My strange encounter with the world's most mysterious assassin
It’s 19 years since a strange fanatic plunged an ice axe into the skull of Stalin’s arch rival, Leon Trotsky. But even to-day, as the killer broods in his Mexican prison cell, he refuses to admit who he is
Opaque, colorless eyes gleamed with unblinking intensity through heavy - rimmed glasses; the heavy face was thrust forward within inches of my own — the thin, straight lips taut with suppressed violence. I stared at him fascinated, the iron bars and barbed-wire surroundings forgotten as his words slapped the silence:
“I hated Trotsky. He morally betrayed me and degraded me with his hypocrisy. He had to die and for me there is nothing to regret.”
Shocked by the sudden eruption, I thought briefly with a sense of mounting outrage that this w'as how' he might have looked when he had faced the victim he was prepared to kill with gun, knife or Alpine ice axe.
As a Canadian resident of Toronto named Frank Jacson, this man had assassinated Leon Trotsky at the Russian exile’s refuge in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán. Since he was found in the house with Trotsky’s teeth embedded to the bone in his left hand, he has remained enigmatically silent about his true identity. Earlier in our interview he had grinned contentedly as he recalled:
“I’ve never talked about this to you writers before. Lots have come here. When they see me I spit in their faces. They never come back.” Why, then, had he consented to this interview'? It was because in August of next year he will be a free man after serving twenty years and a day for the most brutal and infamous assassination of modern times. He will need money if he is to vanish from sight and live his remaining years beyond the harsh glare of the public spotlight.
I carried with me a six-figure book-and-movie offer for his personal story — too much apparently for a fifty-threc-year-old prisoner to resist.
The official record of events leading up to that evening nineteen years ago when Jacson walked through armor-plated gates, nodded amiably to the guards and entered Trotsky's study to sink an Alpine ice axe into the old man’s head, differs from his own conflicting versions.
According to police files, trial reports and General Sanchez Salazar, former head of the Mexican Secret Police and the officer who investigated the case, Jacson joined the Fourth International—the name by which the Trotsky movement was known—during a visit to Paris early in 1939. His fervent admiration of the exiled pretender to Stalin’s throne so impressed Sylvia Agcloff. a young American girl living in Paris, that she fell in love w'ith him.
In a statement to police officers later, she said: “Jacson told me he had served w'ith the Canadian section ol the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. When I told him 1 w'as going to Mexico City to join Trotsky’s secretarial staff, he said he would come with me as, above all things, he wanted to meet his hero.”
The couple arrived in New' York during October. 1939. with the potential killer carrying a Canadian passport describing him as Frank Jacson. thirty-three, of Roxborough Avenue. Toronto. They stayed at Sylvia’s Brooklyn apartment for three months and then drove to Mexico C ity where she joined Trotsky’s staff at the house in Coyoacán.
Several weeks passed before Trotsky would consent to meet her Canadian friend. When he finally invited her to bring him to tea one after-
noon in March, there w'ere police sentries outside the house and personal bodyguards stationed at every door inside.
Jacson set out to impress Trotsky. He expressed his dedication to Communism and his hatred of Stalin and offered to write articles on Trotskyism for Canadian and French publications. Trotsky greeted this without enthusiasm.
When I interviewed Mrs. Fanny Yanowitch, Trotsky’s former private secretary and close personal friend, who still lives in Mexico City, she told me: “Neither Leon, Natalie (Mrs. Trotsky) nor I liked Jacson very much. But although he was restless with nervous energy and seemingly shiftless. Sylvia thought him sincere and Leon could not afford to turn aside supporters w'ho were prepared to give their services to the cause without payment.”
Jacson called at the house several times during the next two weeks and suddenly announced he was going to Canada to win political friends and influence editors. He left his hotel, but not for Canada. Driving a Buick with Mexican license plates — he did not have a driver’s license — he registered at a modern American-style tourist camp just outside the city.
