True Spies Episode 45: The Profiler
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 45: The Profiler.
JIM CLEMENTE: With any equivocal death investigation, you have no idea where the investigation is going to take you, but in this particular investigation, it starts at the White House. That makes it incredibly difficult to conduct an investigation when you know that two of the people that are intimately involved in it are the first lady and the president of the United States.
NARRATOR: This story begins with an ending.
JIM CLEMENTE: On the evening of January 20, 1993, Vince Foster was found dead by a gunshot wound at the top of an earthen berm in Fort Marcy Park.
NARRATOR: A life cut short in a picturesque, wooded park 10-minute outside of the US capital. He was found by someone walking through the park who then called the US Park Police. The Park Police and EMTs responded to the scene and the coroner then arrived and pronounced Foster dead. And his body was removed.
NARRATOR: A body, anonymous - housed in an expensive woolen suit, a crisp white dress shirt. A vivid bloodstain on the right shoulder. When they then searched his car that was in the parking lot they found a pass to the White House.
NARRATOR: The first clue of the life that had been. The first rattle of the storm about to take hold.
JIM CLEMENTE: They went to Foster’s home to notify his wife, and while they were there the president of the United States shows up.
NARRATOR: President Bill Clinton, just six months into his first term in office.
JIM CLEMENTE: And that’s when they realize that not only did Vince Foster work at the White House, but he was a close personal friend of the president of the United States.
NARRATOR: A man consoles the shell-shocked widow of his childhood friend. For now, this is a tragedy of intimate proportions but, tomorrow morning, a striking story will make the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.
JIM CLEMENTE: I remember on July 21st, 1993, I was working in the US Attorney’s office in New York City and I noticed on the desk there was a copy of the New York Post, and the entire front cover was a picture and a bold headline about White House counsel Vince Foster being found dead. And I remember picking up the paper and walking into the assistant of the United States attorney's office and saying to him: “Wow, I’d love to figure out what happened here. This sounds like there’s more to this story.”
NARRATOR: This episode of True Spies is about the shockwaves of controversy and scandal that tore the White House open in the early 1990s, and left one of the president’s closest confidantes dead. It’s about the grubby game of politics, the noble intentions of an honest man, and a conspiracy that took hold of a nation’s imagination. It is the story of one burning question.
JIM CLEMENTE: How does the White House counsel end up dead by a gunshot wound just outside of Washington, D.C.?
NARRATOR: And the true spy who would finally answer it.
JIM CLEMENTE: I’m Jim Clemente. I’m a retired FBI supervisory special agent and profiler. I spent 22 years working for the FBI.
NARRATOR: Two years will lapse before Jim gets a chance to disappear into the story that has demanded the whole of Washington’s attention on a hot, sticky morning in July of 1993. But he can wait. In a way, he has been preparing for this case his entire life.
JIM CLEMENTE: In college, I was a chemistry major but I took a criminal law course in undergrad at Fordham University and I loved it. For me, every single case was like reading a whole new book about somebody’s life and circumstances and I just found it fascinating.
NARRATOR: That spark of fascination led Jim Clemente to what he thought would be his lifelong career.
JIM CLEMENTE: I was a prosecutor for the city of New York in the Bronx and I worked child sex crimes, prosecutions, violent-crime prosecutions, and so forth.
NARRATOR: It was riveting, demanding work. Work that fulfilled him, in many ways - except for one.
JIM CLEMENTE: When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a detective, but I went to college and I then decided to go to law school, and I thought: “Well, detective is sort of not in the cards anymore.”
NARRATOR: But every life contains twists and turns. The one that would define Jim Clemente came from close to home.
JIM CLEMENTE: I actually got a call from my brother, my older brother, and he said: “Now that you’re a prosecutor, we should go after the director of the camp.” And I asked him why and he said: “Because when I was there I snuck into his office and I found three paperbacks filled with Polaroid pictures of him molesting boys.” And I said: “I thought I was the only one.”
