Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Review of REELZ Channel's "JFK: The Smoking Gun"

November is finally here and with it the deluge of television specials that are meant to mark the fiftieth anniversary of perhaps the darkest day in American history: the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. While the programming to commemorate the event this year is predominately aimed toward presenting the official government conclusion, that a political malcontent named Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president, REELZ Channel has opted to go against the grain and endorse the idea that President Kennedy died as a result of more than one shooter and a cover-up was enacted to conceal what really happened on November 22, 1963. However, this is not simply a rehash of popular and well-known conspiracy theories that have existed in the collective pop-culture iconography since the mid-60s. In Reelz Channel’s JFK: The Smoking Gun (which premiered on November 3, 2013), there aren’t any second gunmen lurking on the grassy knoll or shadowy CIA agents leading a private war against the Kennedy Administration. There isn’t even any mention of Mafioso bosses or “back and to the left” arguments.

In what is no doubt a highly unorthodox move, REELZ has endorsed a controversial conspiracy theory which has been kicking around for the past twenty plus years. Based upon the research of ballistics expert Howard Donahue and the 1992 book Mortal Error by Bonar Menninger, JFK: The Smoking Gun postulates that, while Oswald was up in the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository firing his mail ordered Mannlicher Carcano rifle at the presidential limousine with the intent to murder, a startled Secret Service agent wielding an assault rifle in the car directly behind President Kennedy accidentally fired the fatal shot that which took JFK’s life. The program presents its thesis over a two hour running time in which evidence is not only provided to back up Donahue’s theory, that President Kennedy died as a result of “friendly fire,” but to also establish that the Secret Service (and perhaps other “shady” government agencies) covered-up the medical evidence to protect their fellow agent and their organization.

In the first hour of JFK: The Smoking Gun, the audience is introduced to the man responsible for resurrecting the radical theory that President Kennedy was accidentally shot by his own security detail, legendary Australian police detective Colin McLaren. As the narrator of the show tells us, Detective McLaren worked undercover and was responsible for the capture of several high ranking crime bosses in the mafia. His credentials are certainly not lacking but even learned men aren’t always correct. The first section of the program details how McLaren discovered the research of Donahue and Menninger. Howard Donahue, a noted ballistics and firearms expert, first became involved in studying the JFK Assassination when he was asked to take part in a four-part CBS Documentary hosted by Dan Rather entitled “A CBS News Inquiry: The Warren Report”. Hosted by Dan Rather, the program, which began on June 25, 1967, investigated the findings of the Warren Commission. Donahue and a handful of expert marksman were given the task of replicating Oswald’s uncanny ability to not only fire three shots in 5.6 seconds but to also have them strike a moving target. The shooting tests were conducted from a wooden tower elevated 30 feet in the air firing down on a target that ran on a track traveling at 11 MPH. Out of all the marksman, Donahue was the most successful, landing all three shots on the target and in 4.8 seconds on his third attempt. Intrigued by the tests conducted by CBS, he read the Warren Report and began conducting crude experiments in the basement of his home to either prove or disprove the official story. Donahue’s near thirty-year odyssey lead him to a different conclusion than what the Warren Commission had stated occurred on that day in November 1963. His findings were published by author Bonar Menninger in 1992.

We see McLaren visit Dealey Plaza and get an impression of the site of the assassination. One of the most surprising aspects of watching this scene was that there appeared to be little to no one else around. There were no conspiracy theorists selling home-made publications at card tables or tourists rushing out into traffic to get their picture taken on the white X’s which mark the spots where the bullets found their target(s). In fact, there wasn’t even any cars sailing down Elm Street. At one point we do appear to see a train passing in the background over the Triple Underpass and perhaps a lone person or two simply walking down the sidewalk in front of the North Pergola monument. It is perhaps an educated guess that Dealey Plaza was roped off in order to allow the REELZ production company to film this program. McLaren also tours the sniper’s nest at The Sixth Floor Museum apparently while the museum was closed to the general public. This would leave me to believe the museum was in some way, shape, or form connected to the production but to what extent is uncertain. Not that this would be a sign of some nefarious allegiance, as some more paranoid conspiracy types may allege, but that the REELZ network may have pumped some considerable money and influence into getting the documentary completed with a pedigree of validity.

Like any conspiracy-minded program, JFK: The Smoking Gun then sets about poking holes in the Warren Report to lay the groundwork to support its thesis. The narrator intones that the official investigation from 1964 was an investigation of omission and that key witnesses were not called to testify or were unjustly ignored. This point is “old hat” having been consistently rehashed since Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment. We hear McLaren call Oswald’s Carcano “a piece of junk” since it was a World War II surplus rifle and that Oswald wouldn’t have been able to fire that accurately in 5.6 seconds as claimed by the Commission. JFK: The Smoking Gun decides to use this scenario which was only one of two scenarios that the Commission offered to solve the riddle of “what shot happened when”. By focusing on the “5.6 seconds” scenario, this means that the first shot hit both President Kennedy and Governor Connally (The Single Bullet Theory), the second shot missed the car completely, and the third was the kill shot that shattered the president’s head. Today, however, the most widely accepted timeline is 8 seconds to fire three shots not 5.6 seconds. If 8 seconds is the true figure then it gives Oswald ample time to fire on the motorcade and the “5.6 seconds or bust” point rendered inert. It’s also interesting that McLaren touts about the 5.6 second theory as gospel since he remarks later in the program that Oswald may have only fired two shots (the third possibly had been a spent shell ejected from the chamber when Oswald pulled the bolt to ready his weapon) and that the first shot that Oswald fired missed the car. McLaren goes on to explain that this missed shot struck the street and was witnessed by a several observers. This shot may have ricocheted off of the pavement and somehow struck or grazed President Kennedy. In order to support this idea, McLaren brings up the testimony of Secret Service Agent Roy Kellerman who was riding in the front passenger seat of the limousine during the assassination. When interviewed by the Warren Commission, Agent Kellerman remarked that he heard President Kennedy exclaim “My God, I’m hit!” as the car traveled down Elm Street. President Kennedy would have been most likely been unable to speak if, as the Commission concluded, the first shot which struck the president entered his back and exited his throat. What’s interesting about Kellerman’s testimony is that while Kellerman himself was adamant that he heard the president cry out, no other witness in the car recalls President Kennedy saying anything.  About the mechanics of the shooting, McLaren does make interesting points on Oswald in the sniper’s nest. While viewing Oswald’s cardboard box fortress around the window, he remarks on how cramped the area is. This was a point that my wife brought up upon our visit to the Sixth Floor Museum in March of this year. Oswald wasn’t a very large man at all but it does seem difficult to be comfortable in that space even taking his slender body frame into account. Later McLaren suggests that Oswald would have been nervous and unable to be as accurate as claimed by the Warren Commission. Since we are purely in the realm of speculation, perhaps that would lend better to the theory that the first shot missed the car and then Oswald got his act together for the next two bulls-eyes.

