Still on the Case
Conspiracy buffs live in a world of uncertainty, haunted by goat’s heads, a pristine bullet, and bouncing skulls. But the most haunting uncertainty of all is this: who was Lee Harvey Oswald?
Dealey Plaza. It’s a hot morning in August of this year, and motorists whizzing down Elm Street are witnessing a curious, if not sinister, phenomenon. Three people have gathered around a manhole at the foot of the famous grassy knoll. There’s an attractive young blond woman, a spry, grizzled older fellow in a Coors cap, and a guy in his thirties with a tape recorder. The older guy is bending down and—demonstrating remarkable vigor—pulling the hundred-pound manhole cover out of its recess in the sidewalk.
Then he stops. Waits for a Dallas Police Department squad car to cruise by and disappear into the darkness of the Triple Underpass. At last he has yanked the massive iron seal clear of the opening that leads down to the storm sewer system honeycombing the underside of Dealey Plaza.
Then he does something really strange. He walks out into the middle of Elm Street traffic, heads uphill between two lanes of oncoming cars, and plants himself in the middle of the road about 25 yards upstream.
“Okay now, Ron. I’m standing right where the president was when he took the head shot. Now I want you to get down in that manhole,” he yells at the younger guy, who, not to be coy, is me. “Elaine,” he calls out to the woman, “you show him how to position himself.”
So here I am, out in the midday sun, lowering myself into this manhole. It’s kind of cool down here, though some might call it dank. While it is nice to escape the pounding of the direct sunlight, this is not my idea of summer fun. But this is no ordinary manhole. This is the historic Dealey Plaza manhole that a certain faction of assassination buffs—led by Penn Jones, Jr., the guy in the middle of Elm Street—believes sheltered a sniper who fired the fatal frontal head shot on November 22, 1963. This manhole is the first stop on a grand tour of Dallas assassination shrines, during which, among other things, Penn has promised to show me the exact locations from which, he says offhandedly, the nine gunmen fired at John F. Kennedy that day. Sort of the Stations of the Cross Fire in conspiracy-theory gospel.
You remember Penn Jones Jr., don’t you? The feisty, combative country editor of the Midlothian Mirror. Author of the four-volume (so far) privately printed series called Forgive My Grief, the continuing account of his JFK-assassination investigation, which focuses on the deaths and disappearances of the 188 witnesses (so far) who Penn contends knew too much about the assassination conspiracy to be permitted to live.
Well, Penn Jones, Jr., is still on the case. He has retired from his editor’s post to a farmhouse in Waxahachie, where he lives with his disciple and research associate, Elaine Kavanaugh, and publishes a monthly assassination newsletter, the Continuing Inquiry.
“Elaine,” Penn yells out, “get Ron to back up against the wall there. Then he’ll know what I mean.”
I think Penn has sensed that I have some reservations about his Manhole Sniper theory, and this elaborate positioning is designed to address my doubts. In fact, I am skeptical.
Not the least of my problems with the Manhole Sniper theory is that it requires the putative manhole assassin to have popped up the hundred-pound manhole cover at just the right moment, fired a shot, then plopped it down over his head without any of the surrounding crowd taking notice of his activity. But Penn is determined to set me straight on this misapprehension.
“Okay now, Ron, you’ve got to move back so’s your back is touching the rear of the hole there,” Elaine says.
I follow her instructions and find myself completely under the overhang of pavement. In total darkness, except…well, damned if there isn’t a perfect little rectangle of daylight coming through an opening in the pavement right in front of my eyes, and damned if Penn Jones’ face isn’t framed right in it.
“That’s the storm drain in the curb side you’re lookin’ out now,” says Elaine.
“See what a clear shot he had?” Penn Jones yells out. “Okay, Elaine, now pull that manhole cover back over on top of him. Ron, you’ll see that even in the dark you’ll be able to feel your way to one of those runoff tunnels he used to squirm his way under the plaza to the getaway.”
Elaine begins to lug the heavy seal over the hole. Over me.
“Well, actually, Elaine, I don’t think that’ll be necessary. I get the picture,” I say, hastily scrambling out, visions of the glowing eyes of sewer rats sending shivers through me.
Penn Jones hustles over dodging traffic, and drags the cover back into place. He gives me a look that says, “Uh huh—another one not prepared to follow the trail all the way,” and then he sets off on a trot up the grassy knoll to what he says is the next point of fire.
But before we follow Penn Jones up the grassy knoll, before we get any deeper into the labyrinthine state of the art of JFK-assassination theory, let’s linger a moment on the manhole demo, because we’ve got a metaphor here for my own stance in relation to the whole web of conspiracy theory that the assassination buffs have spun out over the past twenty years. Because I’m going to be your guide in this excursion, and I want you to trust my judgment and powers of discrimination. I want you to know my attitude toward these people, which can be summed up by saying that I’ll go down into the manhole with them but I won’t pull the cover over my head.
You need a connoisseur when you’re dealing with the tangled thicket of theory and conjecture that has overgrown the few established facts in the years since the events of that November 22. You need someone who can distinguish between the real investigators still in the field and the poets, like Penn Jones, whose luxuriant and flourishing imaginations have produced a dark, phantasmagoric body of work that bears more resemblance to a Latin American novel (Penn is the Gabriel García Márquez of Dealey Plaza, if you will) than to the prosaic police-reporter mentality I prefer in these matters. You need someone with something akin to what Keats called negative capability—the ability to abide uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without succumbing to the temptation of premature certainty. You need someone like me. I rather fancy myself El Exigente of conspiracy-theory culture, like the “Demanding One” in the TV coffee commercial. I’ve covered the buff beat since the early seventies—you might call me a buff buff—since the time, before Watergate, when everybody laughed at the idea of conspiracies.
So with El Exigente here as your guide, let’s look at who’s still on the case after twenty years and whether they have anything worth saying. What are the real mysteries left, and is there any hope we’ll ever solve them?
Remember the way the residents of the little coffee-growing village in the Savarin commercial gather, buzzing nervously around the town square, awaiting the arrival of El Exigente, the white-suited coffee taster whose judgment on their beans will determine the success or failure of their entire harvest?
Well, the buff grapevine had been buzzing furiously for days before my departure for Dallas. Cross-country calls speculating about the nature of my mission. My past writings on the subject extricated from files, summoned up on computer screens, and scrutinized suspiciously. Indeed, angrily in some cases, as I learned the morning of my departure, when I received an irate call from newly ascendant buff David Lifton, author of the most successful of the recent buff books, Best Evidence. He accused me of plotting to trash his cherished trajectory-reversal theory.
As I set out for Dallas on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the Dealey Plaza shooting, I was aware that I was heading into a buzz saw of buff factionalism. Long-festering rivalries and doctrinal disputes were dividing the Dallas-area buffs after years of beleaguered unity. Some of the bitterness can be attributed to the aftermath of the British invasion of Dallas buff turf in the past decade. First there was British writer Michael Eddowes with his KGB-impostor theory: the Oswald who returned from the Soviet Union in 1962 wasn’t the same Lee Harvey Oswald who defected to the USSR in 1959 but instead was a clever KGB impostor who used the name “Alek Hidell” (one of Oswald’s aliases in Dallas and New Orleans). A few years later British writer Anthony Summers came to Dallas to research his theory that Oswald was not a Russian but an American intelligence operative. Both writers swept through town, wined and dined the local buffs, wrung them dry of their files and facts, and departed to publish completely contradictory conspiracy theories.
Eddowes’ book, The Oswald File, left the most lasting legacy of divisiveness; it launched the epic embarrassment of the Oswald exhumation controversy. Eddowes maintained that his KGB-impostor theory could be proved by examining the body buried in Fort Worth’s Rose Hill Cemetery under Oswald’s name. Dental and medical evidence would show that the body belonged to an impostor, he said.
A number of Dallas buffs invested a lot of credibility in the exhumation crusade. Mary Ferrell, for instance. The great archivist. For years she had labored diligently to collect and index everything ever written about the assassination, every document, every clipping, every scrap of potential evidence. Her husband built a room in their back yard to hold the ever-expanding files. They bought two German shepherds to protect their stock. And for all those years, unlike the publicity-happy buffs who used her work, she had never sought to publish a theory of her own, had never abandoned her archivist’s neutrality, had just gone on compiling her ultra-authoritative, supercomplete name index to the JFK assassination. Sample entries from the name index indicate its comprehensiveness:
Boyer, Al—Hairstylist. He accompanied Josephine Ann Bunce, Jamye Bartlett and Bonnie Cavin to Dallas from Kansas City, Missouri. Warren Commission, vol. 22, p. 903.
