Fifty years on and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains a national puzzle wrapped inside the enigmatic riddle that was Lee Harvey Oswald. Did he act alone? Or was JFK killed by a conspiracy that involved the mob, the Soviets, pro-Castro Cubans, anti-Castro Cubans, the CIA, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, or some combination?
Theories have run the gamut over the years, from grand conspiracy to lone gunman, but most people have drawn their conclusion with a dearth of facts. Believing that there was a conspiracy to kill JFK has been pretty much a rite of passage to prove oneself among certain groups. And it has always seemed somehow logical to refuse to accept that one “nobody” could have killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
For the longest time I would have bet on the conspiracy side. There were other home movies taken on November 22, 1963 besides the famous Zapruder film. I wanted one of these or an undiscovered one to surface, a camera that faced the grassy knoll and definitively showed gunshots fired from atop that position. Alas, that has not come to pass in a half century of wishing. Some of the non-Zapruder home movies do look at parts of the grassy knoll, but there is no slam dunk evidence of a second gunman there.
Many readers will have noticed the phrase “second gunman” is almost always used in reference to the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. The second gunman phrase inherently accepts that there was a first gunman, a rifleman, who fired shots from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building. An eyewitness saw the rifle barrel poking out an open window on the sixth floor. Other witnesses on the fifth floor have testified to hearing the report of three shots from directly above.
On the morning of November 22, 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald rode to his job at the School Book Depository Building in the car of a fellow worker. The fellow worker noticed the large package Oswald brought with him. When asked what was inside, Oswald replied, “Curtain rods.”
During the lunch hour other co-workers left Oswald alone on the sixth floor of the Book Depository. At 12:30 the shots rang out.
Approximately forty-five minutes after President Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Hospital, Lee Harvey Oswald used a handgun to shoot and kill Dallas Police officer J.D. Tippit. As many as nine eyewitnesses identified Oswald as the man who fired four rounds at Tippit near the corner of East 10th Street and North Patton Avenue.
Several minutes after shooting Officer Tippit, Oswald was confronted in the Texas Theater movie house by Officer Nick McDonald. A revolver was tucked in the front of Oswald’s pants. He jerked it out, pointed it at McDonald and pulled the trigger. But in his haste Oswald had grabbed the gun awkwardly. The hammer slammed down on the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. McDonald knocked Oswald to the floor and several other officers swarmed in, assisting in subduing and handcuffing him.
Another hour or so later, on the sixth floor of the Book Depository, law enforcement officers discovered a package identical to the one noticed by Oswald’s fellow worker on the drive into Dallas that morning. The package was just the right size to wrap around a rifle as well as curtain rods.
Under a pile of boxes on the same sixth floor, officers also found a rifle, a Carcano Model 91/38. Using its serial number, the ownership of the rifle was traced through a mail order gun business. The rifle had been shipped in March of 1963 to one Alek Hidell at P.O. Box 2915, Dallas, Texas. Box 2915 had been rented by Lee Harvey Oswald. His wife, Marina, confirmed that her husband had used the Hidell name as an alias, including while ordering a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver through the mail in late January of 1963. The cartridge casings found at the scene of Officer Tippit’s murder matched Oswald’s .38.
There is no doubt Oswald killed Officer Tippit. There is no doubt he was in the Texas School Book Depository Building at the time of President Kennedy’s assassination, very likely alone on the sixth floor. The rifle found there was the same one Oswald ordered through the mail eight months earlier. Eyewitnesses saw and heard rifle shots fired from the sixth floor at 12:30 p.m. that November day.
With this information any prosecutor could get a conviction of Oswald for the murder of Officer Tippit. With this information the same prosecutor could get an indictment for killing the president. The circumstantial evidence alone might be enough to convict on that charge.
Could this be as simple as it appears, an open and shut case? To understand what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963 we have to go back to the 1950s when Lee Harvey Oswald attended a variety of schools in his native New Orleans and in New York, where he read as many books as he could get his hands on, but failed at spelling and cut school so often in junior high he was sent to a juvenile reformatory for psychiatric evaluation. In his report the psychiatrist stated that Oswald had a “personality pattern disturbance with schizoid features and passive-aggressive tendencies.”
