Nazi saboteurs, prostitutes and City Council. The untold story of one of Richmond’s most popular politicians.
by Amy Biegelsen
Lying in a pool of blood in his Westover Hills home, 74-year-old John Edward Lawler, wearing a plaid maroon suit, red polka-dot shirt and red socks, latched on to the ankles of Carl G. Simons and begged for help.
Lawler, a former member of the Richmond City Council, had been severely beaten — bludgeoned in the head with a pair of bolt cutters 17 times. But he was still breathing, and he moved from the den of his house to the kitchen. He made one last plea for help before Simons — along with Timothy N. Dickenson and Johnny R. Ballard, then 17 and the one who wielded the bolt cutters — left through the back door and took off.
Lawler was found in the kitchen midmorning the next day, New Year’s Eve in 1982.
The medical examiners’ report indicated that his blood-alcohol level was slightly north of the legal driving limit, but not remarkable for an adult spending an evening at home. He’d been expecting company, though certainly not the kind he got.
Little did Simons, Dickenson and Ballard know they had just helped end the life of one of Richmond’s most complicated characters. A city father, Lawler was one of the most popular politicians in the city — serving on City Council for four years. He was an influential member of downtown’s exclusive Commonwealth Club. When he had legal trouble related to his own law practice, Lewis F. Powell Jr. represented him before joining the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice a decade later.
Lawler started his career as an agent with the FBI where he helped set up the international intelligence agency that predated the Central Intelligence Agency, where he later worked.
“I used to always say that there is no man that will be able to put on a piece of paper everything he’s done and nail it up at Ninth and Main streets and be able to stay in the city of Richmond 24 hours thereafter,” Lawler said in a 1980 interview. “Therefore we can all be lured into traps.”
Lawler’s inglorious end came at the hands of four people who simply wanted to rob him and leave — lured by the promise of an easy take.
Lawler’s biography presents itself as a series of crime scenes with Lawler taking on different roles — first as investigator, then as perpetrator, and in the final tableau, a victim curled on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood, photographed from above and entered into evidence.
Lawler’s motives are difficult to pin down. In February 1980, he donated his personal papers to Virginia Commonwealth University library’s special-collections department. A library staffer marked the intake with a tape-recorded interview during which Lawler told a revealing story from his days with the FBI. On the tape, Lawler sounds alert and upbeat, his native-Alabama accent keeping his “R’s” at arm’s length.
“I never will forget when the eight Nazi saboteurs came in here,” he says, telling one of the bureau’s most intriguing stories.
One night in June 1942, just after midnight, a submarine delivered four German soldiers to a beach near Amagansett on New York’s Long Island. A few days later a second group of four landed in Jacksonville, Fla. Among their possessions, the FBI discovered electric blasting caps, detonators, vials of acid and pens re-engineered to act as time-delay devices for setting off explosions.
“Two of [the soldiers] decided on the submarine over here that they were going to defect,” Lawler says in the interview. “They called the New York office, [which] thought they were crazy.” So they came down to Washington, to try to connect with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He wasn’t in the habit of taking call-in tips and the matter eventually fell to Lawler, an up-and-comer with seven years under his belt, stationed in the D.C. headquarters.
“They told me all this stuff. ... [H]ad half a million dollars, and they had bombs,” Lawler recalled in the interview. At first he thought the caller was just another crackpot, but he told him to come to the bureau’s office at Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue anyway. As he waited for the Germans to arrive, Lawler changed his mind. He called the Washington field office and told them to check the German soldiers’ room at the Mayflower Hotel. The search turned up cash and bomb-making materials and led to the apprehension of the other Nazi terrorists, foiling their plot.
Gregory Hershey, who researched Lawler for his 2008 master’s thesis in history at VCU, writes, “Agent Lawler’s intuition had led to one of the most spectacular cases in the history of the FBI.”
There’s only one problem, Hershey continues: “Lawler’s role in the affair was entirely fabricated.”
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Hershey obtained Lawler’s personnel file from the FBI. It turns out Lawler was the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Richmond office in June 1942 and had been on special assignment in West Virginia for the previous six months. In fact, “his name is not to be found in the index of any source” Hershey used for his research.
Lawler was born in Mobile, Ala., where he eventually received his bachelor’s degree from Spring Hill College. He earned his law degree from Georgetown University in 1935 and joined the FBI that July. During the 1980 VCU interview, he fondly recalls Hoover’s farewell address to his graduating class, and a bit of advice from the director: “Go out, and I know you are gonna have fun and enjoy yourself, but don’t get caught.”
After short assignments in Buffalo, N.Y., and Los Angeles, in 1937 he was moved to FBI headquarters in Washington. He later claimed to have worked as an administrative assistant to Hoover, though Hershey could not gauge how closely Lawler actually worked with him.