Boykin, Earl L. Wife, Ruby O. 1300 Keats Drive. Mechanic at Earl Hayes Chevrolet. Probably the same as Earl Boykin, who gave his address as 1300 Kouts at the Sports Drome Rifle Range one of the days Oswald was allegedly there. Texas Attorney General’s Report.
But then this dashing Englishman swept into town and away went her meticulous scholarly neutrality. “This Eddowes was some character,” one rival buff remarked. “He had his own Rolls-Royce flown over from England. He’d chauffeur Mary around. Then she’d fly over to England, and he’d drive her around London in Rolls-Royces.”
It was the old story. Mary Ferrell ended up enlisting in the exhumation cause, drawing a flotilla of Dallas buffs behind her. They were all convinced that the authorities would never let the body be exhumed because of the terrible dual-identity secret it would reveal.
Then in 1981 Oswald’s wife, Marina, was somehow enticed into the exhumation battle, and it was Marina’s lawsuit that finally opened the tomb. And so out they went to Rose Hill Cemetery with cape and shovel to see just who was buried there.
The body they dug up seemed to have Oswald’s teeth—the American Marine Oswald’s teeth—down to the tiniest detail. The medical examiner said that the Oswald buried in Oswald’s grave was the same Oswald who had been in the Marines before he defected to Russia. The second-body buffs weren’t satisfied, of course (they’re still demanding a ruling), but the credibility of the whole Dallas buff community went right down the tubes.
Arrive in Dallas with a suitcase full of current buff literature, most of it newsletters. I’ve got the Grassy Knoll Gazette, put out by Robert Cutler. I’ve got Penn Jones’ Continuing Inquiry. I’ve got Paul Hoch’s Echoes of Conspiracy. And I’ve got Coverups! from Gary Mack of Forth Worth.
The last is new to me. But buried in a buff gossip column, there’s a tip-off that it, too, is a product of Dallas-buff fratricide: “Gary Mack and Jack White were dismissed by Penn Jones as consultants to The Continuing Inquiry. No explanation was given.”
I’ve heard a lot about Gary Mack. He is the industrious young turk of the new generation of high-tech audiovisual aids buffs who have supplanted the old-style document-indexing types. Over the years, they’ve blown up, enhanced, and assiduously analyzed every square millimeter of film and tape taken that day, and they’ve discerned lurking in the grainy shadows shapes and forms they say are gunmen. Leafing through Mack’s newsletters, I come upon a fascinating photo-montage of Grassy Knoll Gunmen on the front page of Coverups! There is a Black Dog Man — I’ve seen him before — and a new one to me: Badge Man. I am familiar with various suspicious characters of their genre, such as the Babbushka Lady and the Umbrella Man, to whom the photographic buffs have attributed various mysterious roles. I decide to call Gary Mack and check these guys out.
Black Dog Man. At first he was a furry shadow on top of the concrete wall behind the grassy knoll. Certain audiovisual-aids types saw in blowups of that furry shadow a manlike shape. In some blowups, they said, they could see a man firing a gun. Skeptical photo analysts on the staff of the House Select Committee on Assassinations through that the furry shadow looked more canine than conspiratorial and dubbed the dark apparition Black Dog Man.
And there he is on the front page of the October issue of Gary Mack’s newsletter. Next to Black Dog Man is Badge Man; an extreme blowup of a tiny square of what seems to be a tree shadow is accompanied by a visual aid, “a sketch of what he might look like if this photo is computer-enhanced.” And suddenly — in the sketch at least — Badge Man leaps out of the shadows and takes explicit human form. He’s a man in the uniform of a Dallas police officer, complete with badge and shoulder patch. He appears to be firing a rifle concealed by what looks like a flare from a muzzle blast. In the foreground of the Polaroid from which this blowup was made, the Kennedy limousine is passing the grassy knoll and the president is beginning to collapse. It is less than a second after the fatal head shot. Am I watching Badge Man fire it? The House Select committee photo panel reported, “Although it is extremely unlikely that further enhancement of any kind would be successful, this particular photo should be re-examined in light of the findings of the acoustics analysis,” which placed a gunman behind the grassy knoll.
What does your guide, El Exigente, make of a Black Dog Man and Badge Man? Much as I would like to have an enhanced portrait of the assassin at the moment he fired the fatal shot, I’m afraid my instinct is that these photos must be classified as an artifact of the Beatles-in-the-trees variety. Recall that when Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album came out — the first one after Dylan’s near-fatal motorcycle accident — there were stories of cryptic messages embedded in the album-cover photograph? There was supposed to be a group shot of the Beatles—their four heads anyway — hidden in the shadows of the trees. I saw the Beatles in the trees once they were pointed out to me. But I don’t think they were there, if you know what I mean. That same can be said for the thereness of Black Dog Man.
When I reach Gary Mack, he says he has something exciting to show me if I visit his Fort Worth home and investigatory headquarters: a beautiful blown-up enhancement of the Bronson film.
The Bronson film. The last, best hope that we’ll get a motion picture of the “other assassins.” Sort of the Shroud of Turin of the buff faith. Dallas onlooker Charles Bronson was taking home movies in Dealey Plaza that day. He caught the assassination in color. Showed it to the FBI. Nothing of interest, they said. Fifteen years later an assassination researcher name Robert Ranftel came across an FBI report, buried in 100,000 pages of declassified documents, about this film. Dogged Dallas assassination reporter Earl Golz tracked down Bronson — now in Ada, Oklahoma — checked out the film, and discovered something no one noticed before. Up there in the left-hand corner of the frame, the Bronson camera had caught the sixth-floor windows of the Texas School Book Depository. Not just the sniper’s-nest window on the corner where Oswald was said to be perched but also the two adjacent windows. It’s those two windows that Gary Mack wants me to see.
He also fills me in on his continuing struggle to rescue the Dallas police tape from being reconsigned to the dustbin of history. Gary thinks he can save it. I’m not so sure. For a glorious period of about three years, the Dallas police tape represented a triumphant official vindication of everything — well, almost everything — assassination buffs had been saying since 1964. The tape (actually a Dictabelt made of transmission from a motorcycle cop’s open mike to police headquarters on November 22) was excavated from a box in a retired police intelligence officer’s closet in 1978, after Mary Ferrell reminded the House Select Committee of its possible existence and probative value.
Acoustical analysis of the sound patterns submerged in the static on the police tape led the House Select committee to the spectacular conclusion that “scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President Kennedy” and that the assassination was “probably a result of a conspiracy.”
Not only that. The highly respected acoustics scientists who analyzed the tape concluded from their reconstruction of echo patterns and test firings in Dealey Plaza that the second gunman was actually on the grassy knoll. Yes, the much ridiculed assassination-buff obsession, the grass knoll. The longest, most thorough official government investigation of the JFK assassination concluded that the buffs were right all along.
The vindication was short-lived, though. In 1982 a new panel of acoustics experts, this one convened at the request of the Justice Department by the National Academy of Sciences and known as the Ramsey Panel, blasted the police-tape findings out of the water. Its determination was that the so-called shots heard on the Dictabelt, including the grassy-knoll shot, took place a full minute after the shootings in the Dealey Plaza that day and thus couldn’t be shots at all.
And so we’re back to square one. The acoustical evidence doesn’t rule out a grassy-knoll gunman or a conspiracy or even the nine gunmen Penn Jones posits. But the mantle of scientific proof the buffs had downed now seems to be in shreds.
Not so, says Gary Mack. “Are you familiar with automatic gain control, Ron?” he asks me, and he launches into a highly complex, technical critique of the Ramsey Panel critique of the House Select Committee acoustics report. The Ramsey Panel misinterpreted automatic gain control in their retiming thesis, he says. They neglected to analyze the sixty-cycle power hum to see if the Dictabelt in question had been rerecorded. They neglected certain anomalies of the Dictabelt that could be cleared up by further analysis of echo-pattern matching and corroborated by a more precise jiggle analysis of another gruesome home movie, the one taken by Dallas dressmaker Abraham Zapruder.
Gary sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, and perhaps he can make his case. But listening to his technobuff talk, I get a distinct sinking feeling that the Dallas police tape — like almost every other piece of “definitive” evidence in the case — is now forever lost in that limbo of ambiguity, that endless swamp of dispute that swallows up any certainty in the Kennedy case.
This morass of technobuff ambiguity leaves me utterly exhausted and depressed, but Gary Mack shifts the conversation to a missing-witness story. It isn’t the greatest missing-witness story I’ve heard. Nothing like the classic Earlene-Roberts-rooming-house story. Nothing like the second-Oswald-car-salesman story. But it has enough of that misterioso provocativeness to give me a little thrill of that old-time buff fever and remind me why the whole hopeless confusing case has continued to fascinate me for two decades.
