‘A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File’ Turns 40
In 1975 an extraordinary document surfaced called “A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File.” Distributed hand-to-hand long before the advent of computer-based social media, the 22-page typed copy I received in 1976 had been reproduced so many times that several words and letters were unclear or missing. Evidently a fervent underground effort had been underway to get this information out. So I’ve kept a copy of the Skeleton Key around for the last four decades taking notes on developments, and recent history, so far, has increased my confidence in the document’s veracity.
The Skeleton Key’s genesis involves a conspiracy-themed radio talk show host named Mae Brussell née Magnin, who lived in Carmel Valley, California in the early 1970s and was related to the founder of San Francisco’s fashionable and prosperous I. Magnin department store chain. A local news director had introduced Brussell to Stephanie Caruana, then a contributing editor at Playgirl magazine. Although some question the Key’s authorship, it is generally attributed to Caruana who says she wrote it. She said it was the Patty Hearst kidnapping that resulted in her meeting Brussell.
“I was just ranting with curiosity about Patty Hearst because she was living around a mile from me in Berkeley when the kidnap happened, and this whole massive publicity campaign got underway. I was saying, ‘What is going on here? This doesn’t seem like a normal case.’ It was so overblown,’” Caruana said. “The mass media get on a story and everybody covers the same story day after day, but if you really know what’s going on, you may suspect that there is something else going on underneath, something they’re not paying any attention to.”
On February 4, 1974, a group of “revolutionaries” using the contrived appellation, “Symbionese Liberation Army” (SLA), abducted Patty Hearst— the 19-year-old granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst—who was attending the public university in Berkeley. The Skeleton Key refers to the SLA episode this way: “February 1974: Mafia Hearst’s daughter, Patty, “kidnapped” by Lipset’s SLA in a fake terrorist action.” Hal Lipset was a San Francisco private investigator whose name also appears in the Skeleton Key connected to the Watergate debacle.
The SLA began in 1971 as a loose-knit group of mostly middle and upper-class white radicals who embraced a mélange of philosophies endorsing selective violence and crime to initiate social change. While a few members were in prison, they met Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze during meetings of the “Black Cultural Association.” After DeFreeze conveniently escaped from prison in 1972, he contacted SLA members in Oakland and eventually assumed leadership of the group, which engaged in kidnappings, bank robberies, assassinations—and feeding the poor, all in an apparent effort to foment revolution. After abducting Patty Hearst, the SLA demanded that large amounts of food be donated to poor people in exchange for the heiress’s release. Patty’s father, Randolph Hearst, president of the San Francisco Examiner, agreed to pay an initial $2 million in ransom, and food was distributed at several sites. According to The Realist publisher Paul Krassner, when the governor, Ronald Reagan, saw one of the long lines of people waiting for food, he groused, “I hope they get botulism.” Due to lack of adequate organization the food giveaway was a disaster, so the SLA refused to release Hearst.
Caruana had given Krassner a copy of the Skeleton Key in 1975, the same year he began reporting on the upcoming Hearst trial for the Berkeley Barb. In his 2014 book, Patty Hearst and the Twinkie Murders, Krassner outlines a case to support a bold claim. “Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze,” he says, “was a double agent.”
Brussell too believed that a clandestine arm of the US government either created or manipulated the SLA as a tool of espionage designed to distort the message of idealism. The root of the neologism “Symbionese,” the Greek “symbiosis,” means “a living together” as in peace, harmony, and balance—among the subversive ideas and ideals that the operation apparently tried to undermine. Krassner, once a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the first living inductee of the Counterculture Hall of Fame, had published Brussell’s early articles on the Watergate antagonists. “She really did scoop everybody,” Caruana said. “I believe she got that information from Roberts’ Gemstone papers because he certainly had the goods on those people. He knew all about them.”
The public generally assumed Hearst was being held against her will, so it was especially dramatic when on April 3, 1974, she announced that she had joined the SLA to fight for the oppressed and had adopted the “revolutionary” name, Tania.” After a security camera filmed her helping the SLA rob a San Francisco bank on April 15, the public assumed she was being coerced or brainwashed. Subsequently, the group fled south to Los Angeles where members sequestered themselves in a south-central community until a suspicious neighbor tipped off the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
Militarization of the police was relatively new then, and I recall seeing on television the impressive public demonstration by the LAPD’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit of its new and very expensive military-grade equipment. So, not unexpectedly, on May 17, 1974, live cameras allowed the country to watch the house burn down with SLA members inside—presaging later events such as the destruction of the MOVE complex in Philadelphia and the “Branch Davidian” compound in Waco, Texas. When officials began investigating, everyone wondered if Patty Hearst was inside. She wasn’t. Six had perished, but the rest had escaped. Patty Hearst was caught on September 18, 1975 and went to trial in January of 1976. She served two years for “bank robbery” and “use of a dangerous weapon” before President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence and President Bill Clinton later pardoned her.
