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The Enduring Mystery of JFK


PERHAPS the greatest irony about the Kennedy assassination case, 50 years ago this month, is that, in this great Information Age, the solution to the killing remains as elusive as ever.

A little like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in physics, which roughly says that the more one tries to measure something at the very small quantum level with any accuracy, the more distorted the result, the solution seems remarkably at odds with itself.

Seemingly, the more we probe into the events of that fateful day in Dealey Plaza, and into the plethora of information available, both online and now largely publicly available, the more obscure the whole thing becomes.

Perhaps the greatest loss to the United States, and, via some sort of socio-political proxy, to democracy and freedom of knowledge, is that someone, knows or knew the truth about the assassination on November 22, 1963.

What that truth is, where it now lies, or lay, and whether now it has been utterly lost or obscured in the dust cloud of information, disinformation, official reports, counter theories, and (certain) downright ludicrous conspiracy theories, remains the Gordian Knot at the heart of the most sensational crime of the last century.

But perhaps the further irony is that, had the same fateful series of events happened today, in the world of smart phones and social media, it’s possible that the mystery might have been speedily resolved.

If the motorcade and shooting happened today, the crowd lining Elm Street would almost certainly be tracking the car with smart phones (in much the way that rock concerts are covered) and the fatal, grisly shots would be on the social networks in a second.

Who knows, even the purported assassins – whether Oswald from the snipers lair, or as many conspiracists have  suggested, near the picket fence close to the pergola at the top of the grassy knoll, might have been captured on an  Iphone in a chance sweep of the phone-lens?

Today, a thousand electronic eyes, not to mention the possibility of a hovering tv crew, would have captured the full drama of the nightmare on Elm Street.  

In 1963, Abraham Zapruder, who worked in the Dal-Tex building next to the Texas School Book Depository, stood on the concrete block above the grassy knoll, close to a decorative pergola, shooting an 8mm home movie with his then top-of-the-range camera.

Other films were shot at the time, and many onlookers had still cameras with them, but none were so important as Zapruder’s evidence.

Abraham, flanked by his receptionist Marilyn Sitzman, used a 8 mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series Model 414 PD to inadvertently film the assassination on Kodak Kodachrome II safety film.

The simplest (and to some the most contentious) explanation was that one put forward by the Warren Commission report: that Lee Harvey Oswald, shooting from a corner window on the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository, on the corner of Elm Street, acted alone in killing the 35th president.

Oswald purportedly fired three shots: one which missed; the second (the so called ‘magic’ bullet) which struck the president in the rear of the neck, exiting from the front of such, before entering Gov Connelly’s body near the armpit, shattering a rib, before progressing through his  right wrist and left thigh.

Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Hospital, where he pronounced dead just half an hour after the shooting.

The rest has been well reported over 50 years.

The Warren Commission report into the shooting concluded that, based on the evidence, Oswald acted alone. A non-driver, he had on the morning of the shooting, been driven to work by a colleague at the depository. Oswald was carrying a parcel, which he claimed was curtain rods for his wife Marina.

After a roll call at the Texas School Book depository after the shooting, he was the only member of staff found to be missing.

Skirting through the back streets of a residential area, a man fitting Oswald’s description was spotted by police officer Tippet in his patrol car. The man shot the officer dead.

Oswald was then arrested by officers at a cinema after ducking under the barrier without paying.

Shoe store manager Johnny Brewer testified that he saw previously Oswald "ducking into" the entrance alcove of his store.

Suspicious of this activity, Brewer watched Oswald continue up the street and slip into the nearby Texas Theatre without paying

He was later charged with the murder of Officer Tippet, at Dallas Police HQ – and appeared before a televised press conference in which he denied the assassination of the president.

While being escorted in cuffs from the police department, he was shot at near point blank range, witnessed my millions on live TV, by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

A Dallas jury found Ruby guilty of murdering Oswald, and Ruby was sentenced to death.

Later, Ruby appealed his conviction and death sentence and was granted a new trial.

As the date for his new trial was being set, Ruby became ill and died of a pulmonary embolism due to lung cancer.

Some contend Ruby was involved with major figures in organized crime, and conspiracy theorists widely assert that Ruby killed Oswald as part of an overall plot surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, which conspiracists claims could lead back to the CIA, FBI and perhaps even higher.

Others have disputed this, arguing that Ruby's connection with gangsters was minimal at most, or circumstantial, and also that Ruby was not the sort to be entrusted with such an act within a high-level conspiracy.

One favourite quote by Ruby by conspiracists is that which he made to reporters when he was granted a new trial.