The proprietor, a Mr. Shirley, said later: "He registered as Frank Jacson from Toronto and stayed until June 12. In that time he spoke English only to the staff and other guests. He had many visitors with whom he talked what might have been Russian. It was certainly neither French nor Spanish."
Jacson returned to his hotel in the city about the end of July and resumed his relationship with Sylvia. One day he was visited by two men he introduced to her as Bartello and Perez. For the first time she wondered about her lover. The two men were unmistakably Russian despite their Spanish-sounding names. General Salazar's report was to say: " From her description I had no difficulty in identifying these men as agents of the GPU sent into Mexico to organize the Sequeiros raid on Trotsky’s house in May, 1940.”
This raid had taken place while Jacson was supposed to have been in Toronto. It was a frontal attack on the gates led by David Sequeiros, one of Mexico’s best-known painters and Communists. It failed after the attackers w'ere beaten back in a three-hour gun battle.
On August 19. Jacson unexpectedly told Sylvia that he had to go to New York. She agreed to accompany him, and he showed her a raincoat he had bought that morning. She was surprised because he boasted that no matter what the weather he never wore coats or hats. It was agreed that he would take his leave of the Trotskys the following afternoon while she went to the airport to make reservations and meet him there.
At 5 p.m. on August 20. he called at the house in Coyoacán, by then a fortress with machinegun emplacements, embrasures on all sides and guards w'ith submachine guns. He was allowed through the main gates and no one questioned why he should be carrying a raincoat over his arm on a blazing hot day. He found the Trotskys in their garden feeding some pet rabbits. While Natalie Trotsky left them to prepare tea. he turned to Trotsky w ith some papers in his free hand.
“I have an article here continued on page 69
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My strange encounter with the world’s most mysterious assassin continued from page 19
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“Stalin sent you!” the killer’s girl screamed wildly when she learned he’d betrayed her
for an American magazine. It needs your comments and guidance, sir. If you look, at it now I can send it off as soon as Sylvia and I reach New York."
Trotsky led the way into his study and bent over the manuscript behind his desk. Jacson strolled around beside him and when slightly behind Trotsky he suddenly Topped his raincoat to reveal an Alpine ice axe. As it was poised above his head, Trotsky jerked around, spoiling Jacson's aim. The weapon plunged down to bite deeply into Trotsky's skull without killing him immediately.
With the axe handle protruding ludicrously from his head, the old man gave a hoarse shriek and turned to grapple feebly with his assailant. As Jacson pushed him aside. Trotsky sank his teeth into Jacson's left hand between the thumb and first finger.
Jacson moaned in pain while bodyguards. summoned by their master’s shout, rushed into the room and began beating the assassin with gun butts. As Trotsky fell into the arms of his stricken wife, he muttered weakly: “Tell them to stop. He must live and be made to talk. He is Stalin's man."
When the police arrived and took both killer and dying victim to hospital, they also brought Sylvia back from the airport and confronted her with the man who had betrayed her love and trust. “Traitor!" she screamed at him. "You are an agent of the GPU! Natalie suspected it. Stalin sent you!”
Jacson said he was framed
But throughout the interrogations that followed Jacson stuck stubbornly to his claim that he was Canadian. A search of his hotel room produced nothing but a pile of ashes. He had burnt all his papers including the Canadian passport. U. S. immigration records and the Mexican consulate in New York — where the details of the passport had been recorded when he applied for a visa — supplied the police with enough information for them to ask Ottawa to check the validity of the passport.
The reply, sent via the RC'MP. startled the Mexicans. The passport, number 31.377, had been issued in Ottawa on March 22. 1937. to a Tony Babich. This applicant had been born on June 13, 1905. at Lovinac. Yugoslavia, and had emigrated to Canada in 1924. After becoming a Canadian citizen he had applied for a passport to visit his family in Yugoslavia.
Babich did not visit his family. He was an ardent Communist who used his family as an excuse to leave the country for Spain, where he joined the Communist forces. On arrival in Spain, he had been ordered by his Communist superiors to surrender his passport to avoid complications in the event of capture. In April 1938. the Spanish Republican Government issued a list of soldiers killed in action. Tony Babich headed the list of Bs.