In December of 1974 Playgirl magazine ran an article that Caruana and Brussell had co-authored called, “Is Howard Hughes Dead and Buried Off An Island In Greece?” It involved the disappearance of Texas multi-millionaire Howard Hughes and Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis, but after examining the file folder of notes Brussell had provided, Caruana told her she had found little evidence to justify an article accusing either man of misdeeds. At that point, Caruana said, Brussell reluctantly produced a file containing several hundred handwritten notes, letters, articles and news clippings of a man named Bruce Porter Roberts along with specific instructions on when and how to read them. Brussell stressed that it was easy to get “lost” in the material and imposed specific conditions on its reading. Caruana, cloistered in a bedroom at Brussell’s house, read into the early morning, increasingly absorbed in a sordid tale of political intrigue, thievery, and murder. Caruana wrote the Playgirl article based on the revelations contained in those pages.
“Mae placed a lot of restrictions on me. In the first place, she really didn’t want me to read Roberts’ letters. She was keeping them a very closely held secret. I can imagine a lot of reasons, but I can’t tell you which one is right. She just didn’t want this stuff to get out,” Caruana said. “I thought it could have something to do with her two uncles who were involved in politics. They were both rabbis who were political—one a Democrat and the other a Republican. Part of this whole Gemstone thing has to do with people’s families and how important it is to know who’s related to whom and how. These plots and plans and tools really determine what goes on in countries. If you know who’s related to whom, it often clarifies things a great deal,” Caruana said.
The Skeleton Key distills the massive collection of letters and various writings of Bruce Roberts, who had studied journalism and physics at the University of Wisconsin specializing in crystallography, including the creation of synthetic gems such as rubies. One of the few known pictures of Bruce Roberts, a magazine photo from the 1950s, shows him pinning a synthetic gemstone on the flamboyant entertainer Carmen Miranda. This verifies Roberts’ existence as well as his interest in artificial gems. Caruana assured me that this was the Bruce Roberts with whom she had conversed in San Francisco.
According to the Skeleton Key, Roberts had taken some of his synthetic rubies to the Hughes Tool Company hoping to exchange a few of them for use of its facilities. Instead, Hughes employees stole his rubies, which Roberts believed was due to their optical quality and potential use in laser beam research. That episode caused Roberts’ profound animosity toward the Mafia generally and Howard Hughes specifically.
Roberts’ thesis simply posits that organized crime controls the United States and has since at least 1963. The Skeleton Key begins in 1932, introducing readers to Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who would one day marry Jackie Kennedy. The Key tells us he made his first million selling “Turkish Tobacco (opium)” in Argentina and during Prohibition used his ships to smuggle alcohol into Boston for Joseph Kennedy. As crowned head of the international Mafia, Onassis brokered a lucrative deal with the Seven Sisters (major oil companies) whereby they would swindle the Arabs out of their oil and transport it using the fleet of surplus World War 2 “Liberty ships” Onassis had acquired from the US at bargain prices. According to Gemstone, Onassis established a power base in the United States by usurping Howard Hughes’s empire. He kidnapped Hughes and arranged a widely publicized “fake” marriage to explain his seclusion. Then Onassis, who needed Hughes’s signature until a computer could successfully reproduce it, parked Hughes on Skorpios, his private island in the Ionian Sea, turning Hughes into a junkie in order to force his compliance. Onassis then adopted Hughes’s “game plan” of buying up senators, judges, congressmen, governors, and major media organizations to take “legal” control of the government en masse for selfish advantage.
The Key states that Joseph Kennedy had “reminded Onassis of an old Mafia promise: the presidency for a Kennedy.” Onassis agreed but naturally expected the Kennedys to behave themselves and follow orders. As long as Joseph was directing their affairs, John and Bobby cooperated, but after the elder Kennedy suffered a stroke, his control ended. The brothers embodied new attitudes that sympathetic Americans considered innovative and bold but which detractors perceived as cavalier and arrogant. From the perspective of the Kennedys’ underworld sponsors, the brothers appeared ungrateful and renegade—Onassis angered that John Kennedy “welches” on a Mafia deal. “The rest, as they say, is history” the Key says. “Onassis was so confident of his control over police. media, FBI, CIA, Secret Service and the U.S. judicial system that he had JFK murdered before the eyes of the nation; then systematically bought off, killed off or frightened off all witnesses, and had the evidence destroyed; then put a 75-year seal of secrecy over the whole matter.”
