One gunman or two?
A single bullet? Two? Three?
Grassy knoll, book depository or both?
Today marks the 48th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy Jr., and the theories about exactly what transpired are still multiplying. And a whopping 80 percent of Americans suspect a plot or coverup.
U.S. District Court Judge John R. Tunheim, who chaired the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board, the congressionally mandated panel that reviewed and declassified millions of pages of documents relating to the assassination, isn’t sure we’ll ever know the whole truth.
“If someone walked into the back of this room today and said, ‘I killed JFK,’ the general reaction would probably be, ‘Prove it,’ ” he said.
Standing room only
The two men appeared before a standing-room-only crowd at a lunch-hour panel on the enduring mystery held at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs moderated by Professor Larry Jacobs.
To say their discussion was far-ranging is to put it mildly, but they agreed on a handful of things.
One: The sluggish disclosure of records relating to the investigation of the assassination signals a need for greater government transparency.
Two: The investigation by the Warren Commission, a body of not exactly neutral political figures charged with reviewing sloppy, decidedly pre-CSI evidence was a hot mess.
Three: It seems most unlikely the Warren Commission got it right when it concluded that a single bullet traveled through JFK’s upper back, lung and throat, nicked his tie, traveled on into Texas Gov. John Connelly’s back, out his chest, into and then back out of his wrist and finally into his thigh – “completely unscathed,” Tunheim noted.
Ventura’s theory: Investigators were led astray
Ventura would have people believe investigators were deliberately led astray to cover up the CIA’s responsibility. Evidence was arranged by inside plotters to point to Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, and then to Jack Ruby as an independent avenger.
“Isn’t it interesting that in the ’60s all these figures were killed by lone nut assassins?” he said.
After a detailed review of the JFK assassination conspiracy oeuvre, the former governor circulated two sets of photos he said showed both Oswald and a look-alike. He also described trying and failing, using the same bolt-action rifle that fired at least one lethal shot, to replicate the shooting as cast by Warren Commission.
The governor’s theory – based on documents declassified by Tunheim’s board, whose work Ventura described as “fabulous” – is too convoluted to be easily retold here; conveniently, it’s laid out in detail on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet.
For his part, Tunheim was categorical about just one thing: Oswald was the shooter who killed JFK.
Did he conspire with anyone, and if so, who and why? “People need to decide for themselves,” he said.
Not only did law enforcement bungle the initial investigation, he said, reams of documentation was either never found or disappeared between the commission’s 1964 report and the appointment of the review board he served on in 1992.
The Zapruder film is authentic, he opined, but audio recordings from microphones attached to police escorts’ motorcycles that appear to have recorded six shots are impossible to synchronize – with each other or the film – well enough to trust.
Most problematic, Dallas police (assassinating a president was not a federal crime in 1963) quit investigating once they collared Oswald, which happened almost immediately. And of course, Oswald was gunned down 44 hours later.
Plus, Kennedy’s autopsy was done poorly, Tunheim continued, by three inexperienced pathologists who were tripping over a couple dozen observers and whose original notes were inexplicably burned. By the time the review board got to the pathologists’ records, only 15 of 85 photos were to be found.
“Virtually all” of the 60,000 documents reviewed by the panel are now public, the judge added. “Some remain closed because they disclose methods of protecting the president or intelligence gathering.”
Plenty to fuel theories
There’s plenty in the documents reviewed by the board to fuel most of the popular conspiracy theories, he said. Organized crime was much more powerful at the time, and many of its kingpins were on the federal payroll as anti-Castro agents.
“The most significant piece of evidence supporting a link to organized crime is, two words, Jack Ruby,” Tunheim said.
The panel declassified documents showing that two of Ruby’s employees told the FBI at the time that they had seen Oswald and Ruby together more than once: “That didn’t make it to the Warren Commission,” he added.
Ventura’s Howard Hunt theory? Tunheim refused to discount it. The former CIA operative’s supposed deathbed confession to his son, he said, is “going to have to go into the bucket of things that people need to weigh for themselves.”
Nor would he criticize the theorists. “The books, and people like the governor, will help them decide.”
To judge by the dizzying array of JFK assassination books carried by audience members as they filed out of the auditorium, the debate is guaranteed a 49th year and likely many more.