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JFK conspiracy critics quieted, but
3-shot sequence remains a mystery
By John LeGear
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy has been dead now for more years now than he had lived. And throughout the past half century, only one third of the people queried in any given decade about the shooting that occurred on the outskirts of downtown Dallas,Texas have been convinced that the government-appointed Warren Commission was correct in concluding that 24-year-old pro-communist and ex-U.S. Marine Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy on a perfectly clear early afternoon of November 22, 1963. The Warren Commission findings were imperfect, but they were accurate. Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman on that fateful day.
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, shocked and saddened observers were unable to equate the loss of a handsome and likeable U.S. President at the hands of someone that Jacqueline Kennedy described as a "silly little communist." Conspiracy theorists rushed in to fill the vacuum, which only served to distort the facts, delay truth, enrich fiction writers, and perform a shameful disservice to American history.
Conspiracy yarns by Warren Commission critics peaked in 1991 upon the release of Oliver Stone’s cleverly constructed fantasy film “JFK,” but they’ve been losing ground ever since to computer-enhanced analysis and old fashioned horse sense. Thorough, even-handed television documentaries on the major news networks, notably those hosted by the late news network anchors Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings, coupled with Gerald Posner's splendid 1993 book "Case Closed," turned the tide on conspiracy quacks.
Cronkite and Jennings, who left behind legacies of unsurpassed news gathering excellence, also left little doubt in the minds of unbiased observers that Oswald was the lone gunman in Dallas on that Friday before Thanksgiving. And in his highly praised book, author-attorney Posner effectively shattered conspiracy critics' dreams of finding shooters on the grassy knoll, hiding beneath manhole covers and triangulating rifle fire from distant buildings behind or across from the Texas School Book Depository.
With so much affordable and easily available photo and video editing software today, just about anyone can conduct their own impartial analysis of the most reliable hard evidence—home movie film and still photographs taken in those 20 seconds before, during and after the shooting—and come to only one supportable conclusion: Lee Harvey Oswald did indeed act alone in firing three rifle shots from the sixth floor window of the Book Depository building on the corner of Houston and Elm Streets. One of Oswald’s bullets entered President Kennedy’s upper back near the base of his neck, exited his throat and proceeded into Governor John Connolly, seriously wounding both men. Another of the three bullets Oswald struck JFK in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The two bullets that hit JFK were fired 4.92 seconds apart, based on the best available film, photography and computer analysis.
Despite being the most photographed murder of the 20th century, conspiracy critics of the investigation still bellow with impunity, buttressed by the knowledge that when Jack Ruby gunned down Oswald two days after the assassination, he silenced the only person who could answer all questions. And that leaves open the slim possibility that Oswald could have been persuaded by others to shoot the President. But the question of whether or not Oswald acted alone--that which provides the preponderance of grist for conspiracy critics' theories--has been answered. Like so many other 20th century assassins--those who killed Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and John Lennon, and those who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Pope John Paul II--Oswald acted alone. He wanted the satisfaction of killing JFK, and in the madness of his mind, he didn't want to share that with anyone.
Oswald was the very essence of dichotomy: a 24-year-old communism devotee since the age of 15 who served three years in the U.S. Marine Corps before choosing to live three years in the Soviet Union, where he married the niece of a Russian police officer. Conspiracy critics could hardly be faulted for feasting on Oswald contradictions, but like other fiction writers, they spin their tales by cherry picking what they like and dismissing inconvenient truths.
Posner’s “Case Closed” revealed how Oswald’s loveless upbringing set in motion the makings of a friendless and virtually penniless father of two who craved attention and fed on delusions of grandeur. Cronkite, who was aptly regarded in the 1960s as “the most trusted man in America,” was convinced Oswald was a lone operator and, as the years passed, most of Cronkite‘s news colleagues came to agree. Jennings hosted an ABC documentary in 2003, “Beyond Conspiracy,” that all but tried and convicted Oswald, and effectively put conspiracy theories to rest for anyone with an open mind.
