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A Washington Tragedy:
How the Death of Vincent Foster Ignited a Political Firestorm
By Dan E. Moldea
Vincent Foster committed suicide, and he acted alone.
Leaving the White House at a little after 1:00 P.M. on July 20, 1993, Foster-- President Bill Clinton's deputy counsel, who appeared to be at the peak of his career--drove his 1989 gray Honda Accord to Fort Marcy Park in northern Virginia. He parked his car next to a trail that led to a large open grove.
Taking off his blue pin-striped suit coat and tie, he placed them on the front passenger seat of his car, along with his White House pass and his wallet, which contained, among other things, a list of three local psychiatrists.
After loosening the top button of his white shirt, Foster opened the glove compartment and reached for an oven mitt in which he had concealed an antique, black-colored .38-caliber Colt revolver. Inside the cylinder were two live rounds of round-nosed lead ammunition.
He placed the gun in his left-front pocket, unknowingly transferring a portion of a sunflower-seed husk from the oven mitt. Leaving his car unlocked and the oven mitt in the glove compartment, Foster walked through the park, passing a Civil War cannon in the large grove, and eventually came to a second smaller grove nearly 250 yards from his car. Upon entering this heavily-wooded area, he saw a second cannon.
He switched off his White House pager, sat in front of the cannon's barrel, and removed the gun from his left pocket. Bracketed by dense foliage, he was facing downhill.
He cocked the hammer of the revolver. Placing his right thumb on the trigger and steadying the weapon with his left hand, he put the gun in his mouth and fired a single shot.
The bullet perforated his brain and crashed out the back of his skull, killing him instantly; the backlash caused his eyeglasses to fall from his face and tumble down the hill. His hands fell limply down to his sides, with the gun still in his right hand; his thumb was trapped in the trigger guard. A stream of blood trickled from his mouth and nose, soaking the right shoulder of his shirt.
More blood flowed from a small exit wound in the back of his head and soaked the ground beneath him, as well as the back of his shirt.
Plain and simple, Foster, who left no suicide note, had taken his own life. But no one had seen him do it; no one had heard the shot. In fact, no known person had seen him alive in the park.
A mystery man in a white van, who had stopped in the park to urinate in the woods, stumbled across the body at about 6 P.M. The mystery man quickly left the area, went to a nearby maintenance station for the National Park Service, and told an employee what he had found, asking him to call the police. Then, the mystery man vanished into the rush-hour traffic.
The Park Service employee dutifully called the local rescue squad and then the U.S. Park Police, which had jurisdiction. Within minutes, two rescue teams and a lone Park Police officer, who had been stationed at an entrance to the nearby Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), arrived at the scene. The officer joined two of the rescue workers in their frantic search for the reported body, splitting off from them in the main grove and finding his way into the hidden grove. There, the officer located the unidentified body and called for the paramedics.
Within minutes, police investigators arrived at the crime scene and began a routine investigation, which found no evidence of a struggle and no reason to believe that Foster, who was identified after a search of his car, had been murdered.
However, during that routine investigation:
* No one could account for Foster's whereabouts for the five-hour period from the time he left the White House until his body was found.
* No fingerprints were found on the gun in Foster's right hand.
* The bullet that killed Foster could not be located.
* A blood transfer stain on Foster's right cheek could not be fully explained; the investigators found his head straight up, not resting on his right shoulder where blood had accumulated.
* A roll of .35 mm film that the police had used to memorialize the crime scene was underexposed and worthless.
* Two back-up Polaroid photographs taken at the scene were missing.
* None of the investigators at the crime scene was present at the autopsy.
* Foster's clothes were stacked in an unsegregated pile by a coroner's assistant, causing possible cross-contamination.
* No gunpowder was found on Foster's tongue.
* The mystery man in the white van could not be identified or located.
* Other visitors to the park reported seeing several unidentified men behaving suspiciously.
* No one from Foster's family could positively identify the gun, which had two serial numbers, as being his.
