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Hidden in Plain Sight
Did a Secret Service Agent Accidentally Shoot JFK?
By Bonar Menninger
In early 1989, I was working as a business reporter in Washington, D.C., and interviewing a private investigator for a story about his company. At the end of our conversation, he casually mentioned he’d done some research into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“Oh yeah?” I said, in an ironic, indifferent way. “So who killed him?” He said: “Well, I think this gunsmith in Baltimore, a guy named Howard Donahue, figured it out.” The private eye showed me a magazine article from 1977 and as I read it, my skepticism began to fade. Within a week, I was heading to nearby Towson, Maryland, to meet Donahue in person.
Donahue’s Dealey Plaza odyssey began 21 years earlier. The World War II veteran was a firearms specialist who’d testified as an expert witness in multiple shooting cases. He was also a well-known marksman. That’s why he’d been recruited to take part in a CBS News reenactment of the shooting in the spring of 1967.
The network wanted to know if Lee Harvey Oswald’s Italian military-surplus, bolt-action rifle really could have been fired three times with two hits on a moving target in less than six seconds. Donahue proved that it could. Of the 11 shooters participating in the experiment, only Donahue exceeded Oswald’s performance by scoring three hits in 4.8 seconds, well under the 5.6-second maximum.
The gunsmith’s involvement in the CBS program sparked a stubborn curiosity about President Kennedy’s killing that eventually led him to pursue his own investigation. He zeroed in on the ballistic and forensic evidence and examined witness statements and photographs. He labored in his basement on weekends and evenings and pored over the Warren Commission report and every book he could find. From the start, Donahue was confident his research would support the Warren Commission’s contention that Oswald, acting alone, fired three times: The first shot hit both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, the second missed and the third struck the president in the head.
Yet after a decade of work, Donahue reluctantly arrived at a very different conclusion. Based on his assessment of all available evidence, the gunsmith believed the fatal head shot was actually an accident, inadvertently fired by one of the Secret Service agents from the open security car just behind the presidential limousine in the chaotic, final moments of Oswald’s ambush.
According to Donahue’s analysis, the shooting unfolded like this: Oswald fired his first shot from a sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository soon after the motorcade made the turn onto Elm Street. But his scope was not adjusted properly, according to the Warren Commission, and the bullet missed, hitting the pavement behind and to the right of Kennedy’s limousine. Fragments ricocheted up and struck the inside windshield trim. At least two caught the president in the scalp and caused him to cry out, “My God! I’m hit!”
Oswald chambered a second round. This time, he skipped the rifle’s offset-mounted scope and instead drew a bead along the iron sights on top of the barrel. He fired again and the bullet ripped into Kennedy’s upper back, exited his neck and pierced Gov. Connally’s right side.
At this moment, photos from Dealey Plaza show Secret Service Special Agent George W. Hickey Jr. — riding in the left-rear seat of the follow-up car and sitting up high near the trunk deck — already had turned completely around and was looking back toward the book depository. He may well have spotted the barrel of Oswald’s rifle protruding from the sixth-floor window.
So Hickey reached down and grabbed the Colt AR15 select-fire, semi-automatic rifle from the floor of the car and flipped the safety lever off. He started to stand and turn to acquire Oswald’s position and return fire. But the follow-up car braked suddenly to avoid a collision with the presidential limousine and Hickey lost his balance. His finger slipped off the trigger guard and the weapon discharged. The bullet was flying at 3,300 feet-per-second when it slammed into the back of Kennedy’s head, 21 feet away, and disintegrated.
Among the many assassination theories that had emerged by 1977 — the year Donahue’s conclusions became public — no one had ever suggested Kennedy’s death may have been due to a friendly fire incident. But before Donahue, no one with any real firearms expertise had independently examined the evidence, and the gunsmith was certain the facts pointed nowhere else. What’s more, he had many friends in law enforcement or with combat experience, and he himself had spent a lifetime around guns. So he understood how easily unintended discharges happened, particularly amid the fear, confusion and adrenaline of a gunfight.
That the evidence also pointed to a wide-ranging effort by the Secret Service to suppress the truth surprised Donahue not at all. Clearly Oswald had been trying to kill Kennedy. Divulging the actual origin of the head shot would have served no one’s interest. A cover-up, on the other hand, accomplished several objectives and none, it could be argued, were unreasonable or malicious. Hiding the accident safeguarded the nation’s image at the height of the Cold War, preserved the reputation of the Secret Service, protected the legacy of the martyred president and, perhaps most importantly, shielded Agent Hickey and his family from the enduring infamy such a revelation could bring.
My meeting with Donahue in the winter of 1989 ultimately led me to write a book called Mortal Error, which chronicled the gunsmith’s investigation and findings. A quarter-century has now passed since the book was published. Over that time, not one of Donahue’s central ballistic conclusions has been refuted. On the contrary, a steady accumulation of new information has continued to point to an accidental shot from Hickey. As impossible as it may seem, as difficult as it may be for most to grasp or accept, particularly those with limited knowledge of firearms, the preponderance of evidence continues to converge around this scenario to the exclusion of all others. Whether you choose to recognize it or not, a staggeringly simple answer to one of America’s most tortuous questions has been hidden in plain sight all along.
Donahue and I became fast friends after that first meeting, and I also got to know his wife, Katie, well. My wife and I spent many weekends at the Donahues’ rowhouse in Towson through the first half of 1989 as Donahue and I began work on the book. I respected Howard for his encyclopedic knowledge of firearms, his marksmanship and his remarkable investigative prowess. But what really held me in awe was his service during the Second World War.
In 1944–45, Donahue survived 35 combat missions as a B-17 pilot, flying through swarms of killing flak and watching planes disintegrate around him. One incident in particular illustrated the kind of person he was. On a September 1944 mission to bomb a chemical plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany, Donahue was in the co-pilot’s seat when the aircraft commander took a shell fragment in the skull and went berserk. The bomber drifted perilously close to the nearest aircraft in formation as Donahue wrestled with the wounded man. At the last minute, Donahue was able to kick the right rudder to avoid a collision and the top-turret gunner dropped down to help subdue the captain. Two of the plane’s four engines were shot out, but Donahue still managed to limp the aircraft back to England.
His actions that day saved 18 men, the nine in his crew plus nine in the bomber they nearly hit, and resulted in Donahue being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the highest commendations presented by the Army Air Corps. By the time he returned to Baltimore, First Lieutenant Donahue had received numerous other medals and was one of Maryland’s most decorated fliers of the war. He was 22 years old.
When I asked him what it was like to fly into combat, he said he was scared to death all the time. He said you just had to keep focused and functioning no matter what. And once on the ground, you tried to stay drunk. All of them did, he said. It was the only way to erase, at least momentarily, the skull-crawling anxiety of facing death, day after day after day.
Donahue was 66 when we met and if the war had ripped a piece out of him, it didn’t show. He was an amicable fellow, gentlemanly in a down-to-earth, unstuffy way, always quick with a friendly comment or joke and entirely without guile or cynicism. He still liked to drink but wasn’t a drunk. He had the coldest beer in town; kept a refrigerator in his basement set at 34 degrees. When we’d go out to dinner, Howard would order his martini with the olives on the side.
“Don’t want to displace any alcohol,” he’d say with wink.
I was 31 and had recently moved to the D.C., area. I’d grown up in Topeka, Kansas, spent the last two years of high school in northern New Hampshire after my parents divorced, then worked a string of blue-collar jobs over the next four years as I bounced around the country. In the spring of 1984, I earned a journalism degree from the University of Kansas and went to work for the Kansas City Business Journal. The paper’s parent company acquired the Washington D.C. Business Journal three years later and I was recruited as part of the turn-around team.
Working with Donahue, I became familiar with the range of evidence he’d developed in support of his friendly fire scenario. But three key ballistic facts stood out:
First, the fatal bullet’s trajectory was not compatible with a shot from Oswald. The entrance wound in the back of Kennedy’s skull was just to the right of the crown, or hair whorl, and the exit point was centered in the upper-right portion of the skull. This indicated a bullet path of left-to-right and down at a relatively shallow angle, not right-to-left and sharply down, as would have been the case had Oswald fired the shot. A bullet from the sixth-floor window of the book depository should have exited the center or left side of the president’s face, not the upper right, frontal portion of his skull, based on the position of Kennedy’s head at the moment of impact. The actual trajectory led directly back to Agent Hickey’s position in the left-rear seat of the follow-up car.
Donahue’s second ballistic proof was equally telling. The performance of the fatal bullet was entirely inconsistent with the type of ammunition Oswald fired. The 6.5 millimeter military round used in the Model 91/38 Carcano carbine is encased in a heavy copper jacket and is specifically designed not to fragment. Per the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the full metal jacket allows the round’s solid lead core to remain intact and pass more or less cleanly through the human body without causing devastating tissue damage. The idea is to ensure a more “humane” means for wounding or killing the enemy in battle, and the Carcano bullet that struck both Kennedy and Gov. Connally bore this out. The round pierced two men and caused multiple wounds, yet emerged unbroken.
The bullet that struck Kennedy in the head, on the other hand, shattered on impact and sprayed a blizzard of tiny, lead-and-copper fragments throughout the brain and across the inner table of the skull, according to post-mortem X-rays and the autopsy examination. This type of explosive fragmentation was extremely unlikely with Oswald’s solid Carcano bullet.
The fatal bullet’s performance was, however, completely consistent with the .223 round fired from the AR15, the predecessor of the M16 rifle issued to American infantrymen during the Vietnam War. Although the .223 incorporated a full metal jacket to comply with Hague Convention mandates, the design was essentially a work-around to ensure maximum lethality in combat. An extremely thin copper jacket, coupled with the bullet’s light weight and the AR15’s high velocity, causes the round to tumble and rupture upon impact. The lead, which has softened beneath the jacket due to the bullet’s friction with the gun barrel and the air, cascades out in a random pattern of spherical fragments, which quickly solidify as they strike much cooler bodily fluids and tissue. The copper jacket also breaks up, and the combined result is a devastating, shredding and frequently lethal wound characterized by multiple, minute shards and irregular fragments — exactly like the injury Kennedy suffered.