What is probably most surprising about a supposed anti-Lone Nut program such as JFK: The Smoking Gun is that it may be the first conspiracy program in television history to endorse “The Single Bullet Theory” as fact. I actually expected noted assassination researcher and Warren Commission supporter Dale Myers to pop-up at some point in the show to give his seal of approval. Much like the award-winning work Myers did for Beyond Conspiracy, the producers of this program present us with a nicely rendered computer-generated model of Dealey Plaza and the actions of the persons in the presidential limousine and even the follow up cars as the shooting unfolds. The audience is shown the trajectory from the sniper’s nest down into the car and how it would have cut (both externally and internally) through both President Kennedy and Governor Connally, exactly as Arlen Specter suggested back in 1964. There are several things to note about this recreation. First, the projectile appears to actually impact President Kennedy in the spine not the shoulder. Perhaps it is just a perspective issue from my vantage point (a television vs. an interactive simulation) but this entry for the “magic bullet” presents a serious problem. At the Bethesda autopsy the night of November 22nd 1963, the pathologists noted no damage to the bony structures within the president’s chest and upper body.  If the animation is correct, then there would have been damage to at least the outer sections of the vertebra. This type of damage was not noted by anyone present at the autopsy (either visually or on the actual autopsy report) or by the subsequent accredited medical panels that investigated the assassination.  The animation continues with the computer simulated trajectory exiting the president’s throat and impacting Texas Governor John Connally near the right armpit. The program then proceeds to validate the Single Bullet Theory by exposing conspiracy theorists as not mentioning that Connally was seated in a jump seat within the car that is not only significantly lower than the president but also in-board of the car door, thus making the trajectory of the SBT possible. While this information may be true in a sense, it’s not entirely accurate. According to the House Select Committee on Assassination (a congressional investigation into not only the slaying of John F. Kennedy but also those of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) , the jump seat in which Governor Connally rode and was shot in is actually 2.5 inches inboard from the door of the car (HSCA Exhibit II-19). Judging by what the animation reveals, Governor Connally’s jump seat appears to be at least 6 inches inboard from the side of the car (if not more), not 2.5 inches as outlined by the HSCA in 1978. This correct positioning not only makes the trajectory line through Kennedy and Connally in the CGI model appear doubtful but also draws into questions when the SBT could have happened. Unfortunately, JFK: The Smoking Gun doesn’t even name the Zapruder Frames in which the SBT could have occurred, leaving the possibilities wide open and ultimately inconclusive.

Next, JFK: The Smoking Gun focuses on the shot which struck President Kennedy in the head and ended his life. The program shows us a reenactment of Howard Donahue, in the basement of his home, reviewing one of the Warren Commission’s 26 volumes (presumably the volume containing the testimony of Commander James Humes, lead pathologist for the Kennedy autopsy) and marking the wound locations on a model of a human skull.  He later drills a hole at the back of the skull to represent the entry wound as described by Humes and the large exit at the top right side of the cranium.  The program then presents us with a computer model showing were the bullet entered and exited the president’s head. What is interesting is that Donahue’s research and the computer animation apparently use Humes’s EOP (External Occipital Protuberance) location as the point of entry for the missile. The audience is even shown the medical drawings done for the Warren Commission. The Rydberg Drawings, as they are referred to, show President Kennedy’s head to be in an incorrect position (facing almost completely downward) and do not align with what is seen in the Zapruder Film. In fact, Dr. Humes’s EOP location was found to be incorrect when the Ramsey Clark Panel studied the autopsy photographs and X-Rays of the president in 1968. The Clark Panel concluded that the actual position of the entry wound at the back of the skull was 4 inches superior of what Doctors Humes, J. Thorton Boswell, and Pierre Finck had seen on the night of November 22nd. In fact, the pathologists were later asked to recant their previous conclusion of the EOP entry and endorse the Clark Panel’s “cow-lick” entry point when they were interviewed for the HSCA in the 1970s. The REELZ special doesn’t make any mention of this revised wound and uses the original WC placement of the head entry to suggest that the shot which killed the president did not come from an elevated position such as the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository but from a lower, flatter plane.

One of the most discussed portions of JFK: The Smoking Gun is how the program goes about explaining that the projectile which hit the president in the head was not a full metal jacketed (FMJ) round but a frangible bullet. First, the special explains that the bullet could not have been one of Oswald’s 6.5mm Carcano bullets because Dr. Humes measured the entry wound as being only 6mm in diameter. This is an interesting point which I had not heard discussed before. They even demonstrate with the model skull from earlier by attempting to place an unfired 6.5mm FMJ round through the entry hole at the back of the skull and, naturally, it does not penetrate. However no explanation is given to how a bullet may react when discharged and in flight. Detective McLaren explains that Dr. Humes’s measurement of a large exit (noted as 10 x 17mm in Humes’s notes) and a metallic debris trail visible on the X-Rays is not consistent with a FMJ round which is designed to pass straight through a target without fragmentation. The point of the “magic bullet” being able to pass relatively intact through two grown men and cause seven wounds is brought up to bolster this theory. However, McLaren omits that the nose and tail portions of a 6.5mm full metal jacketed round were later recovered from under the front seat of the presidential limousine; its midsection missing. It is believed that this is the bullet that passed through the president’s head and somehow fragmented, losing its lead core which created the trail seen in the X-Rays. Fragments from this FMJ bullet gone awry may have also created the crack in the limousine’s windshield as well as the damage to the car’s chrome topping. In order to show the difference in FMJ and frangible ammunition, Detective McLaren demonstrates on a rifle range. Using a Mannlicher Carcano much like Oswald’s and a semi-automatic AR-15 (using frangible, hollow-point rounds), shots are fired through, of all things, melons. Unlike 2008’s Discovery Channel special Inside the Target Car, there aren’t any state-of-the-art prosthetic simulations of human heads, instead we are given soft fruit to show how these types of ammunition react when hitting a target. A cantaloupe is not a proper analogue for the bone structure of the cranium as the melon is most comparable to soft tissue. So naturally, the FMJ round fires straight through the melon and the frangible round blows the melon up leaving an enormous hole upon exit. If there is one thing to note about this test, it’s that when the FMJ round was tested, it left an exit that looked remarkably similar in size to its entrance.

Using this experiment as a prelude, JFK: The Smoking Gun then pieces together its central thesis: that Secret Service Agent George Hickey, in the confusion of the shooting, accidentally shot President Kennedy with a frangible round from an AR-15 assault rifle. The program establishes the shooting sequence as this: Oswald fires first but misses the car completely, striking the street and sending a fragment upward which strikes the president causing him to exclaim as SSA Roy Kellerman claimed. Oswald cycles the bolt of his rifle and fires again sending a round through both President Kennedy and Governor Connally. In the confusion, SSA Hickey, riding in the backseat of the secret service follow-up car, grabs an AR-15 assault rifle and attempts to stand up with the weapon. Instead he accidentally discharges the weapon which then impacts into the back of JFK’s head, ultimately killing him. The motorcade then speeds to Parkland Hospital were doctors are unable to resuscitate President Kennedy and he is pronounced dead at 1:00 PM CST. A cover-up then begins to hide this mortal error.

