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William Lemmer: Coming home

The further history of a Vietnam-era informer
By JEFFREY STEIN  |  July 10, 2008

This article originally appeared in the July 11, 1978 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

In the summer of 1972 — as McGovern was dropping Eagleton from the ticket, Jane Fonda was broadcasting over Radio Hanoi, the plumbers breaking into Watergate — eight leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War were indicted in Tallahassee, Florida, on charges that they planned to attack Miami with automatic weapons. The government’s star witness in the case would turn out to be William L. Lemmer, who — while serving as Arkansas-Oklahoma Regional Coordinator for the anti-war group — had begun to inform on his friends for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Now Lemmer is 30; he lives in Washington and works as a freelance graphic-arts specialist and cartoonist. During a two-hour chat on the back porch on the home he rents in a residential part of the city, Lemmer said life had been “really rough” since he was identified in the highly publicized trial as an FBI spy.

Eventually Scott Camil and the other seven veterans who were charged with conspiracy to disrupt the Republican National Convention (by sending “fire teams” armed with automatic weapons and explosives into Miami) were acquitted.

After the trial, Lemmer drifted through a series of jobs in Florida and Texas, eventually landing in Washington two years ago. At one point, he was penning a comic strip for a Dallas alternative newspaper, the Iconoclast, until his identity was discovered and he was asked to leave. And as recently as this past winter, he was offering free graphics advice to — of all things — a radical research group in Washington which specializes in government spying. When members of the group eventually recognized who Lemmer was, contact was quietly discontinued.

Lemmer says he hasn’t worked for the government since the trial of the Gainesville Eight; he doubts he ever would again. He is bitter about the Justice Department’s letting his name surface long before the trial began. “Justice let my name ride for 14 months, 14 months of publicity, 14 months of accusations .... Nobody knew the story, nobody knew who I was, what I was doing, the exact story. I wasn’t allowed to tell that story, obviously. Pretrial publicity would have blown that case right out of the water. So for 14 months, the Department let the defense chase me.”

Lemmer was only one of the FBI informants in the VVAW uncovered during the trial. Another was Emerson Poe, ostensibly a close friend of Scott Camil, who remained under cover as a defendant until the day he was called as a government witness.

(The government attorney directing the case out of Washington, Guy Goodwin, had earlier denied to the judge that there were FBI spies in the defense camp. Goodwin may now have legal problems as a result of his statements at the 1972 trial: the Supreme Court recently let stand a lower-court decision that Goodwin can be held liable in a private suit because of his apparent perjury. Until now, prosecutors have been immune from such suits.)

Testimony at the trial established that Lemmer had urged militant — sometimes even violent — tactics upon his VVAW comrades. At the University of Arkansas, trial affidavits charge, Lemmer “aided and abetted” a young student in a plan to blow up a college building. And Scott Camil testified that it was Lemmer who tried to persuade the Gainesville VVAW chapter to disrupt the nomination of Richard Nixon in Miami, that his arguments were rejected in favor of concentrating on peaceful lobbying at the Democrats’ convention.

Lemmer had himself testified to a congressional committee investigating veterans’ problems in 1971 that he had been offered a psychiatric discharge from the Army. Last week, chain-smoking Kools and occasionally nervously brushing a fallen ash from his snug white, cotton, leisure suit, Lemmer allowed that his “dark side goes very deep, very deep. It’s like living with a goddamn tiger in my closet .... You know, it’s the ol’ PVS thing.” (PVS, or “Post-Vietnam Syndrome,” has been identified by some psychiatrists and psychologists as a recognized set of symptoms of nervous disorder common to Vietnam veterans.)

Lemmer’s first wife left him after he surfaced as an FBI informant in Florida; his second, who bore him a child, moved out of Washington last year. The first wife also had him arrested and held for a sanity hearing after he began writing letters threatening her and his former friends in VVAW. In one letter, he warned that he would come for them “in tennis shoes,” with “a length of piano wire.” In another, he boasted that “I am not a leg infantryman like them. I am an elitist (sic) paratrooper, SF (Special Forces) ranger.”

“Tell them,” he warned his wife, “to keep an eye over their shoulders at all times, because one evening soon they’ll see that satisfying smile of mine.”

In our interview he was bitter one moment, deeply reflective another; then he quickly changed moods to display, proudly, a cartoon strip called “Killer Diller” about an “Abby Hoffman-type character who’s come out from under a manhole cover after a decade in hiding to show the American Agriculture Movement how to organize a protest in Washington.” Lemmer said last week that he has “mellowed out since Vietnam and Gainesville. If I didn’t cut loose then, I never will.”

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  Topics: Flashbacks , Federal Bureau of Investigation , Vietnam Veterans Against the War , U.S. Department of Justice ,  More more >
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