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For Bugliosi, Oswald ‘trial’ began 21-year journey

Hibbing native Vince Bugliosi, famed author and prosecutor in the Charles Manson case, stands outside his Pasadena, Calif., home on July 26. (Sarah Reingewirtz / Pasadena Star-News)

LOS ANGELES — The first time producers from Showtime and London Weekend Television called Vince Bugliosi to ask him to prosecute Lee Harvey Oswald for President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in a made-for-TV trial, the Hibbing native declined.

“I said, ‘I’m flattered but not interested,’ ” he recalled of the 1986 conversation.

But when Bugliosi learned famed defense attorney Gerry Spence would be handling Oswald’s defense, no script would be used in the 21 hours of filming, actual witnesses from the 1963 killing in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza would be called to the stand in London and he would be able to argue his point to an impartial American jury, he quickly changed his tune.

For several months, Bugliosi threw himself into the case with the same fervor he had done years earlier when prosecuting Charles Manson for the murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in one of the nation’s most publicized, lengthiest and costliest trials.

“Spence and I both worked on this case as hard as any other murder case in our respective careers,” Bugliosi said recently from his home in Pasadena, Calif. “I’m known as a fighter and competitive in the courtroom. But he took me to levels I wouldn’t have even dreamed about because he wanted to win that case.”

The trial culminated with the jury finding, as the Warren Commission did 22 years earlier, that Oswald had acted alone.

“Like Time magazine said, that was the closest to a real prosecution that Oswald will ever have,” Bugliosi said.

Even Spence, the white-haired, buckskin-clad lawyer who claims on his website to never have lost a criminal or civil case, expressed admiration for his adversary’s prosecutorial skill by once remarking to the media: “No other lawyer in America could have done what Vince did in this case.”

Spence, via email, declined comment for this story.

While Bugliosi’s efforts at the trial largely became just a footnote in the vast expanse of Kennedy assassination literature, the gears began to turn in the UCLA Law School graduate’s brain.

In the decades after the assassination, a majority of Americans polled believed in a conspiracy, and many thought Oswald was framed and murdered by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby as part of a cover-up. If the facts were presented in such a way that pointed directly at Oswald and conspiracy theories were thoroughly refuted, Bugliosi believed he could sway public opinion in a manner that the Warren Commission never accomplished.

“When I got into the case, I saw all these conspiracy theories were pure moonshine and Oswald was as guilty as sin,” Bugliosi said. “At that point, a majority of Americans agreed with the conspiracy theorists. So I said, ‘I have to write a book on this.’ ”

The result, 21 years later, was the release of “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” a massive, 1,632-page, 1.5-million word tome (with an additional 10,000 citations on CD) that points the finger squarely at Oswald, a la the Warren Report, and debunks all conspiracy theories in point-by-point detail.

While the book received rave critical reviews, some calling it the final word on the assassination, it did not register at the cash register. Bugliosi calls it his biggest regret as an author.

“I’m proud of the book, but it obviously did not receive the attention because no one wants books like that,” he lamented. “When I write a book, my primary motivation is always to write something I can be proud of. That’s the main thing on my mind. Secondly, I want to make money to feed the family.

“My wife kept telling me, ‘Stop writing that book. You’re killing the sales of the book.’ People don’t buy books that you have to be a weightlifter to pick up. It was selling for $80, plus tax. Nobody buys books like that. All my other true-crime books were bestsellers and this book did not sell well. That’s bothered me because I worked on it for 20 years.”

The book sold about 40,000 copies, far shy of the total sales of Bugliosi’s other books for W.W. Norton Publishers. While Starling Lawrence, Bugliosi’s publisher at Norton, says it would have been a better business decision to have an abridged version, that wasn’t what the headstrong author wanted to hear.

“He likes to say it’s my fault because I let him do it,” Lawrence said by phone from New York. “It just means that I wasn’t able to stop him from doing what he wanted to do. I had ideas on that book that might have worked if I wasn’t dealing with Vince Bugliosi. There were ways that book could have been made shorter and more commercial.

“But you have to give a guy enough rope to hang himself. This was absolutely the book that he wanted to write. I certainly suggested how we would go about it otherwise.”

Lawrence said the narrative account of “Reclaiming History,” which was turned into a paperback, “Four Days in November,” was powerful enough by itself to persuade the general public about Oswald’s guilt.

But Lawrence said Bugliosi wanted to “methodically destroy every last conspiracy theory, like shooting the ducks in a shooting gallery. And not only destroy them, but back the truck over them.

“That’s Vince’s rhetorical style of calling them an idiot and then calling them an a———. I’m probably wrong, but I thought Vince could have been more persuasive on the page if he hadn’t been quite been so destructive and punitive to his opponents.”