Faced with this information. Jacson declared he was being framed. Then he changed his story completely, claiming to be a Belgian named Jacques Mornard who had been born in 1906 at the Belgian legation in Tehran, where his father had held a diplomatic post. Pressed further, he said he had attended the University of Brussels and later studied at the military
academy at Dixmunde. a small town in Flanders.
The Belgian ambassador to Mexico. W. Loridan. checked this story with the Brussels police and interviewed Jacson in prison. In evidence at Jacson's trial,
Loridan stated: “All the declarations
made by the prisoner are fake concerning his identity as a Belgian. No babies were born at the legation in Tehran between 1904 and 1908: neither have we ever employed a diplomat named Mornard.
There is no record of his attendance at the Brussels University. He could not have attended the military academy at Dixmunde because there is no such academy and no town called Dixmunde anywhere in Belgium. He's lying,” Loridan
asserted. Jacson replied to this by saying he had lived for so long in Canada and France that he had forgotten the details of his Belgian youth, the police felt obliged to record the name of their prisoner as Jacson-Mornard. a combination of his two aliases.
Mrs. Trotsky, still living at the former fortress in Coyoacán. meagerly supported by Mexican and American friends, and Mrs. Yanowitch, also still in Mexico, have never given up the search for Jacson’s real identity. Neither have the Mexican police.
In 1948, a Spaniard called Enrico Delgado defected from East Germany to the American Zone of West Germany. Intelligence officers discovered he was a high-ranking member of the Spanish section of the GPU. Once satisfied that,his credentials were sound and his intentions honest, they gave Delgado permission to remain at large in West Germany. A year later he applied to the Mexican consulate in Munich and obtained permission to live in Mexico City. When he arrived there in 1950 he contacted Mrs. Trotsky and Mrs. Yanowitch to recount
a strange story about the killer.
The man who had murdered Trotsky, he said, was a former GPU friend named Rio Mercader. He revealed that the man’s mother, Caridad Mercader, had been high up in the Spanish section long before the civil war. She had enrolled her son. Rio Mercader, during the war and had taken him to Moscow in early 1938. Delgado had met them there and had lived in their house for several years. But once his training and indoctrination had finished, Río Mercader had left Moscow on a secret assignment which
Caridad had described to Delgado as dangerous. The family, he said, had originally come from Barcelona. Mrs. Yanowitch showed him trial photographs of Jacson, whom he positively identified as Rio Mercader.
When Delgado repeated his story to the Mexican police they were impressed v/ith one point: Delgado said Rio Mercader had a scar on his right arm resulting from an accidental bullet wound in Spain. Jacson had just such a scar on his right arm.
To check this fresh evidence further, a set of Jacson’s fingerprints were sent through Interpol, the international police clearing house in Paris, asking the Barcelona police to check them against their records.
The Barcelona police replied that the prints matched those of a pre-civil war Communist agitator. Rio Mercader. A Mexican police officer flew immediately to Spain with the Jacson file and spent three months probing the background of Rio Mercader. He returned with photographs of the perfectly matching prints, photographic proof that the Spaniard resembled Jacson and was of the same age. In addition, he had a statement from Mercader's father, stating that his wife. Caridad, had been a member of the Communist Party since their marriage.
Confronted with this evidence. Jacson turned from his interrogators and shouted: “Fakes! All fakes!"
Apart from this outburst and many examinations by panels of psychiatrists, Jacson has since talked of himself and his crime to no one, with the possible exception of his lawyer. He has been a model prisoner and is in charge of the prison's electrical maintenance. As a hobby, he makes small radio sets for those of his fellow convicts who can afford to pay for them in scarce luxuries or money. According to police records, he received, until three years ago, about fifty dollars a month from an unknown source. In addition, it is thought that he has more money in a bank deposit under another name.
At 11 a.m. last May 6, I was admitted with his lawyer into the state penitentiary in Mexico City. We signed our names on the list of visitors and were escorted to the governor's office, occupied by a lone uniformed clerk at a small corner desk.