The Warren Commission report claimed two large Carcano bullet fragments found in the presidential limousine linked Oswald’s rifle to the president’s head wound. But Donahue examined the fragments with a 30-power jeweler’s loupe at the National Archives and spotted anomalies that strongly suggested neither struck the president at all. First, both were entirely free of dried blood or cranial debris. Had they passed through Kennedy’s skull, each fragment would have necessarily been coated with hair, brain tissue, fluid and blood. This material would have dried and hardened deep in the tiniest fissures and been extremely difficult to remove.
Second, the jacket on one of the fragments was peeled backward 180 degrees and folded almost flat. One edge of this folded section literally formed a razor edge. It seemed doubtful that such a sharp edge could have been created as the bullet traversed the skull and cranial tissue. Much more likely was that it had been formed by the bullet’s impact with a hard, immovable object, such as concrete.
This scenario — a ricochet miss that sent fragments flying into the car — was consistent with multiple eyewitnesses, who said Oswald’s first shot struck the pavement behind and to the right of the presidential limousine. It was further supported by X-rays showing two small bullet fragments lodged on the exterior of Kennedy’s scalp, which pathologists believed could have only come from a ricochet, and finally, by Secret Service Agent Roy Kellerman’s claim that Kennedy cried out, “My God! I’m hit!,” after the first shot, apparently in response to being struck by the bullet shards.
The Warren Commission claimed these bullet fragments recovered from the presidential limousine connected Oswald’s rifle to Kennedy’s head injury. However, because they are entirely free of blood and brain matter and possess sharp edges, it is more likely that they originated with a missed first shot ricochet.
Donahue’s final ballistic observation was perhaps the easiest for a non-gun person to understand. The bullets Oswald fired were nominally 6.5 millimeters in diameter (although actually slightly larger at 6.75 millimeters to allow the rounds to expand against the concentric rifling grooves inside the gun barrel). The entrance wound on the back of Kennedy’s skull was 6 millimeters wide. The Warren Commission tried to explain away the physical impossibility of passing a bullet through a hole smaller than its diameter by asserting that the smaller entrance wound was due to the “elastic recoil of the skull which shrinks the size of an opening after a missile passes through it.”
Tissue can contract, and bone can shrink due to low-velocity trauma. But the high-velocity impact of a rifle bullet — particularly in the strong, thick bone at the back of the skull — produces a different and very brittle response. Holes in the skull made from high-velocity rounds are reamed out as the spinning bullet bores through, pulverizing the bone, and thus invariably are slightly larger than the diameter of the bullets that cause them. The .223 round used in the AR15 is 5.56 millimeters in diameter, or just a touch smaller than the 6-millimeter entrance wound. The wound’s size, therefore, was consistent with a shot from Hickey.
Additional details identified by Donahue and later, others, also point to an accident:
- In two written statements provided to the Warren Commission, Hickey claimed he didn’t reach down to grab the AR15 on the floor of the follow-up car until the motorcade had slipped into the darkness of the triple overpass, or well after the shooting had ended. However, at least 15 witnesses saw an “AR15,” a “rifle,” a “machine gun” or a “gun” at the instant, or just after the instant, the last shot struck Kennedy. One witness, S.M. Holland, saw a Secret Service agent with a “machine gun” fall down at the time of the final shot. Another, Austin Miller, “saw a man fall over” in the motorcade.
- Witness Jean Hill, standing nearly adjacent to the follow-up car at the time of the last shot, told a reporter on the afternoon of Nov. 22 that “I thought I saw someone in the motorcade in street dress shoot back at a person running up the hill.”
- Sen. Ralph Yarborough was in a convertible immediately behind the Secret Service follow-up car. He told reporters at Parkland Hospital that “the third shot may have been a Secret Service man returning fire.”
- At least three witnesses believed the shots came from the motorcade itself, including motorcycle policeman Bobby Hargis, who — riding just off the left-rear bumper of the presidential limo — asserted that “it sounded like the shots were right next to me.”
- Nine witnesses claimed to have smelled gun smoke in or near the motorcade immediately after the shooting. Nearly all were in open cars that moved into the follow-up car’s airspace as the procession made its way down Elm Street. Significantly, the wind was blowing briskly out of the west at 15 mph on Nov. 22, or toward Dealey Plaza from the direction of the triple overpass and into the face of Lee Harvey Oswald. It therefore would have been physically impossible for smoke from the sixth-floor window to reach individuals on the street, particularly within seconds of the final shot.
- Multiple witnesses reported a pattern of intimidation tactics and suspicious behavior on the part of the Secret Service at Parkland Hospital in Dallas and at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in the aftermath of the assassination. These actions ranged from the illegal removal of the president’s body from Texas prior to the performance of an autopsy to the confiscation of photographs and X-rays during and after the autopsy in Bethesda. At the autopsy, numerous pieces of bullet and jacket material were identified in Kennedy’s brain. These fragments could have revealed the origin of the bullet through identification of the jacket composition. Yet the brain disappeared after the autopsy and was never seen again.
The follow-up car makes the turn onto Stemmons Freeway. The barrel of the AR15 can be discerned to the right of the man with the white shirt and thin tie, extending nearly straight up just past the base of the Old Charter billboard.
In 1977, Donahue’s evidence and conclusions were the subject of a lengthy, two-part article that appeared in successive issues of the Baltimore Sun’s Sunday magazine. Reporter Ralph Reppert attempted to contact Hickey but received no response and the Secret Service agent was not named in the story. The theory nonetheless resonated with readers. The editions were among the best-selling in the newspaper’s history.
Two incidents following publication of the Sun stories suggested Donahue’s understanding of the shooting was correct. A customer in his gun shop informed him that a relative who’d been employed by the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) in nearby Fort Meade, Maryland, claimed, upon seeing the article, that it was “common knowledge” among the NSA upper echelon in the aftermath of the assassination that Kennedy had been killed by a bodyguard.
Another customer reported that while at a party, he’d witnessed a drunken Secret Service agent nonchalantly state that Kennedy had been accidentally shot by a member of his security detail. The source dismissed the comment until seeing the Sun stories. As compelling as these anecdotes were, Donahue was unable to confirm them first-hand.
I spent many hours with Donahue challenging his assertions and trying to poke holes in his theory. In every case, his answers were cogent and plausible. The fact is, Donahue knew a great deal about firearms, bullets and the pathology of gunshot wounds. But he also possessed an uncanny ability to connect seemingly disparate pieces of information and spot details others had missed. To me, his solutions had a simplicity, elegance and cohesion that suggested unalloyed genius.
Case in point: Warren Commission critics had long decried the so-called “magic bullet,’’ or the Carcano round found on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital that supposedly had struck both Kennedy and Connally. Two major problems existed, they said. First, the trajectory didn’t work. The bullet would have had to execute an impossible “bumble-bee” turn to exit President Kennedy’s neck and then swerve sharply to strike Gov. Connally’s back on the extreme right side. Second, it was inconceivable that the bullet could have passed through Kennedy, penetrated Connally’s chest, bisected the governor’s right wrist and then lodged in his left thigh and yet emerged in perfect, or “pristine” condition.
Donahue studied photos of the presidential limousine and quickly grasped that the jump seat in which Connally rode was actually six inches further inboard and considerably lower than the Warren Commission and virtually everyone else had realized. When the seat was placed in its proper location and the governor positioned as he was when the bullet struck, the trajectory lined up perfectly. As for the second criticism, Donahue traveled to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and examined the bullet first-hand. Upon close inspection, his trained eye could see the round was far from pristine. It was actually somewhat bent, severely flattened and even had a small amount of lead extruded from the base. Clearly it had hit something.
Howard and I worked relentlessly on the book through the second half of 1989 and into 1990 as I shuttled between Baltimore and my apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. I spent many hours in local libraries combing Warren Commission report volumes and old newspaper and magazine articles for additional evidence to support Donahue’s thesis. Eventually I quit my newspaper job to focus on the project full-time. Ann Cain, my wife, was not enthusiastic about this decision. But she was a resolute woman and supported us through her work as a registered nurse. A friend in New York helped me get several chapters of the manuscript to a senior editor at St. Martin’s Press, and much to Howard’s and my amazement, the publisher agreed to produce the book.
The curious thing was, the Kennedy assassination was barely on the radar when Mortal Error was being written. But that began to change in 1990 after the press reported director Oliver Stone was working on a movie about Kennedy’s murder. As it turned out, Stone’s lurid tale of treachery and ambush would have a major impact on perceptions surrounding both the assassination and the book I was pushing to finish.
JFK was loosely based on the assassination probe conducted by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who, in 1967, accused local businessman Clay Shaw of conspiring to kill Kennedy. Garrison’s vague claims of connections between Shaw and Oswald had been thoroughly discredited by the time Stone began work on his film. The D.A.’s own chief investigator, William Gurvich, had said “there was no basis in fact and no material evidence in Garrison’s case for an assassination plot.”
Yet that didn’t stop Stone from infusing the down-the-rabbit-hole narrative with glittering new credibility and gravitas. In so doing, he offered a grandiose, if largely incoherent, one-stop shop for conspiracy theorists: The CIA, Mafia, military industrial complex and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson all had a hand in the murder, according to the film.
The movie asserted that at least three gunmen fired six shots at the president from the book depository, the grassy knoll and the Dal-Tex Building (located across Houston Street from the book depository at the top of Dealey Plaza). Stone, however, made little effort to align this scenario with the physical evidence or eyewitness testimony from the scene of the crime. A notable exception was actor Kevin Costner’s ominous courtroom incantation, “Back and to the left. Back and to the left.”
Costner, playing Garrison, was describing the motion of Kennedy’s body immediately after the head shot struck home. By Stone’s reckoning, the president’s violent backward movement as seen on the Zapruder film was proof positive the fatal bullet could have only come from the right front, or from the grassy knoll. That Kennedy’s body was instead reacting to the supersonic ejection of bone, blood and brain matter rocketing away from the bullet’s point of impact at the back of the skull — a phenomenon known as the jet propulsion effect and consistent with Newton’s Third Law — was not considered in the film.
