2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Journey ends for Watergate conspirator, once Colorado Springs’ most famous resident

Published: May 30, 2014, 10:33 am, by Bill Vogrin

Jeb Stuart Magruder in an undated file photo

Jeb Stuart Magruder in an undated file photo

You don’t need to be an American history buff to be interested in the recent death of Watergate conspirator Jeb Stuart Magruder.

Many longtime residents of Colorado Springs no doubt nodded at the news May 11 that Magruder had died in Connecticut of complications from a stroke.

Twice, Magruder called Colorado Springs home.

Some probably recall his surprising decision to move to Colorado Springs in 1975 after he was released from prison for his pivotal role in the political scandal that ultimately forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974.

Named in Watergate affair are from left to right: G. Gordon Liddy, White House Counsel John W. Dean III, Former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, and Former Deputy Canpaign Manager for Nixon's Re-election Jeb Stuart Magruder. (AP PHOTO)

Named in Watergate affair are from left to right: G. Gordon Liddy, White House Counsel John W. Dean III, Former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, and Former Deputy Canpaign Manager for Nixon’s Re-election Jeb Stuart Magruder. (AP PHOTO)

After all, life in the shadow of Pikes Peak is a long way from the intense media glare of Washington, D.C., where Magruder was a key White House operative and Nixon aide who, as deputy director of the Committee to Re-elect the President, was involved in efforts by G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., in 1972.

Jeb Stuart Magruder, a White House aide, testified in June 1973 at a congressional hearing into Watergate. Credit George Tames/The New York Times

Jeb Stuart Magruder, a White House aide, testified in June 1973 at a congressional hearing into Watergate. Credit George Tames/The New York Times

Magruder later denied, under oath, his role in the burglary, and he was charged with perjury. In August 1973, Magruder pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to wiretap, obstruct justice and defraud the United States. In May 1974, he was sentenced to 10 month to four years in a federal prison.

As he later told The Gazette (then known as the Gazette Telegraph), Magruder served “seven months, eight days and eleven hours” in the Allenwood Prison Camp in Pennsylvania and a safe house in Maryland with fellow Watergate figures Charles Colson and John Dean.

Jeb Stuart Magruder Gets in a taxi in Washginton D.C. on May 2, 1973, as reporters pursue him. Courtesy The Washington Post.

Jeb Stuart Magruder Gets in a taxi in Washginton D.C. on May 2, 1973, as reporters pursue him. Courtesy The Washington Post.

Magruder, a Staten Island, N.Y., native, had no local roots when he came to take a $20,000-a-year job as vice president of administration and communications for Young Life, the international Christian youth ministry based here.

A lifelong Christian, Magruder was apologetic and contrite as he admitted making “terrible ethical and legal errors in judgment,” which landed him in prison. And he said he’d been “born again” in his faith while serving his sentence, making Young Life’s ministry a perfect fit.

A 1978 newspaper story about Jeb and Gail Magruder and the stress the Watergate scandal put on their marriage.

A 1978 newspaper story about Jeb and Gail Magruder and the stress the Watergate scandal put on their marriage.

Magruder and his wife, Gail, moved their four children into a house at 1915 Wood Ave. Their two oldest kids, Whitney and Justin, went to the Fountain Valley School. Their only daughter, Tracy, attended the Colorado Springs School while their youngest, Stuart, attended Steele Elementary School.

bookBesides working at the ministry, Magruder wrote a book, “From Power to Peace,” in which he alleged Nixon envisioned a perpetual Republican presidency, and he would choose his successors based on their ability to destroy Democratic opposition.

National news media sought him out for interviews over the years, such as when David Frost broadcast extensive interviews with Nixon in 1977. Magruder told the Gazette Telegraph the sight of Nixon gave him flashbacks to the scandal.

Magruder also took classes toward a master’s degree in divinity.

Those who knew him here say he was nothing like the Washington power broker they’d read about and seen on television network news shows.

Some recall Magruder and Gail attending school functions at Steele, for example, and listening quietly at meetings, blending in like other parents and never trying to take over the room.

Neighbors recall him as warm and energetic and an avid biker.

Colorado Springs businessman Mike Hassell met him in 1976 through Young Life and found him to be intense, engaging and caring about others.

“He was always smiling and building relationships,” Hassell told me. “He was a game-changer in my life. He had a huge impact on me business-wise, spiritually and in my marriage.”