NARRATOR: The very next day, Jim went to the FBI’s task force for child sexual exploitation. He told them what had happened to him as a teenager, at the hands of the director of a Catholic youth camp. They opened an investigation, but with so much time having lapsed since the crimes were committed the trail had grown cold. The investigator handling the case needed something more from Jim.
JIM CLEMENTE: When the FBI agents first asked me to wear a wire and meet with the guy who had molested me as a kid, I flatly refused. There was no way I was going to sit down and have a civil conversation with this guy. Everything that I had ever experienced about that was negative and I just didn’t see how I could possibly sit down with this guy.
NARRATOR: But Jim knew this was his one opportunity to serve justice to a man he despised. And so he found that he could push his fear, his disgust, aside.
JIM CLEMENTE: They literally coached me and they trained me how to do it properly and how to use his psychology against him and, eventually, I would actually go undercover in that investigation, wear a wire, and lock up the guy that had molested me as a teen.
NARRATOR: A cathartic end to the story that had haunted Jim since childhood. A thrilling digression from the path. But all that was over now - or so he thought. Until one of the agent’s from the case invited him for breakfast.
JIM CLEMENTE: And while we were sitting there he slid this thick document to me and said: “You should fill this out.” And I looked at it and it was an application to become a special agent of the FBI. I literally said to him: “Would they still take me even though I was a victim?” And he said: “Sure, you’re a prosecuting attorney, you did great undercover work for us. We’d love to have you.”
NARRATOR: It was a moment he never could have predicted. But opportunities like this one are hard to come by, and Jim knew he had to pounce.
JIM CLEMENTE: I thought maybe I’d do it for about five years and then go back to prosecuting, become an assistant United States attorney, but I had so much rich and exciting and interesting and compelling experience being an FBI agent that I stayed for the entire 22 years.
NARRATOR: In his first years on the job, Jim would put the skills he had learned on the camp director case to good use, time and time again.
JIM CLEMENTE: I went undercover as a street person on the Bowery, as a Hasidic Jew in the diamond district, and I eventually did a deep cover, long-term investigation on the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, on Wall Street, as a commodities broker. I actually became a broker and traded crude oils’ futures for the better part of three years.
NARRATOR: I don’t need to tell you that undercover work, at the best of times, is a stressful prospect. But this was something else entirely.
JIM CLEMENTE: At the time, they ranked the most stressful jobs in the country. Number one was air-traffic controller. Number two was commodities trader. Number three was police officer. I was number two and three at the same time, which trumped number one. I had to wear a wire every day, get through metal detectors and deal with the fact that I was trading what amounted to millions of dollars every day, and if I did something really bad - if I made some kind of huge error - I could have lost the entire budget of the FBI.
NARRATOR: The undercover work scratched a certain itch. But at the same time, he was developing a different, very specific skill-set, one that had blossomed out of his first case with the FBI.
JIM CLEMENTE: So when I got out of the FBI academy they actually assigned me to the very squad that had just finished investigating my case, and it became a turning point in my life. Before this, the fact that I was sexually molested as a kid was something dark and secret, something I hid from everyone and I didn’t want any of my colleagues to know about. But now I was working with people who had just investigated my case and, for the first time in my life, I saw it as an asset because I had a level of experience that could actually give me insights into how offenders operate and into how people who are victimized by offenders’ act and what their thought processes are.
NARRATOR: Jim Clemente’s unique personal history made him an ideal candidate for work in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
JIM CLEMENTE: In the Behavioral Analysis Unit, we offer a series of different services to law enforcement, federal, state, and local. We get to study in the national center for the analysis of violent crimes - all crimes, all violent crimes, all sexually related crimes, across the country and even around the world - and we’re able to share that knowledge with any law enforcement that asks for our services. We help investigators understand criminal behavior so they can narrow down the suspect pool.
NARRATOR: This collection of skills is often bundled together under one name: profiling.
JIM CLEMENTE: Profiling is nothing more than reverse-engineering the behavior exhibited by the offender at the crime. Their choice of victim, their choice of crime location, what they actually do during the course of the crime. All of these things leak out information because an offender picks a particular victim at a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose.