Nor was there any explanation of just what kind of super-weapon could have caused such a massive entrance wound from the 40-yard distance of the grassy knoll’s wooden fence or beyond. In the real world, only a shotgun fired from near-pointblank range could have created such a cavernous wound of entry.
Stone’s script was leaked before filming was complete and quickly drew condemnation and ridicule for embracing wild speculation while ignoring facts that didn’t support the filmmaker’s galloping thesis. Harold Weisberg, one of earliest and most implacable foes of the Warren Commission, called JFK “a monumental piece of disinformation” and said of Stone: “I think people who sell sex have more principle.” Columnist George Will labeled him “a man of technical skill, scant education and negligible conscience.”
JFK nonetheless did well at the box office, grossing more than $270 million worldwide. More significant was the movie’s cultural impact. Implausible as the saga was, the film’s patina of credibility convinced generations that a conspiracy was responsible for Kennedy’s death. Costner’s “back-and-to-the-left” mantra became accepted ballistics wisdom and knowing shorthand for vast and diabolical forces still afoot in the land.
Mortal Error, meanwhile, was approaching completion in late 1991, just as the film debuted. Although the book had tentatively been accepted for publication by St. Martin’s, the publishers withheld a final go/no-go decision for many weeks as they carefully vetted Donahue’s evidence and conclusions. During this period, multiple attempts were made to reach Hickey by certified letter. Donahue and I also hand-delivered a note to his Maryland home. In every instance, the agent chose not to respond.
It is important to point out that neither Donahue nor I ever judged or condemned Hickey for what we believed transpired in Dealey Plaza. We made this clear in our communications with him, in the book and in subsequent public statements. The fact is, Hickey was a brave man who took action under fire when nearly every other agent appeared paralyzed. He was trying to save the president’s life and by attempting to stand up with the rifle, he knowingly put his own life at risk. That fate intervened to produce a different outcome merely underscored the random, chaotic nature of a gunfight.
Thomas McCormack, St. Martin’s chief executive officer, was committed to handling the book’s explosive conclusion with sensitivity and fairness. As he told the Baltimore Sun in February 1992: “I figured the allegation was very distressing to the man. Basically, I said [in the letter] that if he could have talked us out of it, we wouldn’t have published the book. But we never heard back from him. For that matter, if anybody else could have come up with material that would have invalidated the theory, it wouldn’t have been published.”
The absence of credible arguments undermining Donahue’s thesis tipped the balance in favor of publication, and Mortal Error landed in bookstores on Feb. 26, 1992, driven by an ambitious first press run of 125,000 copies. St. Martin’s Press had high hopes for the book and promoted it with extensive trade and mainstream advertising. But if supporters assumed the wider world would quickly tumble to the integrity of Donahue’s work and the grim logic of his findings, that notion was quickly dashed amid the feverish zeitgeist of 1992.
Against the backdrop of Stone’s garish melodrama, the idea that President Kennedy may have actually died as the result of a freak accident seemed by turns ludicrous, inconvenient and banal. Shoved under by a few derisive reviews in mainstream publications like the Washington Post and Time, Mortal Error soon slipped beneath the waves of popular culture and all but vanished from the American consciousness.
That’s not to say the book was ignored or ridiculed by everyone. A review written by Associated Press writer James Balducki and picked up by newspapers nationwide summarized without judgment the key evidence supporting Donahue’s theory. The writer noted that “Donahue’s scrupulousness in `Mortal Error’ vs. the heap of irrational viewpoints of others — past and present — connected with the assassination make his theory plausible.” Debbie Dudley, a writer with the Amarillo News-Globe, called Mortal Error “refreshingly free of groundless and bizarre speculation… a riveting study that tells exactly how Donahue reached his startling conclusion and his agonizing decision to make his finding public.”
Letters both Donahue and I received suggested many with military, law enforcement or firearms backgrounds found the conclusions convincing. In Australia, a group of crime scene investigators was so impressed with Donahue’s work that they took it upon themselves to conduct their own assessment of his methods and findings. The 10-member Forensic Ballistics Unit of New South Wales Police Service was responsible for crime scene investigations in Sydney, Australia’s largest city. The team included experts on firearms, ammunition, gunshot wound interpretation and terminal ballistics.
In a detailed 10-page report sent to St. Martin’s CEO McCormack, the unit wrote that the validity of Donahue’s conclusions was “beyond question,” and that based on the evidence presented in Mortal Error, “you can draw no other conclusion than that the fatal shot originated from the follow-up car, at a point that coincides with the position of Special Agent George Hickey.”
Despite such endorsements, the book never gained a broad audience and the moment passed quickly. Within a few years of publication, Mortal Error could be found in discount remainder bins at book stores around the country.
George Hickey remained silent about Mortal Error in the months and years following publication. But in April 1995, more than three years after the book came out, the retired agent filed a libel suit against Donahue in Baltimore County Circuit Court over statements the gunsmith made on a local talk show regarding Hickey’s alleged role in the shooting. Three other suits followed in a variety of jurisdictions throughout 1995 and 1996; all sought compensatory damages for allegedly defamatory statements contained in Mortal Error. Defendants included Donahue, myself, St. Martin’s, and Simon & Schuster, publisher of the audio version of the book.
The original suit against Donahue was settled for an undisclosed amount. Hickey’s other actions were consolidated in U.S. District Court in Maryland and ultimately dismissed due to the agent’s failure to file within the allotted statute of limitations. St. Martin’s Press subsequently settled with Hickey to preclude the possibility of an appeal. The settlement amount was not disclosed but evidently represented a business decision by St. Martin’s to avoid further legal expenses. Significantly, the publisher made no admission of guilt, did not issue a retraction and did not pull Mortal Error from the shelves.
Intertwined with Hickey’s legal action was another development that, in later years, would be used by critics in attempts to bludgeon Donahue’s work. Shortly after Mortal Error was published, Gary Mack, a well-known conspiracy theorist in the Dallas area, contacted St. Martin’s CEO McCormack with a surprising claim. A previously unknown home movie of the assassination known as the Bronson film showed both the presidential limousine and the Secret Service follow-up car at the moment of the final shot. According to Mack, the movie revealed Hickey was not standing at the time of the third shot, the AR15 was not visible and therefore, Howard Donahue’s conclusions were wrong.
McCormack was a careful man who had already spent weeks weighing the moral, ethical and legal implications of publishing Mortal Error. He consequently told Mack he would immediately dispatch a courier to Texas to pick up a copy of the film for analysis in New York. Mack, however, refused to allow this for reasons that were never made clear. McCormack instead offered to fly Mack and the film to New York, all expenses paid. But again Mack demurred and told the executive that if he wanted to see the movie, he would have to travel to Fort Worth to view it personally.
McCormack, Donahue and I flew to Dallas several days later and drove to a television studio in Fort Worth where Mack worked as a news film archivist. The possibility that exculpatory evidence had been missed during Donahue’s investigation and the development of Mortal Error weighed heavily on our minds. Both Donahue and I had spent years scrutinizing all known photos and movies of the shooting. Yet neither of us had ever heard of this film.
The eight-millimeter home movie in question was taken by engineer Charles L. Bronson. At 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, Bronson was standing on a concrete pedestal at the southwest corner of Main and Houston Streets, across Dealey Plaza from Abraham Zapruder’s position and approximately 220 feet from the president at the time of the fatal shot. Using a Keystone Olympic K-25 movie camera, Bronson recorded about two seconds of color film as the motorcade made its way down Elm Street. He also managed to take at least one still picture of the motorcade as the first shot rang out.
Mack had converted Bronson’s movie sequence to video and enhanced it, and he repeatedly rolled the loop for the assembled party in Fort Worth. As the film played, Mack declared with finality the movie proved Donahue’s conclusions couldn’t possibly be true. But it was soon apparent no such determination could be made. Even enlarged, the Bronson images were distant and murky. The silhouettes of the agents in the back seat of the follow-up car, Hickey and Glen Bennett, blended with bystanders along Elm Street and with individuals standing or walking between Bronson’s lens and the motorcade.
The result was an amorphous, multi-headed mass rolling slowly across the range of vision 70-plus yards away. It was true no gun was immediately apparent. But the AR15’s presence and Hickey’s stumble could not be ruled out, given the indistinct forms and blurred motion visible in the back of the car during the interval of the fatal shot.
McCormack, Donahue and I expressed our doubts but nonetheless thanked Mack for his time and departed. Mack would later claim he witnessed McCormack demonstrably scold Donahue and me as we walked from the television studio to our rental car that day. Obviously, Mack contended, McCormack had agreed with his belief that the Bronson film invalidated the friendly fire scenario and as a result, became “verbally abusive” to us after the meeting.
The reality of what occurred was exactly the opposite. McCormack was indeed angry, but the target of his ire was Mack, not Donahue or myself. Walking to the car, he expressed frustration and disgust with Mack’s insistence that the film negated Mortal Error when, to his mind, it did no such thing.
In a 2011 email to British assassination researcher Nigel Pollock, McCormack wrote: “I have a memory of intentionally projecting irritation, but not at Bonar or Howard. It was aimed at those championing the film as disproving Howard’s account. My gripe was that I flew all the way to Dallas to see the film because it was described to me as an irrefutable rebuttal of the book’s thesis. If this were true, I wanted to know it. But it honestly didn’t begin to demonstrate Howard was wrong.”
Gary Mack’s apparent desire for assassination-related notoriety pre-dated his criticism of Mortal Error, and this impulse had entangled him in several embarrassing situations before. In the late 1970s, Mack was instrumental in pushing now-wholly discredited acoustic evidence that supporters believed proved an array of gunmen had fired in Dealey Plaza. Later, Mack claimed to have identified in the famous photo taken by Mary Moorman the image of a gunman (the so-called Badge Man) lurking behind a wall on the grassy knoll.
