1 The Secret Dead Body
All I could think of as I stared at the dead woman lying on the bed was How the hell are we going to get her body out of here without anyone knowing?
There were only a few hours of darkness left, so some quick decisions had to be made. It was my first month as a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service, and I knew if I screwed this up, my career would be over before it really began.
Fortunately, I had the home telephone number of my supervisor, Earl Schoel, the Special Agent in Charge (SAIC) of the Denver Field Office, in my wallet. I walked quietly downstairs and dialed his number from the phone in the kitchen.
“Hello?” Schoel answered groggily.
“Mr. Schoel,” I said, “it’s Clint Hill. I’m sorry to call you in the middle of the night, but we have a situation here at the Doud residence.”
Few people knew it, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower had ordered part-time Secret Service protection for his eighty-year-old mother-in-law, Mrs. Elvira Doud. There were no outright threats to the president’s mother-in-law, but because she was ill and lived alone, except for a maid and a nurse, there was concern that she could be kidnapped and held for bargaining purposes. Likewise, if there was a major health problem during the night, the agents would have the means to quickly get her the help she needed and also be able to immediately notify the president and Mrs. Eisenhower.
On September 22, 1958, I was given a badge, handcuffs, holster, gun,
and ammunition, and officially sworn in as a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service. I was taken out to the shooting range at the U.S. Mint in Denver to make sure I could qualify, and that was it. There was no other immediate training, except for reading the Special Agent Manual. One of my first assignments was on the midnight shift, protecting Mrs. Doud.
Mrs. Doud lived in a three-story brick home at 750 Lafayette Street in Denver, Colorado, and the protection was from seven o’clock in the evening until seven o’clock in the morning, with one agent on duty from 7:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m., and another agent taking over from 11:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m.
First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and her sister Mabel—whom everyone called “Mike”—had been visiting their mother over the past week and were so grateful for the agents to stay the night with her that they prepared sandwiches for us each evening and left them in the fridge. It was a very nice gesture, and they weren’t so bad when Mamie made them, but when Mike got involved, let me tell you, those were the worst sandwiches I ever tasted. I never could figure out exactly what she put between the slices of white bread that tasted so bad, but it was almost inedible. The Mike and Mamie sandwiches were a running joke among the agents in the Denver office.
That particular night, I had come to work just before eleven, and the departing agent told me there had been no unusual activity. The house was quiet, with Mrs. Doud and her nurse asleep upstairs on the second floor, and the maid, Mary, in her room on the third floor.
I had been at the house for a couple of hours when I heard Mrs. Doud calling for her nurse. The nurse stayed in the bedroom adjacent to Mrs. Doud, and I assumed she would attend to her needs. A few minutes later, however, Mrs. Doud called out again, this time a bit louder. I waited a few more minutes, listening closely for any conversation upstairs, but there was just silence. When Mrs. Doud called out a third time, I realized that the nurse must be asleep.
I walked up the stairs and into Mrs. Doud’s room.
“Mrs. Doud, I’m Agent Hill. Is there a problem?”
She coughed, and then said, “I’ve been calling for the nurse.”
“She’s probably asleep, ma’am,” I said. “I’ll go tell her you need her.”
I walked into the nurse’s room, and in the darkness I saw the outline
of her body on the bed. I called out to her in a firm voice, but she didn’t budge.
An uneasy feeling started to come over me as I walked toward the bed. I placed my hand on her shoulder and started to shake her, but her body was stiff as a board.
Oh God, I thought. The nurse is dead.
From the other room, Mrs. Doud called out, “Agent? Where’s my nurse?”
I did not want to tell her that her nurse was dead. “Just a minute,” I said as I ran up the stairs to the maid’s room on the third floor.
“Mary, wake up,” I whispered as I shook her. “It’s Agent Hill, Mary. You need to wake up. The nurse is dead, and Mrs. Doud needs some help. You need to get up and help Mrs. Doud.”
Mary sat straight up in bed, her eyes like big white marbles against the dark black of her skin opened so wide that I thought they were going to pop right out of her head.