NARRATOR: Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Do you think you might have what it takes to be an FBI profiler? First up, you’re going to need a brilliant imagination.
JIM CLEMENTE: By being imaginative, you can put yourself in the place of the offender, so you’re not really looking at it from the outside. You’re actually experiencing it in your own mind. The crime, the pre- and post-offense behavior, the interactions with the victims, the escape routes. All those things, you try to play them out in your mind and then do self-analysis to figure out why you would do those things and what you would be thinking during those times. Again that reveals information about the choices that the offender makes and gives us better insight into the kind of person that could do that.
NARRATOR: Secondly, loyal, authority-respecting do-gooders need not apply. This job posting is for the renegades amongst you.
JIM CLEMENTE: It’s also important to be a rebel. In other words, if you’re very dogmatic and can only think one way, then it’s going to be very difficult for you to put yourself in the place of the offender and figure out what really makes him tick. Because if we look at how the crime was committed, that leads us to why the crime was committed, and that leads us to who committed the crime.
NARRATOR: As an FBI profiler, Jim put those traits to good use on a number of different investigations. But I know what you’re thinking. How exactly did a specialty for tracking down child abductors and violent criminals lead Jim Clemente to the heart of an explosive, political scandal?
JIM CLEMENTE: That same type of skillset that I developed in the Behavioral Analysis Unit was actually very useful in an array of different kinds of cases and situations, one of which is equivocal death investigations.
NARRATOR: An equivocal death investigation is carried out at crime scenes where the details surrounding the manner of death are unclear. Cases like that of Vince Foster, the White House deputy counsel found dead from a gunshot wound in a park close to Washington, D.C.
JIM CLEMENTE: Vince Foster had been a litigation partner in the Rose Law Firm, the biggest law firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Hillary Clinton actually worked before she became the first lady of the United States. And when Bill Clinton became president of the United States he brought Vince Foster into the White House counsel's office, and Vince Foster became one of the most prominent attorneys in the country at the time.
NARRATOR: But the relationship between the Clintons and Vince Foster was more than just professional. Bill and Vince were lifelong friends. They grew up on the same street in Arkansas and stayed close as Bill climbed the ranks from attorney general to governor. Vince Foster even taught the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, to swim. So, when Bill Clinton was elected as president, he wanted someone he could trust right at the heart of his new administration.
JIM CLEMENTE: So when they went to Washington, D.C., the Clintons relied heavily on Vince Foster on policy making and to vet candidates and cabinet appointees.
NARRATOR: At the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, Vince Foster’s reputation was unparalleled. He was a cherished, charismatic figure and his eventual appointment as deputy White House counsel was just the latest triumph in a career that had overflowed with them, but his introduction to the world of politics had proven rocky.
JIM CLEMENTE: During the beginning of the Clinton presidency, there were a number of scandals that had occurred, and Vince Foster was very much tied to the Clintons in the midst of these scandals. There was the failed nomination of Zoë Baird.
NARRATOR: A corporate lawyer who was nominated by President Clinton for US Attorney General. Her employment of two undocumented immigrants, for childcare purposes, became the backbone of a political scandal known as ‘Nannygate’. It was a blemish on the reputation of the new president, and Vince Foster had overseen the vetting process. There were other upsets to follow.
JIM CLEMENTE: The travel office debacle.
NARRATOR: In which seven employees of the White House travel office were fired and replaced with allies close to the Clintons, leading to accusations of cronyism, embezzlement, and an investigation by the FBI.
JIM CLEMENTE: There was the Whitewater investment scandal.
NARRATOR: In which a failed real estate investment became the basis for a years-long investigation into the financial activities of the Clintons.
JIM CLEMENTE: And, a number of allegations of sexual misconduct by Bill Clinton.
NARRATOR: These early encounters with controversy set the tone for a turbulent, headline-grabbing presidency. And with each new scandal that shook the White House, Vince Foster’s profile grew in tandem. Articles began appearing in broadsheet newspapers, speculating as to the scale of his involvement in the Clintons’ affairs. How much did he know about the shady dealings of his new employers? That speculation only intensified when Vince Foster turned up dead in that park. The public was hungry for answers.