A call to CBS News in 2004 elicited this response from Cronkite, as relayed by his personal assistant, paraphrasing: "Had there been a conspiracy, someone surely would have come forward by now. And no one has." As far as Walter Cronkite was concerned, the JFK case was indeed closed.
So as we near the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, what more needs to be said? Only that Oswald, who owned a pistol and an Italian-made bolt-action rifle that retailed in 1963 for about $20, happened to get a $1.25 per-hour job in a Dallas book building six weeks before someone drew up a motorcade route for President Kennedy’s visit to the home state of his Vice President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. By some strange twist of fate, JFK and Oswald crossed paths on the same street corner at the same time. The emotionally-unhinged Oswald probably interpreted a mere coincidence of time and geography as a signal of his own destiny, prompting him to stake his claim in history next to the likes of John Wilkes Booth and two other assassins of U.S. Presidents. JFK's motorcade route not only sent him into the crosshairs of madman, but one with a history of marksmanship in the Marine Corp who was stunningly accurate from less than 100 yards away on a bright clear day. Had the final bullet not struck JFK squarely in the back of his head, killing him instantly, physicians who tended to him that day at Parkland Hospital would still have struggled to save him from the damage done by the first bullet, which passed near and possibly nicked JFK's spinal cord before exiting his throat at his Adams Apple, then surging through the upper torso of Texas Governor John Connally.
For me, there's only one remaining unresolved detail about the assassination: a precise description of the three-shot shooting sequence. It’s frustrating because the assassination is captured from start to finish on silent film and by photographs, but without an audio recording, it’s impossible to nail down the timing of the three shots. Even respected observers like Cronkite, Jennings and Posner—all of whom believed there were three shots—were unable to agree with certainty on which one missed its intended target and sailed down toward a triple highway underpass 500 feet from the sniper's nest.
Posner cited testimony by more than a half-dozen ear-witnesses when concluding that Oswald missed with his first shot, about 3.44 seconds before JFK was struck the first time, but still photos fail to support his contention. According to Posner, JFK’s limo had just passed under Oswald’s sniper nest when the first shot was fired--a bullet he believes deflected off a tree branch toward the triple underpass--but no Secret Service agents or motorcycle police officers are seen reacting to gunfire in any photographs or on home movie film until four seconds later, when JFK was actually hit. Underscoring the unlikelihood of a missed first shot is a famous photo taken by amateur photographer Phil Willis (above), snapped an instant before JFK was struck by the bullet in the upper back that passed through his throat. Not one person in this photo, Secret Service agent, motorcycle cop or otherwise, is reacting to the sound of a missed gunshot that supposedly occurred nearly three-and-one-half seconds earlier.
Jennings and Cronkite routinely echoed Warren Commission findings that Oswald "probably" missed with his second shot, not his first, although the seven members of the Commission never spelled out a precise shooting sequence. When in 1964 the FBI calculated film speed of the home movie camera that small businessman Abraham Zapruder used to capture the entire shooting sequence, agents found that it operated at an average rate of 18.3 frames per second. By the time Posner published “Case Closed,” in 1993, video technology had advanced to clearly demonstrate that 90 frames of the Zapruder film, give or take one frame, elapsed between the two bullets that struck JFK. Even more intense computer analysis in recent years confirmed the 90-frame count, which leads to a question that has never been answered satisfactorily. Was 4.92 seconds (90 frames of the Zapruder film) enough time for Oswald to absorb the recoil of his first shot, reload his bolt-action Manlicher-Carcano rifle, pull the telescopic sight back to take aim for a second shot, shoot lightly high and off target to the life, sending the second bullet toward the triple underpass, then reload again and be deadly accurate from 90 yards away with the third rifle shot?