“Oh my Lordy!” she exclaimed.
“Shh, Mary,” I said. “I don’t want to alarm Mrs. Doud. Please go down and see what she needs, and don’t tell her the nurse is dead.”
As soon as Mary went into Mrs. Doud’s room, I went back into the nurse’s room to try to figure out what to do. The problem was that Mrs. Eisenhower had just left Denver that morning, headed back to Washington by train. She was afraid of flying, so she always took the train. I was concerned that if the press got word that a woman had died at 750 Lafayette Street, they would assume it was Mrs. Doud. I sure as hell didn’t want rumors flying and poor Mrs. Eisenhower to think her mother had died before we could clarify what actually happened.
Fortunately, when I called my supervisor, Mr. Schoel, he had a solution. He was a friend of the coroner, and he knew the coroner had a special car—not a traditional hearse, but a sedan in which the backseat had been removed and the two doors on the passenger side opened opposite each other to form an opening wide enough to get a body inside. Schoel said he would call the coroner and send him right over.
Mrs. Doud had fallen back asleep, but poor Mary was still in a state of shock as I explained what we were going to do and why we had to do it.
The coroner arrived and slowly backed the car into the driveway so
that the passenger side was opposite the side door of the house leading into the kitchen. We went upstairs, wrapped the nurse in a blanket, and the two of us proceeded to haul her body downstairs. She was a hefty woman and presumably had had a heart attack, but it was clear she had been dead long before I arrived on duty. Her body was deadweight, extremely difficult to maneuver down the narrow staircase, and with every step I was privately cursing the agent who came on duty before me for not realizing there was a dead woman upstairs—or worse, for knowing the woman had died and leaving the situation to me to deal with and then do all the damn paperwork.
The coroner and I managed to get the nurse out of the house and into the car without making too much noise, and no one in the press ever knew.
Of course, when Mrs. Doud awoke that morning, she was informed that her nurse had died overnight, Mr. Schoel notified the president’s staff, and I got to keep my job.
As it turned out, surreptitiously removing a dead body from the president’s mother-in-law’s house in the wee hours of an autumn morning in 1958 was minor-league compared to the situations I would face over the next seventeen years.
I NEVER HAD any intention of becoming a Secret Service agent. Growing up in Washburn, North Dakota, my goal was to coach athletics and teach history. I have come to realize, however, that sometimes your life takes a turn in a direction over which you have no control—and in my case, it started from the moment I was born.
When I was seventeen days old, my mother had me baptized and then, on a snowy January morning, left me on the doorstep of the North Dakota Children’s Home for Adoption in Fargo. Three months later, Chris and Jennie Hill drove to Fargo with their four-year-old adopted daughter, Janice, and out of all the children at the orphanage, chose me to make their family complete.
I had a wonderful childhood. Washburn, North Dakota, is perched on the north bank of the Missouri River, about halfway between Bismarck and
Minot, and back then the population hovered around nine hundred. Largely settled by German, Swedish, and Norwegian immigrant farmers, Washburn had numerous churches and a couple of gas stations, but not even one stoplight. It was the kind of close-knit community where you didn’t dare get into trouble because word would get back to your parents before you could race home and sneak in the back door. There wasn’t much for a boy to do but play sports, and that was fine with me. In high school I participated in every competitive sport that was offered—track, football, baseball, and basketball—and throughout the long winters, my friends and I would play ice hockey until it was too dark to see the puck.
Our family life revolved around the Evangelical Lutheran Church where my sister Janice played the piano and I was an altar boy. My father was the county auditor and also served as treasurer of the church, so on Sundays he would bring home the collection money and we would sit at the kitchen table, counting and registering what had been offered that week while my mother prepared dinner.
My mother was the glue that held the family together, and I rarely saw her sitting down—she was doing laundry, tending to the vegetable garden, canning, or cooking—and while Dad was a man of few words, he taught me lessons I’ve carried with me my entire life. Always be respectful of others, no matter who they are; live within your means and save for the future; strive to do the best job at whatever you do; and never, ever be late.