Lawler’s first assignment was on the kidnapping desk, a major source of cases at the time, and then intelligence operations. “It was the first intelligence desk that they set up at the seat of government,” Lawler says in the interview.
After a stint in Richmond, he went back to Washington in 1940 to “help to set up the SIS [special intelligence service], which was the intelligence system covering the western hemisphere which the FBI was designated to handle during World War II” — monitoring Nazis in South America, for example. After the war, the service was disbanded and replaced by the CIA — a valuable contact for Lawler in his later incarnation as a businessman.
Just before retiring from the Richmond bureau, Lawler oversaw the investigation of one of the most high-profile jewel heists in city history.
On Friday, Feb. 11, 1949, Robert Pinkerman had walked into the Schwarzschild Jewelers at 111 E. Broad St. It was about 4 p.m., and he asked to look at engagement rings. While he was looking, he complained of kidney pain and asked to use the second-floor bathroom, affording him an opportunity to case the store’s layout, the roof and the location of the in-store vaults.
That Monday, Valentine’s Day, workers opened the store to find hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry missing. Pinkerton and his colleagues had pried open a skylight in the roof and shimmied in down a 50-foot rope. Two large safes were kept on the first floor, both equipped with a tear gas and a relocking device. The burglars managed to pierce the metal, making precise incisions from a cutting torch that didn’t trigger either mechanism, and lifted out the jewels. Lawler’s office eventually tracked down the men and helped convict them of the theft.
If Lawler were alive today he’d be 101. Newspaper stories describe his attire as dapper — one journalist notes a pair of powder blue socks accenting white, patent leather shoes. Snappy real estate, too: His ranch-style brick house sits on pristine Riverside Drive in Westover Hills, with an emerald lawn that slopes down into a gully. Crime-scene shots from his murder capture Persian rugs, antique furniture, a desk with a roll-down hutch and a handsome, carved wooden headboard on his bed.
Congressman Tom Bliley grew up in a house nearby. “I would visit with him in the back yard and we would chat from time to time,” Bliley recalls. “He was very pleasant, very outgoing — just very nice. But unless you’re outgoing and pretty nice you don’t get elected.” Bliley says Lawler was influential in his choice to attend Georgetown University, where Lawler went to law school, but the recollections end there.
Meredith House was a lawyer friendly with an associate of Lawler’s after he left law enforcement and went into private practice. House remembers Lawler as “very charming and willing to be part of your world, but if you asked anything about himself, he kept it pretty close to the vest.”
Perhaps most telling are the touch-ups Lawler performed during the interview with the VCU librarian. After the tape had been transcribed, Lawler was asked to correct errors or fill-in any blanks in the printed copy.
He makes sure to capitalize the first letters of titles and divisions within the FBI references, changes any pronoun to the proper noun when referring to Hoover and slashes through phrases or sentences that verge on self-aggrandizement beyond the raw list of his achievements.
Far beyond fact-checking, Lawler’s edits attempt to rein in moments of personal bluster. After relating that he served on City Council and chaired the City Personnel Board, he strikes the sentence: “It’s just one of those civic duties, responsibilities you get involved in.” Regarding his time as an assistant to Hoover, he deletes the lines, “I knew what he wanted, what type of memorandum, the type of information he wanted, knew how to present it to him,” leaving only “I traveled with him on all the major cases.”
He did, however, skip the opportunity to adjust his recollections of the Nazi-saboteur case. Lawler seems to have been a man who knew the rules for keeping up appearances, but at times just couldn’t help himself.
One example of his excess came from his activities in the Richmond FBI offices in the volume of resources he dedicated to monitoring Alice Burke, state secretary of the Communist Party in the 1940s. The group was of negligible political influence and drew fewer than 250 members statewide.
“We had surveillance going on on the telephone; we had surveillance going on by way of a microphone inside of Alice’s apartment,” at 11 N. Linden St., Lawler says. (Lawler later bought the building and sold it to VCU.) “We also had the janitor give us all of the mail that she put in her trash basket,” he says. The post office would trace every letter she got. “Then from time to time we would follow her,” he says, “and from time to time we would break into her apartment.”
By today’s standards far from radical, Burke’s political views were garden variety left-liberal. She wanted to abolish the poll tax, raise the minimum wage, protect unions, strengthen mine-safety laws, move to elected school boards and eliminate the “bottleneck in transportation — especially in the Tidewater area” — an issue that’s figured prominently in the last two governorships. She ran as the Communist Party candidate against Sen. Harry Flood Byrd in 1940 and for governor in 1941, losing to Colgate Darden.
In a profile about Burke in the Richmond Times-Dispatch a month before the gubernatorial election that November, the reporter noted that “The lipstick she wore … appeared to be her sole concession to cosmetics: Her eyebrows were unplucked and she wore no fingernail polish.”