He said: “Everything pertaining to what's happening has never come to the surface. The world will never know the true facts, of what occurred, my motives. The people…..that had so much to gain and had such an ulterior motive for putting me in the position I'm in, will never let the true facts come above board to the world.”

When asked by newsmen if those people were in very high positions, he simply said: “Yes.”

Conspiracists have also long claimed that the fatal shots came not from behind but from the grassy knoll to the front right of the motorcade.

They point to the Zapruder film in which the president’s fatal head shot seems to point to him being hit in the front right of the head, knocking him to the back and to the left.

The Warren Commission concluded that this was a reaction to him being shot from behind, his whole body being jolted backwards as the killer bullet passed from behind through the top of the right side of his head.

Post Warren Commission, and post Watergate, in an increasingly suspicious America,  The United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was established in 1976 to investigate the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Committee investigated until 1978 and issued its final report, and concluded that Kennedy was likely assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.

However, the Committee noted that it believed that the conspiracy did not include the governments of the Soviet Union or Cuba.

The Committee also stated it didn’t believe the conspiracy was organized by any organized crime group, nor any anti-Castro group - but that it could not rule out individual members of any of these two groups acting together.

The Committee further concluded that it was probable that four shots were fired and that the fourth shot came from a second assassin located on the grassy knoll - but that it was a shot that missed.

The HSCA decided the existence and location of this alleged fourth shot based on a Dallas Police Department dictabelt recording.

An open microphone on one of the police motorcyles purportedly (and unwittingly) recorded the sound of events at the crucial point of the motorcade.

Experts said among the various sounds on the recording was evidence of a ‘fourth’ shot.

In December 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) had prepared a draft of its final report, concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone as the assassin.

However, after evidence from the Dictabelt recording was made available, the HSCA quickly reversed its conclusion and declared that a second gunman had fired the third of four shots heard.

Investigators compared "impulse patterns" (suspected gunshots and associated echoes) on the Dictabelt to 1978 test recordings of Carcano rifles fired in Dealey Plaza from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository and from a stockade fence on the grassy knoll forward and to the right of the location of the presidential limousine.

On this basis, the acoustics firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman concluded that impulse patterns 1, 2, and 4 were shots fired from the Depository, and that there was a 50% chance that impulse pattern 3 was a shot from the grassy knoll.

Acoustics analysts reviewed the BBN data and concluded that "with the probability of 95% or better, there was indeed a shot fired from the grassy knoll."

The HSCA suffered from being conducted mostly in secret, and then issued a public report with much of its evidence sealed for 50 years under Congressional rules.

However in 1992, Congress passed legislation to collect and open up all the evidence relating to Kennedy's death, and created the Assassination Records Review Board to further that goal.

The ARRB review exhaustively made public thousands of documents relating to the JFK case, but was not mandated to reach any conclusions – merely make documents available.

The Board met for four years, from October 1, 1994 to September 30, 1998.

When the JFK Act was passed in 1992, 98 percent of all Warren Commission documents had been released to the public.

By the time the Board disbanded, all Warren Commission documents, except income tax returns, had been released to the public, with only minor changes.

The Kennedy autopsy photographs and X-rays were never part of the Warren Commission records and were deeded separately to the National Archives by the Kennedy family in 1966 under restricted conditions. The JFK Records Act specifically excluded those records.

A 1998 CBS News poll showed that 76% of Americans believed the President had been killed as the result of a conspiracy.

A 2013 AP poll showed, that although the percentage had fallen, more than 59% of those polled still believed that more than one person was involved in the President's murder.

Whatever the truth of that day, mystery will always surround such – and as key eye witness age and pass, the likelihood of the truth being revealed by a forthcoming witness remains more and more unlikely.

Of the 104 Dealey Plaza ear witness reports published by the Commission and elsewhere, 56 recorded testimony that they remembered hearing at least one shot fired from the direction of the Depository or from near its Houston and Elm Streets intersection to the rear of the President.

Thirty five witnesses recorded testimony of at least one shot fired from the direction of the grassy knoll or the triple underpass located to the right and front of the President; eight witnesses gave statements of shots fired from elsewhere, and five testified that the shots were fired from two different directions.

Some of the more outlandish theories have even pointed to the possibility of the fatal head shot coming from the storm drains which line Elm Street.

Over the last 40+ years, Elm Street has been resurfaced several times; street lane stripes have been relocated; sidewalk lamp posts have been moved and added; trees, bushes and hedges have grown; and some traffic sign locations have been changed, relocated or removed. In late 2003, the city of Dallas approved construction project plans to restore Dealey Plaza to its exact appearance on November 22, 1963.