There are several convincing motives for the Kennedys’ murders, and they are not mutually exclusive. In 1961 they had arrested the owner of Air Thailand, whose planes had been flying Onassis’s heroin out of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle; President Kennedy refused to provide air cover at the Bay of Pigs, infuriating the hawks who had arranged the invasion behind his back. Aggravating the situation, Kennedy fired cold warrior and intelligence community icon Allen Dulles as CIA director for lying to him about the Bay of Pigs operation; He supported a bill to revoke the oil depletion allowance, inspiring enmity from oil producers in states such as Texas; He challenged the privately owned and deceptively misnamed Federal Reserve System, essentially a central bank, by ordering the Department of Treasury to issue debt and interest-free currency called “United States Notes,” rather than debt-laden “Federal Reserve Notes.” As Attorney General, Robert Kennedy began prosecuting members of the Mafia; and President Kennedy intended to modify labor and tax laws so that previously exempt foreign ships could be taxed, presumably a significant issue for shipping tycoons like Onassis.
Interestingly, Allen Dulles had received help in forming the CIA from German spymaster Reinhard Gehlen—Adolph Hitler’s chief intelligence officer against the Soviet Union. Hawks in the US military-industrial complex shared the Nazis’ rabid ideological hatred of the Soviets, a perplexing attitude considering that without Russia the Allies would not have won World War 2.
Dulles largely controlled the Warren Commission, causing critics to question its impartiality and consequently the reliability of its conclusions. Perhaps even more significantly, President Kennedy had vowed to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” He formalized his intentions on October 11, 1963 by filing National Security Action Memorandum 263. His announcing that he intended to withdraw a thousand troops from Vietnam by the end of 1963 portended a profit-threatening end to the Vietnam War.
Consider the following two examples of claims made in the Skeleton Key that have been validated by subsequent historical developments. Referring to the John Kennedy assassination, the Key claims one of the shooters “went down a manhole and followed a sewer line away from Dealey Plaza.” Remember, this was written in 1975. In the 1990s I was watching a History Channel program called “The Men Who Killed Kennedy”—a segment featuring Tom Wilson, who had developed for US Steel a process called “photonics” to detect product imperfections. Wilson applied this new technology to photos in the Kennedy assassination, including the Mary Moorman photo, which she took almost simultaneously with the fatal head shot. Wilson constructed a three-dimensional model of Kennedy’s gaping rear head wound and from that traced back the path of the bullet, amazed to see it was coming “out of the ground.”
Wilson went to Dealey Plaza and discovered that the path he anticipated led directly to a manhole cover and storm drain. In other words, someone could have been crouching underground shooting at Kennedy from the street. Subsequent studies by a researcher named Jack Brazil have determined that shooters from behind the picket fence on the Grassy Knoll and from the curb on Elm Street could have “squeezed off rounds” and escaped underground in about twenty minutes. The sewer lines lead to the Trinity River well away from Dealey Plaza.
Here is another claim the Key makes that sounded unlikely to me in 1976: “Lots of heroin gets produced in a Pepsi Cola factory in Laos. So far, it hasn’t produced a single bottle of Pepsi Cola.” I hadn’t yet learned about the CIA’s “Air America” drug flights, but this was another truth that Roberts understood long before most of the herd. In 1990 Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. starred in a film called Air America. The film includes the Pepsi-Cola factory, the CIA, and the heroin. Details like these over the years make me believe that Bruce Roberts knew more than the average citizen about past history and current events. Eventually, Caruana trekked to San Francisco to meet Roberts—a story she details in her 2006 book, The Gemstone File: A Memoir—to validate what he was telling her. She intended to visit the various embassies Roberts had mentioned. If he had written to them as he claimed, his letters should be in their files.