Mack’s Badge Man was a perfect example of the rolling Rorschach test the assassination had become for so many conspiracy theorists. Aside from the fact that the purported image of the gunman was indistinguishable from the light, shadow and foliage surrounding it, comparative measurements of the topography and features of Dealey Plaza indicated the shooter would have had to be located more than 30 feet back from the knoll’s picket fence and elevated almost five feet for the perspective to synch up. And no witness saw a gunman drawing a bead from a car rooftop in the middle of the parking lot behind the grassy knoll.
Mack’s questionable track record and obvious bias notwithstanding, in 1994 he was named curator of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, the museum dedicated to the assassination housed in the Texas School Book Depository building. He worked in that capacity until his death in 2015. Under his stewardship, the Sixth Floor archived the Bronson film on behalf of Bronson’s heirs.
Strangely, though, Mack never released to the public high-quality, digital frames of Bronson’s movie. This seemed odd, given his claim that the film conclusively disproved Donahue’s thesis. Mack’s unwillingness to provide researchers with access to the film became even more curious in 2013, when new interest in Mortal Error and renewed scrutiny of the film prompted some to argue the footage actually strengthened Donahue’s theory, not undermined it.
Mack wasn’t the only one who volunteered new information about the assassination after Mortal Error was published. Once more, Donahue received a fascinating, if unverified, anecdote that supported his thesis, the details of which were recovered from his papers by screenwriter and researcher Doug Stone in 2015. According to the notes, an enlisted man from the Dallas area named Jason Little called Donahue in 1993 to say his grandfather had witnessed the shooting. Little reported that Donahue’s understanding of the event was correct, save one important detail: The unintentional discharge occurred when Hickey fell forward in the follow-up car, not backward, as Donahue had long believed.
Little said his grandfather claimed he “saw the agent on the back rear seat between the agents on the running board start to stand up. The gun went off as he fell forward. I saw Kennedy’s head explode.”
The grandfather, who had apparently moved to the West Coast, was in ill-health at the time Little made contact and Donahue’s subsequent attempts to connect with him were unsuccessful. Donahue likewise lost contact with Little due to the young man’s active-duty status; ensuing efforts to track him down have proven fruitless. Nonetheless, if true, Little’s report— beyond providing additional confirmation of Donahue’s theory — cast new light on a major question that has long surrounded the assassination. One of the enduring mysteries about the shooting was that literally dozens of witnesses claimed the presidential limo slowed to a dead crawl and perhaps even stopped as shots rang out. Yet the Zapruder film appears to show the motorcade rolling at a constant speed of 11 mph on the fateful journey down Elm Street.
With the advent of the Internet, however, another home movie of the assassination became available for scrutiny and seemed to confirm what many witnesses had reported. In the film taken by Marie Muchmore, the right brake light on the presidential limousine can be seen coming on as the car comes nearly to a full stop the instant before the fatal shot. Because the Secret Service car was following less than five feet behind the limo, driver Sam Kinney would have had to jump hard on the brakes to avoid a collision. This logically would have caused Hickey to pitch forward, not backward, with the rifle in his hands.
Donahue never wavered in his conviction that Hickey fired the shot that struck Kennedy in the head, despite the agent’s lawsuit, public indifference and voracious attacks by critics. Through the second half of the `90s, the gunsmith gamely worked to pull together additional material for a sequel to Mortal Error. But it was not to be. Katie, his wife of nearly 50 years and biggest supporter, died in July 1999 and Howard passed away from pneumonia less than six months later.
Hickey, for his part, never spoke publicly about the gunsmith’s allegations and died six years after Donahue on Feb. 25, 2005, at age 81, according to Social Security records. No obituary or death notice has ever surfaced. And so the years rolled forward and the story grew cold. Because Donahue’s findings upended so many of the core assumptions held by both Warren Commission supporters and critics alike, his friendly fire scenario drew considerable ire from both camps. In fact, disdain for Donahue’s theory seemed to be the only subject that so-called CTs (conspiracy theorists) and LNs (lone nuts) could agree upon. Blinded by confirmational bias and groupthink and devoid of any practical knowledge about firearms or ballistics, most researchers ignored, condemned or otherwise dismissed Donahue’s findings out of hand.
Case Closed, Gerald Posner’s 1993 meant-to-be-definitive last word in defense of the Warren Commission, was typical. The author mentioned Donahue only once, quoting directly from Mortal Error to incorporate the gunsmith’s opinion that the magic bullet — the one that struck both Kennedy and Connally — was in far from pristine condition. Posner accurately referred to Donahue as a ballistics expert. But in a book purporting to rebut any and all alternative theories about the shooting, the author included not a word about what was, without question, the most evidence-driven scenario of them all.
In Reclaiming History, a 1,612-page tome also written in support of the Warren Commission, well-known criminal prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi declared Donahue’s theory “unfit for human consumption.” He found the idea that an errant shot from Hickey would hit Kennedy, of all people, impossible to accept. Yet he glossed over the fact that the fragmentation characteristics associated with the president’s wound were incompatible with a 6.5 millimeter, full metal jacket bullet.
Bugliosi also initially claimed, wrongly, that Hickey had been riding in Vice President Johnson’s car, and he conflated the entrance wound in the president’s scalp with the hole in his skull. In so doing, Bugliosi argued that recoil of tissue could account for an entrance hole smaller than the bullet’s diameter. But he made no mention of bone.
Despite the attacks by critics and noise from competing theories, Donahue’s findings continued to ring true for many. One who’d been particularly impressed with his efforts was Colin McLaren, an Australian homicide detective.
McLaren worked in the Melbourne metropolitan area throughout the 1980s and 1990s and had helped crack a number of high-profile cases, including the murder of two police constables and the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. He’d investigated dozens of homicide cases over the course of his career and many of these involved gunshot wounds. McLaren also went undercover for 24 months — posing as a money-laundering art dealer — to infiltrate Australia’s Mafia. The case became the largest undercover sting in Australian history and ultimately led to the conviction of 11 Mafia leaders on charges of drug trafficking and racketeering.
The detective read Mortal Error soon after publication and, like his countrymen with the New South Wales ballistics team who’d endorsed Donahue’s findings in 1992, he’d been struck by the soundness of the gunsmith’s arguments. McLaren consequently was determined upon retirement to re-examine the theory. Starting in 2009, he did just that by conducting his own cold-case review of Warren Commission documents, testimony and exhibits in an effort to further buttress the friendly fire scenario.
McLaren also had access to previously unavailable testimony and documents from the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), the Dallas Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. All told, McLaren reviewed more than 10,000 pages of documents over the course of four-and-a-half years. The effort marked the first time a trained detective had conducted a true forensic analysis of the assassination by scrutinizing virtually the entire catalog of evidence and testimony.
McLaren reported his findings in a book, JFK: The Smoking Gun, in 2013, and in all respects, the detective’s efforts significantly strengthened Donahue’s theory that Hickey fired the fatal shot. Notably, McLaren determined that Hickey had been with the presidential protection detail for just four months on Nov. 22 and was only qualified as a driver for the Secret Service. He concluded Hickey had been given responsibility for the AR15 that day because more experienced agents were too hung over from an all-night drinking binge to function effectively. McLaren likewise identified new witnesses who saw a weapon in the follow-up car, smelled gunpowder in Dealey Plaza or saw wisps of smoke near the motorcade and who, in at least three instances, believed the Secret Service may have actually returned fire during the shooting.
Interestingly, McLaren also found more than 40 witnesses who believed the final two shots came in on top of each other to create a nearly simultaneous, double-bang sound. If true, the reports would have been spaced too closely together to have come from the same gun. Donahue had always believed Oswald fired only two shots that day. He based this on a dent in the neck of one of the shells found on the sixth floor of the book depository that he thought would have precluded the round from being fired. But if Donahue was wrong and Oswald did indeed squeeze off a third shot — nearly at the same instant Hickey fired — it would explain what the witnesses heard. Significantly, evidence supports the possibility that Oswald fired a third time and missed, with the bullet ricocheting off the street and fragments striking bystander James Tague near the triple overpass.
In his book, McLaren assembled a wealth of evidence that showed a continuous effort by Secret Service personnel to restrict access to evidence and information in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. The questionable behavior began with the illegal and panicked removal of the president’s body from Dallas and continued throughout the chaotic autopsy procedure in Bethesda, Maryland. Despite having no jurisdictional authority to investigate the murder, Secret Service personnel repeatedly violated rules of evidence and compromised the chain of custody by confiscating photographs, X-rays and other evidence during and after the autopsy. Many of these items were never seen again.
Nor did the heavy hand of the Secret Service abate with the passage of time. In 1995, the agency destroyed two boxes of records relating to the assassination just a few days after the documents had been requested by the Assassination Records Review Board. The ARRB was a temporary federal agency created by the Clinton administration in the turbulent aftermath of Oliver Stone’s JFK. The goal was to restore public trust by pursuing declassification of assassination-related documents throughout the federal government. According to the ARRB, the destroyed Secret Service records were thought to have included city-specific threat reports from the fall of 1963, as well as general information about protective procedures in place for President Kennedy. But whatever else they may have contained, we will likely never know.
Perhaps McLaren’s most important discovery was the testimony of Jerrol Custer, an X-ray technician at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda who was interviewed by ARRB investigators in 1997. In his deposition, Custer claimed he’d received a strange request from Dr. John Ebersole, his superior, the morning after the assassination. Ebersole told Custer he’d just returned from a debriefing at the White House conducted by the head of the Secret Service, presumably James Rowley. He then asked Custer to tape several bullet fragments that had “arrived from Dallas” to pieces of bone from Kennedy’s skull and X-ray the result. When Custer questioned the dubious directive, Ebersole absurdly claimed the X-ray was being taken to make measurements for a bust of President Kennedy.
Earlier, during the autopsy, Ebersole had warned the technician that, in Custer’s words, “everything that I see from now on, I should forget.” And like many other medical professionals present, the technician was forced to sign a gag order. Custer claimed he was threatened with prison if he ever spoke publicly about what he had seen during and after the autopsy. The X-ray technician died of a heart attack in 2000.