Hershey notes that Lawler sought to thin evidence of his attentions to Burke. In a handwritten note to one of his agents, Lawler wrote, “largest amt. of bulky exhibits in whole office is in this file — I know we can’t and shouldn’t destroy.” Further, Hershey argues that while Lawler lavished resources on investigating Burke, Richmond’s organized crime rings, though monitored, were allowed to prosper.
Lawler left the bureau in December 1950 to become vice president and general counsel of the Union Life. He ran for City Council in 1956 and served two terms till 1960. Richmond held at-large council elections then — a free-for-all with seats going to the top citywide vote-getters rather than representatives from each ward. The first time Lawler ran, he received the second-most votes. In his second run he earned the most in the city.
As a member of council he instigated an investigation of a strange payment arrangement in which the city was paying rent on the Deepwater Terminal warehouse for use as a temporary jail, even though the city owned the building. He helped organize the purchase of the Boulevard Bridge, often called the Nickel Bridge, from the family that owned it for the city. After his death, one news story mentions that at one time Lawler “unsuccessfully urged Henrico County and Richmond to merge as a way to cut costs” — a regional outlook that might count as very progressive these days.
When Lawler donated his papers to VCU, he recalled a portion of his career previously unknown, even to the residents he’d represented in 1956. Years after helping establish the SIS while working for the FBI, it seems he helped the CIA on a few assignments.
First, he set up a shell corporation called United Business Associates.
“Our purpose was to set up the Libyan airlines in competition with the Russian government in order to have a base that we could lift friendly people out of,” he says on the tape. He flew to North Africa to help set up the service, he says: “While in Libya we had at our disposal one of the CIA planes and we would take off every day for some different place in northern Africa.”
Closer to home, he set up the Old Dominion Research Co., headquartered for a time at Fifth and Franklin streets. “They used [it] as a basis for training agents for undercover work prior to moving down to Williamsburg,” he says. Williamsburg is home to Camp Perry, the intelligence agency’s main training base.
When he donated the papers to VCU, someone in the library tipped off the press. Lawler gave gracious but opaque interviews on his involvement, saying that his recollection of his CIA service just “vanishes in time.” When reporters at the former Richmond News Leader requested that the CIA release information about Lawler’s work, the agency refused pending Lawler’s endorsement, which he never gave.
Ray Bonis, a librarian with VCU’s special collections, says that shortly after Lawler’s CIA involvement became public, he asked for his CIA-related documents to be returned. The library gladly complied — after photocopying and re-archiving them all. Among the nonclassified papers were extensive files of preserved law-enforcement manuals, bureau newsletters and newspaper clippings announcing Lawler’s 1966 appointment to a city crime-study committee — an appointment that was viewed by some as a slight to then-City Councilman Henry Marsh, now a prominent state senator.
Law enforcement was clearly the cornerstone of Lawler’s life, and in his view crime was driven by cash.
“I’d say 95 percent of crime is motivated by money,” he says in the VCU interview. “The 5 percent are just people who are mentally deranged, but money is the leading factor.”
By the 1980s, Lawler fell into the luxurious habit of waking up mornings and heading for the Commonwealth Club on Franklin Avenue, a few blocks from where Old Dominion Research’s offices had been. He stayed all day and played cards until he drove his blue Buick home around 6 p.m. So profound was his love of the club that he was close to finishing a history on the place when he died.
It was around this time that Lawler’s life began to unravel.
He and his wife, Helen, divorced in the late 1960s. One of his four children, James Neal Lawler, died at age 36 from hepatitis on April 2, 1982. Like his father, James had been a lawyer in private practice and before that with the Richmond City Attorney’s office. He too was a member of the Commonwealth Club, and a history buff known for his excursions with a metal detector in search of Indian and Civil War artifacts.
After Lawler’s murder, neighbors told reporters that he never seemed to have recovered from his son’s death and began drinking more heavily at night. And news accounts cite anonymous police sources saying that Lawler was being investigated for his habit of socializing with underage prostitutes.
Then-Commonwealth Attorney Aubrey Davis Jr. says he has no recollection of the investigation, but when police interviewed one of the women involved in Lawler’s murder, Juanita Mae Ballard, 18, the questioning extended to an incident months before the night of the homicide.
“Could you give me an estimate of how many times you have been there before?” Richmond detective James Gaudet asks Ballard.
“Maybe five, six times,” Ballard says.
A few questions later, Gaudet asks, “Would you have sex with him?”
“No, I wouldn’t,” she says.
“Would he want you to have sex with him?”
“Would he give you money for going over there?”
“Well, yes, it would depend.”
Further along in Gaudet’s questioning of Ballard, he asks if she recalls a particular visit in the summer of 1982 when she and a friend visited Lawler. Ballard confirms that she remembers crushing sleeping pills and putting them in his drink, but she threw the drink out.
“OK, now on the times that you had been over there had you taken things before?” Gaudet asks.