* Foster's friends and relatives, at first, denied that he had been depressed. In fact, President Clinton, who had just talked to Foster the night before his death and scheduled a meeting with him, had declared only twenty hours after Foster's body was discovered, "No one can ever know why this happened. . . . What happened was a mystery about something inside of him."
Also, in the midst of the Park Police probe, the White House Counsel's Office, which didn't order Foster's office sealed until the day after his death, initially stalled police investigators, preventing them from conducting interviews and searching the office. When the police were finally permitted to speak with four of the last known White House staffers to have seen Foster alive, the interviews were monitored and, in one case, disrupted by members of the Counsel's Office.
Earlier, the police had agreed to the White House Counsel's Office request to allow attorneys from the Department of Justice to serve as intermediaries during a review of the documents in Foster's office. The police understood the arrangement as this: If the White House declared a particular document privileged information and didn't want to show it to the police, the attorneys from Justice would view the material and decide on the merit of the claim.
But, instead, White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum conducted the search unilaterally two days after Foster's death, refusing to allow either the Park Police or attorneys from the Justice Department to participate in the search or to see any documents.
Consequently, the police investigators and the Justice Department lawyers suspected that the White House was hiding something.
Foster's suicide was the most important White House death since the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy. Immediately, the media went into a frenzy. They detailed the close friendship that Foster had enjoyed with the President and the First Lady--with whom Foster, her one-time law partner, was rumored to have had an affair.
Although there was little initial speculation that any foul play had occurred, journalists quickly discovered that Foster had been involved in several recent controversies, including a scandal involving the White House Travel Office. As a result of this and other problems, the Wall Street Journal had written several editorials critical of Foster.
During the week after Foster's suicide, the White House continued to maintain that he had not been depressed. But, after an attorney in the Counsel's Office discovered a torn-up note in Foster's briefcase--a note that bitterly derided enemies of the President--the White House's position changed.
Suddenly, Foster's family and colleagues began to reveal details of the growing depression that had led to his suicide. His sister had given him the list of three psychiatrists found in his wallet, urging him to make an appointment with one of them; her husband had given Foster a list of six attorneys in case he faced a legal battle over the Travel Office matter. Later, Foster's wife told police investigators that her husband--the day before his death--had contacted their family doctor, who had prescribed a mild anti-depressant.
The torn-up note was concealed from police investigators for nearly thirty hours. It had been found in Foster's briefcase, which had been supposedly emptied by Nussbaum during the search of Foster's office several days earlier. The U.S. Capitol Police eventually confirmed that the note was in Foster's handwriting.
Although the note contained no fingerprints, the Park Police, in concert with the Department of Justice and the FBI, concluded that Foster had committed suicide.
Then, on the basis of erroneous information from a Park Police official, reporters alleged that documents had been removed from Foster's on the night of his death by three White House staffers who had entered the office. Other articles, supposedly based on information from the Park Police, charged that the documents removed referred to the Whitewater Development Corporation. These stories led to more articles about Foster's connection with the Whitewater real-estate venture and the Clintons' business partner, James McDougal, who owned Madison Guaranty, a failed savings and loan, which had been represented by Mrs. Clinton.
Even though many of these stories were based on false information, Whitewater became a major issue. Soon after, reporters learned that, on the final day of his life, Foster had received a telephone call from the attorney who has handled questions about Whitewater during the 1992 presidential campaign. Also on Foster's last day, a search warrant had been authorized for the offices of Arkansas businessman David Hale, who had been linked to Whitewater and Madison Guaranty.
Even though Foster's role in Whitewater appeared minor, at best, the implications from the news stories led to editorials, essays, and opinion pieces--particularly in the Wall Street Journal and, now, the New York Times--that openly suggested a White House cover-up. Speculation ran rampant that a truly depressed Foster might have killed himself in order to avoid prosecution or to protect some dark secret about the Clintons.
Consequently, even though no wrongdoing had been shown, the media demanded that the White House release the documents that had been in Foster's office, especially those concerning Whitewater. At first, the White House agreed to cooperate; then it balked, provoking further charges of an ever-widening cover-up.