If there was ever a single piece of circumstantial evidence that clearly pointed to a Secret Service cover-up, Custer’s counterfeit X-ray was it. It is difficult to imagine any legitimate reason why evidence linking bullet fragments from Dallas to a piece of bone from Kennedy’s skull would be fabricated. Conceivably, fears were mounting that the genuine X-rays and the bullet fragmentation pattern they revealed would lead to untenable questions about the bullet’s origin. Hence, a fraudulent X-ray was clumsily commissioned using Carcano ricochet fragments recovered from the president’s car.
McLaren’s timing in revisiting the assassination was impeccable. His book — along with all the work Donahue had done to precede it — became the basis for a 90-minute television special that appeared on the REELZ Channel in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death in the fall of 2013. JFK: The Smoking Gun was produced by a Canadian firm, Muse Entertainment, and presented a compelling overview of the entire saga, from Donahue’s early breakthroughs to McLaren’s painstaking analysis of volumes of assassination material. Powerful computer-generated images of the shooting, historical footage and dramatic reenactments — coupled with McLaren’s steady narration and probing, experienced questions — infused the program with a credibility that was impossible to ignore.
Viewers apparently thought so. The docudrama aired multiple times and by the end of November 2013, nearly 7 million people had seen it. A self-voting tab posted on the program’s website revealed that 79 percent of those who’d either examined the website’s evidence or seen the show believed Donahue and McLaren were right.
Critics predictably were appalled that Donahue’s theory was finally gaining traction. Most railed about the purportedly disqualifying nature of the Bronson film and Hickey’s lawsuit. Assassination researcher Jefferson Morley pronounced Donahue’s theory “preposterous,” “comic in its macabre ludicrousness” and “not worthy of discussion.” Without addressing the ballistic anomalies Donahue identified nor the many indications of a Secret Service cover-up, Morley fumed that no evidence supported the program’s claims and bewailed the dumbing down of JFK assassination research.
Several readers of his own blog, however, ridiculed Morley’s attitude and arguments. One wrote: “In summary, Mr. Morley has stated in his essay `I’m right. These people are wrong. And that’s all I have to say about it because I’m smart and they’re not.’” Echoed another: “The original article above contains no information that rebuts this case except to say `Don’t be silly — I say Hickey didn’t do it and I am right because I’ve spent ages on this case.’”
In a slightly more reasoned critique of The Smoking Gun, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Peter Mucha observed that “accidents don’t get any freakier.” He questioned how a federal agent in a lurching car “just happens to fire at the perfect up-down, left-right angle” to hit Kennedy in the head.
This oft-repeated logical fallacy apparently holds that the improbability of a shot from Hickey necessarily would have prevented it from happening. Yet the odds of Kennedy being hit were no different than the chances of the First Lady or a bystander being struck. The fact is, Kennedy was less than 25 feet down-range from a live weapon during a surprise attack and positioned near the center of the rifle’s field of fire. Combine the adrenaline jolt the agent undoubtedly experienced in the wake of two incoming rounds from Oswald, his lack of experience with the weapon and the motion and instability of the platform on which he stood, and the accident begins to seem, if not inevitable, certainly within the realm of possibility.
Mucha went on to question Donahue’s assumptions about the bullet’s trajectory, noting that the size of the exit wound and the bullet fragmentation prevented a precise determination of an actual exit point. This was true up to a point. However, because disintegrating, hyper-destructive bullets like the .223 tend to create an expanding cone of destruction through soft tissue, with the narrow top of the cone at the entrance wound, it was not unreasonable for Donahue to calculate the trajectory based on the center point of the cone’s base, e.g. the middle of the plate-sized exit wound.
Other skeptics have argued that even if Hickey did fire, the bullet would not have cleared the windshield of the follow-up car. But Daniel R. Roffe, an assassination researcher whose fascinating micro-study of the shooting is presented in his book, JFK Motorcade: The Accidental Shooting Death of President John F. Kennedy, believes the errant shot topped the windshield by three inches in the gap between the car’s up-positioned sun visors. Roffe reached this conclusion through photo analysis and by making precise measurements from replica scale models of both vehicles. By his reckoning, the bullet was moving down at an angle of 2 degrees below horizontal and 3 degrees to the right of the follow-up car’s center line.
There also is a revealing photograph of the presidential limousine and follow-up car taken the day before the shooting during the motorcade in San Antonio, Texas. Kennedy aide David Powers ironically can be seen standing in the higher-riding follow-up car as he films the parade. It is readily apparent from this picture that a shot from a similarly positioned Hickey would have cleared the windshield (see below).
In addition to questioning Donahue’s conclusions about the trajectory, critics have likewise tried to undermine the other two legs of his ballistics triad: the fragmentation characteristics of the head shot and the diameter of the entrance wound. Regarding the former, some have argued that the Carcano bullet — full metal jacket notwithstanding — would have fragmented in a manner very similar to that observed in the Kennedy X-rays and autopsy.
Donahue, however, disproved this back in 1969. Given the bullet’s contact with the thick bone at the back of the skull, he reasoned that even the rugged Carcano round would likely have fractured on impact. Donahue nonetheless believed the subsequent break-up could not have produced the volume of minuscule fragments seen sprayed across Kennedy’s brain and skull, given the bullet’s thick jacket and relatively lower velocity (about 2,000 feet per second versus 3,300 fps for the .223). The fundamental question, then, was what kind of fragmentation occurred when a Carcano round struck the human skull and brain.
To find out, Donahue contacted Dr. Alfred Olivier, a ballistics expert who’d done test shootings and wound simulations for the Warren Commission. One of Olivier’s experiments involved firing 6.5 millimeter Carcano bullets into 10 skulls filled with gelatin, which was added to mimic the semi-liquid consistency of the brain.
Donahue visited Olivier’s laboratory at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland and asked him about the disposition of the spent test bullets. Olivier’s answer was that in nearly every instance, the Carcano bullets broke up into only two or three large fragments. Those pieces, he said, typically consisted of the lead core and metal jacket and together seemed to account for the bulk of the bullet’s mass. In one case, the bullet did fragment into a dozen or so smaller pieces, but the two larger fragments nonetheless appeared to represent nearly all of the bullet mass. Donahue’s assumption was therefore correct; the contention that a 6.5 millimeter round routinely shattered into upwards of 40 “dust-like” fragments had repeatedly been shown to be false. And by the Warren Commission’s own firearms expert, no less.
Another shooting test conducted in 1992 in support of a mock trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and sponsored by the American Bar Association produced similar results. Dr. Roger McCarthy, then chief executive of the company that conducted the trial’s ballistic tests, Palo Alto, California-based Failure Analysis Inc., said a half-dozen Carcano rounds were fired into test skulls. The bullets were obtained from the Sixth Floor Museum and apparently came from the same lot as Oswald’s ammo. McCarthy said he personally fired the shots into skulls filled with pig brain from the distance of about 60 feet. According to McCarthy, “we saw very little fragmentation of this ammunition, consistent with its design.” Interestingly, the trial — which focused on whether Oswald was responsible for the fatal shot — resulted in a hung jury.
Donahue’s understanding of the head shot inconsistencies also was supported in the ballistics literature. Consider the following passage from the book Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics and Forensic Techniques, by Vincent J.M. DiMaio, MD, one of the nation’s leading authorities on gunshot wounds:
Military bullets, by virtue of their full metal jackets, tend to pass through the body intact, thus producing less extensive injuries than hunting ammunition. Military bullets usually do not fragment in the body or shed fragments of lead in their paths. Because of the high velocity of such military rounds as well as their tough construction, it is possible for such bullets to pass through more than one individual before coming to rest. These bullets may be almost virginal in appearance after recovery from the body.
One exception to these observations is the 5.56-mm M-16 cartridge. This particular cartridge has gained widespread notoriety in both the lay press and the medical literature. The wounds inflicted often are described as explosive in nature… The 5.56-mm round does not explode in the body; it does, however, have a tendency to tumble and fragment, with [the] lead core “squirted” out the base. Because it does fragment, it tends to lose considerable amounts of kinetic energy, thus producing relatively severe wounds for the amount of muzzle energy it possesses.
Di Maio went on to describe the so-called “lead snowstorm” visible on X-rays of .223/5.56 rounds, and included an example in his text. The X-ray showed a hail of minute fragments embedded in a pattern very similar to the one seen in the Kennedy autopsy X-rays.
It is worth noting that the AR15 Agent Hickey carried that day, the Model 601, was the earliest version of the weapon produced by Colt and particularly prone to causing devastating, explosive wounds. According to firearms expert and historian Martin K.A. Morgan, the Model 601 incorporated a rifling twist rate of 1/14, meaning that the concentric grooves cut inside the barrel turned the bullet one complete rotation in every 14 inches. This loose twist rate diminished gyroscopic stability and caused the bullet to tumble and yaw dramatically on impact. The result was enormously catastrophic wounds as reported by early American advisers in Vietnam. The bullet was so unstable that questions arose about its accuracy at longer distances and in the thicker air of Arctic climates, and a decision was made in 1964 to increase the twist to 1/12 and then ultimately, 1/7 in the 1980s. Based on Morgan’s personal test-firings of a replica Model 601 assembled around an original Colt 1/14 barrel, he says the destructive effect of the rifle is considerably more severe than that caused by later AR15/M16 models, and entirely consistent with the wound Kennedy suffered.
In their attempts to refute Donahue’s conclusions, critics have frequently pointed to a scientific study of two small bullet fragments recovered from the president’s head wound. The analysis, conducted by University of California-Irvine chemistry professor Dr. Vincent P. Guinn on behalf of the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978, ostensibly linked the fragments to Oswald’s Carcano ammunition. Guinn subjected the fragments to neutron activation, a process that involves irradiating materials with nuclear particles, then counting the emitted gamma rays to determine the exact composition of the substance.
According to Guinn, consistent levels of antimony — a metalloid added during the bullet manufacturing process to harden lead — indicated the two head fragments were from the same Carcano bullet. However, Guinn’s methods and conclusions were thoroughly deconstructed in 2006 by two scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Erik Randich and P.M. Grant found that Guinn’s conclusions reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of “the basic metallurgy of lead alloys, lead smelting and the bullet manufacturing process.” They went on to disprove his central contention that there was little variation in antimony levels within a single bullet, and further found that the limited number of samples Guinn evaluated did not support broad statistical conclusions. According Randich and Grant, no scientific or forensic basis existed to assert the lead in question came from Oswald’s Carcano ammunition.