JIM CLEMENTE: There was an initial investigation by the US Park Police.
NARRATOR: The findings of that investigation were that Vince Foster died of a self-inflicted gun wound on-site at Fort Marcy. On the surface, this was an open-shut case.
JIM CLEMENTE: Unfortunately the detective who did that investigation literally had just finished his training so he was not experienced in a homicide or equivocal death investigation, and although he did a fairly good job documenting the scene, the investigation had some gaps.
NARRATOR: Gaps that immediately captured the imagination of those curious enough to pry.
JIM CLEMENTE: The conspiracy theories were based on facts that were known by the public, such as the fact that 13 carpet fibers were found on Vince Foster’s pants and socks, and so it was theorized that Vince Foster had been rolled up in a carpet to be transported to Fort Marcy Park.
NARRATOR: And there were other details that resisted a simple explanation.
JIM CLEMENTE: The pictures that got released to the public showed a contact stain on the upper right shoulder of Vince Foster, and on his right cheek. That would indicate that his face had been in contact with his shoulder after he began bleeding, however, the picture shows his head straight up and down, so it looked as if he had been moved - or his head had been moved - although the EMTs stated that they never moved his body.
NARRATOR: And then there was the confusion over the gun. One of the first responders on the scene said he’d never seen a weapon at all. The other claimed he’d seen a pistol.
JIM CLEMENTE: But the pictures that were taken later by the crime scene photographers clearly show a revolver in Vince Foster’s hand.
NARRATOR: When taken together, these inconsistencies provided the framework for a deeply unsettling proposition.
JIM CLEMENTE: There were a number of conspiracy theories that revolved around the thought that the Clintons had something to do with killing Vince Foster and transporting his body to Fort Marcy Park, to try to distance it from the White House.
NARRATOR: But why would the Clintons get rid of their loyal friend and aide in such a brutal manner?
JIM CLEMENTE: The theory went that Vince Foster, so well acquainted with the inner workings of the new Oval Office, found himself in the undesirable position of knowing too much. Allegations of sex, fraud, and corruption haunted Bill Clinton’s first term in office and if anyone knew where the bodies were buried it would have to be Vince Foster. Two successive investigations, one by the Park Police, the other by independent counsel, Robert Fiske, drew the same conclusion: that Vince Foster died by suicide. But neither managed to resolve all the inconsistencies of that vivid crime scene, and neither managed to answer the main question that continued to fuel the fire of conspiracy. Why would Vince Foster, one of the most prominent lawyers in the country, kill himself at the very high point of his career? So, with rumors still swirling around Foster’s death, two years after the fact, the independent counsel brought in a man whose background in psychology and profiling left him uniquely qualified to uncover the truth. That man was Jim Clemente.
JIM CLEMENTE: And, at this point, I’m thinking back to the day that I found that New York Post headline and wondered: “What happened with Vince Foster?” So these questions are swirling around in my mind, and I am realizing that this is going to be a very difficult investigation.
NARRATOR: Jim knew that the implications of an investigation like this one were far-reaching.
JIM CLEMENTE: And unlike any other investigation I ever conducted in my career, this one had the potential to become incredibly dark and incredibly politically explosive. As an FBI agent, politics doesn’t play a role at all for me but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be an incredible swirl of controversy and a lot of obstacles in me conducting this investigation unimpeded.
NARRATOR: And the truth is, if the rumors surrounding Vince Foster’s death turned out to hold water, then Jim Clemente himself was stepping into an enormously dangerous game, one where getting too close to the truth could lead to an untimely demise. But he couldn’t let that knowledge interfere with the task at hand.
JIM CLEMENTE: So I started the investigation from scratch.
NARRATOR: His first task was to attempt to explain the physical inconsistencies that had arisen out of the crime scene. He began with that bloodstain on Vince Foster’s right shoulder. Photos from the crime scene showed his head tilting straight back. If neither of the Emergency Medical Technicians attending the scene had touched Vince Foster’s body then just how had that contact stain gotten onto his crisp white shirt?