But other than a dubious ballistics test of FMJ vs. frangible rounds, what evidence does REELZ present to us to take the hypothesis out of the fringe realm and forge it into a viable conspiracy theory? Colin McLaren simply tells us that the witnesses do; namely witnesses that the Warren Commission either outright ignored or that the Commission’s council didn’t question correctly. I do have to give McLaren credit for using either the original witness statements taken on the day of the assassination by law enforcement or testimony presented to the Commission in 1964. This somewhat softens the impact that eyewitness testimony is sometimes highly unreliable and that over time the ever-malleable human memory gets foggy or more embellished as the years collect. McLaren relies on the witnesses in Dealey Plaza to establish The Donahue Theory instead of relying primarily on hard science and/or physical evidence which is almost shocking in this day and age of advanced forensics. Horatio Caine, Detective McLaren is not. According to McLaren, his star witness is Senator Ralph Yarbrough, who was riding two cars behind the presidential limousine with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Senator Yarbrough not only claimed to have seen a Secret Service agent stand up with an assault rifle but to have also to have noticed the distinct scent of gunpowder at street level. As a matter of fact, Senator Yarbrough claimed that the odor stayed with the car all the way to Parkland Hospital. The explanation for this phenomena has been explained away by Warren Commission Apologists as simply exhaust from the cars at the front of the motorcade. While this is indeed a possibility, what is also to note is that Senator Yarbrough wasn’t the only person in Dealey Plaza that day to experience the distinct smell of gun smoke. The program also mentions witnesses Patrolman Earle V. Brown and S.M. “Smokey” Holland. What is so intriguing is that both of the aforementioned witnesses were standing on the Triple Underpass in front of the Presidential motorcade. In the words of JFK researcher Pat Speer, “It gets worse.” JFK: The Smoking Gun mentions on that November day the wind was blowing southeast at approximately 15 MPH and the program gladly trumpets this to prove that the source of the gunpowder was not the sniper’s nest in the Texas School Book Depository since that location was not only elevated, but also downwind. However, they neglect to explain how credible witnesses in front of JFK’s limousine experienced the same phenomena as Yarbrough. In fact, the placement of the gunpowder “nose-witnesses” points more toward the fatal shot have originated in front of President Kennedy, if it was indeed a discharged fire arm responsible for the odor.

The eyewitness testimony is further mined in an attempt to establish the fatal shot, which entered President Kennedy‘s head as having originated from the Secret Service follow-up car. McLaren presents statements from several witnesses having seen an agent jump up in the car and that this agent had a rifle. When exactly did this happen? What is more reliable than eyewitness testimony to resolve this issue and either prove or disprove the “friendly fire“theory? Well, how about the photographic evidence? On November 22 1963, over thirty photographers (both professional and amateur) were in Dealey Plaza before, during, and immediately after the assassination. One of the most famous images of the Kennedy Assassination is a photograph taken by Associated Press photographer James “Ike” Altgens. This photograph, taken in front of the presidential limousine as the shooting occurred, shows the President through the windshield of the car. He is clutching at his throat while his wife, Jacqueline, attempts to aid him. Altgens #5 corresponds to Zapruder frame 255 which is 31 frames (nearly 2 seconds) after the single bullet allegedly passed through both JFK and Governor Connally. Altgens #5 is also 58 Zapruder frames (little over 3 seconds) before a bullet will fatally strike the president’s skull. Also visible in the Altgens photograph is the follow-up car, “The Queen Mary,” carrying the motorcade’s security detail and trailing closely behind the presidential limousine. Two Secret Service agents visible on the left running board of the follow-up car are already reacting to the shooting in progress; looking directly behind the car toward the Texas School Book Depository. Also visible is an agent in the backseat of the car looking behind him as well in the general direction of the sniper‘s nest. This agent is George Hickey. At this point, Hickey is obviously not standing up in the car and still seated with his attention drawn to where gunfire may have been coming from. JFK: The Smoking Gun argues that Hickey’s senses were dulled (as were several other agents responsible for guarding the motorcade) from spending the previous night out drinking at a local bar and not checking in to rest until the early hours of Friday morning. However, as the Altgens photograph shows us, Agent Hickey is aware that something is happening behind the car and that is not something normal. He appears to have been alert to the situation unfolding. Also, could Hickey have been able to spin around, grab the AR-15 hidden out of sight in the backseat, unlatch the safety, and then by error discharge the weapon all in three seconds? This may have been a possibility if it weren’t for an 8mm color film taken on the south side of Elm Street by Charles Bronson which impeaches this scenario. Bronson’s film, which most notable shows the southeast window of the Texas School Book Depository approximately six minutes before Oswald began shooting, also captured part of the assassination sequence. The Bronson film, along with the Zapruder, Nix, and Muchmore films, captured the moment of the fatal headshot. The Bronson film is somewhat blurry (Mr. Bronson erroneously used wide-angle focus) but close study reveals that no Secret Service agent stood up (and discharged a weapon) in the “Queen Mary” as the president was struck in the head by a fatal bullet. If the Altgens photograph suggested that the theory of Donahue, Menninger, and McLaren was at a minor chance plausible, the Bronson film obliterates it.

According to JFK: The Smoking Gun, the official cover-up didn’t begin with the Warren Commission. The cover-up was initiated within minutes of the President’s death and orchestrated by the Secret Service to protect one of their own and their organization as a whole. The REELZ program actually appropriates the conspiracy theory, held by assassination luminaries such as David S. Lifton and Douglas Horne, that the Secret Service smuggled President Kennedy’s body out of Texas in order to control (and even fabricate) the medical procedures and evidence. Depicted in a dramatic recreation in JFK: The Smoking Gun, Secret Service Agent in Charge Roy Kellerman and members of Kennedy’s security detail argue and eventually scuffle with Dallas County Coroner Earl Rose at Parkland Hospital over the possession of the president’s body. SSAC Kellerman wants to get the body to Washington as soon as possible while Rose argues that Texas law states the body must remain in Dallas to preserve the chain of evidence and that he must perform the autopsy. When Rose stands in the way of the casket, Kellerman flashes a gun under his suit jacket and Rose eventually stands down, allowing the agents to leave with Kennedy’s body. While the scene works in the context of the show, its veracity is downplayed. The actual scene at Parkland was more tense and physical than depicted. The Secret Service literally had a brutal tug-of-war match with Rose and several police officers over the body. Tempers flared verbally and physically. A gun was drawn. This scene is presented in more accurate fashion in the 2013 motion picture Parkland and even Oliver Stone’s 1991 blockbuster JFK. However, I do have to credit JFK: The Smoking Gun for having included the scene, which most viewers were likely unaware of. Whether Kellerman and his fellow agents were merely not sure what actions to take and expedited the president’s body back to their home base to regroup or were willingly obstructing a murder investigation remains a mystery.

Continuing on with the “Secret Service Cover-up” idea, we move onto the autopsy performed the night of November 22 1963, at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and its myriad issues.  We are shown a reenactment where the medical room is crowded with hospital personnel, FBI Agents, military officers, and Secret Service agents pace around the room with focused intimidation. The autopsy is depicted as being rushed and that the pathologists were ordered not to question or pursue matters further that might draw light to a gunman other than Oswald. JFK: The Smoking Gun mentions Dr. Humes’s discovery of the fine trial of lead fragments throughout the president’s cranium that, in the opinion of proponents of the “Hickey Theory,” a full metal jacketed bullet cannot do. This debris trail is also mentioned in a report written by FBI Agents James Sibert and Francis O’Neill. Later, using the Assassination Record and Review Board testimony of X-Ray technician Jerrol Custer from the mid-1990s, the special suggests that the X-Rays were later retouched to superimpose 6.5mm bullet fragments into President Kennedy’s skull and conceal the truth that President Kennedy was struck by a .223 caliber bullet from an assault rifle. Also brought up in the special is the proverbial question, “what happened to President Kennedy’s brain?” It is suggested that this evidence disappeared, along with sections and tissue slides, from the National Archives for a reason. That reason being that it contained evidence which would lead back to Agent Hickey’s rifle.