A second scientific study conducted the following year supported the findings of the Lawrence Livermore team. Lead by Cliff Spiegelman, a professor of statistics at Texas A&M and an expert on bullet lead analysis, and William A. Tobin, a former chief forensic metallurgist with the FBI, the analysis similarly determined the neutron activation evidence used link the head fragments to Oswald’s gun was “fundamentally flawed.”
Donahue, in fact, had concluded years earlier that random variation in lead composition precluded its use in identifying a bullet’s type or origin. In other words, a bullet found at Gettysburg might not differ significantly in makeup from the lead found in a modern hunting round.
Along with the fragmentation issue, critics have challenged Donahue’s belief that the 6 millimeter hole on the back of Kennedy’s skull would have precluded a shot from a 6.5 millimeter Carcano bullet (actually 6.75 millimeters in diameter). Some have argued the difference between the dimensions is so small that it’s likely the wound was simply measured incorrectly in the haste and turmoil of the autopsy. They point to Dr. James J. Humes’ vague statement to the Warren Commission that the hole was “6 to 7 mm” in diameter to reinforce this claim.
In truth, Humes’ testimony about the size of the wound would seem to indicate the pathologist was only just then tumbling to the problem a 6 millimeter hole created for the official narrative.
Warren Commission member John J. McCloy: “Is there anything to indicate that this was, might have been larger than 6.5 or smaller than 6.5?”
Humes: “The size of the defect in the scalp, caused by a projectile could vary from missile to missile because of elastic recoil and so forth of the tissues. However, the size of the defect in the underlying bone is certainly not likely to get smaller than that of the missile that perforated it, and in this case, the smallest diameter of this was approximately 6 to 7 mm, so I would feel that that would be the absolute upper limit of the size of this missile, sir.”
Humes’ dissembling obscures the fact that the 6 millimeter dimension in the skull (“corresponding” to the scalp wound above it in the language of the autopsy report) was carefully measured by reflecting, or lifting back the scalp. Additionally, the measurement was taken by Pierre Finck, MD, one of two other pathologists present at the autopsy. Unlike Humes, Finck — then chief of the Wound Ballistics Pathology Branch at Walter Reed Medical Center — had extensive experience examining gunshot wounds.
Admittedly, the 1969 revelation that the autopsy physicians had erroneously placed the entrance wound nearly four inches beneath its actual location does not inspire great confidence in the doctors’ abilities. Humes, however, admitted to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 that the autopsy report was written from “draft notes” without the benefit of the autopsy X-rays or photographs.
Had those materials been available when the report was assembled, he said, “some of the confusion and difficulties which seem to have arisen might not have arisen.” Why Humes didn’t have access to the photos and X-rays at this critical juncture is a mystery, although we do know the Secret Service had already taken control of most of the autopsy materials.
It is worth noting that J. Thornton Boswell, the third pathologist present at the autopsy, reported in a 1996 interview with the ARRB that 15 millimeters of lateral “tunneling” existed in the tissue of the scalp leading up to the entrance hole. This indicated the bullet was moving on a relatively flat, left-to-right trajectory, not steeply downward and right-to-left as would have been the case had Oswald fired it.
Donahue, for his part, studied a photo of one of the test skulls Warren Commission ballistics expert Olivier had shot with Carcano rounds in his attempts to duplicate the head wound. Using standard measurements of the human skull and a dial caliper, he was able to extrapolate the 6.5 millimeter Carcano round entrance wound at between 8 and 9 millimeters, considerably larger than the 6-millimeter hole present in the president’s skull.
Ballistics aside, one may understandably ask why no one heard the shot if Hickey did fire. Actually, three witnesses told investigators the shots may have come from the motorcade and several others believed agents may have returned fire. In 1986, the London Weekend Television staff examined the testimony of 88 witnesses who’d expressed an opinion about the origin of the shots. Forty believed the sound came from the area of the grassy knoll, 41 thought the shots came from the book depository and seven believed they came from other directions. Assassination author Jim Moore concluded that eyewitnesses standing closer to the book depository generally thought the shots came from within or around the building, while those positioned nearer the underpass or grassy knoll were convinced the shots were fired closer to their locations.
Vincent Bugliosi dismissed the dozens who believed the shots came from the grassy knoll as suffering from “hysteria and mass confusion” in his pro-Warren Commission book Reclaiming History. Yet if Hickey’s AR15 did go off as the follow-up car passed the knoll, it makes perfect sense that so many thought the shot came from that area. What they were actually hearing was the report of Hickey’s rifle echoing off the retaining walls and pergola adjacent to the knoll.
And here’s something else to consider: Thanks to the Zapruder film, that most infamous of silent movies, a subconscious habit of mind has developed that instinctively interprets Dealey Plaza as a noiseless killing ground punctuated only by the intermittent, imagined crack of a rifle. In reality, a cacophony engulfed the motorcade as it descended Elm Street. Cheers, whistles and applause surged from the large crowds at the corner of Houston Street and from bystanders along Elm, then screams and shouts once the shooting began. There was also the ambient buzz of traffic on busy Stemmons Freeway and perhaps the low-frequency hum of locomotives moving in the railyards nearby.
Likewise, there was one other powerful but seldom-mentioned noise that undoubtedly contributed to confusion about the origin of the shots: the rumble of four police Harley-Davidson motorcycles moving in tandem with the president’s car. Like the eight other Harleys that led the parade and had passed through Dealey Plaza seconds before, the flanking motorcycles were compelled to operate at slow speed and low RPM to maintain pace with the motorcade and consequently were prone to backfire. Jackie Kennedy commented to the Warren Commission about the noise the motorcycles made and said she assumed the first shot was a backfire.
Given the diversity of sound present in Dealey Plaza and the echo chamber created by the pergola, retaining walls, triple overpass tunnels and nearby tall buildings, it is not surprising more witnesses couldn’t pinpoint the shot as coming from the follow-up car. This uncertainty would have been compounded if Oswald did indeed get off a third round at nearly the same instant Hickey fired.
Other critics have wondered why no one saw the accident. In fact, one man standing on the overpass did see an individual with a gun fall over at the time of the last shot, and another saw someone in one of the cars fall down as shots were fired. A total of 15 witnesses reported an agent with a gun was visible in the follow-up car at or just after the last shot. There was also the story relayed to Donahue by Jason Little regarding what his grandfather had allegedly seen. If true, at least one person did see Hickey fire and had the presence of mind to note the agent fell forward, not backward, as the weapon discharged.
Sen. Yarborough told reporters at Parkland Hospital that “the third shot may have been a Secret Service man returning fire.” Witness Jean Hill similarly stated that an agent “in street clothes” may have returned fire toward someone running on the grassy knoll. Her perception of the shot’s target is logical, given the general direction Hickey’s gun would have been pointing when it went off. It’s true Hill became a controversial witness in later years due to the ever-evolving nature of her story. But her comment about possibly seeing an agent return fire was made to a Dallas Times Herald reporter on the afternoon of the assassination. It therefore stands as one of her most contemporaneous and likely most accurate statements.
In any case, it is important to remember that Hickey was partially obscured by agents standing on both running boards, not unlike a quarterback surrounded by blockers. And most witnesses were probably watching the president and first lady or looking back toward the book depository as gunfire rang out.
It also is conceivable that witnesses did see Hickey fire but chose not to speak of it once Oswald had been arrested and charged with the crime. The fear of publicly challenging the official narrative by accusing a government agent of shooting the president — and the inevitable consequences such a claim would bring — should not be underestimated.
Strangely, six witnesses on the north side of Elm Street who were among those closest to the follow-up car at the time of the fatal shot never spoke to the press in the aftermath of the assassination, nor were they called to testify before the Warren Commission. Most were never identified. These individuals included two women in dark dresses who stood by a lamp post adjacent to the follow-up car at the time of the last shot; Louie Steven Witt, the so-called umbrella man; a middle-aged black man wearing glasses and a dark cap; and two boys of apparent high-school age wearing letter jackets.
The mystery witnesses along the north side of Elm Street as the motorcade approaches. From the viewer’s left to right: the two women in dark dresses, standing in front of the lamp post; Louie Witt, his umbrella extended; the black man in the hat and white shirt, arm raised; and the two high school boys, standing a half-car length in front of the presidential limo.
In later years, one of the women by the lamp post was identified as Doris Mumford by her daughter, who said her mother never spoke of the assassination. Witt, the umbrella man, emerged to testify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 after some conspiracy theorists speculated his open umbrella was actually a signal to hidden gunmen or perhaps even an exotic weapon. In his testimony, Witt said the umbrella was meant to symbolize Neville Chamberlain in a silent protest of Joseph Kennedy’s pre-WWII appeasement policies. Witt claimed his view of the shooting was blocked by the open umbrella, but he did hear “the car stopping, the screeching of tires, the jamming on of brakes.”
Perhaps the most intriguing mystery witness along Elm was the middle-aged black man with glasses and a cap who stood next to Witt. Sometimes referred to as the “dark-complected man,” the individual was standing in the street less than 20 feet from the follow-up car at the time Kennedy was shot in the head. As such, he would have been ideally positioned to view Hickey and the president along a sight-line that was slightly oblique and from the rear. After the shooting, neither he nor Witt fled but instead sat down on the curb, seemingly in shock. According to Witt’s 1978 testimony, the dark-complected man repeatedly said, “They done shot them folks.”
What is striking is that, as far as we know, none of these Elm Street witnesses, including the high school students, ever spoke to the press, law enforcement or the Warren Commission. One would have expected at least one to have come forward or been sought out by investigators in the aftermath of the shooting, given their proximity to the president. Then again, perhaps some did talk but later had second thoughts.
Assassination researcher Robert Hillman was a high school student in the Houston area in 1963. He recalls reading a magazine article shortly after the event that included quotes from two unnamed eyewitnesses. According to the story, which has yet to surface, the individuals told the reporter that the president was shot “by one of his bodyguards.” Clearly the reporter didn’t take the claim seriously, and neither did Hillman — until he picked up a copy of Mortal Error nearly 30 years later.