Firearm experts have consistently expressed the opinion that Oswald could have done it in less than five seconds, but you might want to see it before you believe it. Eric Nelson was executive producer for a documentary made in 2003 called “JFK: The Conspiracy Myths” for The Discovery Channel. In that, Nelson and director Robert Erikson challenged sharpshooter Michael Yardley, whose marksmanship would almost certainly exceed that of Oswald, to get off three shots from a mocked-up sixth floor perch in as little time as possible. Armed with the same model of Italian-made rifle Oswald used, it took Yardley 7.87 seconds to fire two accurate rounds out of three shots (see "Three shots" video clip of Yardley in left column). Yardley, unlike Oswald, took practice shots at fixed targets before re-enacting the assassination. And he wasn’t burdened by the pressure of assassinating the President. Yet it still took a fast-acting marksman in 2003 nearly eight seconds. Could Oswald really have done it in less than five seconds and still hit the center of his target two times?
According to Posner, the near unanimous opinion among ear-witnesses in Dealey Plaza that day was that Oswald's fatal shot to the back of JFK's head--Oswald's third shot--was the last shot anyone heard. Presuming Oswald witnessed the gruesome explosion of JFK's skull through his telescopic sight, there would be no reason to fire again. Neither Posner nor the government-sanctioned Warren Report gave anyone reason to believe Oswald missed with his last shot. It seems, even to me, highly unlikely. But for the sake of one final argument before "closing" the case forever, consider for a moment that the limo would have been furthest away from Oswald’s sniper nest when an errant third shot would have been fired. The limo would be moving much faster by that time as the driver hastened to get President Kennedy and Gov. Connolly to Parkland Hospital. Consider that chaos had erupted by that time--JFK had been struck twice and everyone knew it--so screams and gasps and the roar of police motorcycles and 8-cylinder limousine engines could have masked the sound of a third gunshot. An unlikely scenario to be sure, but it could be. No one knows with absolute certainty.
Does it matter? Well, it doesn't change anything. But for those of us who lived through the assassination, or who have studied it since, confirmation of a precise shooting sequence might tell us something more about what was going on in the mind of Oswald, which has always been unresolved mystery. So before dismissing a “missed third shot” scenario entirely, consider just a few more rarely cited observations about the JFK assassination:
Fair-minded students of the assassination agree that the lone stray bullet struck a street curb in front of the triple roadway underpass beyond the Presidential limo, sending a sliver of concrete across the cheek of 27-year-old bystander James Tague. Tague told the Warren Commission in 1964 that he recalled being stung on the face about the time he heard the second or third shots. Tague didn’t know he was bleeding from a graze wound until he approached a Dallas policeman to share what he knew about the shooting. As it happens, a straight line drawn from the sixth floor window to where Tague was standing would intersect a point on the street where JFK’s limo would have been speeding away. Had Oswald fired his “missed third shot” an instant too early as he was pulling the rifle down, or aimed the rifle barrel an inch too high or to the left as it sped away, his missed shot would have sailed over the top of the limo and directly toward Tague.
Oswald wouldn’t have been affected by an early afternoon sun shining directly into the sixth floor window when his eye was pressed up against the telescopic sight, but sun glare could have hindered his ability to see the damage done to JFK with the naked eye from 90 yards away while he hurriedly reloaded his rifle for a "missed third shot."
During the time Oswald would have been reloading to fire a "missed third shot"—presumably after hitting JFK with the first two—First Lady Jackie Kennedy was scrambling onto the trunk of the limo to retrieve a part of her husband’s shattered skull. No one is inclined to give an assassin who killed America’s beloved President the benefit of the doubt, but as Oswald would have been taking aim, Mrs. Kennedy would have been situated directly between her husband and Oswald. The full image of Jackie in her pink outfit would have filled Oswald’s magnified telescopic sight just before taking his "missed third shot." It’s possible he deliberately veered off target.
In his effort to explain how the first shot missed, Posner wrote in “Case Closed” that Oswald fired through branches of a Texas oak tree and that his bullet probably deflected off a branch toward Tague, who was standing about 500 feet away, though well out of the line of fire from a rifle barrel pointed downward. Posner said the oak tree was never examined by investigators for damage. Adding to the implausibility of this scenario is the proximity of Oswald to the Presidential limo and Secret Service agents. Wouldn’t they have heard the gunfire directly over their heads? It's as hard to believe no Secret Service agents heard a "missed first shot" as it is to rule out a "missed third shot."