“Taken things from him, no,” Ballard says.
“Do you know of girls that had?”
“Did this seem to be common knowledge that if they went over there they could find things laying around and take them?”
“You talking about money?”
“Yes,” Ballard responded.
That same summer, Lawler’s house was robbed. Beverly Boswell, 23, was sentenced to six years in prison for breaking in and three years for grand larceny. Her boyfriend, Thomas Walter Ruff Jr., was evidently part of the robbery, but had robbed a bank in July and was prosecuted for that instead.
After the break-in, things continued to spiral downward for Lawler. In September his 30-year-old daughter, Frances P. Lawler, pleaded guilty to prostitution charges and interfering with a policeman. Her fiancé, Kent M. Armistead, 33, was charged in November 1982 with procuring prostitutes and running a bawdy house in the 3000 block of West Grace Street.
On Christmas Day, Lawler rewrote his will on two sheets of yellow legal paper. He left everything to his two daughters, leaving his remaining son unmentioned, and in a likely unenforceable paragraph decreed that if he daughters sought “any other distribution of the estate,” that portion should be “given to the Commonwealth Club for charitable purposes of the members and families, and employees and their families.”
Five days later, Juanita Mae Ballard and her brother Johnny were hanging out at Timothy Dickenson’s house. Dickenson was 20 and living in South Richmond. He’d gotten off work that afternoon and his girlfriend was cooking dinner when Carl Simons came over.
Simons, then 25, says he’d known Dickenson since childhood, but had just recently met the Ballards. Nowadays, he’s 26 years into a 60-year prison sentence. Sitting in a white cinder block interview room in the Brunswick Correctional Center, the imprisoned years of his life have become absorbed by penitentiary politics. Like a river running through rocks that eventually forms a canyon, the story he’s told himself again and again about Lawler’s murder became engraved in stone. The facts do not differ significantly from police and news accounts, but the emphasis and culpability do.
“I’m guilty of something,” Simons says, “but it’s not killing that man.”
Simons was spending so much time with Dickenson because he believed his wife, Anne, had started cheating on him. He had her name tattooed on his right bicep, but had it covered over in prison first with a peacock, whose colors did not turn out, and then with a large panther scaling up toward his shoulder.
Simons says his father was an alcoholic, so he never drank. But he was high on crank the afternoon of Dec. 30, 1982, as were the others. (Dickenson’s testimony suggests that it was Simons who knew a recipe for the stuff.)
Simons was buying a 1965 Dodge Dart from Juanita Mae Ballard. Always mechanical, Simons put in a motor mount that day and used the handle of a pair of bolt cutters as a lever during the job. After shooting up crank, he and Juanita, along with Dickerson and Johnny Ballard, piled into the Dart.
They went to a nearby 7-Eleven but had only enough money for a quart of beer. Juanita said she knew a man who could lend them some money, and on the way to Lawler’s house the foursome hatched a plan to rob the 74-year-old. They arrived at his Riverside Drive house around 8:30 p.m.
In her confession, Juanita, dark-eyed with long-dark hair, told the detectives she’d been there a half-dozen times.
What was the purpose for going that night?, asked Detective Gaudet.
“I was going over there to attract his attention so they could come in the house,” Juanita Ballard says.
“All right, how was you to do it? Go ahead, feel free to tell us.”
“To go to bed with him, but I didn’t.”
Instead, she kept leaving the house, claiming to need a cigarette or to retrieve her keys from the car — where the boys were waiting. Lawler kept locking the door behind her, so it took Ballard a few errands before he finally left it unlocked.
In Simons’ recollection, Johnny got impatient, grabbed the bolt cutters and headed for the house. Simons said he wanted to leave, but that’s not what happened.
They followed Johnny into the house.
Depending on whose account is to be believed, either Dickenson or Simons went to the back bedroom and grabbed a jewelry box. On the stand, Dickenson said he heard a sound that resembled a hollow log being beaten.
In testimony, Dickenson says he called out that the “law was coming” to finally get Johnny to stop. Simons says he’s the one who called out. Hopped up on crank, Simons, Ballard and Dickenson fled, leaving Lawler on the ground. They took a jewelry box, traded in the Dart for a van and headed for Florida. A few days later, Simons got in touch with a guy he knew from the car lot where they sold the Dart and asked to get picked up. Before hopping on Interstate 95, the man, a paid police informant, had the Dart outfitted with a hidden tape recorder.
Johnny Ballard is in prison for life. His attorney, Craig Cooley, painted Simons as an older bully and a ringleader. Simons is serving 60 years. Juanita Ballard and Dickenson got lighter sentences.
Perhaps Lawler was right: A full reckoning of anyone’s deeds posted on Ninth and Main would mean they couldn’t stay in town long. Then again, keeping secrets doesn’t seem to guarantee an extended stay, either.