Sixty years of controversies around JFK’s death: For researchers, few mysteries remain

Page 17 of The Boston Globe’s Nov. 25, 1963, edition includes a Reuters report of a Soviet radio commenter suggesting the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, suspected of assassinating President John F. Kennedy two days earlier, was intended the cover up the truth of the assassination. This story was published the day of Kennedy’s funeral service.

Page 17 of The Boston Globe’s Nov. 25, 1963, edition includes a Reuters report of a Soviet radio commenter suggesting the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, suspected of assassinating President John F. Kennedy two days earlier, was intended the cover up the truth of the assassination. This story was published the day of Kennedy’s funeral service. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

This is an original copy of the Warren Report, the official report on the President John F. Kennedy assassination. It concluded Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and that Oswald acted alone. It also concluded that Jack Ruby acted alone when he killed Oswald two days later.

This is an original copy of the Warren Report, the official report on the President John F. Kennedy assassination. It concluded Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and that Oswald acted alone. It also concluded that Jack Ruby acted alone when he killed Oswald two days later. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

This photograph captures the moment the first shot hits the president. Seen through the limousine’s windshield, the president appears to raise his hand toward his head. Mrs. Kennedy’s gloved left hand reaches out to hold him. The two secret service agents riding the right running board of the second car turn in the direction of the gunfire.

This photograph captures the moment the first shot hits the president. Seen through the limousine’s windshield, the president appears to raise his hand toward his head. Mrs. Kennedy’s gloved left hand reaches out to hold him. The two secret service agents riding the right running board of the second car turn in the direction of the gunfire. AP Photo/James W. “Ike” Altgens

By DON STEWART

For the Recorder

Published: 11-17-2023 2:33 PM

On the morning of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, Julia Ann Mercer, 23, a Dallas resident, was stalled in traffic on Elm Street near what is called the Triple Overpass. A truck was parked halfway up on the curb and she saw a passenger exit with what appeared to be a tapered rifle case. As she stated in an affidavit, the man walked towards the train yards bordering a small collection of trees known as the grassy knoll. She assumed it was a Secret Service agent.

By day’s end, the short span of Elm Street, directly beneath the Texas School Book Depository, would become the most well known road in the country, where our 35th president was fatally shot.

“Kennedy was charismatic,” author Dr. Jerry Kroth said recently, speaking from his northern California home. “The American population fell in love with John Kennedy. He was like an archetypal hero, like Abraham Lincoln.”

Kroth, a Santa Clara University associate professor emeritus, has written three books on the shooting and his most recent, “The Kennedy Assassination: what really happened,” provides new information.

Since the death of President John F. Kennedy, some 600 books have been written about him, from histories of his administration to intensive research regarding the events of that November. Today, the median age of Americans is 39 and fewer than one out of six people alive today were alive when Kennedy was assassinated.

“For most it’s ancient history,” the professor said.

The story as told

Ten months following the assassination, an eight-member commission, chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, released a 26-volume opus. With no index and requiring the average person a year to read, it concluded that a 24-year-old former Marine, Lee Oswald was alone responsible for the shooting.

Using an outdated, bolt-action rifle, he fired three shots at the presidential limousine within nine seconds. The final shot was fatal.

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The Warren Report was largely written by lawyers and had no independent investigators, relying entirely upon CIA and FBI information.

Significantly, the commission did not see autopsy photographs, relying instead on drawings. Nor did they have access to Oswald’s military files. They were unaware that the CIA and Mafia had joined in an effort to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro. Three days after Kennedy’s death, with more than 70 policemen in attendance, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby killed Lee Oswald.

“The Warren Commission didn’t say anything about Jack Ruby being a Mafia connected person,” Kroth said. “His long distance calls virtually three months before Kennedy was assassinated were to every Mafia figure in the United States.”

When former President Donald Trump released around 2,800 JFK documents a few years ago, among them was the affidavit of a Ruby acquaintance. He’d met with the nightclub owner across from the book depository three hours before the motorcade and Ruby asked if he would “like to watch the fireworks.”

When the shooting took place, Bill Newman, his wife and their two sons were just yards from the limousine and fell to the ground. A short time later he was filmed telling a newsman that he believed the shots came from behind him “back on top of the hill, the mound … the garden.”

Twenty sheriff’s deputies stood at a nearby intersection and the majority felt that the shots came from the vicinity of the railroad yards. Some 40 witnesses proximate to the grassy knoll concurred.

A photograph taken at the time showed smoke ascending from the trees. Some witnesses heard just two shots. Others, such as engineer Jesse Price atop a nearby building, heard five.