What is perhaps most perplexing about JFK: The Smoking Gun’s doubt of the recorded medical evidence is that earlier in the program it used this very evidence to establish its own theory and destroy other theories. It’s almost frustrating that the program calls the Warren Commission an investigation of omission and then proceeds to either ignore certain details from photographic, written, and/or eyewitness accounts to bolster its own theory or to just simply gloss over them in order to achieve its own aims. This contradictory nature manifests itself prominently in the way the documentary deals with the autopsy. The post-mortem examination was a botched opportunity to set the record straight, there is no question of that. But if the testimony of X-Ray technician Jerrol Custer is correct, that he was specifically asked to X-Ray 6.5mm bullet fragments taped to bone tissue for possible compositing on existing x-rays, then the whole medical record should immediately be suspect and the positioning and presence of not only the fragments in the cranium but also of the wounds themselves becomes unreliable. And it’s even worse since the Clark Panel and HSCA shifted both the back and head wounds in their own investigations to support their findings that Oswald acted alone. That’s two government investigations that revised hard evidence. Back to the way JFK: The Smoking Gun handles the evidence, it ignores the autopsy eyewitnesses (remember Detective McLaren said that the eyewitnesses are what builds a case) which stated that the non-fatal gunshot wound to President Kennedy was 5 ¾ inches down his back which draws into question the Single Bullet Theory. In mentioning the Sibert & O’Neill report, the program neglects to state that it was believed during the course of the autopsy that a single bullet had not transited through President Kennedy’s back and exited his throat or that there appeared to be “surgery of the head” upon examination at Bethesda. What’s even more interesting is that these are not the FBI Agents own observations but the dictation of what the pathologists, trained medical professionals, were noting during post-mortem. What does that mean? This can mean a lot of things. And that‘s just the beginning. The medical evidence, which in most other murder cases is bedrock, is a vast hall of mirrors in the most investigated death from the 20th Century. By making the bold statement that the x-rays may have been altered (or even destroyed) to hide the truth that Oswald’s Mannlicher Carcano rifle did not cause the catastrophic injury to the president’s head, then how can this particular documentary base it’s evidence on the presence of a “snow storm” of lead fragments in the cranial cavity? How can the program claim that the entry and exit wounds on the president’s head point to the shot having not originating from the Texas School Book Depository but from a lower trajectory when the measurements of the wounds are based on Dr. Humes’s notes from the same autopsy; notes that he purposely destroyed and rewrote?

For all of the apparent derision that I may seem to harbor toward the documentary, it is only academic. JFK: The Smoking Gun is entertaining and thought provoking, despite the unlikelihood of its central thesis. It’s the kind of program that will appeal to both seasoned assassinologists and novices. The production values were surprisingly efficient and effective for what at first appeared to be a low-budget cable special. Technically, I was impressed by their computer animation of the shooting sequence on Elm Street despite some inconsistencies. The actors and actresses who were cast to play the roles of the active participants in the program did a fine job. Of particular note is the actor cast as S.M. Holland who only need a cowboy hat and suit to complete the look. Ralph Yarbrough’s testimony was delivered almost in a spooky camp-fire tale kind of way, bringing to mind a televised interview of Dallas Police Deputy Roger Craig from the early 1970s. It’s almost refreshing to have a television program willing to step away from either the “Oswald did it alone” or “Grassy Knoll sniper” mentality that permeates that JFK research community. Although I disagree with the conclusions reached by Colin McLaren, I didn’t feel like he is simply trying to sell a book or that he is a delusional conspiracy theorist with a tin-foil cap. Detective McLaren is calm and articulate, and through his own journey through the labyrinth of JFK assassination research has reached his own conclusions. And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

Thurman Lee Storing
November 10th 2013
3:15 PM CST

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Shadow of a Doubt: James Files and the Richard Bothun Photograph PartTwo

Continuing where I left off in the previous entry, I posed the question: Could James E. Files be the unknown person seen in the Richard Bothun photograph, showing the immediate aftermath of the shooting, as claimed in a popular assassination publication and its corresponding website? Did Mr. Files, if he were indeed the much-storied Grassy Knoll gunman, have enough time to vacate his position at the stockade fence and compose himself enough to arrive just at the right moment for a very convenient assassination photo-op? Those are exactly the kind of questions I wished to resolve, among other related subjects (which will be touched on in future posts), upon my second visit to Dealey Plaza on June 13th and 14th of this year. With my feet firmly planted at the historic site, I would time how long it would have taken Files to reach the point seen in the photograph. With Phase II renovation having been completed on the North Pergola and its’ surrounding iconography free of orange roadblocks and chicken wire fences, the time trails that I wished to conduct would be unimpeded, unless I were to cross paths with an astute, but hopeful not unscrupulous, conspiracy theorist who may have realized exactly what I was up to.

The full area behind the fence taken from near the Triple Underpass, March 2013.
I first had to establish the point at which I would begin the time run and then finish the time run based on the Bothun #4 photograph. One starting point was chosen from the area behind the stockade fence at the top of the Grassy Knoll that approximate location being:

  • The House Select Committee on Assassination’s (HSCA) placement of a shooter based on the much debated acoustical evidence in 1978. A strange shape behind the stockade fence, appearing to be the top of a fedora-style hat or a human head, also appears in the Mary Moorman Polaroid (taken within a fraction of second after the head shot which killed President Kennedy) at this very same location pinpointed by the forensic scientists. This location is roughly eight (8) feet to the west from a turn in the fence northward. In his confession, Files also claims this is the point that he fired his weapon from.
Having firmly established the most likely candidate for a starting place, I then focused on the finish line. From studying both cropped and uncropped versions of Bothun #4, I was unfortunately not able to make an absolutely definitive placement of “shadowman” but did attempt to at least set an approximation of his location in the photograph. In Bothun #4, the figure (“shadowman”) appears either be on the walkway that leads from the North Pergola to the intersection of Elm and Houston Streets or to be on the Elm Street extension, a service road to the parking lot behind the Grassy Knoll, in front of the Texas School Book Depository Building. From studying several cropped and “blown-up” images of the possible fleeing assassin, it appears as if he/she (or should I say it?) is positioned between the two large trees which are closest to the white North Pergola monument. Further investigation yielded what appeared to be branches belonging to smaller plants and foliage knotting and snaking their way upward in between these two large trees (as of 2013, the two aforementioned trees are still standing in the Plaza but dwarf their former 1963 selves by a considerable margin). At least one of these branches appears to be behind the “shadowman”, an indication that the figure in the Bothun photograph is actually on the walkway or even perhaps the lawn between the walkway and the Elm Street extension. The area between these two trees, on the concrete sidewalk, was ultimately chosen as the end point, with equal distance between the towering oaks.
The walkway on which the Bothun figure appears, June 2013.
The rules of the time run were as follows: Two trials would be recorded from the possible Grassy Knoll shooter location. The subject (myself) would simply move from Point A (start) to Point B (end) and the data, down to a fraction of a second, would be recorded using stop watches (or as in our case cellphone apps emulating stop watches but still precise and effective). The runner would time themself. An observer (my wife), starting on the other side of the fence and then using the exterior walkways of the North Pergola facing Elm Street to reach the east retaining wall near the end point, would also keep time and to compare with the other watch after the runner reached the destination for maximum confirmation and assurance. The two tests conducted from the possible assassin location would be set at two different paces: leisurely and hurried. A leisurely pace would simply be defined as someone strolling away casually, while a hurried pace could be defined more as power-walking or quite simply as someone wanting to evade capture and escape the Plaza.
The Stockade Fence as viewed from the retaining wall.