This particular missing-witness story concerns Oswald’s whereabouts at the time of the shooting. No witness has ever placed him on the sixth floor any later than 11:55 a.m., 35 minutes before the gunfire. Oswald maintained that he was on the first floor throughout the shooting. And one witness, Bonnie Ray Williams, who was eating fried chicken on the sixth floor, stated that as late as 12:20 p.m. he was alone up there, that there was no Oswald on the sixth floor. Where was Oswald? The Warren Commission implied that he must have been hiding on the sixth floor in his sniper’s nest from 11:55 on, while the Fried Chicken Man was chomping away.
But Gary Mack tells me about a witness, never questioned by the Warren Commission, who contradicts that hypothesis. She is Carolyn Arnold, now a resident of Stephenville. Back in 1963 she was executive secretary to the vice president of the Book Depository. She knew Oswald well by sight. She says that she came upon Oswald sitting alone, eating a sandwich in the employees’ second-floor lunchroom at 12:15, just ten minutes before the motorcade was scheduled to pass the building. Her timing of this sighting has been corroborated convincingly by other employees, who noticed when she left her office to go to the lunchroom.
If Oswald was planning to assassinate the president from the sixth floor, what was he doing calmly eating lunch four floors below, right before the president was supposed to come into view? Could he have been that hungry, that calm? And if that was Oswald in the lunchroom, who were the figures spotted moving around on the sixth floor by witnesses across the street from the building at just about that time?
Whatever the significance of the Carolyn Arnold story — and perhaps it can be explained by eyewitness error — just listening to Gary Mack tell it brings me back to that peculiar sense of dislocation that attracted me to the JFK case in the first place. That frisson of strangeness.
Bring up the Twilight Zone theme. It’s summer 1964. I’m seventeen, and I’m in a small crowded theater in New York’s Gramercy Park section. A fierce man strides across the stage with a pointer, gesturing contemptuously at a huge blown-up slide projection of Lee Harvey Oswald. It’s the famous Life magazine cover photo, the one with Oswald posing in his back yard with a rifle in one hand, a copy of the Socialist Workers Party paper, the Militant, in the other, and a pistol on his hip. He’s got that weird, glazed, grim-faced grin.
But there’s something else going on in this picture, the man with the pointer is saying. Something going on with the shadows. Look at the direction of the shadow of the gun, he commands us. Now look at the direction of the shadow cast by Oswald’s nose. Different angle. Something’s wrong. This picture has been faked. It’s part of the frame-up. That’s Lee Harvey Oswald’s head but someone else’s body. The man with the pointer is, of course, Mark Lane. He has just come from Washington, where he has been representing Oswald’s side of the story before the Warren Commission at the request of Oswald’s mother, Marguerite. And investigating the case himself. Already he has turned up some stories the authorities don’t want us to hear, he says. Stories that suggest deep currents of complicity between the Dallas police and the conspiracy to frame Oswald.
The Earlene Roberts story, for instance. Roberts was the landlady of Oswald’s shabby Oak Cliff rooming house. She recounted an incident that occurred a half hour after the shooting. Oswald had returned home and disappeared into his bedroom, and she was sitting in her parlor watching coverage of the assassination on TV when a Dallas police squad car pulled up in front of her place. The car paused, then honked its horn twice and left. Shortly thereafter, Oswald emerged and headed off in haste, only to be intercepted — accidentally, according to the Warren Commission — by Officer J. D. Tippit, who was shot dead while attempting to apprehend him.
The police department denied that any of its vehicles passed or stopped at Oswald’s address. The only car in the vicinity at the time, they said, was driven by none other than Officer Tippit. Just what was going on between Oswald and Tippit?
Whoa. Twilight Zone again. Most Americans remember exactly where they were and what they felt when they first heard that John Kennedy had been shot. I’m no different; I do, too. But I have to confess that I remember even more vividly where I was and what I felt when I first heard the Earlene Roberts story. I remember feeling a chill, feeling goose bumps crawling up from between my shoulder blades. There was a kind of thrill too, the thrill of being let in on some secret reality. Shadowy connections, suggestions of an evil still at large that ordinary people were not prepared to deal with. Dangerous knowledge.
The Earlene Roberts story certainly struck a nerve. And not just with me. Brian de Palma’s second film, Greetings, while ostensibly about the draft, featured a character obsessed by Kennedy’s assassination and by the Earlene Roberts story in particular. This guy was convinced, as is Penn Jones, that Earlene Roberts’ death, before she was able to give testimony to the Warren Commission, was the work of the People Behind It All.
Dangerous knowledge. It’s the recurrent theme in almost all of the assassination-conspiracy films that followed De Palma’s first. In Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, in William Richert’s Winter Kills, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, in De Palma’s later Blow Out, the hero begins by investigating the death of a Witness Who Knows Too Much, and soon be becomes a Witness Who Knows Too Much himself. His attainment of a darker, more truthful vision of the way things really are makes him a target for assassination. A way, perhaps, for us to approach the horror of being assassinated, the unassimilable horror of what JFK experienced at Dealey Plaza.
Let me return to 1964, because in the fall of that year, just two months after hearing the Earlene Roberts story, I was fortunate enough to get to know the assassination researcher whose methods and judgment I still respect above all others in the field. His name is Josiah Thompson, and he was my freshman philosophy instructor at Yale. At the time I knew him, he was becoming increasingly preoccupied with two mysteries: the often misinterpreted nature of the mind of the gloomy Danish antirationalist philosopher Sören Kierkegaard and the numinous hints of an alternate interpretation of the truth lurking in the shadows of the Warren Commission’s 26 volumes.
His investigation of Kierkegaard resulted eventually in a highly acclaimed biography and a study of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings called The Lonely Labyrinth. His investigation of the teeming labyrinth of the Kennedy case took him into the Warren Report, then out into the world and down to Dallas, where he reinterviewed the witnesses, reexamined the evidence, and found new witnesses and new evidence. He produced what many regard as the most scrupulously researched and carefully thought-out critique of the official conclusions, a book called Six Seconds in Dallas: A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination.
And so with Thompson as my model, I came to think of critics of the Warren Report—the best of them, anyway—as intellectual heroes, defying conventional wisdom and complacency to pursue the truth. I had lost track of Thompson during the past ten years, and I was having trouble tracking him down to see what he thought of the JFK case after twenty years. It wasn’t until I got to Dallas that I heard a strange story about him from one of the West Coast buffs who had found me in my hotel room through the buff grapevine. He’d heard that Thompson had abandoned his tenured professorship of philosophy and chucked his whole academic career to become a private eye somewhere on the West Coast. What the hell could that mean? Had he become a casualty of dangerous knowledge? Or had he fallen in love with it?
Next morning. Rendezvous with Penn and Elaine at the Book Depository for the grand gunmen tour. The Texas Historical Commission plaque at the base of the building still astonishes with its frank rejection of Warren Commission certainty. This is the building from which “Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot and killed” JFK.
“You ever been in the military, Ron?” Penn Jones is asking me. We’ve moved to the top of the grassy knoll, and Penn is pointing out sniper’s nests in the buildings surrounding the killing ground down below.
There was hardly a building or tree that hadn’t bristled with guns that day, according to Penn’s vision of things. There were gunmen on top of the Dal-Tex Building, gunmen in the Records Building, even gunmen up in the skies.
“Look over there,” Penn says, pointing toward the top of the Post Office Annex. “That was an observation post. They had a man there overlooking things so he could assess the damage done” by the first nine gunmen in Dealey Plaza. If they failed, Penn says, he could alert the multiple teams of backup gunmen farther along the parade route. Or if necessary call in the airborne team.
“They,” for Penn, is the military. He believes that the military killed Kennedy. Not the Mafia, not the CIA, not Cuban exiles, not some of the fusions of all three currently fashionable among buff theorists.
“Why the military?” I ask Penn. “Because they thought he’d withdraw from Viet Nam? Or—“
“Shit, no. So they could take over,” he says.
Penn was in the military, a World War II transport officer in the North African campaigns. In some ways Penn is still in the military. Only, he’s a general now. A master strategist. As he surveys the landscape of Dealey Plaza, pointing out the teams of gunmen, as we retrace the motorcade route through the streets of Dallas, examining the locations of backup gunmen teams, Penn is like a general reviewing his troops, a battlefield strategist pointing out the logic of his deployments.
