The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alfred Baldwin, chief Watergate eavesdropper and lookout, is dead at 83

Former FBI agent Alfred C. Baldwin III testified in 1973 hearing by the Senate Watergate Committee. (Bob Daugherty/AP)

Alfred C. Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who served as the chief eavesdropper and lookout for the Watergate burglars, but then became a key government witness in the scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon, died Jan. 15, 2020, at a care center in New Paltz, N.Y. He was 83.

Like Watergate conspirator James W. McCord Jr., whose death in 2017 was not widely reported for two years, Mr. Baldwin did not want his death publicized. Both men’s deaths were first reported by London-based writer and filmmaker Shane O’Sullivan, who noted Mr. Baldwin’s passing in the updated paperback edition of his book “The Watergate Burglars,” which came out on Tuesday.

His death was independently confirmed by his friend and longtime lawyer, Robert C. Mirto, who said Mr. Baldwin had cancer.

A gregarious Marine Corps veteran from a prominent Connecticut family, Mr. Baldwin reinvented himself as a schoolteacher and lawyer in the years after Watergate, working as a state prosecutor in Hartford for nearly a decade until his retirement in 1997. But he remained best known as a supporting player in the cast of petty crooks, dirty tricksters, FBI veterans and former spies involved in the plot to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.

“You’d think after 25 years, it would be over,” he told the Hartford Courant in 1997, after he was subpoenaed as part of a defamation lawsuit against Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy. “There are other things in life.”

When McCord and four others broke into the Watergate office building on June 17, 1972, Mr. Baldwin was watching from across the street, keeping an eye on the DNC’s sixth-floor headquarters from his room at a Howard Johnson hotel. He became the only member of the burglary team not charged with a crime, agreeing to cooperate with federal investigators in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

According to a 1992 report in The Washington Post, Mr. Baldwin’s testimony gave prosecutors enough evidence to indict the five burglars as well as two other conspirators, White House operatives E. Howard Hunt and Liddy. “He gave us some very valuable evidence,” prosecutor Earl J. Silbert said in an oral history. “He became a critical government witness.”

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Before testifying at trials and congressional hearings, Mr. Baldwin also went public with his story, helping to show that the break-in was far more than a “third-rate burglary,” as Nixon press secretary Ronald Ziegler initially called it.

Agreeing to an exclusive interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson, Mr. Baldwin implicated Nixon associates and gave a vivid, richly detailed account of the burglary scheme — while also making one request of Nelson, asking the journalist to describe him in print as “a husky ex-Marine” in a bid to impress a woman he was seeing. Nelson obliged.

Published in October 1972 and picked up by newspapers across the country, the interview and accompanying articles became “perhaps the most important Watergate story so far, because it was so tangible, it had an eyewitness, and it brought Watergate to the very door of the White House,” wrote David Halberstam in his media history “The Powers That Be.”

Mr. Baldwin publicly revealed that the June break-in was actually the second Watergate burglary, occurring after McCord and his team bugged two phones at the Democratic office over Memorial Day weekend. One phone was believed to belong to DNC chairman Larry O’Brien, although the listening device never worked. The other phone belonged to R. Spencer Oliver, the executive director of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen.

Over the next three weeks, Mr. Baldwin monitored about 200 conversations on Oliver’s phone, taking notes that were passed to McCord and shared with Nixon campaign officials. He said that McCord was especially interested in conversations related to political strategy, O’Brien or Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

“I never questioned McCord’s orders,” Mr. Baldwin told the Times. “I felt he was acting under orders and with full authority. After all, his boss was John Mitchell,” the former U.S. attorney general and the head of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, commonly known as CREEP.

“There was no set time for monitoring,” Mr. Baldwin added. “The Democrats worked weird hours, like on Sundays and some days until 3 or 4 in the morning. And when I was in the room, I was monitoring from the time I got up until I went to bed.”

In the lead-up to the second burglary, McCord assigned Mr. Baldwin to cross the street and visit the Democratic headquarters in person, to determine O’Brien’s whereabouts as well as the exact location of his office. Pretending to be the nephew of John Moran Bailey, the Connecticut state party chairman and former DNC leader, he was able to get a tour of O’Brien’s office and draw a detailed floor plan upon his return.

By one account, Mr. Baldwin was far less attentive on the early morning of June 17, as plainclothes police entered the Watergate building and closed in on the burglars. Stationed in hotel room 723, he “was glued to the TV, watching a horror movie, ‘Attack of the Puppet People,’ on Channel 20 — oblivious to the situation developing across the street,” author Craig Shirley wrote in an article for Washingtonian magazine.

