EUREKA, CALIF. — Howard St. John Hunt remembers the night of the Watergate break-in as a bonding experience with his father.
A sweating and disheveled E. Howard Hunt roused his 19-year-old son from a dead sleep to help him wipe fingerprints from the burglars' radios and pack the surveillance equipment into a suitcase. Then, father and son raced to a remote Maryland bridge, where they heaved the evidence into the Potomac River just before dawn on June 17, 1972.
"From that point on I felt relevant in his life, that I was the one he could count on," said Howard St. John Hunt, now 52, who is called St. John.
It also was a turning point for St. John's brother and two sisters. They learned that their father wasn't just a Washington advertising executive and former diplomat. He was an ex-CIA agent and veteran of the ill-fated Cuban Bay of Pigs operation who worked for the Nixon White House as part of a secret team of "plumbers" that fixed information leaks.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
E. Howard Hunt: An article in Tuesday's Section A about E. Howard Hunt's knowledge of an alleged plot to kill President Kennedy said that Hunt's son -- Howard St. John Hunt -- was 19 years old at the time of the Watergate break-in. He was 18.
The unmasking of Hunt, who was convicted in 1973, sent his family into a tailspin: His first wife, Dorothy, was killed in a plane crash in 1972 while carrying $10,000 in hush money from the White House to the burglars' families; son David was sent to live with his militant Cuban godfather in Miami; St. John later became a drug addict and daughters Kevan and Lisa became estranged from their father.
But before his death at age 88 in January, E. Howard Hunt had reconciled with his children and left the sons one last tantalizing story, they say. The story, which he planned to detail in a memoir and could be worth big money -- was that rogue CIA agents plotted to kill President Kennedy in 1963, and that they approached Hunt to join the plot but he declined.
Unfortunately, when the old spy's memoir appeared this month, there was something missing.
Before the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office complex, the Hunt family of Potomac, Md., was, to outward appearances, fairly typical for a beltway power player. Their father was in advertising; the mother worked at the Spanish embassy; and the four children, ages 8 to 23, attended private schools.
Watergate was a bomb that detonated under the family.
"Our life as we knew it came to an explosive end," recalls daughter Kevan Hunt Spence, now 54, of Pioneer, 50 miles east of Sacramento. "Our home was lost. Our financial security was lost. Our mother was dead. Our father was in prison.''
Kevan, who was 20 at the time, and her sister Lisa, then 23, distanced themselves from a father they blamed for their mother's death and took refuge with friends, away from the besieged family home.
Kevan played her own role in the Watergate fallout. Instead of burning records of White House payoffs as her father had asked, she hid them in her Smith College dorm room for a nearly a year, when her father's lawyer needed them to prove White House complicity to get her father a reduced sentence.
David, the youngest of Hunt's children with Dorothy and 8 at the time of the break-in, was effectively orphaned when Hunt went to prison in 1973. At his father's request, lifelong friend William F. Buckley Jr. spirited David from the house to get him away from Lisa and St. John, who, Hunt notes in a posthumous memoir, were furious with their father.
David left his privileged life to spend three years at the crowded Miami home of his Cuban exile godfather. A Bay of Pigs veteran and anti-communist militant, Manuel Artime would take David on gun-running missions to Central America, letting the boy fire pistols with the bodyguards of right-wing dictators the exile visited.
Hunt's daughters headed west to create new lives. Kevan came to California, where she has practiced law for 25 years. Lisa became a fundamentalist Christian and runs an insurance firm in Las Vegas.
St. John was estranged from his father from the late 1970s to the start of this decade.
He was convicted twice on felony drug charges in the Bay Area but served no prison time. When he became homeless, he renounced his drug habit, renewed ties with his father and siblings and moved to this Pacific Coast timber and fishing town. He now works assisting elderly patients in their homes and is a student at College of the Redwoods.
David, now 43, also abused drugs after his mother's death and the years he spent in the violent milieu of Cuban exile politics. He now sells Jacuzzis at a West L.A. spa shop.
The sisters remain estranged from the brothers but all were on good terms with Hunt and his widow Laura and their children, Austin and Hollis, when the veteran CIA operative and spy novelist died.
Hunt had been preparing for publication of "American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond," released this month.
St. John says it was he who suggested the idea of a memoir when he convinced his father that it was time to reveal anything he knew about the Kennedy assassination.