The Time Trials:

In the published findings of their investigation, The House Select Committee on Assassinations made the shocking announcement that President John F. Kennedy died “probably” as the result of a conspiracy. The Committee was ready to rubber-stamp the initial Warren Commission conclusion, that Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone killed President Kennedy, until the discovery and subsequent scientific analysis of a dictabelt recording, captured from the open microphone of a police motorcycle during the motorcade, forced the congressional investigation to reassess its position. Scientists examined the recording and found impulses which were believed at that time to have been rifle report and resulting echoes. For comparison to the impulse patterns found on the dictabelt recording, live-fire tests using 6.5mm Carcano rifles (the model of firearm supposedly used by Oswald) were conducted from various locations in Dealey Plaza including the southeastern most window of the 6th Floor of the former Texas School Book Depository Building and, most notably, the Grassy Knoll. Following intensive analysis by experts of leading acoustics firm Bolt, Beranek, & Newman (BBN), the scientists confirmed that the dictabelt contained at least four impulse patterns which were interpreted as gunshots and established a “probability of 95% or better” that one of those impulses originated from eight feet west of the turn in stockade fence on the Grassy Knoll.
Although the controversial findings of the HSCA in 1978 would later be rebuked “officially” several years after the congressional investigation convened, the physical position of a second gunman at this location has remained a fixture amongst assassination researchers to this day. According to James Files own testimony and the website, the HSCA Grassy Knoll shooter location is exactly were Mr. Files was at 12:30 PM CST on November 22nd, 1963. So for the first test, this location of a probable sniper was chosen.
 The HSCA Position to Bothun #4. Original Un-cropped Map of Dealey Plaza courtesy: Jerry Organ.
The map pictured above shows the physical geography of Dealey Plaza as it appeared in November 1963. The illustration contains two points for the timing trials: Point A (the starting location) and Point B (the finish location). Point A is represented by the color red and Point B is represented by the color yellow. The orange arrows connecting the two points depict the probable path taken by Mr. Files, the possible Grassy Knoll assassin, to his possible position in the Richard Bothun photograph extensively mentioned and described in Part One of this article. The test run only took into account the amount of time taken to get from Point A to Point B, leaving out Files claim that he had enough time to disassemble his firearm and place it inside a leather case before exiting.
The area behind the stockade fence on the Grassy Knoll of Dealey Plaza is much like it was on November 22nd 1963 but with subtle difference. The trees and plant life shadowing the knoll are now much larger than they were some fifty years ago. Much like 1963, there still exists a parking lot behind the fence, however, it is no longer gravel but now paved with what appeared to be a recent coating of asphalt. In fact, the fresh pavement ends right at the foot of the fence perhaps giving viewers over the five-foot tall wooden planks an extra inch of height to peer over and down at a white-painted “X” in the middle of Elm Street. On the day that the tests were conducted, a considerable number of vehicles were parked in this lot (which provides service for the Sixth Floor Museum) and many of these vehicles were parked right up at the fence line making it at times difficult for tourists to navigate on foot. I was however able to establish a clear defined path which would take me from the probable Grassy Knoll shooter location to the North Pergola monument unobstructed.
Stockade fence facing north, following the path taken in the HSCA time trial.
The path taken was simply this: the watch would be set and I would move north up along the fence line to the area where the fence ends and a landing from the North Pergola leads out to the parking lot. From there, I would cut across the grass behind the imposing white pergola and proceed down the Elm Street extension road. I would then turn onto a short section of sidewalk which connects to a walkway leading out of the eastern pergola shelter, proceed down this eastern walkway between a row of trees and a white retaining wall, and then stop when I reached the middle most point between the two large trees as visible in the Bothun photograph. It was decided that the first test would be conducted at a leisurely walking pace and that the second would be conducted in a more hurried fashion.
Beginning the first time run and walking along the fence line, I noted how I could see several people in the Plaza from this location, most notably behind the western retaining wall where another mysterious figure dubbed “The Black Dog Man” was. I could almost imagine this figure staring back at me over the top of the fence, just a black void with no discernable identity much like the figure I was attempting to emulate in my run. At the time I was there, a conspiracy theorist had set up a table against the southern pergola shelter on the landing of the retaining wall, so a group of roughly ten people were at this location as I made my flight from the plaza. I attempted to channel the mind-set of the possible assailant. I kept my eyes down, arms at my sides, attempting to alert as little attention as possible. I used the wall of cars parked along the fence as cover; my footsteps quietly lite but determined. I pulled the brim of an invisible hat down to obscure my face. Underneath the solemn, non-blinking, almost blank-less visage I carried, I felt the urge, blaring like an approaching siren, to not be taken alive. I rested my icy hand on my revolver. I made sure not to look at my watch.
As I walked closer to the pergola monument and the inviting green lawn that I needed to tread across to get to freedom, I could see the area where the landing from the retaining wall empties into the parking lot. It struck me that if anyone had come up that landing following the time of the shooting that they probably would have run into me. I thought of the unidentified man in the Nix and Muchmore films standing on the concrete steps which lead down the Grassy Knoll. I thought of his mad dash up those steps to the retaining wall and into oblivion. I could see him pass into the parking lot and continue running for his life. Perhaps, fueled by adrenaline and an indescribable desire for safety, all sense locked. He didn’t notice me and I remained a phantom.
Facing toward where the retaining wall landing meets the parking lot.
I made the turn onto the Elm Street extension and could look all the way down into the heart of Downtown Dallas. The Texas Schoolbook Depository, now the 6th Floor Museum, loomed seven stories over my head. The building’s shadow was quite a comfort from the blazing sun and 100 degree temperature. I felt calm as if I could blend, or melt, into a crowd and vanish. Looking through the vestibules in the side of the North Pergola, I could see the Plaza and the cars passing on the street below. The architecture of the North Pergola looked incredible in the mid-day sun; its many beams casting shadows all throughout the structure. Walking the Elm Street extension is perhaps the easiest part of the trip. There are no turns, no vehicles to avoid, and most importantly the pergola provides significant cover despite the vestibules. I even felt safe from the inquiring glances of spectators in front of the Depository Building.
I quickly found the sidewalk off of the service road beneath the canopy of a respectable row of trees. I traveled along the sidewalk until I was headed in a nearly a straight path toward the now-visible County Records Building. My wife is waiting in front of the retaining wall, phone in hand. I glanced around as I made it to Point B. I noticed that it did look remarkably like the numerous photographs and films taken that fateful day. Across the street, I even saw someone taking pictures in my direction, close to where Richard Bothun was five decades ago.
My wife and I compared the times, found no variance between figures and I quickly jotted down the exact time in a handy blue memo book that I had brought specifically for this purpose. We then returned to the initial starting point (Point A: behind the fence) and conducted the second leg of the time run. This run was conducted at a hurried pace as opposed to a walking, leisurely pace. I would define a hurried pace as not quite jogging and more akin to “power walking”. After the run was completed, my wife remarked that it was obvious that I was up to something judging by how quickly I was moving and expressed the opinion that anyone fleeing in this manner (at a hurried pace) would have probably been noticed on November 22nd, 1963.
Standing near the eastern most retaining wall. Bothun would have been across the street.