And they are his, in the sense that—to my mind, anyway—they owe their existence more to the conceptions of his own mind, his strategic intelligence, the logic of what the military would do if Penn Jones were commanding it, than to any mundane criteria of reality.
Of course, Penn’s army of gunmen doesn’t spring entirely from his overactive imagination. We’re standing on the railroad tracks now, the ones that cross over the Triple Underpass. Penn points out the famous railroad signal-tower perch of the late Lee Bowers. Up there on November 22, 1963, Lee Bowers had a clear view of the area behind the stockade fence that crests the grassy knoll. Right about here, where Penn, Elaine, and I are standing, police officer Joe Smith stopped a man who was exiting the scene with suspect haste, as Smith testified before the Warren Commission. The man showed Secret Service credentials to Smith. The Secret Service says that none of its agents would have been there at that time.
As for the late Lee Bowers, it was his “mysterious death,” shortly after his Warren Commission testimony, that set Penn off on his twenty-year chronicling of deaths and disappearances of witnesses with dangerous knowledge.
“Lee Bowers was killed in a one-car accident in my hometown of Midlothian, Texas,” Penn tells me, his drawl just crawling with embittered sarcasm. “The doctor in Midlothian who examined him told me that when he admitted him, Bowers was in some sort of strange shock.”
Some sort of strange shock. The tour of Dallas with Penn and Elaine puts me in shock. Some sort of strange trance. Ordinary features of the landscape are beginning to assume sinister aspects. The whole city seems to be teeming with teams of gunmen, backup gunmen, the ghosts of murdered witnesses.
Even things that are not there somehow testify, in Penn’s vision, to the work of conspiratorial intelligence. We’ve been cruising along Stemmons Freeway on the route the motorcade would have taken to JFK’s speaking engagement at the Dallas Trade Mart. Past the site of what was once the old Cobb Stadium before it was torn down. There were reserve gunmen on top of the stadium, Penn tells me.
And we cruise by the site of the old Highlander Hotel in Highland Park. Now replaced by some big new condo tower. “The paymaster stayed here,” Penn tells me. “It’s also where the gunmen stayed the night before. They tore it down completely. I think it’s significant that all these buildings were torn down.”
Penn is fascinated by the first-class treatment the gunmen got before the day of the shooting.
“They treat the gunmen real well before,” he tells me. “They’re mighty important. Every wish of theirs must be complied with.”
Almost wistfully he describes the wish-fulfilled life of the gunmen in the secret safe houses he says they occupied the nights before the Night Before.
“There was one up in Lake Lugert, Oklahoma,” he says. “That was some damn place. They had anything the wanted. Gambling, women. Lobsters flown in daily. Sheeit.”
Of course, Penn says, things changed for the gunmen the Day After.
“They loaded them in the two getaway planes and then just blew up the planes — one of ’em over the Gulf of Mexico, the other one down there in Sonora Province, old Mexico.”
Not every shrine had been torn down. Some have been quietly disintegrating. The Oak Cliff sites. The Earlene Roberts rooming house to which O. returned shortly after the shooting. The house, where he and Marina had lived as their marriage disintegrated that year. Jack Ruby’s raunchy apartment and motel pads. The Texas Theater, where O. was finally cornered.
“They just let this area decay,” Penn says — as if even the inexorable organic breakdown of wood fiber is due to a conscious decision they made.
I’ll never forget pulling into the driveway of this Oswald-and-Marina abode. It isn’t so much the shock of discovering around back the hauntingly familiar outside staircase that served as a background for the controversial O.-with-rifle-and-nose-shadow pix.
No, it is the expression on the face of the ancient Mexican man who apparently lives in the decaying shrine now. Evidently Penn is a regular, fairly well tolerated visitor here; when we arrive, the man — who is sitting on the sagging, splintered front porch with a child who appears to be his grandson — waves familiarly at Penn. But as we pass, I notice a deeply puzzled expression come over his face. Why do these crazy Anglos keep cruising my driveway? What kind of satisfaction is it they’re after, that they never get?
But the thing I’ll remember most about our tour this day is not the haunted landmarks or the ghostly gunmen they conceal. The thing I’ll never forget, for its intensity and authenticity — and intensity that explains the shadowy world they’ve created — is the grief of Penn and Elaine.
Actually, it’s Elaine’s grief. I already know about Penn Jones’ grief. It is all there in Forgive My Grief, his saga of murdered witnesses to the truth. The title is from Tennyson, by the way, from a passage of In Memoriam addressed to God, who took away the poet’s closest friend:
Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
Elaine’s involvement in this whole thing is hard to figure out, though. Why would a bright, young, attractive woman — young enough to have hardly known who JFK was when he was shot — why would she immerse herself in the buff biz after two decades, when it doesn’t look like the case is on the verge of being cracked and all Penn offers is the despair and futility of mourning one lost witness after another?
I began to get a clue to what might be motivating Elaine during the course of the tour, on our way back from the Oswald-and Marina house, when Elaine spots a fat woman on the street.
“That looks like my stepmother,” she says. “God she was unfair to me. Every time I see a fat woman, I think of her and how unfair she was.”
“Look at that concrete bridge abutment up ahead,” Penn is saying. “That’s where William Whaley [the taxi driver who took Oswald from downtown to Oak Cliff] died in a crash just after he tried to testify about Ruby and Tippit.”
“My mother died when she was twenty-five,” Elaine says. “Most of the rest of my close relatives are dead now. All I have left is my grandmother.”
And so it continues as the tour winds down, a counterpoint of Penn’s public grief and Elaine’s personal grief.
Later, after the tour is over and we are cooling off with some beers, Elaine tries to explain why she has made Penn’s project her life’s work.
“From the moment I met Penn, I knew that’s what I was gonna do — work on the case with him,” she tells me. “And when I started, I was so excited.”
“What happened?” I ask.
“Then I met all these people, and I saw there was no hope.”
“The other people on the case.” She reels off a long list of prominent buffs.
“What’s wrong with them?” I ask.
“They none of them really loved John Kennedy. I remember meeting David Lifton and asking him point-blank, ‘Did you love John Kennedy?’ And he wouldn’t give me a direct answer. And that’s the real question: did you love the man? If you didn’t love him, why work on the case? Then it’s just a hobby or some kind of excitement.”
Penn Jones interjects an anecdote about Lifton, who has attracted a certain amount of envy and resentment from other buffs for repackaging familiar criticisms of the JFK-autopsy mystery into his trajectory-reversal theory. It requires us to believe that the conspirators shot Kennedy from the front, then spirited his body away and altered the wounds so that the autopsy would establish that the fatal bullet came from behind. Lifton is one of the few commercially successful buffs. Best Evidence was on the New York Times best-seller list for four months and sold hundreds of thousands of copies in paperback.
Penn tells me, “I was at this party out in California some years ago, and it was a party for me, and David Lifton was trying to get in, but they wouldn’t let him. So I went out and told him, ‘David, I’d like to have you in, but the party’s not being given by me. It’s just for me.’”
Lifton denies that the incident ever happened. And now it seems the tables have turned anyway, with Lifton getting the attention and going on all the talk shows, and Penn’s newsletter, according to Elaine, in decline.
“We’re down to two hundred subscribers now,” she says. “And most of them are old. Pretty soon they’ll die, and in a few years we’ll be down to fifty. And that’s what we have to look forward to. In two more years it’ll be all over. It’s pretty sad.”
But Elaine isn’t going to give up.
“You get used to people laughing at you. You get used to the scorn and the ridicule. You put up with it because if you really believe in something, you don’t stop, no matter what. It’s like a religion.”
She and Penn drift into a talk about religion, specifically about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and philosopher, Penn’s idol.
“When Penn’s gone, I’m gonna become a hermit like Merton,” Elaine says. “Why should I bother with people anymore? I’ve lost everyone I loved except my grandmother and Penn. When they’re gone, there won’t be anyone.”
Elaine’s sadness has become so deep and so comprehensive that it’s hard to believe it could get worse, but we haven’t really touched bottom yet. She rallies briefly, then heads down again.
“But I guess you’ve got to keep up the fight,” she says, rather unconvincingly. “Still it’s pretty sad. It’s heartbreaking, depressing. There are days when Penn and I both weep over it. We both grieve over it.”
“Over it?” I ask. “You mean—”
“It’s sad for the state of the country. But really it’s more sad for John Kennedy. That’s what we can’t get over.”
It is then that I realize that these people are not buffs. They are mourners. Their investigation of the assassination is a continuation of his last rites that they can’t abandon. Unlike the rest of us, they haven’t stopped grieving.