“I wanted to know if Roberts was telling me the truth. He gave me a note that said, ‘This is my permission to let the bearer look at my letters,’” Caruana explained. “I didn’t succeed at first. The Russian Embassy threw me out, and believe me, I did not want to go. At that time you really didn’t just want to go marching up to the Russian consulate; it was the middle of the Cold War! The embassy of an Arab country didn’t cooperate either,” she said. Eventually, however, Caruana found the verification she had been seeking:
At the Norwegian Consulate there was this secretary who didn’t know what I was looking for. I just went up to her and said I’d like to read Bruce Roberts’ letters that he gave the embassy, and she said okay. So I had one day of joy of reading these letters, and it did a lot for me because then I knew he was telling me the truth as far as I could check it out, but he really did give letters to this consulate; they have them in a file folder! Then the next day I went back to get more of it, and as I said, it was those notes that I made on that first day that was the basis of the Gemstone Skeleton Key. I did them all in one afternoon. I had of course read the background of the 360 pages that Mae had, but I didn’t have a single one of those. I think I did a good job on it, and I know Bruce liked it. That was something that helped me a great deal.
A few days later I noticed that my phone had been tapped. I returned to the Norwegian consulate with my notebook, hoping to take more notes, but the consul told me I couldn’t read or take any more notes at the consulate. Then he told me he had spoken to Roberts, and had asked him about me. Roberts had suggested that he read the Playgirl article, and he had done so. Then he asked me whether I had read it. I told him I had written it. Then he pulled out another long new letter Bruce had just given him, and told me that since he had just received this letter from Roberts, and since he had not yet given it to the consulate library, it was still legally his property and he could legally give it to me to read. He offered to lend me the letter, which was an original letter, not a Xerox copy, and asked me to read the letter carefully, note whatever it said that pertained to Norway, and then return the original letter to him. I did that, made a copy of that letter, and returned the original letter to him. I originally prepared the Skeleton Key for my own use, but when Bruce called me in February, 1975 and told me he was sick and in the hospital, I decided to fight back on his behalf by releasing the Skeleton Key, as I did, in March 1975.
Caruana realized that people could easily get sidetracked in minutiae and miss the global picture, so she felt it was important to provide the public with a taste of Robert’s material that was accessible—somewhat organized, chronological, and cross-referenced. Robert’s writing style is repetitive, minutely detailed, and occasionally cryptic and manic. It demands much of the average reader. The Skeleton Key condenses and refines the ideas yet provides enough background to correlate seemingly unrelated events. Caruana reports that when she first gave Roberts a copy of the Key, he reacted by saying, “Why did you do that?” But not long after he was requesting copies to show people. Roberts could not have written the Key himself; he was too mired in the details and emotions of the story. Conversely, Caruana could write well but wasn’t overly invested in the material, which could compromise objectivity.
When Caruana first typed the Skeleton Key on her IBM Selectric typewriter, she included her name and address on the copy she Xeroxed and distributed. After that, however, the file was retyped, often by people who would add or delete parts according to their taste or bias, and these copies were reproduced thousands of times around the world with Caruana’s name missing. She has said she was never averse to having her name associated with the file, yet many who have read the Key don’t know she wrote it.
I acquired my first copy of “A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File” from my high school history teacher, Henry Denny, who now lives near Prescott, Arizona. Mr. Denny said he was shocked when he first read the Key because it contrasted so sharply with everything he’d learned and taught as a student and teacher of history. He couldn’t quite believe the Key was completely true, he said, but it did compel him to look more deeply.
“Bruce Roberts filled in a lot of gaps in many of the official reports. There were too many gaps in the Warren Commission Report, too many gaps in the other accounts of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others,” Denny said. “The Skeleton Key opened those avenues of inquiry for me to really investigate what went on. So much information Roberts mentions in the Skeleton Key has turned out to be accurate.”
While the claims made in the Skeleton Key are unsettling, I have always felt the document possesses an internal consistency that justifies our withholding immediate judgment and examining its details more closely. Bruce Roberts’ Gemstone letters, as conveyed to us by Stephanie Caruana, redefine the stereotypical definition of “Mafia,” the kind of caricature and even glorification we often see in media portrayals, and paint for us a truer picture that shows how deeply the roots of organized crime intertwine every aspect of US politics and culture. While I can’t say with certainty that “A Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File” is completely true, I am certainly convinced that it’s truthful.
Shawn Hamilton (916) 427-8079
UPDATED BIO: Shawn Hamilton is a California teacher and writer who has served as a capitol reporter in Sacramento and written for various print and broadcast news outlets. In 2014 he published a book with the satirical title, Be All You Can Be (the old US Army recruiting slogan) about an Air Force major who rejected use of the military as an instrument of US imperialism. He received a Project Censored award in 2011 and writes poetry for fun.