The Results:

After reviewing the data collected from Dealey Plaza on June 14th, 2013, the results were very surprising. To get from the HSCA shooter location to the “shadowman” position as seen in Bothun #4, walking at a calm and collected pace, took 54.3 seconds. In the second test, conducted at a more strenuous and quicker pace, it took exactly 40.9 seconds to reach the predetermined final site. Speaking in relative terms, my own perception of the two tests actually seemed much shorter and I expressed feelings of disbelief over these findings, but the clock does not lie.
It has been established that the Richard Bothun photograph was taken within thirty to forty seconds following the assassination. So where does that leave Mr. James Files and the claim that the mysterious figure seen in the Bothun photograph is him? In my honest opinion, the tests conclusively ruled out that it could be Files if he were walking at a normal stride. However, it does remain possible that Files could have made it to that location in a maximum of forty-seconds if he were walking (or even running) much faster and just happened to avoid detection by any spectators to the tragic event. He may have ran behind the North Pergola or through the parking lot by the stockade fence and switched gears when he reached the walkway across the plaza to a more acceptable ambulatory rate. However, in his confession, Mr. Files states that he left the scene of the crime in a calm fashion.
Perhaps the largest strike against James E. Files as Bothun’s unknown human shade is that the time tests conducted in Dealey Plaza only take into account the bare minimum time required for the assassin to reach the area seen in the photograph and does not take into account the time required to disassemble the weapon. In fact, not only does Mr. Files claim to have taken apart his gun in the crucial seconds after the shooting (which he placed in a briefcase), he also remarks that he observed the behavior of the people lining the street in front of the Grassy Knoll before breaking the weapon down. Even if Files had fake Secret Service agents running inference for him (to keep away spectators), there is no way he could have made it to the point as seen in Bothun #4. In Mr. Files’ defense, I do have to say that he doesn’t outright identify himself as the mystery figure but it is inferred, mainly through the website that promotes Files as the second shooter, that we do see Mr. Files in the Bothun photograph. However, using the time data collected, he simply know this claim cannot be true.
In order to be fair and objective, I also conducted two time tests from the so-called “Badgeman” position to the finish area as used in the first set of time runs. These tests were conducted in the same manner and fashion as the previous set of time runs (complete with regular stride and fast stride options) with only the starting location moved. The “Badgeman”, so named because he appears to be wearing a uniform, is a controversial image taken from the Mary Moorman Polaroid of what appears to be a human figure back behind the retaining wall and stockade fence. He appears to be roughly 10 to 15 feet north of where the fence corner is. This figure’s face appears to be obscured by what some analysts claim is smoke or a muzzle-flash. The debate over whether “Badgeman” is a flesh-and-blood creature or a complex trick of light and shadow has been an ongoing ordeal for nearly thirty years.
 The Badgeman Position to Bothun #4.
The “Badgeman” tests yielded the following results: at a normal walking pace, it took exactly 40.8 seconds to reach the finish line. At a more hurried pace, it took exactly 35.3 seconds to reach the final destination. This would have allowed a somewhat larger time window for the assassin to appear in Bothun #4, but is “Badgeman” James Files? I would have to conclude absolutely not. In his interviews, Mr. Files specifically states the clothes he wore that day and he was not wearing a uniform. Also to add more water to an already sinking ship, there is even a page on Wim Dankbaar’s webpage devoted to the “myth” of the Badgeman proclaiming the figure to be nothing more than an optical illusion (the link can be found here).

Was James Files captured on film, specifically in the Richard Bothun photograph, in Dealey Plaza moments after the fatal shot which ended President Kennedy’s life? My answer would simply be “no.” Based on the time tests conducted, I believe it would be impossible for Mr. Files, or the Grassy Knoll assassin for that matter, to arrive at the “shadowman” site roughly a half minute after the assassination.
To this day, photographic confirmation of James E. Files’ presence in Dealey Plaza on November 22nd, 1963, as an assassin or even as an eyewitness to the event, remains elusive and the identity of the Bothun shadow person continues to be unknown. In the meantime, researchers (seasoned and novice) will continue searching the shadows for possible clues, pouring over fading and out of focus photographs or 8mm frames, and continually sift through mountains of documents and texts for the smoking gun that will either affirm or quell the darkest and deepest fears of history.
I count myself among these ranks.
Thurman Lee Storing
July 23, 2013
5:49 PM  

Shadow of a Doubt: James Files and the Richard Bothun Photograph Part One.

Many assassination researchers have dedicated an innumerable amount of resource and time, sometimes to detrimental financial and personal effect, to discovering a proverbial smoking gun to firmly establish a long denied conspiracy. To conspiracy theorists, proving the existence of a second assassin that cut down President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, is perhaps most comparable to the Arthurian legend of the search for the Holy Grail. The credo of these assassination researchers is as follows: find the location of another rifle and the official story, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, is obliterated. The most mythic and popular placement of an unnamed and officially invisible second gunman is behind a picket fence adjacent to Dealey Plaza’s North Pergola monument, positioned to the right front of the Presidential limousine as it slowly passed down Elm Street during the motorcade which was planned to have taken him to a luncheon at the Dallas Trade Market. This alleged sniper’s perch, behind the wooden fence and camouflaged by foliage, sits atop a small but steep incline which has since entered the popular lexicon as the “Grassy Knoll.”

This photograph was taken on my first trip to Dealey Plaza in March 2013 from behind the stockade fence.  Renovation was still in progress at that point.

While the possible existence of a Grassy Knoll gunman has been a hotly debated subject, having been embedded in assassination lore since the first wave of Warren Commission critics emerged, the attempts at identifying the assassin have been a convoluted and most often incredulous affair. Perhaps the most important, and controversial, person in recent memory claiming to have been the fabled second shooter on the Grassy Knoll is a convicted felon named James E. Files (AKA James Sutton). Files, who had strong criminal ties to mafia kingpin Sam Giancana, is currently serving a fifty-year sentence at a high-security correctional institute in Illinois for the attempted murder of a police officer. In a taped interview conducted by private investigators in 1994, Files implicated organized crime as being behind the assassination of President Kennedy and confessed that he participated as one of the shooters. In fact, Files claimed to have been the second assassin on the Grassy Knoll that fired the shot which mortally wounded the President.
Since his confession broke publically in 1996, James Files has remained a questionable and much contested figure to assassination researchers; polarizing to conspiracy theorists, contentious to supporters of the official government version of the story. Files has been the subject of a popular documentary entitled “Confessions of an Assassin” and has had many publications, both in print and on the internet, written about his claims. Perhaps the most notable of these is the webpage which is run by Dutch entrepreneur Wim Dankbaar, who produced the aforementioned documentary. The webpage, contents of which Dankbaar later published in physical print as Files on JFK in 2009, deals exclusively with Files’ confession and subsequent correspondence with investigators since his initial interview. The site also contains a multitude of articles that attempt to validate Files’ story through the study of assassination eyewitnesses and photographic evidence. To say that Mr. Dankbaar’s efforts to establish the case as closed, following James Files confession, are prolific is perhaps an understatement.