While the poets people the world of that November 22 with a grief-generated galaxy of hostile ghosts, the official investigators narrowed their focus to one man. Somehow lost in the controversy over the acoustical evidence is that the House Select Committee actually came up with a prime suspect. A candidate for the Man Behind It All. And testimony to back that up. It all comes down to what you think of the tail-and-the-dog story.
The tail-and-the-dog story is at the heart of the hottest area of assassination theory still thriving after all these years: Mob-hit theory. In the past few years, mob-hit theory has succeeded in shouldering aside such other rival contenders as CIA-anti-Castro-hit theory, pro-Castro-hit theory, and KGB-complicity theory and in pushing itself to the forefront of consideration.
The rush to the mob-hit judgment began in 1979 with the publication of the final report of the House Select Committee. Written by organized-crime expert and chief counsel Robert Blakey, the committee report comes within a whisker of calling the events of November 22, 1963, a gangland slaying and within a whisker of a whisker of pinning the contract on New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello.
“The committee found that Marcello had motive, means, and opportunity to have President John F. Kennedy assassinated, though it was unable to establish direct evidence of Marcello’s complicity,” the report states. “The committee identified the presence of one critical evidentiary element that was lacking with other organized crime figures examined by the committee: credible associations relating both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby to figures having a relationship, albeit tenuous, with Marcello’s crime family.”
The key here is Oswald’s uncle Dutz. Ruby’s organized-crime ties — to teamster thugs connected with Jimmy Hoffa, to Sam Giancana and guys like John Roselli who were in on the CIA-mob plots to assassinate Fidel Castro — had long been known. What the House Select Committee established was an Oswald organized-crime connection: his uncle Charles “Dutz” Murret, of New Orleans, whom the committee described as both “A surrogate father of sorts throughout much of Oswald’s life in New Orleans” and “An associate of significant organized crime figures affiliated with the Marcello organization.”
The abstract connections are all there. We know that Marcello hated the Kennedy brothers with a deep bitterness that grew out of much more than fear of the threat that Bobby Kennedy’s organized-crime prosecutions posed to his billion-dollar racketeering empire. Marcello had experience the kind of physical humiliation at the hands of Kennedy justice that can brew a passion for revenge surpassing mere calculation of profit and loss.
Just two months after John Kennedy’s inauguration, Marcello was virtually kidnapped in New Orleans by immigration officers acting at the direction of Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department. Arrested, handcuffed, he was dragged without a hearing to a Border Patrol plane and, according to Robert Blakey, “flown 1200 miles to Guatemala City and dumped there, without luggage.” When his presence became known to the authorities in Guatemala, he was expelled and “unceremoniously flown to an out-of-the-way village in the jungle of El Salvador, where [he and his lawyer] were left stranded. Salvadorian soldiers jailed and interrogated the two men for five days, then put them on a bus and took them twenty miles into the mountains . . . . They were hardly prepared for the mountain hike, as they were dressed in silk shantung suits and alligator shoes. . . . Marcello fainted three times. . . . During a downhill scramble, Marcello fell and broke tow ribs” before reaching an airstrip and managing to reenter the U.S. illegally.
Indubitably, in all its unaccustomed humiliation at the hands of the Kennedys, the motive is there.
But where is the direct connection? That’s where the tail-and-the-dog story comes in. The teller of the tale is Ed Becker, whom Blakey describes as “a former Las Vegas promoter who had lived on the fringe of the underworld.”
The scene is Churchill Farms, Marcello’s plantation outside New Orleans. It is September 1962. Becker is there to discuss a business proposition, but the talk turns to the Kennedy campaign against organized crime. The mention of Bobby Kennedy’s name drives Marcello into a rage. “Don’t worry about that little Bobby son of a bitch,” he shouts, according to Becker. “He’s going to be taken care of.”
How? Becker testified before the House Select Committee that the plan was to “take care of” Bobby by “taking care of” his brother and that Marcello “clearly stated that he was going to arrange to have President Kennedy murdered in some way.” Becker said that Marcello compared Bobby to the tail and his brother Jack to the whole dog, citing a proverb: If you cut off the tail, the dog will keep biting; but if you chop off the head, the dog will die, tail and all.
The committee took a lot of time painstakingly and convincingly corroborating the circumstantial details of the story. Then they called Marcello in to testify about it. He denied it. But he also testified before the committee in executive session that he made his living as a tomato salesman, testimony that his recent Brilab conviction calls into question.
The tail-and-the-dog story may not be enough evidence to indict or convict, although I have been told that the committee staff forwarded its Marcello material to the Justice Department in order to encourage it to do just that. But Becker’s story takes mob-hit theory a step beyond motive, means, and opportunity in the abstract.
That night. Back in my hotel room after Penn Jones’ tour, recovering from the plunge into undiluted grief. I continue calling my buff contacts across the country. A long midnight talk with Bay Area buff Robert Ranftel is the most provocative.
Ranftel is a codiscoverer of a fascinating new piece of information about the case. The Gillin story. The Psychedelic Oswald theory.
Don’t laugh. It’s based on careful research, and it addresses perhaps the most enduring and perplexing mystery remaining in the case: the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Because, after all these years the question for most researchers is no longer whether Oswald was involved but who he was. Was he KGB or CIA? Was he a pro-Castro partisan infiltrating anti-Castro groups, or was he an anti-Castro activist setting up false pro-Castro fronts? Was he informing for the FBI or being informed on? Did he support JFK or hate him? There is convincing evidence on both sides of each of these questions. How could one man have created so much ambiguity about his true identity in so short a time? And why? Was he just confused? Or was he out to confuse?
Ranftel unearthed a clue to this dilemma, an episode that took place during Oswald’s mysterious sojourn in New Orleans the summer before the assassination. The Gillin story first surfaced in a document that wasn’t declassified until 1977, and FBI memo about an interview with a New Orleans assistant district attorney name Edward Gillin. On the day Oswald was killed, Gillin phoned the FBI to report a strange encounter he had had the summer of 1963 with a man calling himself Lee Oswald. How this skinny guy named Oswald had come into his office and started talking about a book he’d read by Aldous Huxley. A book about psychedelic drugs. “He was looking for a drug that would open his vision, you know, mind expansion,” Gillin recalled. He had come to the assistant DA, Oswald said, because he wanted to know if such drugs were legal. And how to get them.
Oswald and Aldous Huxley. What a bizarre meeting of the minds. Oswald and psychedelic drugs. What a combination of ingredients. And yet Ranftel and his collaborators, Martin Lee and Jeff Cohen of the Assassination Information Bureau came up with several other periods in Oswald’s career during which the psychedelic connection might have been made.
The U-2 base in Atsugi, Japan, for instance. Where Oswald served as a Marine Corps radar operator before he defected to the Soviets. Ranftel and company discovered that during the time Oswald was stationed there, Atsugi base was a storage and testing facility for the drugs used in the CIA’s Operation Artichoke. Artichoke was the forerunner of Operation MK-ULTRA, the CIA’s search for a foolproof truth serum — at first called the Twilight Zone drug — which led to the testing of LSD, often on unsuspecting military personnel. Ranftel and his colleagues located a Marine who was stationed at Atsugi at the same time as Oswald and says that he himself was given LSD and other psychedelics.
And then there was Oswald’s curious bad-trip episode at Atsugi. Ranftel, Cohen, and Lee described it last March in their Rolling Stone article, “Did Oswald Drop Acid?”: “While Oswald was on guard duty, gunfire was heard. He was found sitting on the ground, more than a little dazed, babbling about seeing things in the bushes . . . what in the Sixties would become known as a bad trip.”
Ranftel and company point to the widespread suspicion that Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union may have been staged with the connivance and encouragement of the CIA or military intelligence, both of which were at the time repeatedly trying to plant “defector” operatives inside the USSR. They cite CIA sources revealing that agents dispatched into situations with the potential for hostile interrogation — including the use of psychedelic interrogation aids — were often exposed to such drugs before setting out on those missions, so they would be able to recognize and cope with the effects of the drugs. People so exposed were known in the intelligence world as enlightened operatives.
Oswald an enlightened operative? Oswald a Huxleyan psychedelic mystic? The implications are, indeed, as they used to say, mind-blowing.
For one thing, as Ranftel remarks tonight, “it might explain that strange, quizzical smile you see on the guy’s face in so many of his pictures.”
What was going on behind that smile? The Psychedelic Oswald hypothesis offers an explanation, a way of reconciling some of the intractable contradictions he left behind. CIA or KGB? Pro-Castro or anti-Castro? Perhaps the answer is neither and both. Perhaps the answer is that he enjoyed the game of posing as both, of playing at infiltrating one side on behalf of the other, of playing both sides against the other, the pleasures of the enlightened operative. We know that as a boy Oswald’s favorite TV show was I Led Three Lives. Had drugs given a psychedelic twist to the solemnity of that classic of role playing?