Abraham Zapruder, who took the most famous home movie ever made, felt that at least one shot came from behind him in the railroad yards.

The official version was that Oswald was firing from 60 feet above Elm Street from the book depository. In the motorcade, Kennedy aides Dave Powers and Kenneth O’Donnell also heard shots from the rail yards and, as with many, smelled gunpowder at street level.

Some 30 policemen and detectives, joined with scores of witnesses, ran to the area behind the knoll and were either turned back or met with plainclothesmen flashing Secret Service identities.

The Warren Report noted that there was some misunderstanding as there were no agents in the area at that time.

As it was later revealed, the President was being stalked by somebody. Plots were uncovered earlier that month in both Tampa and Chicago.

No ordinary Marine

As Kroth points out in several lectures available online, there was a blatant cover-up with files destroyed, witnesses intimidated and testimonies either ignored or altered.

If there were two or more gunmen, there was a conspiracy and those who orchestrated it were clever in choosing Oswald as a “fall guy.” He’d lived in Russia for almost three years and when back in the States, he posed as a pro-Castro communist while working out of the office of a right wing, former FBI agent. The literal red herring was the implication that the plot was foreign born. There were many accounts of Oswald “doubles,” further incriminating the ex-Marine.

Shortly after the shooting, in a noisy police station hallway filled with reporters, Oswald said “They’re taking me in because of the fact that I lived in the Soviet Union. I’m just a patsy.”

When working on a Senate subcommittee reviewing the Kennedy assassination, Senator Richard Schweiker said “Everywhere you look with (Oswald) there are fingerprints of intelligence.”

The Marine had worked at the Atsugi airbase in Japan, where secret U-2 spy flights surveyed Russia.

Kroth brought up a mysterious letter found some 12 years after the Dallas tragedy and confirmed by Oswald’s wife Marina as in his handwriting. Dated two weeks before the assassination, and addressed to a “Mr. Hunt,” the former Marine asked “for more information regarding my position … before any steps are taken by me or anyone else.”

Handwriting experts differed on the veracity of the message, however, Kroth found that Oswald, a dyslexic, often misspelled words and discovered a routine error.

“He was getting set up,” the professor said. “He though he had an important position with somebody.”

That somebody could well be former CIA agent and Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt who, in a deathbed confession in 2006, admitted to have been a part of what conspirators called “The Event.” Hunt named several characters whom researchers have fingered for decades.

Kroth ran statistical probabilities on 84 deaths of witnesses and others associated with the tragedy. To name a few, mobster Sam Giancana and Texas oilman George de Mohrenschildt both died violently before they were to provide testimony to a House select committee. Mary Pinchot Meyer, former wife of CIA official Cord Meyer and a Kennedy mistress, was shot execution style 11 months after the President’s death. Of the 84, Kroth found that there were four times the number of suicides as in the general population and 10 times as many murders.

In 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, based in part on acoustical analysis of a Dallas policeman’s Dictabelt recording and ballistic studies in Dealey Plaza, concluded that there was “probably” a second gunman. Analysts determined that at least four shots were fired, possibly five. Having run out of time and money, the committee’s investigation ended.

The ‘magic bullet’

The Warren Report had a significant problem if just two of Oswald’s shots reached their target. Commission attorney Arlen Specter advanced the theory that both the president and Gov. John Connally were struck by the same “magic bullet.” To his last days, the Texan denied this possibility. The bullet, found on a stretcher at the Dallas Parkland Hospital, was virtually pristine.

Three senators who served on the Warren Commission, including Sen. Richard Russell, didn’t accept Specter’s theory while also stating that they felt much information was withheld from them.

They signed off on the investigation with a statement that they only agreed to its findings “based on the evidence provided.”

An article in the September issue of Vanity Fair, however, may scatter all this magic to the four winds. Journalist James Robenalt interviewed former Secret Service agent Paul Landis, who rode in the follow-up car behind the presidential limousine. Age 28 at the time, he’d found a bullet between the seat and its detachable roof.

He placed it on a stretcher at the hospital. Traumatized by the shooting, he later resigned from the service and read no serious books on the assassination until 2014. He has written his own account recently in “The Final Witness.”

In 1992, prior to a House vote to unseal thousands of JFK assassination files, committee chair Representative John Conyers Jr. spoke about the martyred President.

“We lost a unique leader who brought a singular humanity and a lasting vision to American policy here and abroad,” he said. “Indeed the loss of John Kennedy’s leadership haunts America today.”

Comedian Mort Sahl had written jokes for the president and once said “Kennedy was not a virtuous man, but he saw virtue and was destroyed because of it.”