Mr. Baldwin later called that claim “a blatant fabrication,” saying the TV had been on to obscure the sound of a walkie-talkie he was using to communicate with his team. As he told it, he was looking out the window when he saw the lights flicker on at the Democratic office. He was not worried until a few armed men stepped onto the balcony, and he radioed to ask what the burglars were wearing.

“Our people are dressed in suits,” a voice replied.

“Well,” Mr. Baldwin recalled saying, “we’ve got problems. We’ve got some people dressed casually, and they’ve got guns.”

Police had been tipped off by Frank Wills, a Watergate security guard who noticed that a strip of tape was holding one of the office doors unlocked. He removed the tape, returned later to find it back in place and phoned D.C. police, who took the burglars into custody as Mr. Baldwin watched from his hotel room balcony.

Within minutes, the door to his room opened, and Hunt rushed in. He ordered Mr. Baldwin to wipe down the room, pack up the surveillance equipment, bring it to McCord’s house in Rockville, Md., and get out of town. “Somebody will be in touch with you,” Hunt said.

“With that,” Mr. Baldwin recalled in the Times interview, “he threw his walkie‐talkie on the bed and rushed from the room. ‘Does that mean I’m out of a job?’ I shouted after him. But he disappeared down the hallway without answering.”

Mr. Baldwin soon was located by federal investigators, and by the end of the month he was cooperating with the FBI. His lawyer, Mirto, later told the Courant that Mr. Baldwin became a witness after meeting with lawyers for CREEP, who “cut him loose” and told him he was on his own.

“It was the worst mistake they made,” Mirto said.

‘Best suited for the position’

Alfred Carleton Baldwin III was born in New Haven, Conn., on June 23, 1936. He rarely spoke about his early life before being interviewed for “The Puzzle of Watergate,” a biography by Jean Ellen Wilson that was self-published in 2020 after a falling-out with Mr. Baldwin, who did not authorize the final version, according to the author’s postscript.

His great-uncle Raymond E. Baldwin served as Connecticut governor, chief justice of the state Supreme Court and a U.S. senator. His father was a lawyer and state unemployment compensation commissioner.

After graduating in 1957 from Fairfield University in Connecticut, Mr. Baldwin served in the Marines for three years and rose to the rank of captain. One of his last assignments was in Quantico, Va., where he toured the nearby FBI training academy and was inspired to join the bureau.

At the time, specialized skills or degrees in law or accounting were required to become a special agent. So Mr. Baldwin enrolled at the University of Connecticut law school, graduating in 1963 and joining the FBI later that year. He resigned three years later when he married and moved to Connecticut.

His marriage to Georgeann Porto soon ended in divorce, according to the biography. Mr. Baldwin moved between jobs, working as chief of security for a trucking company and as an instructor in a college program for law-enforcement officers, before joining CREEP in May 1972, after having been recruited over the phone by McCord.

McCord, a former security expert at the CIA, told him he got his name from the Society of Former Special Agents. “He felt that because of my age, background and marital status — I am 36 and single — I was best suited for the position,” Mr. Baldwin said. When Mr. Baldwin suggested that he was interested in rejoining the FBI, McCord said he could help him find a job after the election.

In his first assignment for CREEP, Mr. Baldwin served as a security guard for Martha Mitchell, whose husband had recently stepped down as attorney general to work on the Nixon campaign. They never hit it off.

“Al Baldwin is probably the most gauche character I have ever met in my whole life,” Mitchell later said in a Watergate deposition, complaining that Mr. Baldwin had taken off his shoes and socks at her hotel suite in New York.

As the Watergate scandal wore on, the administration repeatedly tried to cover up the burglary and wiretapping scheme. Dozens were convicted, and as impeachment appeared inevitable, Nixon became the first president to resign. He left office on Aug. 9, 1974, and was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford.

Mr. Baldwin said he struggled to find work after Watergate before landing a job as a substitute teacher in New Haven. He received a master’s degree in education from Southern Connecticut State College (now a university) and later returned to the law, taking the bar exam for the first time in 1987. He passed and, within a few years, was working as a state prosecutor under John Michael Bailey, a son of the Democratic Party leader whom he had once claimed as his uncle.

“He doesn’t suffer fools lightly, but overall he’s been an excellent prosecutor,” the younger Bailey told the Courant.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Baldwin remained puzzled by Watergate details for years, no less than many of the historians and journalists who covered the scandal. He became convinced that the operation was a “well-planned” setup, according to the biography, concluding that McCord and other CIA veterans had intentionally set out to remove Nixon from office, motivated by distrust of a president who was moving toward detente with communist China and the Soviet Union.

Whatever the motivation for the Watergate scheme, he was convinced that the country had failed to learn from the scandal. He said he was once asked by a college student if he had any advice that resulted from his experience in the episode. “Yeah,” he said, “don’t trust anyone but your parents.”