shot himself.

This verdict raised eyebrows among his former colleagues at the CIA, since it was well known that Paisley was right-handed, so to shoot himself behind his left ear would be difficult. As a result of the unconvincing verdict, a number of theories have emerged to account for the death. First, there is the coroner’s theory that Paisley shot himself. Despite the convolutions he would have had to go through, it is possible that he shot himself behind the left ear while holding onto the boat.

Second, there is the “man-who-never-was” theory. In this version, the corpse that floated to the surface was not that of Paisley but a corpse dressed in his clothing. The basis for this theory, which has been advanced by investigative journalist Joseph Trento among others, is that the CIA’s office of security had focused its search for a possible mole in Paisley’s unit just before his retirement from the CIA in 1974. In this view, Paisley faked his own death to avoid being exposed as a KGB mole. The theory proceeds from the fact that the badly decomposed corpse had been cremated without being positively identified by any of Paisley’s family members. In addition, the skin on his fingers had been peeled back several layers, making fingerprint identification less than certain.

Finally, there is the theory that Paisley was killed by an unknown party. In these circumstances, murder is the only plausible alternative to suicide.

My assessment is that this was a case of a murder that did not go as planned. The evidence is that the corpse was Paisley’s. Not only was there one matching fingerprint, but Paisley’s own dentist identified the dental work (even though this identification had to be done from memory, since the dental X-rays had been lost when the dentist had moved offices). The suicide theory is not credible to me, because the fact that no weapon was found at the scene is not consistent with suicide. Nor are the rope burns on the corpse’s neck or the bullet hole behind the left ear. It is also implausible that a man bent on suicide would both shoot and, by wearing weights, drown himself.

A far simpler explanation is that he was shot elsewhere, execution-style, behind the left ear, after he made the call to his friend. His body was then weighted down, possibly with even more weight than was found strapped to his chest, and then dropped in the water, with the expectation that the weights would keep the body from surfacing. The motive may well have been intelligence-related in light of the CIA documents on the boat. Graham Greene’s 1978 novel The Human Factor, which concerns the problem of eliminating a suspected mole in an intelligence service, may be illuminating here. In Greene’s spy story, a secret service discovers a mole but assesses that a court trial could compromise its secret operation. So it elects to use a non-judicial remedy by poisoning the mole with aflatoxin, which disguises the murder as an accidental death as the result of ingesting moldy peanuts. While this is fiction, intelligence services did have this capability in the late 1970s. If Paisley had been involved in some sort of double-game of spying, it is possible that one side disposed of him in a way that, if the body had not surfaced, would make the murder appear to be a disappearance as the result of a boating accident. In any case, as a large part of the evidence has been lost or destroyed, including even the fingerprint sample in CIA records, Paisley’s death remains an unsolved crime.

The intrigue that surrounds an intelligence operative in life does not necessarily end with his demise, even if his death is declared an apparent suicide or accidental death. This is especially true if the death is violent and there are no witnesses. For example, the demise of CIA liaison Frank Olson, who fell or was defenestrated from a tenth-floor window at the Hotel Pennsylvania on November 28, 1953, remained the subject of such intense speculation that more than four decades later, after the body was exhumed and a second autopsy was performed, the district attorney in New York ordered a belated homicide investigation, though no charges were ever brought. Since spies are occupationally engaged in a life of deception, in which their biography is often rearranged into a legend to suit the requisites of national security, their deaths are not always accepted as what they appear to be.

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