Yet another plausible explanation for why the accident went unreported, as assassination researcher Denise Hazelwood has pointed out, involves emotional and cognitive overload. Acute stress reaction is a psychological response to a traumatic event that can produce numbing, muteness and amnesia. Similarly, inattentional blindness involves an episode in which unexpected stimulus occurring in plain view becomes invisible to observers. The triggers for this mental blank screen include the traumatic or unexpected nature of the underlying event, the amount of additional and distracting stimuli present (known as the perceptual load), and human beings’ limited capacity to pay attention to details in real time, particularly under stressful conditions. In all respects, the events in Dealey Plaza were ideally suited to unleash such perceptional breakdowns.
In a larger sense, it could be argued that the extent to which Donahue’s theory has been condemned or ignored over the years reflects a similar kind of cognitive overload on a vast scale. Human nature instinctively seeks to assign intent to the key acts and events that shape our collective experience. Whether delivered by the hand of God or man, we are most comfortable when explanations are readily available and purpose can be divined. It is inherently easier to believe a vast conspiracy was responsible for Kennedy’s death, or alternatively, a lone madman, than to contemplate the soul-destroying randomness of a horrible mistake. To do so would, on some level, force us to confront the existential indifference with which the universe greets our affairs and by extension, our own precarious foothold in a dangerous, complex and ever-shifting world.
Another plot twist emerged with the airing of JFK: The Smoking Gun in 2013. During the run-up to the program’s November debut, assassination researcher Dale Myers published an article referencing old arguments about the Bronson film in an attempted take-down of the friendly-fire scenario. The story included a frame from the movie that Myers said coincided with the instant Kennedy was shot in the head. According to Myers, the image proved Hickey was sitting too low to have fired the bullet.
The frame posted obviously is close to the fatal moment, but assuming it captures the precise second of impact is conjecture. Kennedy is nearly 75 yards away and almost completely hidden by Jackie, and no visual evidence of the explosive head shot is apparent. Given the relative positions of key witnesses, it is equally possible the frame captures the instant just before the shot was fired, not after. If that were the case, the indistinct jumble of forms visible in the back seat area as the follow-up car pulls adjacent to the street lamp conceivably could mask the critical sequence involving Hickey (see clip).
Equally important, Myers confuses Hickey with agent Glen Bennett in claiming Hickey was sitting too low to have fired his weapon. Bennett was in the seat next to Hickey on the far side of the vehicle. Because the film was shot in profile, it is difficult to tell which individual is in the foreground. Yet the essential fact that Myers and so many other Donahue critics have missed is that three or four seconds before the fatal shot, Hickey can be seen perched up much higher than Bennett on an object as yet unknown (possibly a case or cases containing ammo, weapons or a first aide kit) in the famous photograph taken by James Altgens. The Willis and Betzner photos shot from behind the follow-up car a few seconds earlier likewise show Hickey sitting high and Bennett low beside him. Still another photograph taken of the follow-up car as it emerged from the triple overpass clearly shows Hickey with rifle and still sitting in the high position.
To conclude, then, that Hickey was sitting low in the seat throughout the shooting is unsupported by all available photos bracketing the event. It is further contradicted by witness Sam Holland, who said he saw an agent with a rifle stand and fall over at the time of the last shot, and by Hickey himself, who stated in his report that he stood up twice as the shots came in.
Myers’ blog did produce one intriguing revelation. In the frame he included, a black, stick-like object can be seen projecting upward at an approximately 45-degree angle from the back seat of the follow-up car. (The thin black line is visible adjacent to the arrow Myers superimposed on the picture in his effort to identify Hickey and can be seen most clearly in Myers’ mid-distance reproduction of the image). When questioned about the “black stick” in his blog’s comment section, Myers stated it was simply a one-time artifact on the film.
However, assassination researcher Robert Hillman, who’d initially spotted the object while working as a consultant to the JFK: The Smoking Gun documentary, believes the same shape can be seen at various angles in as many as five other frames of the movie. He based this conclusion on magnified examination of digital photos of the Bronson frames provided to the producers of the television program by the Sixth Floor Museum in 2013.
To better understand what the object might be, Hillman contacted Gary Mack at the Sixth Floor Museum in 2014 and proposed the museum make a copy of the film available to an independent expert for study and interpretation. Hillman even suggested the name of a qualified forensic photography examiner who was willing to perform the work free of charge. But Mack declined the offer and broke off contact with Hillman.
In June 2017, the Bronson film once again became a focal point when the Sixth Floor Museum announced Bronson’s heirs had donated the movie to the museum. In a press release announcing the acquisition, the museum asserted the film “remains relevant more than half a century later as it helps disprove an ongoing theory suggesting that a Secret Service agent in the follow-up car accidentally fired the shot that killed President Kennedy.” Individual frames of the film — apparently pulled from the Bronson clip posted by the museum — have been put up at an online assassination photo gallery.
Determining exactly what the movie does or does not show and, equally important, ensuring the film’s integrity, can only be accomplished if the Sixth Floor makes the original available for analysis by a qualified, independent film examiner. The museum is duty-bound to do this, given Gary Mack’s long-time public claims about the film’s relationship to Donahue’s theory, recent, similar statements by his successor, Stephen Fagin, and the exclusive control the organization has maintained over this critical piece of evidence for years. As sole steward of both the crime scene and key evidence surrounding the assassination, the Sixth Floor holds a unique position of trust not only in America, but worldwide. It therefore behooves the institution to demonstrate good faith in pursuit of potentially new insights into the murder and live up to the promise of its own vision statement: “To be an impartial, multi-generational destination and forum for exploring the memory and effects of President Kennedy’s assassination.”
[In November 2019, at the author’s request, the Sixth Floor Museum allowed Kenneth Weissman, an expert on eight-millimeter film and former head of the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, to physically exam the original Bronson film. Weissman also was given access to two high-resolution digital scans of the film commissioned by the Sixth Floor Museum in 2017 and 2019. From his examination, Weissman determined there was no evidence indicating any of the original Bronson frames had been removed, spliced or otherwise tampered with. He also concluded that the “black sticks” identified in several video frames of the film posted online in 2017 were most likely compression artifacts created during the film’s conversion from digital scan to video and were not images of the Agent Hickey’s AR-15. However, Weissman also stated the apparent absence of the rifle on the film did not necessarily disprove its presence at the time of Kennedy’s head shot. Rather, several anomalous factors surrounding Bronson’s filmmaking — including his distance from the motorcade, the fact that he’d inadvertently filmed with the camera’s wide-angle lens as opposed to its telephoto lens, and his decision to operate the camera at 12 frames per second versus the standard shutter speed of 16 frames per second — all may have combined to push the camera beyond its technical capabilities and consequently resulted in a failure to resolve the image of the rifle. To read the full Weissman report, click here.]
Along with new questions about the Bronson film, another intriguing development emerged with the airing of The Smoking Gun. President Kennedy’s paternal grandmother was named Hickey. Joseph Kennedy’s mother, Mary Augusta, was the daughter of James and Margaret Hickey of Middlesex, Massachusetts. Born in 1857, Mary Augusta married Patrick Joseph Kennedy in 1887 and died in 1923, nine days short of John F. Kennedy’s sixth birthday.
Genealogical research into whether Secret Service Agent George W. Hickey Jr. was related to Mary Augusta and therefore to Kennedy has been inconclusive. Nonetheless, Mary Augusta was part of a sprawling family that included six brothers. The possibility therefore exists that Agent Hickey was a second or third cousin to the president.
If that were the case, it might explain a mysterious statement that appeared in an Aug. 22, 1996, Baltimore Sun story about Hickey’s lawsuit. Reporter Scott Higham recounted relevant details about the book and the suit and then stated: “Kennedy cleared the way for Hickey to be assigned to the president’s personal protection detail in July 1963, four months before the slaying in Dallas. Hickey was 40 at the time.”
Higham didn’t elaborate on what he meant by “Kennedy cleared the way for Hickey,” nor did he cite a source for Hickey’s date-of-employment or age. But the curious assertion begs two questions: Did Kennedy intervene on Hickey’s behalf to get him a job, and if so, was it because the two were related? The cut-off age for joining the presidential protection detail in 1963 reportedly was 30 years old. If Kennedy did pull strings to get an overage Hickey the job and if Hickey did indeed fire the shot, the president’s nepotism and its fateful outcome would have created an even stronger incentive for the Kennedy family and the Secret Service to bury the truth.
A cover-up motivated solely by fears of embarrassing the Kennedys or the Secret Service would, of course, be an anathema to the 59 percent of Americans who believe a broad conspiracy was responsible for the president’s death. Many of those who’ve never accepted the government’s explanation of the killing are convinced the murder was essentially a coup.
For them, the president’s execution was a final, bloody step in the evisceration of American democracy, a Rubicon event that, through the intervening years, has allowed for the rapid consolidation of power by the Deep State. Many are convinced this criminal cabal is entrenched and expanding within the government to ensure control by a variety of vested interests, including corrupted elements of the intelligence community, an ascendant military industrial complex and the most powerful components of corporate America.
Some have gone so far as to insinuate that Mortal Error and the theory upon which it was based are effectively agents of that coup; disinformation tools designed to deflect attention away from the actual perpetrators of the crime. Suffice to say that neither Donahue nor I were ever party to any intelligence agency- or government-directed effort, strategy or suggestion designed to purposely misinform the public about Kennedy’s death.
Others believe Hickey’s shot was no accident. They’re convinced the agent was part of a larger, Secret Service-led plot that sought to pin the blame on Oswald. Aside from the daunting complexities executing such a scheme would entail, relying on Hickey to assassinate Kennedy would have been extraordinarily risky, given that there could be no assurance he would make the kill shot undetected. Furthermore, Hickey’s continued existence after Nov. 22 would have been problematic from the plotter’s point of view due to the exposure risk he represented. Hence, it is plausible to assume the agent would have met an untimely end in the weeks after the assassination and not lived to be 81 years old.
