MARTIN DARDIS | 1922-2006
Famed Miami investigator Martin Dardis supplied a key link in the Watergate investigation between the burglars and Richard Nixon's reelection campaign.
BY AMY DRISCOLL
DISTINGUISHED CAREER: Martin Dardis, shown in June 2005, was an investigator for the Dade state attorney for many years and later worked for Sports Illustrated.Martin F. Dardis, the legendary Miami investigator who tied the Watergate burglars to the Nixon reelection campaign and spent his life in relentless pursuit of the truth, died Tuesday in Palm City. He was 83.
As the dogged chief investigator for the Dade County state attorney's office in 1972, Dardis played a pivotal role in the unraveling of Watergate. He traced the connection between the $100 bills in the Watergate burglars' pockets and the Committee to Reelect the President, and helped unearth misdeeds that eventually forced the resignation of Richard Nixon.
''He was probably the world's greatest investigator,'' said Edward Carhart, a former prosecutor who worked with Dardis at the state attorney's office in the 1970s.
Dardis, he said, was ''like a priest or a rabbi. . . . He understood what motivated people and he could get people to reveal things to him better than anybody I've ever met.''
A snappy dresser and storyteller extraordinaire, Dardis later left the state attorney's office and remade himself as an investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated, using the same gut instinct and intelligence that drew him into the Watergate probe.
''He had an amazing ability to investigate and get to the truth, and he did it with his own inimitable style,'' recalled former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. ''When he got into a case, he would dig at it and pursue it. But what was so impressive about him was that he was not only a good investigator trying to get the bad guy, but he did it with such a sense of fairness and responsibility so you knew civil liberties were being protected.''
Dardis, an ex-cop, despised his portrayal in the Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward book and movie, All the President's Men. He told The Miami Herald last year that his historical role had been unfairly diminished and that the movie made him seem like a shabbily dressed ''buffoon.'' He said he had shown Bernstein exactly where the money had come from -- a Miami bank -- thereby filling in a key blank in the probe.
''I don't want any credit; I don't want any plaques or any damn thing,'' Dardis said. ''I just don't want it to appear that I didn't know what the hell was going on. I showed him where the damn money came from. I knew exactly what was going on. Normally, what the hell would I care? But in this case, we're talking about history.''
PLACE IN HISTORY
From the start, he seemed like an outsized character destined for a place in history. A self-educated man with an elementary school education and an unquenchable thirst for books, Dardis ran away from home as a boy and rode the rails before joining the Army at 16 by lying about his age.
At 21, he fought in one of the pivotal encounters of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge, but he and his four battle companions didn't receive Silver Stars for gallantry until 46 years later. The unit came under attack by waves of German bombers, and Dardis rescued one American flier from behind enemy lines. The dazed flier nearly shot Dardis before realizing his rescuer was an American.
Dardis, who had always thought he and the others deserved the medals, began researching war records in 1988. Using his people-finding skills, he traced the crew members, dug through dusty archives and took his case to the Army ''like I was presenting it to a grand jury.''
The Army conceded Dardis was right. In 1991, it awarded him and the four others their Silver Stars, writing: 'As a result of [Dardis'] actions, four of the attacking planes were brought down. . . . He and the members of his section repeatedly displayed audacious determination and steadfast devotion to duty by remaining at their guns in spite of the superiority of the attacking enemy force.''
He had received a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts as well.
After his military service, Dardis became a police officer, first in upstate New York and then in South Florida, where he became police chief in North Bay Village in the 1950s, his wife, Barbara, recalled. He went on to work as an investigator for Florida Attorney General Richard Ervin until Ervin's term ended in 1964, she said; then he began investigating for Dade County State Attorney Richard E. Gerstein.
''He was a bulwark of the office, the guy in the trench coat who had entree in places you'd never imagine,'' said Seymour Gelber, former prosecutor and ex-mayor of Miami Beach. ''He was Gerstein's closest confidant.''
In 1972, Dardis was tipped off to the Miami bank's cash connection with the Watergate burglars and subpoenaed the bank's records. He learned that one burglar, Bernard L. Barker, a Miamian who worked with the CIA during the Bay of Pigs, held an account with a recently deposited $25,000 check from Kenneth H. Dahlberg, a major Republican fundraiser.
Dahlberg, it turned out, was the same American pilot Dardis had rescued in the Battle of the Bulge.
When The Washington Post's Bernstein showed up at the state attorney's office in downtown Miami, Dardis showed him the critical link. In 1997, Woodward called the Dahlberg check the ''connective tissue'' that linked the burglars to Nixon's campaign.
''He was a fantastic investigator,'' said Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney David Waksman. ''I still use things that he taught me when I'm interviewing witnesses that are a bit recalcitrant, to get them to talk. I still use phrases that he taught me.''
Dardis' investigations often drew headlines -- the $862,000 fraud at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in 1974, a $258,931 trifecta scam at Flagler Dog Track in 1977 -- and he reveled in the attention, friends and family said.
Miami Herald columnist and author Carl Hiaasen, a friend of Dardis', described him as something out of ''Miami's Wild West days.''
''He was like a character out of pulp fiction, an incredible sleuth in the grand tradition of the gumshoes. He could get any piece of information he wanted from anyone,'' Hiaasen said. ''He was someone Damon Runyon would have invented if he wasn't for real.''
In the late 1970s, Dardis went undercover to break up Miami drug rings. In 1979, out of concern for his family's safety, he moved to upstate New York with his wife and their two children, Erin and Michael. He became an investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated, coauthoring a book about the NBA in 1997. He worked for the magazine until about 18 months ago.
''I just thought he was the most fascinating person I'd ever met,'' his wife said. ''He was never dull. But more than anything he did in his life, he was proud of his children.''
His daughter, Erin, who works for the Kendall law firm of Abadin Jaramillo Cook & Heffernan, became a lawyer because of her father.
''He always told me you should work just as hard to prove someone innocent as you would to prove them guilty,'' she said. ''He cared so much about helping the underdog, the guy nobody else would help.''
Dardis died in a nursing home of vascular disease that stemmed from war injuries, his wife said.
He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C., with full military honors, she said. The ceremony will be sometime this summer. He had six children, including four from previous marriages.
Miami polygraph expert Warren Holmes worked with Dardis on many cases: 'Bottom line, he had great instincts, he was totally objective and always interested in pursuing the truth. He didn't have a political motive. He always just wanted to find out, 'what is the truth here?' ''
Miami Herald staff writer Susannah A. Nesmith contributed to this report.
Published by the Miami Herald on May 17, 2006.