Pressed by news reports and editorials that continued to suggest the White House was covering up facts about what happened in the wake of Foster's death, Attorney General Janet Reno agreed to the appointment of an independent counsel, Robert Fiske, to investigate the Foster case, as well as the Clintons' involvement in Whitewater and Madison Guaranty.
Meantime, based on a series of erroneous--but quickly cleared up--statements made by the same Park Police official about the evidence in the case, a right-wing media-watchdog group, Accuracy in Media, and an aggressive reporter, Christopher Ruddy of the New York Post, began their own separate investigations.
Ruddy discovered what he claimed were more problems with the Foster case, which might indicate that Foster didn't commit suicide:
* Two rescue workers at the Foster crime scene had seen little or no blood and no exit wound in Foster's head.
* Skull fragments and brain matter were not recovered from the crime scene.
* The ambulance driver who had picked up Foster's body had coded the death as a homicide.
* The Park Police did not have Foster's gun tested by firearms examiners until after the case had been publicly closed.
* The former director of the FBI, who had been fired by the President the day before Foster's death, claimed that the investigation had been politicized.
* The Park Police and the coroner who conducted Foster's autopsy had, in previous cases, wrongly determined that murders had been suicides.
These charges caused a sensation, forcing Fiske to investigate them.
But, after a six-month investigation, Fiske, in cooperation with the FBI, was able to explain away most of the controversies in the Foster case--including those surrounding the mystery man in the white van--and corroborated the conclusion by the Park Police that Foster had committed suicide. Fiske declared that Foster had been depressed over his role in the Travel Office scandal, as well as the bad press he had received from the Wall Street Journal. Fiske found no evidence that Foster was depressed over anything related to Whitewater.
But his final report and the results of a subsequent oversight probe by the U.S. Senate Banking Committee raised even more problems:
* The mystery man in the white van did not see a gun in Foster's hand.
* No coherent soil had been found on Foster's shoes, even though he had walked more than 250 yards to the site of his death.
* There were no grass or soil stains on Foster's clothing.
* Semen was found in his underwear.
* Blond hair and carpet fibers were found on his clothing.
* Gunpowder was found on Foster's clothing that did not come from the gun in his hand.
* A paramedic present at the crime scene claimed to have seen a bullet wound in Foster's neck; another paramedic saw a wound on his forehead.
* The medical examiner who pronounced Foster dead at the crime scene reported seeing little blood, seemingly corroborating what two rescue workers had earlier claimed.
* Although the coroner had claimed in his official report that X rays of Foster's head had been taken during the autopsy, no X rays existed. The coroner explained that he had noted that X rays had been taken before realizing that the X ray machine was broken, and insisted that this was a simple error.
* The statements of the visitors in the parking lot, who had seen men behaving suspiciously, were ignored.
* Still, no one from Foster's family could identify the gun. His wife reported that a photograph the [USPP] had shown her was not the "silver-colored gun" she had earlier seen at their home. The gun in Foster's hand was black.
* Foster's widow had concealed her knowledge of guns in their Washington home from the Park Police.
Instead of putting the case to rest, Fiske had unintentionally opened new avenues of official and unofficial investigation.
Indeed, the political controversy became so intense that Fiske was ousted as independent counsel before he completed his investigation into the circumstances of the search of Foster's office. The new independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, was given, among other responsibilities, the authority to reinvestigate Foster's death.
But Starr had his problems, too. Miquel Rodriguez, one of Starr's staff attorneys, suspected that Foster had been murdered. After allegedly suggesting before a federal grand jury that the police officer who had found Foster's body was involved in the killing or a cover-up, Rodriguez was reined in by Starr's deputies. Complaining that his investigation was being sabotaged, Rodriguez resigned from the independent counsel's staff and became a key source for the critics of the Foster investigation.
At the time of Starr's appointment, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. But, in November 1994, the Democrats were annihilated during the mid-term elections.