The Psychedelic Oswald hypothesis might go a long way toward explaining some of the mysteries of Oswald’s strange summer in New Orleans — those months before the assassination when he began playing the dangerous game of pro- and anti-Castro politics and which climaxed with his mysterious pre-assassination trip to Mexico City.
New Orleans. The French Quarter’s decaying fringe. 544 Camp Street, to be specific. The most intriguing address in the whole JFK case. Only it’s not here anymore. I came all the way to this steamy, sweaty late August swamp of a city to enter the building at 544 Camp Street because some buff or other told me it was still here. Because, of all the shrines in the story of O., this one might hold the clue to what was going on in his mind in the summer of 1963, when he fled Dallas, arrived here, and began to act weird.
One thing almost all conspiracy theorists, even the Warren Commission defenders, agree on is that though the assassination was an act executed in Dallas, it was conceived in the contagion of intrigue that infected the mind of Oswald that August in New Orleans.
The mind of Oswald. I’m beginning to feel some inkling of the turmoil therein as I stand before the curious sculpture that has replaced the now-demolished building at 544 Camp Street.
I fled Dallas yesterday, sick of brain and body. A bad case of food poisoning got to my body. So bad that for a while I thought I’d end up as a number 189 in Penn Jones’ list of suspicious casualties of the case. (Of course, how could they know I would stuff myself with barbecue in that particular place on Mockingbird Lane?)
It was Gary Mack’s assassination film festival that got to my brain. Drove me out of town. Not the goat’s head hypothesis, not the eyestrain from the Bronson-film blowups. No, it was the Oswald craniotomy controversy that took me out of the merely maddening world of Blow-Up right into Texas Chainsaw Massacre horror.
Should I tell you about this experience, or will you think it too ghoulish, too gruesome?
Notes on the assassination film festival. Arrived Gary Mack’s lovely suburban Fort Worth tract home. Eager to see the Bronson film, but first there was Gary’s critique of the goat’s-head hypothesis.
The goat’s-head hypothesis is the official explanation of the most horrible moment in that horror-filled home movie known as the Zapruder film. The moment when the fatal head shot appeared to slam the president back into the seat of his car as though it had been a frontal hit.
Gary ran and reran that moment for me on his home projector and screen set.
Not that I objected. After all, it could be argued that if you haven’t seen the Zapruder film, you haven’t actually experienced the assassination. You know a president was shot, and office vacated, but you haven’t seen the man’s head brutally blown apart, you haven’t seen John Kennedy die, and so perhaps you haven’t had a chance to confront the loss.
It was the sudden appearance in the seventies of bootleg copies of the Zapruder film and the showing of high-quality copies to congressmen that did more than anything to get the Senate and the House to launch their own investigations of the shooting.
Because, watching that shot knock Kennedy backward, all the senses cry out that it came from the front. But Oswald, we know, was behind. Which would mean a second gunman and therefore a conspiracy.
And yet from a restudy of the autopsy evidence the House Select Committee concluded — just as the Warren Commission had — that the head shot was fired from behind.
“How could that be?” I asked Gary Mack.
“Well, they cited the films of the goat’s-head test,” Gary said. “Back in the 1948 the Army did filmed studies of the impact of bullets on goats’ heads that demonstrated what they called a neuromuscular reaction, which in certain circumstances will cause a backward motion even with a shot from behind.”
“And do you accept that?” I asked.
“Well, the thing they fail to take note of,” he told me, “is that in the neuromuscular reaction, the extremities are supposed to go rigid. Now if you look closely at the president at the moment he’s hit — here, I’ll slow it down so you can see that doesn’t happen to Kennedy; he’s all loose and wobbly.”
Next, the Bronson film. Real Blow-Up stuff. There was the limo turning the corner onto Elm Street right below the Book Depository, beginning to head downhill toward the Triple Underpass and the spot a hundred yards farther down Elm, where the shots would hit. The real mystery of that particular moment, a mystery that becomes apparent once you’ve walked the motorcade’s route in Dealey Plaza, past the Book Depository and down toward the fatal spot, a mystery neither the official inquiries nor the amateur critics have satisfactorily explained or even addressed, is this: why didn’t Oswald, or whoever was up in the Book Depository, shoot the president when he was coming right toward the sniper’s-nest window, when he was heading down Houston Street straight into his gunsight, a mere thirty yards away? Why did the assassin wait until the president’s car turned the corner onto Elm Street and began pulling away? Was there an inner struggle, some crisis of conscience going on in the assassin’s mind? Did he almost decide to let his target slip away unharmed?
The Bronson-film blowup that Gary Mack showed me that afternoon did not address that question. The Bronson film was really a kind of ghost story. Because in the early footage, six minutes before the limo reached the fatal turn on to Elm Street, there, up in the corner of the frame, in the windows six floors above the street, pale, ghostly, evanescent shapes flickered.
Gary had blowups of the crucial frames. They showed dim gleams of shadowy shapes in the corner sniper’s next window. And pale, ghostly presences moving, blotches and blurs, in the two windows next to that. Windows that should have been empty at the time of the shooting, according to the lone-assassin theory.
Assassins? Or artifacts in the photo-sensitive emulsion?
Gary Mack thinks they’re men wearing pale green and magenta shirts. They could be. They could John, Paul, George, and Ringo, for all I can tell. As a matter of fact, does anyone know exactly where the Fab Four were that day? If we go by the cui bono, or who-benefits, theory of assassination, the finger of guilt could well swing toward the lovable Liverpuddlian lads, since it’s always been my belief that the Beatlemania that swept America just eight weeks after the assassination was really a hysterical transference of repressed JFK-assassination shock and grief. The link being the hair — both John Kennedy and John Lennon being loved for the look of their locks.
I refrained from exploring this theory with Gary, but he had convincing technical answers to my other objections. He was certain that he had prima facie evidence of conspiracy right there on his screen, the kind of evidence no goat’s head shoots can refute, and that costly computer enhancement, which we can’t afford, might even show us human features as well as the shirts of the assassins.
But scientific evidence alone is not enough here. This case requires what Kierkegaard called a leap of faith. The existence of God, K. argued, can never be proved by constructing a scaffolding of rational argument. Faith can only come through a leap from that scaffolding into the realm of what he called the absurd. And El Exigente here is not ready to make that leap. He is troubled also by the question of what happened to the green and magenta men and, if they were up there shooting, what happened to their rifles and bullets?
No leap of faith required in the craniotomy controversy, though. No, this one requires a leap back into the grave. Oswald’s grave. Or, as Gary prefers, the grave of Oswald’s impostor. Because Gary had new evidence that very well might be enough to cause people to open up Oswald’s grave again. That’s right. Just two years after the notorious Eddowes-Marina exhumations seemed to establish that Oswald was the guy buried in Oswald’s grave, Gary came upon a key discrepancy in the exhumation evidence.
He began to explain the thing to me in great and gruesome detail, a tale that might be called the Clue of the Assassin’s Skull.
To understand the importance of his new discovery, Gary said, you have to know what they did to Oswald’s skull during his first autopsy back in 1963.
“It’s part of the record they did a craniotomy on him, back then,” Gary told me. They sawed off the top of his skull with a power saw. They reached underneath the brain, cut it off, and lifted it out, and they noted in the official record that a craniotomy had been done.
“Now, when they did the exhumation this time, no mention was made of a craniotomy. And then Paul Groody, the mortician, said it had suddenly struck him after they had reburied the corpse that he hadn’t noticed that a craniotomy had been done on the skull of whoever it was buried in Oswald’s grave. The skin had rotted away, leaving a naked skull. But with a craniotomy, the top of the skull should have fallen off. It didn’t. In fact, there are videotapes of the exhumation showing them handling the skull, even holding it upside down, and nothing falls off. And at one point they severed the head and placed it on a metal stand. Somebody bumped it and it rolled onto the table, but the top still didn’t fall off. Which proves that it can’t be Oswald’s skull down there, that it must be an imposter. Wouldn’t you like to see that tape, Ron?”
At that point I made an excuse and fled town.
And so I am here at 544 Camp Street. Trying to forget about Oswald’s skull. Trying to get inside his head. Let me explain why this particular address is so important.
Shortly after Oswald arrived in New Orleans in April 1963, he embarked on a mystifying campaign of dangerous and duplicitous political intrigue whose motive is still obscure. One of his first acts was to contact the national headquarters of the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) to get a charter to set up a New Orleans chapter. He gave the name “A. J. Hidell,” one of his false identities, as president and only member of the chapter.