Firm footsteps echoed suddenly down the bare, stone corridor and a stocky, powerful-looking man in an open-neck shirt and blue denims strode arrogantly into the room. The armed guards and the clerk shuffled to attention and saluted. Then I shook hands with Rio Mercader, alias Frank Jacson. alias Jacques Mornard. the most infamous assassin alive, and the obvious “boss" of the penitentiary.
His English was fluent without a trace of Canadian accent. He also speaks French, Spanish and Italian. I asked:
"You are known as Jacson. You have also claimed to be Mornard. What is your real name?”
It did not take much to arouse him. A muscular arm shot out. stiff with tension, and thick fingers closed about my knee as he leaned forward from his chair.
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It was his left hand and between thumb and first finger was a pale scar punctuated by livid blobs where the skin had healed badly. These were the marks of Trotsky’s teeth, a constant reminder for nineteen years of his victim's last desperate attempt to fight back.
"That was a stupid question." he replied fiercely. “Don’t you start being inquisitive. What makes you think I would tell you things that might have saved me from this prison?"
I waited until the bruising fingers had been removed from my knee and then said: “In return for the sum you have been offered I shall need your own true story with documentary evidence supporting your identity.”
He was on his feet swiftly, babbling in Spanish to his lawyer. With a visible effort he brought himself under control and sat before me again.
"I'm sorry.” he said quietly. "You must understand that I have not talked openly of this matter or of myself for so long; to recall it now makes me emotionally overwhelmed. I will tell my story only from 1939 when 1 arrived in America; 1 want to forget everything and everybody before that. I w'ill describe the political climate of those days and that will explain why Trotsky had to die. I will also tell you of my nineteen years in prison, including the story of my common-law wife, who visits me here regularly.”
“Believe what you like!”
This girl is said to be a Mexican with wealthy parents. She went to an American university and is a known member of the Mexican Communist Party.
As the interview' continued, it became clear that Jacson is no ordinary killer. He is educated and capable of exerting tremendous self-restraint when excited. Yet he is unstable and erratic. 1 pressed my point.
“You must have an identity if you write. The Mexican authorities believe your real name is Rio Mercader and that you come from Barcelona."
His face distorted and once more he was on his feet, pacing up and down while repeating: "Lies, all lies." Then he bent down over me.
“D’you think I give a damn what they believe? So many lies have been said and written about me, I don’t care any more. If you want to know why I killed a man and that’s all, then we can collaborate. If not. then I want no part of you. You can get out.”
Making a tactical withdrawal, I replied: "1 understand that, for reasons of your own, you will not reveal your true
¡deruit/, lí the story is to begin in 1939. will you tell me why you decided to kill Trotsky, how you planned it and whether you now regret it?"
"Not now." he said, completely subdued. I must be alone in my cell when 1 write of these things. Sometimes when I think of it too much I become very violent and I would rather not have anyone with me."
In the next instant and in utter contradiction. he continued, almost as though speaking to himself: "What I did had to be done. Society had to be defended against a man like that. No. 1 have no regrets. He had to die. I was completely disillusioned in 1 eon Trotsky after he had abused my belief and faith in him just as he had abused the working classes. He wanted me to go to Russia to organize revolt and to assassinate Stalin. He was intent upon nothing but personal re-
venge and would use anyone to accomplish it. He had no thought for people and was involved with capitalists. I felt morally betrayed and degraded. Then he tried to separate Sylvia from me and I loved her very much.
"I thought of killing him a few days before I did. I thought of using the ice axe 1 had brought from France. 1 used to climb mountains and could use it expertly. I intended to kill myself afterward.
"1 had no plan. I just took the ice axe under my raincoat and put the other weapons (a revolver and a knife) in the pockets. While he was reading my article I took the ice axe from under the raincoat and brought it down on his head. I only hit him once and he gave a piercing shriek, throwing himself on me at the same time and biting my hand." His righ-t hand was unconsciously caressing
the scar left by Trotsky’s teeth.