The doctor recommended further treatment, but Oswald’s mother took him back to New Orleans instead. At fifteen, in 1954, he wrote in his diary, “I was looking for a key to my environment, and then I discovered socialist literature. I had to dig for my books in the back, dusty shelves of libraries.”
During the summer of 1955, Oswald began attending meetings of a local branch of the Louisiana Civil Air Patrol (CAP). At least once, at a CAP cookout, Oswald was photographed in the presence of David Ferrie, then a thirty-seven year old pilot for Eastern Airlines. We will return to Ferrie later.
After living in twenty-two different houses and apartments and attending a dozen schools, Oswald quit school at age seventeen to join the Marines in 1956. In his first year in the Marines Oswald tested out as a sharpshooter with a rifle. In 1959 his score dropped slightly to the upper end of the marksman level. At both levels he hit targets at a distance of 200 yards, while firing in rapid succession.
While in the service Oswald taught himself basic Russian. Some of his fellow Leathernecks called him “Oswaldkovich.” He was court-martialed twice and finally granted a hardship discharge on September 11, 1959, due to his mother’s illness.
Within a week Oswald left his mother in Texas, traveling first to New Orleans then by ship to France and on to Southampton, England, where he caught a flight to Helsinki, Finland. There he obtained a visa to enter the Soviet Union. He reached Moscow on October 16th, with permission to stay for one week. He delayed his departure by cutting his wrist severely enough to be placed in a hospital under psychiatric observation.
On Halloween Oswald showed up at the American Embassy in Moscow, denouncing his U.S. citizenship, but not formally renouncing it. This event was shocking enough at the time that it made the front pages in several U.S. newspapers, under headlines such as the Dallas Morning News, “Texan in Russia: He Wants to Stay.”
The Soviets sent Oswald to Minsk to work as a lathe operator at an electronics factory. Within fifteen months he grew so bored he wrote a diary entry stating, “I am starting to reconsider my desire about staying.”
Two months later he met Marina Nikolayevna Prusakova, a pharmacology student. By April of 1961 they were married. A daughter, June, was born just hours after Valentine’s Day of 1962. In late May of that year Marina applied for documents from the U.S. Embassy that would allow her to immigrate. In June, with the paperwork approved, the three Oswalds departed the Soviet Union with very little fanfare, though a few, smaller American papers noted the move.
Back in the Dallas area Lee Harvey Oswald was soon hired by a welding company. He lasted three months before quitting to join a graphic arts firm as a photo print trainee. In early October, 1962, Oswald read a story in The Worker, the Communist Party newspaper in the U.S., concerning General Edwin Walker.
Edwin Walker is a sidebar in the November 22, 1963 story, but an important one. Walker resigned his army command after it came to light that he had been incorporating a program called “Pro-Blue.” Among other things “Pro-Blue” encouraged his troops to read from segregationist writings and John Birch Society material. Walker retired to Dallas to pursue his brand of extreme conservative politics, finishing sixth in a six man race for governor of Texas.
In September of 1962, Walker helped organize protests against the federal troops sent to enforce the enrollment of African-American student James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Walker’s radio and television exhortations ignited a riot that lasted fifteen hours on the campus, resulting in the shooting of six federal marshals, hundreds of injuries, and the deaths of two people. Walker was arrested, charged with sedition and insurrection against the United States government then, under orders from U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, held in a mental institution.
When Walker was released from the asylum, a grand jury failed to indict him, the charges against him were dropped in late January, 1963, and five days later Oswald ordered the revolver through the mail, using the alias Alek Hidell. During February and March, 1963, Walker traveled with segregationist preacher Billy Joe Hargis on a tour called “Operation Midnight Ride.” In a March 5, 1963 speech, reported in Dallas newspapers, Walker called for the U.S. military to “liquidate the scourge that has descended on the island of Cuba.”
At least three of Oswald’s friends and acquaintances recalled commenting critically on Walker’s words in conversations with Oswald around this time. On March 12, 1963 Oswald ordered the Carcano rifle through the mail, using the same Hidell alias.