At the same time, he was approaching anti-Castro Cuban-exile groups, declaring that he shared their feelings, boasting of his marksmanship and his Marine training in guerrilla warfare, and telling them that he wanted to be sent on a paramilitary mission to Cuba.
Then, in August 1963, one of the anti-Castro activists he had been soliciting came upon Oswald distributing pro-Castro pamphlets in his role as one-man Fair Play for Cuba Committee. A fight ensued. Oswald was arrested and jailed. Demanded to see an FBI agent. Told the bureau he was willing to inform on the pro-Castro movement.
Just what was he up to? And on behalf of whom? That’s where the address 544 Camp Street becomes so interesting. It’s at the heart of the paradox of O.’s simultaneous pro-Castro and anti-Castro activity. The address first surfaced in the case when it was found rubber-stamped on one of the pro-Castro tracts Oswald was handing out. It identified 544 Camp Street as the headquarters of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. And yet not only did the building at that address never house the FPCC but it also swarmed with right-wing anti-Castro groups and was the headquarters of a right-wing ex-FBI agent named Guy Banister, who was that very summer recruiting people to infiltrate pro-Castro movements.
What was Oswald up to? As far back as 1964, Warren Commission staffers were scratching their heads over that and writing memos to each other about the possibility that Oswald’s paper FPCC group was a front set up to infiltrate the Pro-Castro movement on behalf of the anti-Castro group based in 544 Camp Street.
They never were able to resolve it. When the staffers presented their memo on Oswald in New Orleans to the harried chief counsel of the Warren Commission, it came back with these words scrawled on it: “At this stage we are supposed to be closing doors, not opening them.”
Subsequent Senate and House assassination investigations tried to reopen the doors to 544 Camp Street but found only doors within doors.
“We have evidence,” then-Senator Richard Schweiker declared, “which places at 544 Camp Street intelligence agents, Lee Oswald, the mob, and anti-Castro Cuban exiles.”
Yes, behind those doors Oswald had gotten himself entangled in some of the darker strands in the fabric of American life. And yet what does it all prove? Perhaps there is a clue behind another set of doors — The Doors of Perception.
Consider this passage from Huxley’s classic account of the psychedelic experience, based on his mescaline trips:
The schizophrenic is like a man permanently under the influence of mescalin . . ., which, because it never permits him to look at the world with merely human eyes, scares him into interpreting its unremitting strangeness, its burning intensity of significance, as the manifestations of human or even cosmic malevolence, calling for the most desperate countermeasures, from murderous violence at one end of the scale [italics mine] to catatonia, or psychological suicide, at the other end. And once embarked upon the downward, the infernal road, one would never be able to stop. . . .
“If you started the wrong way,” I said in answer to the investigator’s question, “everything that happened would be proof of the conspiracy against you. It would be self-validating. You couldn’t draw a breath without knowing it was part of the plot.”*
This last paragraph strikes me as a good description of the mind of the assassination buff as well as of the assassin.
Up until now there have been three theories relating to Oswald’s strange immersion in the subcurrents swirling around 544 Camp Street: (1) he was a pro-Castro activist infiltrating anti-Castro movements on behalf of Cuban agents, (2) he was an agent of anti-Castro forces using a pro-Castro front to infiltrate Cuba, perhaps to kill Castro, and (3) he was a pro-Castro activist being cultivated and set up as a patsy by sinister anti-Castro-mob-intelligence world operatives.
These contradictory theories have one thing in common. They all make Oswald a pawn in someone else’s game.
If, however, we go through the doors of perception and look at New Orleans through the eyes of an “Enlightened” O., another way of thinking about the ambiguities suggests itself.
Look at New Orleans through the eyes of an O. whose favorite TV program as a child was I Led Three Lives. Who may have absorbed the dark conspiracy-obsessed consciousness of that Huxley passage. Someone who has been a U.S. Marine, then a Soviet citizen, then a U.S. citizen again. Someone for whom change of identity has become second nature, someone who has seen the world from both sides and been disillusioned by both. Someone who — with his doors of perception opened — thinks he sees through it all. Someone for whom the only pleasure now is in the posing, the plotting, and the counterplotting. Look at O. as a pre-assassination buff. Not a lone nut but a lone mastermind, deploying identities the way Penn Jones deploys gunmen. What a paradise New Orleans would have seemed that steamy summer to someone like that, with its murky web plot and counterplot.
How convenient 544 Camp Street would have been. So many strands of intrigue so close at hand, so many strings so easy to pull.
How inconvenient for my purposes that 544 Camp Street has disappeared from the face of the earth. How I wanted to walk its halls and get a feel for its atmosphere. But the building was torn down some years ago to make way for a new federal court building. The old building’s exact location at the corner of Lafayette Street is now a concrete plaza empty except for a large, abstract, federally subsidized sculpture.
And yet that sculpture . . .
The best way to describe the sculpture would be to call it a sixteen-foot twisted helix of black painted steel. Military-industrial-complex-size damaged chromosomes. Its title: Out of There. Hard to believe its creator did not know the significance of the place in which his work was installed. A better monument to the tortuous doubling and redoubling of the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald could not be imagined.
I wander south on Camp Street, passing comatose derelicts, disintegrating warehouse buildings, and dingy rooming houses. Come upon the Crescent Street Garage, where O. used to drop in and read gun magazines in the office. Next to the Reily Coffee Company, where he was employed, greasing coffee-grinding machines. The garage was also, according to the testimony of a mechanic, a depot for unmarked FBI Secret Service cars. The mechanic said that he saw envelopes pass between agents in unmarked cars and Oswald.
Back up the street, past Out of There, to the all-night drugstore on the corner of Canal. Another O. hangout that summer. Horrible glaring fluorescents that must have been around since that summer, truly a depressing place, the nature of whose clientele can be surmised from a scrawled sign over the prescriptions counter: “Due to Uncertainties All Drug Sales Are Final.”
Due to uncertainties, I push through the sweaty atmosphere back toward my hotel, mired in the maze of uncertainties surrounding O.’s Camp Street summer. His sojourn there suggests that everything proves nothing. Provides support for almost every conspiracy theory; proves none.
And so there it is. After all these years. Theories, uncertainties, possible connections, suspicious coincidences. Yes, the Warren Commission investigation was inept and incomplete, relied on information supplied by agencies with a stake in covering up their role. And yet, twenty years later several minor and one major congressional inquiry down the line, there is only more uncertainty.
I speak to Robert Ranftel again. This time about the dismaying question of whether it is time to call it quits, admit defeat, and give up the whole intractable case. Perhaps even concede that — in the absence of any proven alternative — Oswald may have acted alone; the Warren Commission, for all its bungling, might have gotten it right after all.
“What about the mob-hit theory,” I ask Ranftel. “Isn’t there any hope for that? I mean the House Committee pretty much endorsed it?”
“Well, mob-hit theory is where the action is now,” Ranftel says, “Everybody’s writing their mob-hit book. Did you see the latest — Contract on America [by David Scheim, subtitled The Mafia Murders of John and Robert Kennedy]?
“Do you think the mob-hit theory is just another buff trend?”
“I think the organized-crime theory is sort of a halfway house out of the Kennedy case for a lot of buffs,” he says.
“A halfway house?”
“Well, it solves a lot of problems. You look at the typical mob hit. It’s a murder that goes unsolved. And the people who did it typically never talk. So you can almost use the fact that the JFK case remains unsolved as evidence it was a mob hit. It allows a lot of people to walk away from the case and say we’ve brought it as far as it can go. You see a lot of assassination buffs now turning into organized-crime buffs.”
A halfway house out of the case. Ranftel’s phrase suddenly clarifies for me a persistent subtext I thought I’d been picking up in my conversations with some of the best of the buffs. Take Paul Hoch, for instance. Almost universally regarded as one of the most careful and meticulous researchers in the game. A computer programmer by profession, he specialized in looking into an area of ambiguity and searching the thousands of cubic feet of declassified documents in the archives until he found the single document that clarified the point in question. He was still working on the case — publishing the Echoes of Conspiracy newsletter — his work now was filled with echoes of echoes. Reports of reports. Clippings. There seems to be no edge, no direction, no sense that any of this was leading to anything.
“I get the impression that you’re shifting from being an assassination investigator to something more like a commentator,” I told Hoch.
“I think that’s true. A historian might be more accurate. I try to keep the record straight.”
“But what about solving the case?” I asked.
“I just don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know if it’s too late now.”