“When the guards hit me I lost consciousness and woke up in hospital.”
Without hurry, but obviously nervous, he rose to his feet and began pacing up and down again. His face was expressionless. Everyone else in the room was unmoved. They spoke no English and could not understand what had been said. I felt it was my turn to break the silence.
"It cannot be easy for you to say all this — and I am glad that you have. It gives me some idea of what to expect ..." he turned as though to interrupt, but I continued . . . "but there has to be a true identity in your story. I believe, as do many others, that you are Rio Mercader, a Spaniard whose mother is Caridad Mercader and that at her insistence you joined the Communists and became a member of the GPU. If this is untrue, why not say so and explain how you always came to have plenty of money, where you got the gun and the knife and your Canadian passport. It has also been said in evidence by Sylvia Ageloff that she had never seen you with an ice axe in France or at any time afterward. Where did that come from?"
“Don’t try to see me again”
While 1 was talking he had returned to his seat and now sat staring at me with a humorless smile.
"Now you have said too much," he replied almost gently. ‘Tm going to leave now and don’t you try to see me again. If you do I will treat you like the rest. I'll spit in your face.”
He exchanged remarks in Spanish with his lawyer and moved toward the door. The guards shuffled to attention again and saluted while Jacson turned toward me with a finger pointing for emphasis.
"Don’t for one minute think I’ll ever confide in you. We’ll never collaborate. I promise you that. Your mind is too cluttered with lies."
Then he marched out. as arrogant and self-assured as when he had arrived two hours before.
1 left the penitentiary feeling inexpressibly relieved. Jacson is an intellectually tough and disciplined man who has been trained to take his secret to the grave. He has played his role competently and what truth has emerged is not due to his co-operativeness. In hospital, after the beating he received from Trotsky's bodyguards. he refused to have a morphine injection to relieve pain until he had tried stuffing a handkerchief into his mouth and biting down hard on it. He repeated this performance in the prison hospital in 1949 when undergoing an appendicitis operation. He is afraid of truth serums.
Killer gets out next year
General Salazar calls the excuse for killing Trotsky "clearly ridiculous." The visitors' book at the house showed that Jacson paid Trotsky only twelve visits totaling four and a half hours. "Would Trotsky confide in a man to that extent after so short a time?" the general asks.
Under Mexican law. the sentence of twenty years and a day signifies that Jacson must serve the full sentence with no remission for good behavior. Since sentences are dated from the day the crime w(as committed, he will be released on Aug. 20, I960.
Mrs. Trotsky, now in her late seventies, is still an exile living in Mexico as a guest of the government. It would be an embarrassing international scandal if her husband’s assassin were permitted to live in the same country. Anyway, Mexico doesn't want him. But he is neither Cana-
dian. nor Belgian and cannot be sent to either country. Fingerprints, photographs, his father's statement and the testimony of Enrico Delgado, backed by evidence supplied by the Barcelona police, provide convincing proof that he is the Spaniard. Rio Mercader. But the Mexican government does not recognize the present Spanish government; therefore there is no international agreement under which he can be deported to Spain.
If. as General Salazar, the Mexican police. Mrs. Trotsky and Mrs. Yanowitch believe, he is still a member of the GPU.
a totalitarian soldier and a blind agent of absolute authority in Moscow, indoctrinated to lie and deceive, then his logical mother country should be Russia. But for the Soviet Union to take him would be tantamount to an admission of Stalin's complicity.
At one point in our interview. I had asked what his intentions were after release.
"It's simple." he replied. "I can never get a job like any other ex-convict might do. 1 have to retire and live somewhere under another name with enough money
to make any sort of work unnecessary.” "What country will you go to?”
“There are about three that I could go to quite easily.”
"Do you mean Soviet satellites?" “Perhaps,” he grinned. "But more likely much closer to this place."
Should Jacson prove a serious diplomatic embarrassment, the Mexican government could have him re-arrested at the prison gates, for entering the country with faked passport nineteen years ago. Then he could go back to the penitentiary. ★