People who have worked with me know I’m a stickler for promptness—something that goes back to an incident that took place when I was in high school.
My curfew was 10:00 p.m., and one night I walked in the front door at 10:08. My father was waiting for me, as he always did, and before I could offer any explanation, he grabbed my shirt collar with both hands, lifted me off the floor, and slammed me against the wall.
“Clinton!” he yelled. “You are late!” His eyes pierced through me with anger and disappointment as his fists tightened around my neck. “Don’t you ever walk into this house late again!”
I honestly don’t remember why I was late, but I knew that no excuse would have made a difference. From that moment on, whether it was showing up for work, meeting a friend for lunch, or coming home by curfew,
rarely was I ever late again. To this day, one of the few things that causes me anxiety is to be running late.
I grew up listening to college football games on our Philco radio, and I had visions of playing football for the University of Michigan, but when the local chapter of the Lutheran Brotherhood awarded me a one-hundred-dollar scholarship to attend Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, which was Lutheran-affiliated, the decision was made for me.
I took my studies seriously, but my real passion continued to be sports. I played football and baseball, and had the benefit of a wonderful football coach and mentor named Jake Christiansen. Coach Jake was already a legend at Concordia by the time I got there, and other than my parents, he had more influence on my character, ethics, and values than anyone.
I didn’t have much confidence or experience with dating, but in the spring of my freshman year, I met a young lady named Gwen Brown. Gwen was a year older than me, but she was a friend of some girls who were dating some of my football buddies, and we all hung out together. Gwen grew up on a farm where the nearest town was an even smaller town than Washburn, so we had that in common, and we shared a love of music. She was a member of Concordia’s elite concert choir, and I sang in an a cappella male quartet. One by one, the couples in our group got engaged, and on February 28, 1953, during my junior year and her senior year, Gwen and I got married at the Trinity Lutheran Church near the Concordia campus. We were so young—too young—but things were different in those days, and like smoking cigarettes because everybody else was doing it, we just didn’t know any better.
When I graduated from Concordia in the spring of 1954, my intention was to return to North Dakota to find a job in a local high school teaching history and coaching athletics. The U.S. Army, however, had different plans for me.
No sooner did I have my degree in hand than I was notified by the draft board in McLean County, North Dakota, to report to an office in Fargo for processing and I was sworn into the U.S. Army. From there it was straight to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for eight weeks of demanding physical training, along with a few written intelligence tests. Apparently, my scores on those tests gave them an indication that I had something the Army was looking
for, and upon completion of basic training I was instructed to report to Fort Holabird, in Dundalk, Maryland, to attend Army Intelligence School, where I would learn how to be an agent in counterintelligence.
I had two weeks off before I needed to be at Fort Holabird, and during this time my father suffered a stroke. Fortunately, I was able to spend a few days with him, talking and reminiscing, but he died two days after I left. It was a devastating blow, and I had to come to grips with the stark realization that, at twenty-two, from that point on, there was no one to guide me—I was on my own.
I threw myself into the courses at Fort Holabird. The program was rigorous and intense, as we were taught investigative, surveillance, and interrogation techniques, and then tested by using those techniques in practical exercises. We would be assigned to interrogate someone who was suspected of committing a crime or sent on a mission to surveil a suspect around Baltimore and the surrounding area. They were real-life situations, with our professional instructors role-playing the parts of the suspects, using every con artist and thug trick in the book to try to mislead us, and I found it both fascinating and challenging.
In January 1955, after four months at Fort Holabird, I was assigned to Region IX 113th Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) Field Office in Denver, Colorado, where my work consisted mostly of running background investigations on individuals who were being considered for various security clearances in the U.S. government—up to and including “Top Secret.”