One of the more notable claims presented on Dankbaar’s webpage is that James Files presence in Dealey Plaza can be confirmed via a photograph taken within the immediate aftermath of the assassination (the link can be accessed here: The photograph in question was taken thirty seconds after the final shot by Richard Bothun who was directly across the street from the North Pergola and Grassy Knoll. In fact, Bothun is visible with his camera, behind AP photographer James “Ike” Altgens (also with a camera) who is standing at the curb, in the Zapruder Film very clearly at frame #346. Although Mr. Bothun did not take any pictures during the actual assassination sequence, he did capture the pandemonium of the vital moments after the shooting in Dealey Plaza as witnesses reacted. Of the photographs that Bothun took in the earth-shattering minutes after the assassination, the one that attracts the most attention is Bothun’s fourth (#4) photo, snapped a mere half minute after the fatal head wound to the president.
The Richard Bothun #4 Photograph. Credit: Robin Unger.

As one can see from viewing Bothun #4, there are many interesting actions occurring in the chaos that enveloped the Plaza after the final shot was fired. Gayle and Bill Newman, being only a few feet from the presidential limousine at the time of the explosive shot which destroyed the right side of the president’s head, are covering their two children from a flurry of rounds on the lawn in front of the pergola. Several press photographers are already quickly capturing the scene with their cameras, including NBC cameraman David Wiegman who abandoned one of the press cars in the motorcade while still in motion. James Altgens, who only moments before snapped several pictures of the shooting in progress, has run across the street in the maddening confusion, his expression lost, looking back toward where he believes the shots came from. Dallas motor patrol officer Clyde Haygood is preparing to abandon his motorcycle to pursue a possible fleeing assassin; his attention fixed on the Grassy Knoll. The Umbrella Man and his possible accomplice “Dark Complected Man” sit in calm composure on the sidewalk, aloof from what is happening around them. Various civilians run for cover while others are helpless to mobilize. Within Mr. Bothun’s frame, uncertainty exist freely and the panic is palpable.

In the far right of Bothun #4, there also appears to be the silhouette of a human figure walking behind the east retaining wall of the North Pergola monument which leads to the intersection of Elm and Houston Streets. This figure, absent of detail, appears as only a black shadow, unidentified and eerie. It is the image of what appears to be a man, perhaps with a brimmed hat, walking casually away from the scene; separated from the terror that has just unfolded nearly a minute previous. This darkened figure, sometimes referred to as the “Shadowman” by assassination researchers, is apparently walking on the sidewalk between the North Pergola’s eastern retaining wall and the Elm Street extension road which runs parallel to the Texas School Book Depository and empties out into the parking area behind the Grassy Knoll. While many researchers have attempted to identify this figure, the results have not been conclusive and debate still rages to this day on who (or even what) “shadowman” is.

The red circle indicates the location of the so-called mysterious Bothun "shadowman".

According to Mr. Wim Dankbaar’s webpage, this mystery has been solved: the famous “shadowman” is, in fact, James Files leaving the scene of the crime after fatally shooting President Kennedy to fade into the ether like a respectable mob hit-man. In fact, the JFK Murder Solved webpage has even devoted an entire article to prove the claim that Files is the mystery man seen in Bothun #4. Dankbaar’s reasoning for Files being the Bothun “shadowman” stems from a particular interview in which Files described his exit from Dealey Plaza:

"I know that after I had put the Fireball away, I know I had a Colt 45 inside my pocket on the left side of briefcase was in right hand and I was prepared to shoot my way out of there if it came down to that.... I did not look back over my shoulder...I did not run...I did not stand around...I just carried a natural gait and proceeded to exit....just like a business man walking away from lunch."

Besides Files’ quote, the analysis of Bothun #4 presented on the webpage provides a crude outline sketch of “shadowman” depicting him with a hat and keeping a close hand on a concealed handgun at the belt-line. In fact, even without the rudimentary attempts at drawing in objects, the figure does appear to have one arm bent back perhaps like a Wild West gunfighter ready to draw his Colt revolver in a High Noon style showdown. According to the sketch (the word “cartoon” is probably more fitting), the figure is holding a briefcase supposedly containing File’s disassembled Remington XP-100 Fireball: the weapon he claims to have slain the president with. However, this detail cannot be determined since the area behind the retaining wall is not visible and the figure apparently does not appear in any other photographs, so this claim rests firmly in the realm of speculation but may account for the awkward posture of “shadowman” as he makes his escape from the kill zone and into obscurity.

The concrete walkway leading east of the North Pergola as seen in March 2013. This would have been the Bothun figure's escape route.

If the claims made on are true, that James E. Files was the Grassy Knoll gunman and, also, is the mysterious figure visible in Richard Bothun’s photograph then there needs to be an established time frame from how Mr. Files got from Point A: the stockade fence to the southwest of the North Pergola to Point B: the walkway leading east from the North Pergola to the Texas School Book Depository. To achieve this feat and be captured in the Bothun #4 black and white still picture, Mr. Files would have had to have moved from Point A to Point B in as little as thirty seconds but possibly as late as forty seconds depending on the source used for the photographic timeline (which is still in-flux amongst researchers to this very day). Combining both extreme (earliest/latest) time limits and making an average would give Files an estimated thirty-five seconds to reach the proximity of “shadowman” from his sniper’s perch in the parking lot at the top of the Grassy Knoll. Could James Files, having just shot the president of the United States, have covered enough ground and be the explanation behind an enduring assassination photographic mystery?

(To Be Continued)

Thurman Lee Storing
July 23, 2013
10:33 AM CST

Friday, June 28, 2013

The South Knoll: An Assassin's Paradise?



For a grueling five decades, conspiracy theorists have attempted to establish the whereabouts of a second (or multiple) shooter(s) during the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963. The most famous is, of course, the stockade fence that sits atop the now infamous "Grassy Knoll". In fact, conspiracy theorists have placed potential snipers in nearly any location in Dealey Plaza that could fit a human being including (but by no means limited to) rooftops, storm drains, various vehicles, and even the limo the President was riding in. Perhaps one of the more neglected areas that could have sheltered a concealed second assassin is Dealey Plaza's South Knoll area. In a recently published book entitled Enemy of the Truth: Myths, Forensics, and the Kennedy Assassination, blood spatter analyst Sherry Fiester makes the case that the fatal shot, which shattered President Kennedy's head and ultimately lead to his untimely death, originated from the area of the South Knoll. Fiester's analysis has lead to a revival of sorts in researcher circles and trigger considerable discussion about the possibility of this area being feasible as the location of a hidden gunman.