During the evening of April 10, 1963 someone fired a rifle shot at General Walker while he sat at his desk in his Dallas home. The bullet hit a window’s wooden frame, deflecting its trajectory enough so that Walker was only struck in the forearm by fragments. Neighbors claimed to have witnessed two men fleeing the scene, but no identification of the possible shooter was known until after President Kennedy’s assassination. Ballistics tests on the damaged bullet were inconclusive in 1963; however, by the time of the House Select Committee on Assassinations hearings in 1978, Dr. Vincent Guinn testified that by using neutron activation analysis he determined that the bullet fragments from the Walker shooting were “extremely likely” to have come from a Carcano rifle.
Additionally, Oswald left a note which his wife found while he was away on the night of April 10, 1963. The note was undated, but gave basic household instructions (what bills were paid, where the mailbox key was located, etc.) for her in case he (Oswald) did not return. When he finally did show up, Marina Oswald confronted her husband and, according to her later testimony, he confessed to shooting at General Walker.
Two weeks after the Walker shooting Lee Harvey Oswald returned to his hometown, New Orleans. He got a job as a machinery greaser at the Reily Coffee Company. Its owner was active with an anti-Castro group called the Crusade to Free Cuba Committee. Marina joined her husband in New Orleans during the second week in May, 1963.
By June, despite being turned down by the national Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a pro-Castro organization, Oswald formed his own one-man Fair Play for Cuba Committee in New Orleans, with the fictitious A.J. Hidell named as chapter president on the membership cards Oswald had printed up.
According to his employer, Oswald spent too much time at a neighboring garage reading gun and hunting magazines, so he was fired from the coffee company in July. Later that month Oswald traveled with Marina to Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, to give a fairly uneventful talk to Jesuit students on life in the Soviet Union.
By early August Oswald was seen several times in downtown New Orleans passing out Fair Play for Cuba leaflets. On one such occasion he got into a pushing and shoving match with an anti-Castro man, a scuffle that landed them both in jail. Oswald was bailed out by a friend of his uncle only to return to the streets to hand out more leaflets.
After an embarrassing performance on local radio defending Castro, Oswald turned his attentions to obtaining a travel visa to Cuba. Apparently, he viewed that young nation as a worthy alternative to the boring existence he had fled in the Soviet Union. In late September, witnesses placed Oswald on a bus traveling to Mexico City. While in that city he seemingly tried and failed to get a visa to Cuba, in part because he was told that he needed the approval of the Soviet consulate as well as the Cuban Embassy. Unable to get quick Soviet approval, he returned to Dallas on October 3, 1963. He learned of a job opening at the Texas School Book Depository and was hired there on October 16th. Two days later, his visa was approved by the Cuban Embassy, but Oswald was seemingly no longer interested. On November 11th he wrote to the Soviet Embassy in Washington D.C., “Had I been able to reach the Soviet Embassy in Havana, as planned, the embassy there would have had time to complete our business.”
While he worked at the Book Depository in October and November, Oswald stayed at a rooming house in Dallas (1026 North Beckley Avenue- rent: $8 a week). On weekends he rode with a fellow worker to Irving to see Marina, who was living with friends there. At the rooming house Oswald used the alias O.H. Lee.
On November 22, 1963 Oswald returned, on foot, to the Beckley Avenue rooming house around one p.m., about a half hour after President Kennedy was shot. He was seen leaving in a hurry by a cleaning woman who noticed that he had put on a jacket. From the rooming house he walked to a bus stop near the location where he shot Officer Tippit approximately fifteen minutes later.
The case against Lee Harvey Oswald seems open and shut. He killed Tippit in view of numerous eyewitnesses. He had attempted to assassinate another public figure just seven months prior to President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas. Oswald had means and opportunity. His motive may have been as thin as in the Walker shooting. Perhaps he viewed Kennedy as too anti-Castro, ant- Cuba; this was only a year removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis and another year away from the aborted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
Oswald’s presence in Dallas was known by the FBI at least as early as March of 1963. FBI Agent James Hosty had been interested in both Lee Harvey and Marina Oswald off and on up to and including November of 1963. In the eyes of the J. Edgar Hoover led FBI, at the height of the Cold War, a Marine who seemingly defected to the Soviet Union and his Russian wife, were worthy of observation when they returned to the United States. Agent Hosty lost track of the Oswalds when they moved to New Orleans in the spring of ’63, but when they returned to the Dallas area in the fall Hosty actually visited Marina’s place of residence in Irving, not once but twice in late October and early November. Ten days before the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald went to the Dallas FBI office and left a note for Hosty which said, “If you have anything you want to learn about me, come talk to me directly. If you don’t cease bothering my wife, I will take the appropriate action and report this to the proper authorities.”