Authored books on simpson, George W. Bush and God

While he originally wrote books about cases he was involved in, Bugliosi eventually turned his attention to writing about the big stories of the day.

That’s how he became involved in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which in 1995 came in the middle of his research for the Kennedy book. At first, Bugliosi rebuffed Lawrence’s inquiries into writing a book about the trial, which ended famously with the former NFL star acquitted of the ghastly murders of his ex-wife and a friend.

“I kept getting messages from the sales department: ‘Don’t take no for an answer,’ ” Lawrence said. “If you can imagine, not taking no for an answer from Vince is probably worth your life. But Vince wrote a terrific book, probably the go-to-book on that subject.

“I don’t remember where he was in the Kennedy book, but it was something like 20 years overdue so we were only asking him to do something that would be a short detour from the Kennedy book. The Kennedy assassination was always going to be there.”

The Simpson book — “Outrage: Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder” — was a bestseller and left no doubt where Bugliosi pointed the blame: in the same prosecutor’s office he used to call his workplace.

For a while, Bugliosi, who says he didn’t follow the proceedings while they happened, kept copies of articles on the case from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Time and Newsweek in the small chance he would be appointed special prosecutor if a hung jury had been declared.

“I would have loved to prosecute (Simpson) and he would not have walked out of that courtroom (a free man),” Bugliosi said. “At the minimum, it would have been a hung jury. I’ve often said that there was mind-boggling incompetence (on the part of the prosecution).”

Before his book, Bugliosi says few blamed the prosecution for the not guilty verdict. But he pointed out that the prosecution was more to blame than the jury.

“It was such an enormously big case — the whole country was watching it,” he said. “It was an enormous miscarriage of justice, one of the darkest chapters in American jurisprudence history.”

With a hand in the Manson, Kennedy and Simpson cases, Bugliosi appeared content to continue venturing into dark chapters of Americana.

“The three biggest murder cases of the last 50 years, I’m intimately involved with,” he said. “I don’t know anyone else out there who is intimately involved with those three cases.”

Bugliosi says he was offered a million dollars to write a book on Jon Benet Ramsey (he declined), though he didn’t need the promise of a hefty paycheck to take a stab at the United States Supreme Court when he wrote “Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President” in 2001, in response to the Bush v. Gore presidential election the year before.

After the court decision that allowed George W. Bush to retain Florida’s electoral votes and win the election over Al Gore, he stayed up into the middle of the night and hammered out a 2,500-word essay in a “state of rage” — no small feat considering Bugliosi never has owned a computer and insists on writing everything down on a yellow legal pad. The next day he called Nation magazine publisher Victor Navasky and beseeched him to run his article.

“He said, ‘Try to keep it under 3,500 words.’ I said, ‘Victor, I can’t say hello in 3,500 words,’ ” Bugliosi recalls. “I wrote 7,500 words and they published it and, according to them, they got the biggest response in the history of the Nation, which dates all the way back to the end of the Civil War in 1865.”

Since releasing his massive book on Kennedy, he has written about prosecuting President George W. Bush for murder in regard to going to war with Iraq without finding so-called weapons of mass destruction and he revealed his agnostic views in “Divinity of Doubt: The God Question,” a book which received scathing reviews from the Catholic Church.

But it’s in regard to Manson and Kennedy where Bugliosi remains a favorite for television talking heads.

“For the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I think I was on TV more than any other person,” he said.

Once a Ranger, always a Ranger

A Boston Globe reporter once commented to Bugliosi about the unusually high number of famous residents from his hometown, considering Hibbing’s population has remained at about 16,000 for the better part of 90 years.

NBA player Kevin McHale, former Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich, former single-season home run king Roger Maris and Jeno Paulucci, the late frozen-foods magnate, all were born there, while folk singing icon Bob Dylan moved there from Duluth as a youth.

Though Bugliosi plays down the notion that his likeness would be included on a Hibbing Mount Rushmore, he says that being 63 years removed from his hometown doesn’t mean he doesn’t still consider himself an Iron Ranger.

“I still feel very close to the Iron Range, but the weather, particularly for someone like me who plays tennis, it’s too cold up there,” he said. “I have fond memories. I tell people from Minnesota that if I had a choice, I’d live among them as opposed to where I’m living in now in L.A. It’s the weather that keeps me away.”

Bugliosi went back to Hibbing upon getting married in 1956, returned again for a late-1970s reunion and one more time in 1998 to receive an honorary high school diploma. He recalls his days there fondly.

“Hibbing was a great little town,” he said. “I love northern Minnesota. I love the people, I love the culture.”