Hassell said they bonded immediately and started riding their bicycles together.

“We’d meet every day at 5:30 a.m. to ride a 25-mile loop,” Hassell said, describing how Magruder loved to race downhill. “Then we’d go to his house for coffee and breakfast. We talked about everything.”

He said they talked about life and religion and current events. He described Magruder as an avid reader and devoted family man.

And Magruder, in news interviews, talked of his love for the mountains, hiking, biking, river rafting and skiing.

Within weeks of arriving, Magruder began giving public talks to church and library groups and at fundraising events for Young Life on topics including “The Imperial Presidency,” lamenting the moral decay of the nation.

And he spoke to Gazette Telegraph reporters from time to time. In an April 29,
1977, story, Magruder praised the community for its welcoming attitude.

“People have been great to us,” he said. “Everybody has been kind, pleasant and open.”

Gail was active in the Junior League, among other civic groups, and wrote her own book: “A Gift of Love.” She spoke publicly as well, describing how Magruder grew distant as he rose in power at the White House and became immersed in the dirty tricks and illegal activities of the Nixon administration.

In the 1977 interview, Magruder said he turned down lucrative salaries from New York firms because he was done with corporate life and politics.

“They could offer me three times the salary and I still wouldn’t go to that city,” Magruder said in 1977. “I have enough money. Back there in New York, that isn’t the real world. The real world is here.”

Friends said that attitude was authentic. They say Magruder truly was a changed man who never turned bitter from his Watergate and prison experiences and the infamy he endured.

The family’s time here ended in the summer of 1978 when Magruder left Young Life to attend Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, where he wrote a thesis on ethics and earned a master’s of divinity.

In a final Gazette Telegraph interview in 1978, he talked about his desire to restore ethics in the corporate world, which some mocked, given his past.

And he gave a surprising Watergate retrospect: “In a sense, it was a great experience. Negative situations can turn out to be very helpful learning experiences.”

Hassell said that revealed Magruder’s true character.

“That quote would hold true to the end of his life,” Hassell said, describing how they remained close till Magruder’s death.

“He was not a tragic figure. His life was not as tragic as it sounds. He was giving and bright and insightful. Even when things were bad, he’d be smiling.”

Jeb Stuart Magruder in 1995. The Associated Press

Jeb Stuart Magruder in 1995. The Associated Press

After Magruder moved to New Jersey, his marriage to Gail ended in divorce. He went on to serve as a pastor at churches in California, Ohio and Kentucky during a 20-year career in the ministry. He was honorably retired from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 1998 and became a consultant to a Dallas company that helps churches develop growth plans.

While serving at a church in Columbus, Ohio, in 1984, he met his second wife, Patti, and in 1999, they bought a townhome in the Broadmoor neighborhood and returned to Colorado Springs.

In the next few years, Magruder helped raise money for the Colorado Springs School and taught classes on ethics and other subjects at First Presbyterian Church. His name showed up in Gazette society columns as a regular at wine tastings and fundraising events.

About 2002, he moved back to Ohio and started making headlines again, this time for bizarre behavior.

Jeb Stuart Magruder in 2008. The Associated Press

Jeb Stuart Magruder in 2008. The Associated Press

In 2003, he claimed he had overhead a phone call in which Nixon personally approved the plan to bug Democratic headquarters, a shocking and somewhat unbelievable revelation, according to Watergate historians.

That same year, he was arrested in Grandview Heights, Ohio, after being found passed out on a sidewalk and refusing to get up. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Then in 2005, he was charged with drunken driving by Ohio state police who stopped him 40 miles outside Columbus. He later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of reckless operation.

Finally, in 2007, he was accused of causing two wrecks and leaving the scene of an accident on a Columbus expressway after his car rear-ended a motorcycle and struck the rear of a truck before speeding away.

A witness said Magruder’s car was going at least 90 mph as it left the scene, according to police reports. News reports later attributed his erratic driving and wrecks that day to an apparent stroke he suffered while driving.

Jeb Stuart Magruder in  2008. The Associated Press

Jeb Stuart Magruder in 2008. The Associated Press

He was cited by police with misdemeanors of failing to maintain a safe distance and failure to stop after a wreck.

Details of the subsequent seven years are thin. Friends say he moved to Connecticut to be near his daughter.

Magruder was 79 and is survived by his four children and nine grandchildren.

It was quite a journey for a complex man who, for a few years, was the most famous resident of Colorado Springs.