JIM CLEMENTE: I asked the EMT to bring his EMT manual along with him and when I interviewed him, I said: “Can you turn to the page that describes how you’re supposed to approach a person who seems to be unconscious and unresponsive?” And he did. I had him read me the section and it said that the first thing they’re supposed to do is make sure there’s an open airway and check for a pulse. And I said: “How do you do that?” And he said: “Well, you put two fingers under the back of the neck and you lift up slightly. At that point, it opens up the airwave in case it’s restricted. And then I placed my fingers on the side of his neck to check for a carotid pulse, and there was none, and that’s when the officer had us move away from the body.”
NARRATOR: The same EMT who claimed never to have touched Vince Foster’s body now recalled that he had done exactly that, all as part of the checklist of procedures that he was trained to carry out automatically, without thinking. And then there was the matter of the gun Vince Foster was alleged to have used to kill himself, the weapon that only one of the three responders had seen.
JIM CLEMENTE: So I asked the EMT who had spotted the gun in Vince Foster’s hand, where he saw the gun and he said: “It was on the right-hand side of Vince Foster’s body, his hand was covering most of the gun, and the outside of Vince Foster’s thigh was actually covering other parts of the gun.”
NARRATOR: Which explained why, in the dying light of a summer evening, only he, in getting close to Foster’s body, had seen the weapon. But, you’ll remember, that was only part of the mystery. Why had he referred to the gun so specifically as a pistol, when pictures clearly showed a revolver?
JIM CLEMENTE: So I asked him what his familiarity with guns was, and he said he didn’t own a gun, he wasn’t that familiar with them. I asked him why he described it as a pistol. He said: “Well that’s what it looked like to me.” I said: “Did you see the squared-off back part of this gun?” And he said: “No.” I said: “Did you see the bottom of the gun, the handle where the magazine is placed?” And he said: “No.” And I said: “What did you see of the gun?” And he said: “I saw that round thing where you put the bullets in and it spins around.” I said: “Okay, are you aware that type of gun is called a revolver?” And he said: “No, I thought it was called a pistol, like a cowboy pistol.”
NARRATOR: Well, that solves that, then.
JIM CLEMENTE: So the next thing I had to do was try to determine how Vince Foster came to have this particular gun. I interviewed his wife and found out that several years earlier, while they were living in Arkansas, Vince Foster’s father had been diagnosed with cancer and was terminally ill, and Vince Foster’s mother asked Vince to take her husband’s gun away from him because she was afraid he might use it to commit suicide. So Vince Foster actually took the weapon from his father’s home and brought it to his own home. It was actually an early 1900s revolver that had been in the family for a long time.
NARRATOR: The conspiracy theories hinged on the idea that Foster had died elsewhere and then been moved to the park where the crime scene was staged to look like suicide. If Jim could show conclusively that Foster had died in the park, of a wound inflicted by his own father’s gun, then he could disprove that theory altogether.
JIM CLEMENTE: We decided to conduct ballistics tests with the gun that was found in Vince Foster’s hand and the same type of ammunition that had been fired to try to determine where the bullet might have gone because the wound was through and through. The bullet entered his body at the roof of his mouth and exited through the back of his skull, so if we could actually find that bullet in Fort Marcy Park we’d be able to prove that Vince Foster was in fact killed at Fort Marcy Park.
NARRATOR: With the forensic scientist, Dr. Henry Lee, Jim began to carry out tests. Here’s a little True Spies tutorial on turning over a long-cold crime scene for new evidence.
JIM CLEMENTE: We actually conducted ballistics experiments with human skulls filled with ballistic gelatin to approximate the human brain, and covered with pigskin to approximate the human scalp. When we did these test firings we determined the maximum trajectory of velocity that the bullet would have had and determined that if the gun had been fired at 45 degrees to horizontal that the maximum distance the bullet would have traveled would have been about a little over 200 yards.
NARRATOR: Hunting down a single bullet across a range of 200 yards in a national park. I’m resisting the urge to use the words ‘needle’ and ‘haystack’.
