WASHINGTON – A presidential campaign was in full-swing on June 17, 1972 – exactly forty years ago – and the nation’s capital was gearing up for the official start of summer.
In the early hours of that Saturday morning, three D.C. police officers responded to a call they’d never forget, with consequences they couldn’t have imagined at the time.
Before long, a team of burglars had been arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel. Eventually, it was discovered they had ties to President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election campaign and the rest is history, with the ultimate result being the president’s resignation.
Paul Leeper was a 34-year-old M.P.D. sergeant that morning, sitting in Cruiser 727 with officers John Barrett and Carl Shoffler. Just before 2 a.m., they were leaving the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and K Street NW.
“So, at that time, the call came out,” the now 74-year-old Maryland resident says. “[The dispatcher]came on the air and said, ‘I need a car and an official to talk to the guard down at the Watergate. He found some tape on a door.'”
Though an initial search of the building came up empty, Leeper and his partners eventually confronted five men in an office of the D.N.C. A search of the first cubicle he came to turned up nothing more than a desk, chair and typewriter.
“I start into the second (cubicle) and I see Barrett go into a crouch with his weapon,” Leeper says. “And he’s yelling something. To this day I don’t know if he was yelling ‘hold it’ or ‘don’t move’ but I knew he’d made contact with somebody.”
Once the dust had settled, the police officers had five men in custody. But they didn’t look like your average burglars.
Five “middle-aged guys, with Playtex gloves on, suits and ties,” he says. “You don’t normally lock up people of that age for burglary. And plus, you’re thinking, ‘Well, we had a break-in (at the Watergate) in May, this is the Democratic National Committee headquarters, what am I involved with here, you know?'”
Although Leeper had no way of knowing the full scope of what was going on and what the arrests would eventually lead to, he says he told his wife, “I think this is probably going to be the biggest case I ever made.”
It wasn’t long before investigators discovered the burglar team had reserved room at the Howard Johnson Hotel across the street and had seized close to 300 items ranging from cash to lock picks to listening devices.
More than two years would pass before the Watergate story reached its zenith with President Nixon’s decision to leave office in the face of almost certain impeachment.
Leeper hesitates and thinks a moment after being asked if he remembers his thoughts following the president’s announcement on August 8, 1974.
“I was down behind the Washington Post later on that night and I talked to [Post owner] Katherine Graham and she asked me the same thing. What can I say? There’s nothing to say, it’s just another case. It is the President of the United States. You feel sorry for his family, of course. But then again I didn’t put those people in there.”