With the Republicans now in control of both the House and the Senate, investigations were aggressively renewed into Whitewater and the Travel Office controversy, along with a proposed probe of the alleged White House cover-up stemming from the search of Foster's office.
Soon after, a Special Committee of the Senate was impaneled to investigate Whitewater and its possible connection with the documents allegedly removed from Foster's office.
As part of this investigation, the longest in U.S. history, Senate Republicans alleged, among other things, that:
* the Clintons were legally vulnerable because of their relationship with Whitewater and Madison Guaranty;
* Foster had been deeply involved with Whitewater prior to his death;
* telephone logs showed that the First Lady had been in constant communication with Maggie Williams, her chief of staff, who was in Foster's office on the night of his death, and Susan Thomases, a New York attorney and an old friend of Mrs. Clinton;
* Thomases had asked Nussbaum to keep law-enforcement officials from "unfettered access" to Foster's office;
* Nussbaum reneged on his agreements with the Department of Justice and the Park Police in order to protect the Clintons' secret files; and
* Williams removed a box of documents from Foster's office and placed them in the Clintons' private quarters at the White House.
On the basis of supposed evidence supporting these allegations, the committee concluded that a conspiracy existed to sanitize Foster's office, directly involving the First Lady.
Meantime, a coalition of right-wing special-interest groups, as well as a handful of politically- conservative journalists, continued to pursue the Foster case, trying to prove that he had been murdered and that the federal government had covered up the real facts of the case. Nearly all of these groups and individuals had a common connection: They received money, directly or indirectly, from the same wealthy benefactor, Richard Scaife, the heir to the Mellon banking fortune.
Adding to their growing list of charges, the critics now alleged that, among other things:
* Foster had booked no fewer than three trips to Switzerland, including one shortly before his death.
* A paramedic, not the Park Police officer, had actually found Foster's body.
* An official report by the medical examiner who pronounced Foster dead at the scene indicated that Foster's fatal wound traveled "mouth to neck," and that a crime-scene photograph allegedly showed the neck wound.
* Although the police didn't find Foster's car keys in his right pocket at the crime scene, they later recovered them from the same pocket at the morgue.
* White House staffers had given conflicting accounts about when they were notified of Foster's death.
* The X ray machine used during the Foster autopsy was in good working condition, despite the claims by the coroner.
* A former prosecutor who had seen Foster's body at the mortuary told one of the critics that he, too, had seen a wound on Foster's neck.
* Foster's briefcase--the same briefcase in which the torn-up note was found in his office--had been seen by eyewitnesses in his gray Honda at Fort Marcy Park.
* The handwriting expert who was used by the Park Police had unwittingly repudiated his opinion that the torn-up note had been written by Foster.
* Foster's torn-up note had been forged and planted, according to three experts hired by the critics.
* None of five witnesses in the parking lot appeared to have seen Foster's gray Honda in the parking lot prior to the arrival of the rescue workers and the police. Three of these witnesses remembered seeing several never-identified men behaving in an unusual manner in and around a brown Honda. In fact, one of these witnesses, claiming that the FBI had lied in its report about what he had and had not seen, filed suit against the federal government.
Nevertheless, the second independent counsel's analysis, the Starr Report, corroborated the basic findings of the Park Police investigation and the final conclusion of Robert Fiske. In response, the critics claimed that this latest report, issued in October 1997, was nothing more than part of the continuing cover-up.
I know the critics are wrong. And as a professional crime reporter with nearly twenty-five years' experience, I intend to prove just that in the pages that follow.
Investigating the suicide of Vincent Foster is a nightmare of sourcing for any investigator, official or unofficial. Considering all the conflicts among the witness statements and official reports, the loose and contradictory estimates of the times of important events, and the continuing controversies over physical evidence--as well as the supercharged political atmosphere that further complicated the investigation of Foster's death--it is no wonder the case remains unsolved in most people's minds. But by following the track of the investigations we will discover how a simple suicide of a troubled White House official developed--and was manipulated--into a long-running soap opera with historical significance.
In other words, this is a story about how Washington works.
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