JIM CLEMENTE: We actually did an excavation of the entire Fort Marcy Park area. We metal detected that area inch by inch and even metal detected the trees that were behind the location where Vince’s body was found. And every day we found many civil war rounds and pieces of junk from historic times and current times as well as pennies that the National Park Service would typically throw out in any kind of national park to discourage metal detectors from actually searching there.
NARRATOR: What are the chances amongst all of that debris of finding something that could actually help your investigation? Surely Jim is clutching at straws here? Wasting taxpayers’ dollars with nothing to show for it but a fistful of pennies and the odd civil war trinket? But somehow amidst it all a tantalizing lead.
JIM CLEMENTE: One of those rounds was actually fired from the same kind of gun that Vince Foster had used. However, we couldn’t metallurgically match it to the other rounds that were found in Vince Foster’s revolver.
NARRATOR: Oh, false alarm. Back to the beginning. But then…
JIM CLEMENTE: Dr. Lee examined the gun further and what he found was because the cylinder had been replaced in this gun, the cylinder gap was actually slightly larger than it should have been so that when the gun was fired, a certain amount of unspent or unburned ball powder that was in the bullet didn’t get burned but got expelled out the outside of the cylinder gap. And because of that, we found tiny ball powder, a piece on his glasses and also on his face, adhering to his face.
NARRATOR: Specks of unspent gunpowder so tiny as to be almost undetectable to the human eye. Funny to think how something so small could offer such a monumental turning point in an investigation.
JIM CLEMENTE: So Dr. Lee opined that since ball powder is very ruddy, it will survive the elements that we should actually excavate the area in front of Vince Foster downhill because in the years since he died there, it rained and snowed and anything that was on that side of the hill might be washed down to the bottom of that hill. So we actually used a number of smaller and smaller sifting devices to sift all the dirt down the berm and at the bottom of the berm, and we were actually able to collect unspent gunpowder from that scene.
NARRATOR: In other words, Jim Clemente had definitive proof that the weapon had been fired at that location and not at the White House. Okay, so what have we knocked on the head now? The blood. Tick. The gun. Tick. But what about the carpet fibers on Vince Foster’s suit, the ones that, according to amateur sleuths, proved that his body had been rolled up in a rug by the Clintons’ hitmen, and transported to Fort Marcy Park? How would you disprove something like that?
JIM CLEMENTE: So I actually went in and took carpet samples from all the carpets in the West Wing of the White House where he worked, and I did find a couple of carpet fibers from his office on his clothing. But most, the vast majority of those carpet fibers were actually from the rug that was in Vince Foster’s bathroom where every morning he got ready for work in his socks, standing on this little carpet. I also did tests with wool slacks and cotton socks and found that if you actually rub them on a carpet or wrap them in a carpet literally hundreds and hundreds of carpet fibers would be all over those pants and there were only a little more than a dozen of those carpet fibers found. There’s no indication at all that he was actually rolled up in a carpet. So that debunked that theory as well.
NARRATOR: It was with some relief that Jim Clemente found himself concurring with the outcome of earlier investigations. Vince Foster had taken his own life, by his own gun, in Fort Marcy Park.
JIM CLEMENTE: But why would he take his life?
NARRATOR: That was the next question.
JIM CLEMENTE: And so I had to conduct what we call a psychological autopsy.
NARRATOR: This is what Jim Clemente has trained for. This is where his talents as a behavioral analyst lie. It is this line of investigation that will lead Jim into the heart of Washington politics, and, in the process, illuminate a world far murkier than the conspiracy theories that had haunted Vince Foster’s death. Jim had to step inside the mind of Vince Foster on that hot summer’s day in July 1993 and reverse-engineer the decisions that brought him to an act of such desperation beginning with the last phone calls he made.
JIM CLEMENTE: And what I found out was that the night before Vince Foster’s body was found at Fort Marcy Park he had called his doctor in Little Rock and he told him that he was an insomniac, anorexic, and depressed. And he asked him to provide him a prescription for those ailments. And that doctor couriered the medications to Vince Foster because Vince did not want to go to a local pharmacy because he thought that in Washington, D.C., that information itself could become news. He took one pill that night, but it takes about two weeks for a therapeutic dose to actually build up in the body.
