How A Piece Of Tape Led To The Arrest Of The Watergate Burglars

Few scandals have had the kind of impact as the Watergate scandal. On June 17, 1972, police officers arrested a group of burglars in the Democratic National Convention offices of the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., according to Britannica. Investigation showed that the burglars had been at the office to leave wiretaps on phones, according to History, and a journalistic probe would eventually uncover ties between the burglars and the current presidential administration of Richard M. Nixon, the 37th president of the United States.

The revelation proved to be a major scandal for Nixon. Soon, facing the threat of impeachment charges which would likely remove him from office, he resigned from his post and was replaced by his vice president, Gerald R. Ford, who became the 38th President. But the impact of the discovery would be much more far-reaching than a change in the presidency. The Watergate scandal opened Americans' eyes to the corruption present in their government, and led people to demand more transparency from political figures, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Still, one of the most shocking things about the scandal is how close burglars came to getting away with their crimes. In fact, the public might not have ever known about Nixon's spying if not for an attentive night guard and a piece of tape.

The security guard who reported the burglary

Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, Frank Wills was making his rounds as a night watchman at the Watergate complex when he spotted something unusual, according to ABC News. A door in the building had tape placed over its latch, so that the door would not lock. He removed the tape, but on his next round, he saw that the piece of tape he removed had been replaced. Suspecting a burglary, at 1:47 that morning, Wills called the police (via Watergate).

Soon, a pair of plainclothes police officers arrived. Officers John Barrett and Paul Leeper uncovered more suspicious details as they investigated the building. The door Wills noticed was not the only door which had been taped; in fact, multiple doors in the building had been taped in this way, to prevent them from locking. Then the officers discovered a desk that appeared to have been ransacked, according to ABC News. As they continued their search, they eventually heard the sound of someone moving. Further investigation revealed five men, dressed up in suits, in the middle of committing a burglary.

A lookout could have ruined everything

The identification of the burglars was lucky, in part because of Wills' quick thinking, but also because the police officers could have easily been spotted by a lookout. Alfred Baldwin had been placed across the street from the DNC offices with instructions to watch out for any lights or movement that might indicate someone was present in the building besides the burglars, according to ABC News.

Two things foiled that plan. First was that Officers Barrett and Leeper arrived in an unmarked vehicle, in plainclothes. That likely prevented the lookout from spotting their police car as it arrived, as might have occurred if they arrived with sirens blaring. Additionally, Baldwin wasn't the most attentive lookout. When he was meant to be watching the DNC building, he was also watching a movie on TV called "Attack of the Puppet People," according to ABC News. He was so dialed into the program that by the time he noticed there were people moving around the DNC offices, it was too late to warn the burglars, and they were caught.

Who were the burglars?

The five burglars nabbed by the police officers were James McCord (above), Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martnez, and Frank Sturgis, according to ABC News. All of the burglars were ultimately connected to President Nixon's reelection campaign. James McCord was the security chief of the Committee to Re-elect the President, and the other four burglars had CIA connections, according to Britannica. The burglars had been sent in to fix wiretaps which had previously been placed in the offices, but which were no longer working, according to History. Initially, President Nixon insisted he wasn't connected to the burglars, and the public bought his story; he was reelected to the office that fall. It wasn't until a journalistic investigation was published after the election that Nixon faced consequences for his role in the break-in, and ultimately resigned.

In the meantime, the burglars themselves faced prison time on charges of conspiracy and burglary. All of the burglars involved were convicted and sentenced to at least a year in prison, though McCord's sentence was eventually commuted to only four months, according to ABC News.

For his part in uncovering the crime, security guard Frank Wills was given an award by the Democratic National Convention, acknowledging his "unique role in the history of the nation," according to The New York Times.