There’s no doubt about the shooting sequence in the mind of eyewitness Ernest Brandt, who turned 84 in 2011. Brandt, a lifetime resident of Dallas, stood curbside about 15 feet from where the President was struck for the first time. He was joined that day by business associate John Templin, both of whom can be seen from behind on the Zapruder film, and in the Willis photo above just a moment before JFK was first struck in the upper back (Brandt is wearing a black hat and can be seen just above the Presidential limo's windshield).
Brandt recalls that the President had just passed him and was at Brandt’s one o’clock position when the first gunshot rang out, hitting JFK near the spinal cord, which caused an involuntary reaction that flared JFK’s elbows outward and his hands toward his throat.
“I’m absolutely certain that Oswald hit Kennedy with the first shot he fired,” said Brandt during a phone interview on March 5, 2010. “There’s no doubt in my mind. I’d stake my life on it.”
Brandt confirms that the Willis photo captures the President an instant before being hit—“less than one second before he was hit the first time” —and in doing so, it illustrates that neither Secret Service agents nor motorcycle policemen were reacting to a “missed first shot” that supposedly occurred three seconds earlier. The Willis photo also shows that JFK was hit only a fraction of a second before emerging from behind the Stemmons Freeway sign on the Zapruder film. That’s evident because Zapruder also can be seen in the picture (standing on a pedestal). Combining Willis’s photo with the Zapruder film helped analysts pinpoint the time and distance between the two gunshots that struck JFK (4.92 seconds).
Brandt doesn't buy a “missed third shot” scenario for a second. He said Oswald hit with his first shot, missed with his second and mortally wounded JFK with the
explained that he retreated from the curb immediately after hearing the first
shot but looked back in time to see the President’s limo accelerate only after the third shot was fired.
“I remember seeing the brake lights of JFK’s limo still lit when the third shot was fired,” Brandt said, “then after that I saw the exhaust fumes from the limo as it accelerated.”
Templin, who remained standing in place at curbside throughout the gunfire, felt as certain as Brandt that the first shot struck JFK, but couldn’t say whether the second or third shot missed its target. Templin has always remained low-key about his experience of witnessing the assassination. And Brandt only became outspoken after retiring in the 1990s, and after the movie JFK was released in 1991, if only to counterbalance the more outrageous conspiracy theories, he said.
Concluded Brandt: “Oswald acted alone, three shots, no conspiracy, that’s it.”
Shock and grief in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination were punctuated by a stark contrast of images that day. A young, attractive, smiling President and his beautiful wife arrived on Air Force One to a sea of sun-drenched admirers in Dallas. Six hours later, a casket containing the body of America’s slain leader was lowered from the same plane to an awaiting hearse under the darkened skies of Washington.
For most people living today, the JFK assassination is a sad chapter in American history but, ultimately, they view it as history. For many of the gray and graying people who lived through it and remember exactly where they were upon hearing the news, President Kennedy is an unfinished story and an unhealed wound. Any new sliver of truth is welcome.
For me only that one question remains: If the brightest minds equipped with the most advanced 21st century technology are still unable to determine whether Oswald missed JFK with his first shot or his second, is it because he may have missed with his third?
the morbid finality of the fatal head shot is where people draw the line. That’s the moment JFK died and American
history forever changed. It ends right
then and there. And who can blame anyone
for asking, “What difference does the errant gunshot make?”
And they'd be right...it wouldn't change a thing. But I'd still like to know.
Note: Since 1985, John LeGear has owned and
operated Timothy Communications Inc. (TimComm.com), a boutique Marketing/Public
Relations firm in suburban Chicago. He was in 5th grade at Saint Gabriel Elementary in Chicago when the news arrived.