NARRATOR: The further back Jim looked, the more a picture began to take shape.
JIM CLEMENTE: The weekend before, his wife reports that she and Vince had gone to the outer banks to play tennis with the Hubbells, who were close personal friends from Arkansas, but Vince didn’t want to play tennis and wandered away and his wife found him sitting on a bench in the park crying. It was the first time she’d ever seen him crying in their entire marriage. And she asked him what was wrong and he said: “I can’t go back to Little Rock as a failure.” And she said: “What are you talking about going back to Little Rock? I want to go to the White House Christmas ball!” because she didn’t understand how profoundly depressed he was. And she said: “You should do what you always do. Sit down and make a list, and take care of the things that are bothering you one by one.”
NARRATOR: Jim Clemente was getting a sense of Vince Foster’s state of mind at home. But this man famously worked 12 hours a day, six, sometimes seven days a week. To truly understand Foster’s mentality, Jim required access to the place where Foster had spent the majority of his waking hours, the White House.
JIM CLEMENTE: What’s important is that after Vince Foster’s body was found, White House counsel prevented the FBI from doing an investigation at the White House and they said they conducted a search of his office and took out any relevant documents or information and shared them with the FBI and then later with the independent counsel’s office.
NARRATOR: An obstruction that had only added to the cries of foul play that bubbled up around Foster’s death and the truth is that in their cursory sweep of Foster’s office the White House counsel had failed to pick up on a key piece of evidence.
JIM CLEMENTE: It was several days later when an intern was told to collect some of Vince Foster’s personal things for his wife and kids. And so that intern went into Vince Foster’s office, picked up his briefcase, turned it over, and dumped it out, and I think 23 or 26 pieces of paper came fluttering out.
NARRATOR: When investigators reconstructed those scraps of paper they found that Vince Foster had followed his wife’s advice after all.
JIM CLEMENTE: It was actually a list of things and it was grievances and a number of them had to do with things that happened in the press, and things that were related to the travel office and the FBI and Hillary Clinton. And the final line of this document said: “I wasn’t meant for the job in the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here, ruining people is considered a sport.”
NARRATOR: Jim Clemente was becoming intimately acquainted with the tortured mind that had written that list of grievances. And the closer he looked, the more warning signs he found.
JIM CLEMENTE: He’d actually given the commencement address at the University of Arkansas law school about a month or so earlier. And when the president of the university introduced him as the most important lawyer in the United States of America and a graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law, he was so effusive and enthusiastic, and Vince Foster took the stage and was very droll. And during that address, there were a number of times that he mentioned death and negative dark things.
NARRATOR: It’s a curious business, the psychological autopsy. In stepping inside the mind of your subject you become intimately acquainted with their every thought.
JIM CLEMENTE: You learn everything you possibly can about this person and their lives, and it’s always a tragedy when you start to get to know this person - their lives and their families and their relationships and their dreams - but you know something terrible has happened to them and that’s why their life is like an open book in front of you. This case profoundly affected me because of how much integrity Vince Foster had. Everything that I learned about Vince Foster during the course of my investigation was that he was a wonderful person, an honest person, someone with the highest degree of integrity.
NARRATOR: The more time Jim spent in Vince Foster’s head, the more he began to see his eventual suicide as inevitable. Each successive scandal that had rippled through the White House was viewed, by Foster, as a personal defeat. And that viewpoint had been encouraged, to some extent, by the people closest to him. At the Rose Law Firm, Vince Foster was Hillary Clinton’s mentor in the litigation department, but the roles were reversed at the White House, and Hillary actually publicly chastised Vince Foster for the failed nominations and for his failure to protect the Clintons politically and legally, and this profoundly affected Vince Foster because his integrity and his work ethic were very, very important to him.
NARRATOR: Vince Foster had left Arkansas a hometown hero, and close personal friend to the new president and first lady of the United States, but six months in Washington had done irreparable damage to his psyche.