Too late? Would it matter if it weren’t? Maybe that’s the real question. Maybe, after all, there’s no big secret, no clandestine conspiracy there to uncover. Immersed once again in the frustrations of the case, the frequent foolishness and apparent futility of the buff biz, I find myself almost longing to succumb to the simplicity and conventional comfort of lone-assassin certainty. To be able to stuff all the seething ambiguities, strange coincidences, provocative hints, all the suggestions, implications, curious connections, and mysterious sightings that the critics have turned up, just stuff them all in a drawer and say, “Case closed.”
Before I do that, though, there is one man I want to track down and talk to. A private eye. My onetime philosophy prof turned buff turned shamus: Josiah Thompson. What will the author of the Lonely Labyrinth have to say about the JFK case now, after twenty years, when it has grown more labyrinthine — and lonelier.
I have some misgivings about calling him. Afraid, I guess, that he has become another casualty of the case. Picturing him in some seedy Sam Spade-like office, embittered and cynical over his failure to crack the JFK case, trudging through the fog, doing divorce work or something similarly dispiriting. But after the first five minutes on the phone with him I know that Thompson is just the person I am looking for. He has emerged from the maze with his lively intelligence, judicious wit, and wry humor intact. And his private-eye work has given him new insights into the problems of the Kennedy case.
He begins by explaining why he chose to make the switch from professor to private eye. After the publication of Six Seconds in Dallas, after serving as a consultant on the evidence for Life magazine’s JFK reinvestigation in 1966 and 1967, he returned to a prof job at Haverford College, disillusioned by the fiasco of the Garrison investigation.
“Garrison just blew the critics out of the water,” Thompson tells me. “So I sort of gave up for a while in the late sixties.”
After completing his Kierkegaard biography in 1973, he turned his attentions to the complexities of that other twisted and tormented late-nineteenth-century thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche.
While he was on leave out in San Francisco writing a biography of Nietzsche, he had dinner with famed private investigator Hal Lipset. At the time, Lipset was being considered as a possible chief investigator of the newly formed House Select Committee on Assassinations. But Thompson found himself enthralled by Lipset’s discussion of his own cases.
“Just on a lark I hit him for a job,” Thompson tells me. “And he gave me one. Before I knew it, I was working for five dollars an hour doing surveillance in Oakland.”
He was good enough that when Lipset’s partner David Fechheimer formed his own firm, he asked Thompson to come to work for him and gave him a murder case for his first assignment.
“I started working on a really great case,” he tells me. “And I couldn’t give that up. It was too much fun.”
In a short time, it seems, he turned into an absolute ace of a private eye.
There’s on case in particular that pleases him. A Korean-born prisoner. Jailed for five years on a murder rap. Thompson reinvestigated the original case. Got it overturned. Got this man out of jail.
“He didn’t do it,” Thompson tells me. “I know who did it.”
Interesting: he got an innocent man off, and he knows the identity of the real killer, who is presumably still walking around.
Dangerous knowledge. It is gratifying to find that Thompson hasn’t fled from the frustrations of the seemingly insoluble but has instead embraced them. I envy him; I am tempted to hit him up for a private-eye job myself. But first I want to get his private eye-philosopher’s assessment of the state of the art of the JFK case.
A few years ago it looked as if Thompson might get credit for cracking that one too. When the House Select Committee came out with its report on the acoustical analysis of the Dallas police tape, it placed a gunman behind the stockade fence on the grassy knoll, exactly the spot Thompson pointed to in his book.
But, refreshingly, he’s willing to concede that the acoustical evidence that once promised such certainty now looks muddied.
“Uncertainty has replaced clarity,” he says wistfully. “We’re back in the swamp. Back in the morass again.”
“The lonely labyrinth?” I ask.
He just laughs.
And refreshingly, considering that he was one of the original Warren Report critics, he is prepared to conceded that in crucial aspects of the case, further investigation has proved him wrong and the commission right.
The much-ridiculed single-bullet theory, for instance. The whole lone-assassin theory depends on complex but definite ways on the Warren Commission’s belief that one bullet went through JFK’s body, smashed through John Connally’s fifth rib and wrist, and emerged unscratched. I have actually handled that so-called pristine bullet myself in the National Archives, felt how smooth and unmarked its surface is, and scoffed at the idea that it could have emerged so utterly unscathed.
But, as Thompson points out, recent neutron activation analysis of the bullet and the tiny fragments left in Connally’s wrist make it almost a scientific certainly that they cam from the same bullet.
“That’s very powerful evidence that the single-bullet theory is correct,” he says. “It absolutely astonishes me, but you gotta look at what the evidence is. One thing I’ve learned from these years of being a private investigator is that I no longer place much faith in most eyewitness testimony to prove anything. If you’re gonna rely on anything, it’s the physical evidence and the photographs. Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s a waste of time to try to prove anything with government documents, the endless nit-picking that was done by the critics in the JFK case comparing discrepancies in what a witness said to the police or the FBI in a deposition and what they testified to later. You learn that the police get it wrong all the time and that nit-picking doesn’t get you closer to the truth.”
The truth. What does Thompson this is the truth in the JFK case? Is he actually leaning toward accepting the Warren Commission verdict that Oswald acted alone?
No, Thompson says. In fact, he still doesn’t think the evidence adds up to Oswald’s’ firing any shots that day.
“I think it’s maybe sixty-forty that he didn’t,” Thompson tells me. “Although I can see reasonable men taking the other position.”
“What, then, do you think Oswald’s role was that day?” I ask him.
“I’ve stayed away from analyzing,” he tells me. “What you have when you look into him is puzzle boxes within Chinese puzzle boxes. In the logic of intelligence circles, anything can mean anything. I think he was scheming in ways I don’t understand, and finally, when the president was shot, the curtain opened and he recognized a lot more was going on than he knew.”
And who does he think O. was scheming with? Thompson leans toward the mob-hit school of thought because of the new evidence developed by the House Select Committee about Ruby’s connections and movements. “If Ruby was given access to the jail, if Ruby was stalking Oswald, as it seems they’ve demonstrated, one has to ask the question, why? And you have to look at the statistics on organized-crime prosecution and how they dropped off after the assassination. One thing you can say about the assassination is that it’s been enormously effective. It worked. They blew his head off, and they got away with it.”
“Why has nobody broken? And what group can enforce that kind of discipline? Nobody’s turned. Of course, maybe there’s nobody to turn?”
Is there anything his private-eye’s instinct tells him about the case that might solve it or explain why it’s unsolved?
“That goddam bullet,” he says, “That bullet just doesn’t fit. You have to consider the possibility that evidence was tampered with. I know when I was working on the Life project they left me alone with that bullet for fifteen minutes. I could have done anything with it. But once you raise that possibility that some pieces of the puzzle have their edges shaved off or pieces never in the puzzle have been brought in — you’re never gonna put that puzzle together. In my heart of hearts, that’s what I believe happened. And since we no longer have objective criteria of physical evidence, we’re left with an epistemological conundrum.”
An epistemological conundrum. Yes, that’s what it has always seemed like to El Exigente. Somehow the JFK case is a lesson in the limits of reason, in the possibility of ever knowing anything with absolute certainly. Godel’s Proof and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle all wrapped into one. That’s why El Exigente has always stated about the battle, observing the foibles of the buffs from a position of amused detachment, resisting the impulse to become obsessed with knowledge maddeningly dangerous for its unknowability. I’ve seen too many brilliant people — some of them my friends — self-destruct in the attempt. I’ve always been too cautious to risk becoming a passionate casualty of the case.
But now Thompson, El Exigente’s mentor, turns the tables on the Demanding One. In his modest but insistent Socratic way, he demands to know what I think.
I tell him I’ve gone into this most recent journey through the state of the art with the vague feeling that the mob-hit theorists probably have come closest to the truth of the case, but I’ve come out of it feeling that they have failed to nail it down. That the tail-and-the-dog story is as close as they’ll ever come but it falls short of being proof, and that the rest is all the usual suggestive connections of the sort that can support any number of unproven theories.
And, I tell Thompson, I find myself longing — because of the advent of the two-decade anniversary — to come to some conclusion instead of suspending judgment on the crime of the century forever. And that although I am resisting it, to my dismay I find myself tempted after all these years to give in and embrace the Warren Report conclusions.
“You’re right to say the conspiracy explanations are unsatisfying,” he replies. “And you’re right to recognize the urge to push it all into one pattern or the other for the satisfaction of having a conclusion. But,” he added, “you’re also right to resist that temptation.”
And so — for another ten years at least — I will. As far as I’m concerned, the case is still not closed.