Conspiracists have also claimed that the key Zapruder film holds secrets – that it has been edited or has missing frames.

Others say the autopsy pictures have been doctored to disguise the location of the president’s head wound. 

At the time of the Kennedy assassination, Lee Bowers worked in a railroad switch tower behind Dealey Plaza.

As tower operator he had an unobstructed view of the area in back of the picket fence, the House Select Committee identified that location as the possible position of a second gunman.

When asked by the Warren Commission, "Now, were there any people standing on the high side — high ground between your tower and where Elm Street goes down under the underpass toward the mouth of the underpass?",  Bowers testified that at the time that the motorcade went by on Elm Street, four men were in the area: one or two uniformed parking lot attendants, one of whom he knew; and two men standing 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5 m) apart near the Triple Underpass, ‘who did not appear to know each other’.

“ ‘One was "middle-aged, or slightly older, fairly heavy-set, in a white shirt, fairly dark trousers’”  and the other was ‘a younger man, about mid twenties, in either a plaid shirt or plaid coat or jacket. ‘ "

One or both were still there when the first police officer arrived "immediately" after the shooting.

Two years later when Bowers was interviewed by assassination researchers Mark Lane and Emile de Antonio for their documentary film Rush to Judgment, he clarified that these two men were standing in the opening between the pergola and the stockade fence, and that "no one" was behind the fence when the shots were fired

Bowers told Lane that as the motorcade passed "there was a flash of light or smoke" in the vicinity of where the two men were standing.

Bowers died in August, 1966, when his car left an empty road and struck a concrete bridge abutment.

Some have even questioned the real motive of the Watergate break-ins in the Nixon era in the early 1970s.

In the book The Ends of Power (1978), Nixon's chief of staff H. R. Haldeman claimed that the term "Bay of Pigs", allegedly mentioned by Nixon in a tape-recorded White House conversation as the reason the CIA should put a stop to the Watergate investigations, was used by Nixon as a coded reference to a CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro during the John F. Kennedy administration.

The CIA had not disclosed this plot to the Warren Commission. Some have claimed any such revelation would also have exposed secret CIA/Mafia connections that could lead to unwanted scrutiny of suspected CIA/Mafia participants alleged to have been involved in the assassination of the president.

Using this information, director Oliver Stone, in his 1995 film Nixon, in which Haldeman was portrayed by James Woods, speculated that the now infamous missing 18½ minutes of tape may have contained a discussion concerning the JFK assassination.

Of course all of this is still speculation. But it illustrates the depth of the mystery – and also the numerous pieces of the still incomplete jigsaw which exist.

Larry J. Sabato, author of "The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy," is founder and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia says:

“Oswald was a deeply troubled man, a castaway who never fit well anywhere and could get along with few. He was someone yearning to be great but without the wherewithal to achieve it. At the end of his rope on November 22, 1963, Oswald had left his wedding ring and most of his money behind for his wife Marina and his two young daughters. He grabbed his rifle and planned to go out in a blaze of history-making glory by striking out at the ultimate symbol of power and success, a president who by pure chance would be passing by his place of low-level employment. Had Oswald not been killed by Jack Ruby, we probably would have learned as much in a few weeks or months.

“Yet the story doesn't necessarily end with Oswald. There is no question that many powerful individuals and groups, some with whom Oswald had personal association, possessed the means, motive and opportunity to kill President Kennedy.

“Was Oswald encouraged or manipulated in any way? Did anyone overtly or covertly aid him? After the assassination, were the FBI and especially the CIA simply trying to cover up for their incompetence in missing Oswald's nature and intent, or were there more sinister motives?

“So much time has passed that we may never know, but our one chance to discover more is in the release of thousands of additional pages of memos relating to the assassination, including hundreds of items from the CIA.

“After 50 years, it is absurd that anything is still hidden. Supposedly, the documents will be made public in a few years, but there is no guarantee. The Assassination Records Collection Act, signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, requires that all remaining documents about the Kennedy assassination be released by October 26, 2017.

“The next president will rule on any requests from the CIA and other agencies that materials be withheld or redacted after 2017. Under the law, the president can do so only if there is identifiable harm to our national security that outweighs the public interest in disclosure. But it's possible the CIA could succeed in having some memos held back and others substantially redacted.”

Where does the truth lie with JFK?

Those familiar with Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, will recall how Hercule Poirot offers two solutions to the murder: a ‘simple’ one in which the murder is pinned on a single killer who escapes the train, and a ‘complex’ one in which numerous parties are implicated.

Perhaps with JFK, the ultimate truth lies somewhere between the ‘simple’ and ‘complex’.

But then again, even 50 years from now, we may still never know.