JIM CLEMENTE: He felt that he had let the Clintons down and that he didn’t protect them legally as much as he should have and he thought that he would be returning to Little Rock a failure.
NARRATOR: There was also the prospect of one further scandal gathering momentum among Washington’s scoop-hungry reporters. In the weeks before Vince Foster killed himself, he told his wife that the press was fishing around for rumors that Vince was having an affair with Hillary Clinton. He denied it of course but he said even the thought of that being published was incredibly personally and professionally embarrassing.
NARRATOR: The scrutiny that came with a career in the capital weighed heavily on a man who valued dignity, integrity, above all else. Everything was made worse by the fact that the president he was serving was also his friend. The night before Vince Foster’s death, the president had called him personally on the phone.
JIM CLEMENTE: To ask if he wanted to come watch a movie at the White House. They were going to watch In the Line of Fire, which is a movie about an attempted assassination of the president. Vince said he had far too much work to do to come so he declined, and Bill actually said: “No, I think it’s important because I’ve been hearing that you’ve been very down lately and it’s affecting your work. I want to see you in my office. Let’s sit down and talk about what’s been bothering you.” So they set a meeting for two days later, but Vince Foster didn’t live to see that meeting.
NARRATOR: After months spent investigating the death of Vince Foster, Jim Clemente filed his report with the independent counsel. It amounted to 700 pages of documents. He had delivered conclusive proof as to the fate of Vince Foster and in doing so, had put most of the nasty rumors that haunted a dead man’s family to a stop although dark theories still lurk in certain corners of the Internet. For Jim, there is only one question left lingering over the case of Vince Foster. It has to do with his very final gestures in the hours before his death.
JIM CLEMENTE: When he left the White House counsel’s office that day, he told his secretary, Linda Tripp, that he had three envelopes that he wanted her to mail for him. One of them was the last payment on his life insurance. Another one was a letter to his mother explaining how she could run her finances from that day forward because he had run it for her before that. But the third letter has never been identified. Nobody has admitted to receiving that letter.
NARRATOR: The content of that letter, Jim suspects, would likely put the final whispers of a conspiracy to bed once and for all.
JIM CLEMENTE: We theorized that the third letter most likely went to Bill or Hillary Clinton, or both of them. But since at the time the independent counsel’s office was conducting the Whitewater investigation against the Clintons we were in fairly adversarial roles and the Clintons did not admit to getting that letter. So we have no idea who that third letter was sent to. It was not sent to his wife or kids.
NARRATOR: In his 22 years in the FBI, Jim Clemente stepped into the midst of many deep, dark investigations. You can hear about some of them on his own podcasts, Criminal Minds and Best Case Worst Case, but something about the story of Vince Foster left a particularly bitter aftertaste. It was a window into the private world of his country’s chief office and Jim Clemente did not like what he saw through that window.
JIM CLEMENTE: I think one of the things that I learned in the course of this investigation is that Washington, D.C. is so politicized and polarized that a man of Vince Foster’s moral character really could not find a place there.
NARRATOR: Remember that speech Vince Foster gave at the University of Arkansas to the class of graduating law students? For those looking, it was full of clues as to the fate that would become him.
JIM CLEMENTE: He mentioned that there were going to be times in their careers where they would be faced with challenges and that no fee would ever justify the slightest stain on their integrity and reputation. And he also said that there would be dark days when the storms are coming, when they are attacking you, and when that happens, do something for yourself. Take a walk alone in the woods. And that’s exactly what Vince Foster did.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another brush with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed in this episode of True Spies, know that help is out there. Contact your local Samaritans hotline for crisis support.
Jim Clemente was a New York prosecutor but also a victim of sexual abuse as a teenager. The FBI wanted him to wear a wire to help convict his abuser, which led to Clemente working as an FBI agent for more than 20 years going undercover in various roles including three stressful years as a commodities broker. He was also the FBI profiler called in to solve a mystery gripping the US in the 1990s: was White House lawyer Vince Foster killed because he knew too much?