The note was unsigned and Hosty dismissed it as the usual “guff” from one of the subjects in the thirty-five or more cases he was following at the time. Whether the FBI surveillance triggered Oswald’s actions ten days later would be pure supposition at this point.
Hosty’s role in the assassination story was distorted and blown out of proportion in the Oliver Stone film JFK. Many other elements of conspiracy theory have been debunked over the years, including the idea that the photograph of Oswald holding the Carcano rifle was somehow doctored. It was not. There were actually several similar photos of Oswald with the Carcano rifle taken in March 1963 by Marina Oswald; at least one original in the possession of non-family members.
Oswald did it, BUT…
The movie JFK was based on the investigation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. If there was a conspiracy, Garrison may have been only slightly off track. Remember the name David Ferrie? He was the pilot Oswald met while in the Louisiana Civil Air Patrol in 1955. When Ferrie took his firing by Eastern Airlines to a grievance board in 1962 his attorney was G. Wray Grill (you cannot make up some names!). G. Wray Grill was also the attorney for New Orleans mobster Carlos “The Little Man” Marcello.
Marcello had been the subject of government investigations for years, particularly at the behest of Robert Kennedy. Next, remember the little detail about Oswald getting bailed out of a New Orleans jail in August, 1963, by a friend of his uncle. The friend of Oswald’s uncle was Emile Bruneau. Bruneau was an associate of Carlos Marcello. Oswald’s uncle, Charles “Dutz” Murret was a bookie in New Orleans, who also had links to, you guessed it, Carlos Marcello.
Ferrie sometimes acted as Marcello’s personal pilot, perhaps including a flight that returned Marcello to the United States in 1962 after he had been unceremoniously deported to Guatemala. A connection between Oswald and David Ferrie in New Orleans in the summer of 1963 appears improbable when seen in the light of Ferrie having been active in anti-Castro groups and Oswald passing out pro-Castro leaflets. Yet, Oswald is known to have made at least one friendly overture toward Carlos Bringuier, an anti-Castro activist in New Orleans. Oswald even offered Bringuier his assistance in military training for Cuban exiles.
Witnesses placed Ferrie and Oswald together in Clinton, Louisiana in early September, 1963. Direct known links between the two end there.
The New Orleans – Marcello crime syndicate connection to the assassination does not end there though: Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald dead while national TV cameras looked on had ties to the Marcello mob. Ruby’s phone records include an October 30, 1963 call to Nofio Pecora, an associate of both Carlos Marcello and Emile Bruneau, the man who bailed Oswald out of jail in August. In June and again in October Ruby took meetings with four of Marcello’s New Orleans night club owning crime associates. It is also intriguing to note that the volume of Ruby’s phone calls tripled in the two months prior to the assassination.
The day before the assassination Jack Ruby visited Joe Campisi, a Dallas underworld figure, at his restaurant. The Dallas crime syndicate was considered in many circles to be a subsidiary of Marcello’s mob family. Ruby’s first outside visitor after he’d been jailed for killing Oswald? Bingo: Joe Campisi.
This brings us back to Carlos Marcello, the New Orleans crime boss who had felt hounded by the Kennedys, Jack and especially Bobby, for years. Carlos was in federal prison in the 1980s when the FBI placed an informant, Jack Van Laningham, in Marcello’s cell. According to Van Laningham (who is still alive) Marcello told him, “I had the bastard killed,” or words to that effect. There is an extant note from Van Laningham’s FBI handler that verifies such a conversation. Van Laningham has recounted the details of how the Marcello “hit” on JFK was pulled off. According to Van Laningham’s recollections, Joe Campisi essentially employed two hit men from overseas, bringing them to the U.S. via Canada, and used Jack Ruby as the silencer of the “patsy” Oswald.
That’s pretty much the conspiracy case that’s left, boys and girls; albeit the conspiracy might have further tentacles, if true.
And where was Carlos Marcello on November 22, 1963? He was in a New Orleans courtroom, being acquitted on federal charges.