Nine months after I arrived in Denver, President Eisenhower happened to be in Colorado for a golf and fishing vacation when he suffered a heart attack. He was rushed to Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora, and although the White House press office termed it a “mild” heart attack, the president remained there for seven weeks. I had some investigations that required me to check records at Fitzsimons, and I ended up meeting several members of Eisenhower’s Secret Service detail. Dressed in suits with white shirts and ties, the agents were resolute in their protective measures, and certainly could be intimidating if necessary, but they were at the same time courteous and respectful to the nurses, doctors, family members, and friends who had authorization to come in close contact with the president. I was impressed with their professionalism and the way they conducted themselves, and suddenly
had a newfound respect for all that was required to protect the President of the United States. Still, it never entered my mind that I would ever be among their ranks.
MY TOUR OF duty was scheduled to be completed in July 1956, just about the same time Gwen and I were expecting our first child. Rather than suddenly have to find a new job and possibly move just as the baby arrived, I decided it made a lot more sense to stay in the Army for at least one more year so the baby could be born in the military hospital.
On July 21, Gwen went into labor, and in the early morning hours of July 22, she delivered a baby boy. Unfortunately, there was a problem during delivery, and he had to have a blood transfusion. When I first held him in my arms, there was a white bandage on the top of his little head where they had done the transfusion, but other than that, he was absolutely perfect. We named him Chris Jeffrey Hill—Chris after my father, and Jeffrey so he could have the same CJH initials as both my father and I had. A year later, I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in Fort Carson, Colorado, and my intent was to return to North Dakota to find a job coaching athletics and teaching history.
For the next several weeks, I interviewed at dozens of schools all over North Dakota and Minnesota, but with no previous teaching experience, the only jobs available were in small towns, with small salaries and few benefits. The responsibility of providing for my family weighed heavily on me, and I eventually came to the conclusion that perhaps I should consider alternative careers. I reflected on my father and how he had been able to buy a home for our family, as well as put aside enough money to send both Janice and me to college, and I was determined to do the same. Even though my dad was no longer alive, I believed he was still watching me, and I wanted to make him proud. I realized I had enjoyed the investigative work in the CIC and had made a lot of connections in the Denver area, and that was probably the best place to start.
It didn’t take long for me to land a job as a credit investigator with a credit company, and shortly thereafter I found a better position with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad as a railroad detective, investigating theft and
ensuring security of their facilities. One day I was driving past Fitzsimons Army Hospital, and I remembered the Secret Service agents I had met in 1955. I had no idea what it took to become an agent, but I figured I might as well give it a shot, so I drove straight to the Secret Service in Denver to find out what the possibilities might be.
I learned that there were 269 agents in the entire Secret Service organization, and rarely were there openings. Even if you could pass all the background checks and score highly on the intelligence tests, the only way you were going to get in was if an agent died or retired. It was a long shot, but I decided to fill out an application and hope for the best. I went back to work at the railroad and didn’t think much more about it.
A few months later I got the phone call that would change the course of my life. It turned out that because of retirements, three openings in the Secret Service had occurred simultaneously. One of them was in Denver, and I was being considered for that position. Since I had just come out of the CIC the year before, my background check was a breeze, and on September 22, 1958, I was hired and sworn in as a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service in the Denver Field Office.
THE U.S. SECRET Service is one of the oldest law enforcement agencies in America, created in 1865. Its original mission was to investigate and prevent counterfeit currency, which was rampant after the Civil War and threatened to destabilize the country’s economy. The legislation to establish the “Secret Service Division” of the United States Treasury was on Abraham Lincoln’s desk the night he was assassinated, but it wasn’t until after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 that Congress assigned the duties of presidential protection to the Secret Service. To this day, the agency has two distinct missions—investigating and preventing financial crimes, and the protection of our nation’s leaders.
In the Denver office, while we had the responsibility of protecting President Eisenhower’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Doud, the majority of our time was spent investigating financial crimes—counterfeiting and forged checks. However, when President Eisenhower would come to town, we dropped everything in order to assist the White House Detail—the small group of
agents who protected the president and his family. I had no specialized training other than watching the detail agents and following their directions. I took mental notes of everything they did, the way they used hand and eye signals to communicate with one another, blending in with the other people around the president while simultaneously moving purposefully to create an invisible barrier of protection.
These were the guys I had met back in 1955—the best of the best—and I wanted to be one of them.