From June 13-14th, 2013, I spent two days in Dallas investigating the area of and surrounding Dealey Plaza. This was my second visit to the historic site, the first having been conducted in March of the same year. However during the tenure of my stay in March, Dealey Plaza was under renovation for the upcoming 50th anniversary and both the North and South Pergola area were off-limits to the public. I was able to take some pictures and gain a familiarity with the area but much was left to be desired. Upon my return this June, Dealey Plaza's Phase 2 renovation was complete and both the North and South Pergola and their respective knoll areas were open to the public. A sizable crowd walked up and down the sidewalk in front of the North Pergola/Grassy Knoll area, often pointing at the Texas School Book Depository Building (now the current 6th Floor Museum) or the stockade fence at the top of the Grassy Knoll. Many of these tourists were stopped by conspiracy theorists attempting to sell pamphlets that appeared to have been printed from the early 1990s, no doubt at that time riding the popularity of Oliver Stone's "JFK", and often spoke loudly with exaggerated fervor that firmly pole-vaulted over hyperbole. The North Pergola was awash with activity: businessmen with mobiles in hand walking to their next appointment; children playing in the sprinklers on the lawn where the Newman family had stood; an elderly couple, solemn and perhaps tearful, gazing out at the final "X" marked in the street were the young president was mortally wounded so many years before; college students thumbing through text books (or tablets) in the shaded seclusion of the pergola shelter mere yards from were Abraham Zapruder filmed the most infamous home movie in history. Behind the retaining wall, a card table was surrounded by curious onlookers as a more high-budgeted conspiracy theorist, speaking into a microphone, claimed "four out of five witnesses said the shots came from here." I don't believe "circus" is the most appropriate word to use, that would be too harsh. Simply, the area of the North Pergola was very alive. I could still hear songbirds, from time to time, in the comfort of the trees hanging over the stockade fence.

The North Pergola/Grassy Knoll at a much quieter time, around 10 AM.
On the other hand, the South Pergola/Knoll was completely devoid of any activity. The South Pergola is nearly a mirror image of the North Pergola. It even has a retaining wall and walkway much like its northern counterpart. One difference between these two areas is that while the infamous "Grassy Knoll" has a sturdy and imposing wooden stockade fence at its summit, the South Pergola's knoll does not. Instead there is a fence made of simple iron bars that surrounds a parking lot for the United States Post Office Building. This fence connects and dead-ends into the Triple Underpass. Entry can not be gained into the parking lot from the Triple Underpass or from the South Pergola. There is a guard post that provides access into the parking lot near Houston Street. In 1963, this parking lot had a barb wire fence instead of the current iron one.

Looking toward the South Pergola from behind the fence on the Grassy Knoll.


The South Knoll as seen from the reflecting pool area.

Provided with the serenity of the South Knoll, I was able to walk around the curved, striking white monument and its surrounding grounds unimpeded by any distraction, aside from the slight drone of traffic passing on Commerce Street. I stood at various points in or near the pergola including on the pergola steps, out on the lawn in front of the pergola, inside the pergola shelters, and on the walkway leading down the street. One of the more striking details one grasps of Dealey Plaza from this location is the slope of Elm Street. The decline seemed far greater than I had expected or noticed when I was at the North Pergola or even from the intersection in front of the Depository Building. The image of the Grassy Knoll and Depository Building in panoramic view from the South Pergola was inspiring. The renovation to the entire area should be applauded. When there were lulls in traffic and Elm was devoid of modern cars, Dealey Plaza looks very much frozen in time. In fact, my wife marveled at how similar it looked to the films from that fateful day, right down to the vivid colors of the grass and foliage.


Taken from the steps at the South Pergola.


Facing the North Pergola from the walkway leading to Commerce Street. The yellow banner on the Grassy Knoll actually reads "Grassy Knoll".

I spent about ten minutes pacing around the Pergola before moving on to my next area of study. The South Pergola was secluded and would have been away from the parade route on that day in November, attracting little attention. I had little doubt that no one knew I was even over here. In fact, I hadn't noticed any single person over at the South Pergola on either day of my most recent visit. As I stood there on the steps of the walkway leading down to the street, a few pedestrians walked past on the sidewalk below. They weren't tourists. They looked like average working Americans headed to their respective destinations in Downtown Dallas. They would look up at my wife and I with a sort of quizzical glance. "What are they doing up there? No one goes up there.” I had no idea that the South Pergola was this unpopular, bordering on a shameful neglect.

Illustrating how similar both North and South Pergola are, note the corresponding pedestal and retaining wall. Also note: part of the parking lot gate can be seen through the pergola shelter. 


Looking toward Elm Street from the South Pergola walkway steps. The Grassy Knoll fence is visible.

Finishing up my study of the pergola monument on the southern end of Dealey Plaza, I then moved to the grassy slope near the Triple Underpass. The South Grassy Knoll provided an excellent view of the North Pergola and of the entire plaza including the former Texas School Book Depository Building. The trees hanging over the South Knoll's iron fence provided a dark canopy of eerie shade. If a shooter were in the parking lot on the South Knoll, they would have had a very good view of Elm Street and the presidential motorcade headed nearly in their direction. The shadowy area along the parking lot was also shielded from direct view from the North Pergola/parade route and even the Triple Underpass. The idea began to seem possible: a shooter may have been lurking in this area, avoided detection, and zeroed his sights on the 35th President of the United States.
Nearly center on the South Knoll, standing five feet in front of the parking lot. I was struck by how this picture reminded me of the Bronson film. Perhaps its the tree limbs.


Standing up against the parking lot iron fence roughly ten feet down from the start of the Triple Underpass. This may have been the shooter's vantage point.

However, the idea remained fixed as merely a possibility. The shooter would have had a very good line of sight; however, there are a number of problems that must be addressed. Much like the "classic" Grassy Knoll gunman to the north of the position I was at, the South Knoll assassin would have been firing down into the car. However, while the Grassy Knoll gunman may have had an unobstructed view of President Kennedy, the South Knoll assassin would have had many more obstacles to deal with. The two obstacles that directly come to mind being: the windscreen and the occupants of the car. Could a shot have cleared the windshield of the car? Possibly for the fatal shot, but doubtfully if it was the shot which wounded the President in the throat or may have wounded Governor John Connally. The projectile could have cut through the windshield like a contingent of conspiracy theorists claim, creating the pencil-width hole reported by a handful of witnesses. However, analysis of AP photographer Ike Altgens'  photograph #6, taken while the assassination was in progress and corresponding to Zapruder frame 255, shows no apparent damage to the windshield while the President is clearly hit and clutching at his throat. The possibility of the South Knoll shooter accounting for the President's throat wound is remote.  If the South Knoll assassin was responsible for the head shot (Zapruder Frame #313) would the assassin have been able to hit the President without hitting anyone else in the car? Possibly. If this shooter was responsible for the fatal head shot, how does it account for damage to mainly the right side of the President's head?

 I left the South Knoll that day with some questions answered and new ones raised. I felt that while it was firmly possible a shooter could have taken up short residence on the south side of Dealey Plaza at 12:30 PM on November 22nd, 1963, and that this area would have provided sufficient cover and an excellent overview of the motorcade route, I believe that the evidence, as it stands today, leaves too much uncertainty to reach a confirmation that any shots were fired from this area. So while, indeed, the case of a South Knoll assassin is an open possibility and this is not my final word on the topic, I have to conclude the following: While the possibility of a second (or one of multiple) assassin(s) on the South Knoll is far more ideal than several other projected shooter locations along the parade route, that it is improbable that a shot originated from this location based on the evidence as it currently stands and from my first-hand analysis of the conditions and geography present at Dealey Plaza.

Thurman Lee Storing
June 28th, 2013
3:16 PM CST