Donahue, for his part, was agnostic about the possibility of a conspiracy. He was skeptical but did not rule it out. His primary focus was on the ballistic evidence and, after years of analysis, he believed this pointed to only two shooters: Oswald and Hickey. In any case, the fact that the head shot may have been fired by mistake in no way precludes a conspiracy involving Oswald.
And even if Oswald did act alone, and even if Hickey did mistakenly shoot the president, nothing in this scenario would have prevented individuals, constituencies or criminal elements within the government from quickly exploiting the president’s unexpected death to consolidate power and push forward their own agendas. In other words, the neo-fascist coup that many believe took place in November 1963 may have been more of an opportunistic reaction to Kennedy’s sudden demise than the result of a carefully planned plot to eliminate the president.
But what about Oswald’s claim that he was “just a patsy,” shouted out during the tumultuous jailhouse interview on the night of the assassination? He was looking directly at Kennedy when the President’s head exploded. If Oswald realized he did not fire that bullet (or if he did fire a third shot, that it had missed and struck the pavement), his “patsy” statement could reflect a fear that unknown forces had conspired to set him up. And if that were the case, think about this for cognitive dissonance: On the night of the 22nd, Oswald became the first Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist to misinterpret what had occurred — in his case, right in front of him.
Which brings us back to the evidence at hand. In his only written statements about the assassination, submitted to his superior on Nov. 22 and 30, Hickey claimed he did not pick up the rifle until after the motorcade had reached the triple overpass. Yet multiple witnesses saw him with the gun immediately after the shooting. Hickey also stated that he didn’t cock the weapon until after the final shot. But Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, assistant special agent in charge in Dallas, testified the AR15 in the back seat was always “ready to go,” i.e., cocked and loaded. Why the discrepancies?
There was also a little-known incident at Parkland Hospital that raises questions about Hickey’s state-of-mind state in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Researcher and author Denise Hazelwood discovered a newspaper article from Dec. 1, 1963, which reported how two Secret Service agents burst into the emergency room upon arriving at the hospital. One of the agents asked for two stretchers, the report stated. “The second, a sub-machine gun cradled in his arms, looked so agitated that the hospital staff were terrified he would open fire. ‘Everyone clear out of here’ he shouted, and ambulance men and nurses rushed for cover.” The report goes on to state that when another man later identified as an FBI agent subsequently ran into the emergency room, he was immediately slammed into the wall by one of the agents and fell to the ground, unconscious.
Additional details about the incident were revealed in JFK: Conspiracy of Silence, a book by Dr. Charles A. Crenshaw, one of the Parkland physicians who attended Kennedy that day.
“I looked to my left and saw a man in a suit running. To my amazement, another man in a suit jumped in his path and smashed a Thompson sub-machine gun across his chest and face. The first man’s eyes immediately turned glassy, and he fell against a gray tile wall, and slithered to the floor unconscious. When I heard that gun slam against his face, I just knew the man’s jaw was broken… I was to learn later that the man with the gun was a Secret Service agent, and the one who had been hit was an FBI agent.”
Crenshaw also added: “The look on the face of the man with the machine gun still bothered me. I didn’t want to cross paths with him ever again.”
Was the FBI agent attempting to take possession of the rifle to determine if it had been fired, as is typical in any homicide investigation? As far as we know, Hickey was the only agent carrying a long gun that day, and at the hospital he was later instructed to return the weapon to the trunk of the follow-up car, according to his Warren Commission statement.
During those early, unscripted moments at the hospital, there may have been at least one instance in which the shooting was explicitly referred to as an accident. Parkland Nurse Phyllis Hall stated in a 2013 living history interview that “[Colleague] Doris Nelson had just come back from the triage to tell us that there had been an accident in the motorcade and they were on the way.” (at approximately 4:58 in the video)
There also was an odd reference reported in The Death of a President, the Kennedy-family-authorized book about the assassination. Author William Manchester included the following quote from Jacqueline Kennedy: “What was so terrible was the thought that it had been an accident, a freak, that an inch or two here, a moment or two there would have reversed history.”
An accident, a freak… an inch or two here… Most would interpret Jackie’s characterizations as simply conversational tools meant to describe Oswald’s unfathomable decision to pull the trigger and the catastrophic result that ensued. But it is also possible her word choice was far more precise and intentional, and designed to signal to history that she was aware of the actual circumstances surrounding her husband’s death. She was, after all, a literature major, former reporter and book editor.
As for the Secret Service, it is both significant and inexplicable that the agency stopped using the AR15 after Dallas, despite a powerful, lightweight design that would seemingly make it ideal for bodyguards. Consider this exchange between agency Chief James Rowley and Chief Justice Earl Warren during Rowley’s testimony before the Warren Commission on Thursday, June 18, 1964:
Warren: And they have submachineguns in one of the cars.
Rowley: No for security reasons, I would like to — we don’t have machine guns now, sir.
Warren: I just thought I heard that from the record here, that they had some kind of guns.
Rowley: They had a weapon, a new weapon; yes sir.
The agency has certainly not been immune to firearms mishaps. In 2006, a Secret Service agent inadvertently fired a shotgun in the proximity of then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as his motorcade prepared to leave the InterContinental Hotel in New York City. According to a report in The Atlantic, the agent was adjusting a side-mounted shotgun on one of the motorcade’s armored follow-up Suburbans when the weapon discharged. The Atlantic story quoted an unnamed government official who witnessed the event: “Everyone just stopped. The Iranians looked at us and we looked at the Iranians. The agent began to apologize. Ahmadinejad just turned his head and got into his car.”
And what about Hickey himself? His lifelong silence regarding Donahue’s conclusions has always seemed curious. If the agent had spoken out convincingly before the Baltimore Sun articles were published, there’s a chance Donahue’s theory would never have seen the light of day. The same holds true with Mortal Error. Making an effort to stop the book’s publication would have seemed imperative if Hickey didn’t fire his weapon, and he was given multiple opportunities to do so. St. Martin’s CEO McCormack promised to spike Mortal Error if Hickey or anyone else could provide evidence that invalidated the theory. Yet only silence ensued. Ask yourself what you would do if someone falsely accused you of killing the president.
Admittedly, Hickey’s legal action was an answer of sorts, and for some, it continues to support his innocence. But how strange it was to wait until three years after the book came out to file. Lawsuits can be initiated for many reasons, of course. The reality is that even though the suit was dismissed, even though Hickey was never deposed, and even though St. Martin’s decision to settle was aimed at preventing an appeal, the litigation was effective in discrediting Donahue’s findings in the eyes of many.
So one is left to wonder: Did it really unfold this way? God knows I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times. And the answer I’ve always come back to is this: If one chooses to dismiss Donahue’s findings, an obligation exists to thoroughly explain the ballistic anomalies he identified in a way that convincingly supports an alternative scenario.
Similarly, a rational explanation must be offered for the behavior of the Secret Service. McLaren’s research illuminated an appalling, ruthless and unrelenting pattern of evidence tampering and obstruction of justice. There was even a crude attempt, apparently directed by the head of the Secret Service, to fabricate evidence with a fraudulent X-ray. Can these actions be understood in any way except as desperate efforts to hide or distort essential facts about the shooting?
Critics also must address the witnesses themselves. It may be easy enough to minimize or discount those who saw Hickey with the rifle, saw smoke in Dealey Plaza or who believed the shots may have come from the motorcade. But it is far more difficult to explain away the nine people in or near the motorcade who smelled gunpowder at street level immediately after the shooting. Eyes and ears may deceive, but the olfactory response is instantaneous, visceral and, if the odor is familiar and distinctive, virtually impossible to misinterpret.
Among the gunpowder witnesses, all were unequivocal, even adamant. But two stand out. Patrolman Earle Brown was stationed on the Texas and Pacific Railway bridge that crossed Stemmons Freeway more than 300 yards northwest of Dealey Plaza. November 22nd was a windy day; a 15 mph breeze was pushing steadily in from the west, past Brown and toward the Book Depository. Yet Brown somehow detected gunpowder as he stood on the bridge a thousand feet upwind from the scene of the shooting. The police officer said he heard three shots, saw the motorcade race by on the highway beneath him, saw an agent waving around what looked like a “machine gun” and then, “smelled this gunpowder… maybe a couple of minutes” after the shots.
Similarly, Texas Sen. Ralph Yarborough told reporters at Parkland Hospital that he could smell gunpowder nearly all the way to the hospital as he rode in an open convertible immediately behind the Secret Service car. In both cases, the witnesses smelled the odor far from Dealey Plaza. The only conceivable explanation for this is that a weapon discharged in the motorcade and the powder residue continued to effuse from the vehicle as it sped beneath the railroad bridge on the way to Parkland.
Dallas patrolman Earle Browne was standing on the railroad bridge that crossed Stemmons Freeway in the upper-left corner of this picture, approximately 1,000 feet from Dealey Plaza. A 15-mph wind was blowing in from left to right. Browne testified that he smelled gunpowder after the motorcade passed beneath him, “maybe a couple of minutes” after shots were fired.
John Tunheim, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, served as the chairman of the Assassination Records Review Board from 1994 to 1998. In that capacity, he oversaw the declassification of more than 4 million government records related to the assassination. The agency also conducted new interviews with surviving medical personnel involved in the president’s autopsy. Many of the documents produced by the ARRB were pivotal in the work detective Colin McLaren did in support of Donahue’s conclusions.
Because of the ARRB’s relentless efforts and Tunheim’s dispassionate, open-minded attitude about the assassination, the judge has emerged as arguably the most credible government voice ever when it comes to the death of the 35th president.
What does he think of Donahue’s conclusions? In an interview, Tunheim agreed the fragmentation of the bullet that killed Kennedy, as well as the presence of gun smoke, posed significant unanswered questions that need “a thorough review and a thorough understanding.” He likewise termed the behavior of the Secret Service at Parkland and Bethesda, including the confiscation of evidence, “inexplicable.”
“Donahue’s theory is conceivable. He was a very smart man who was meticulous in his work. I thought his efforts and those of McLaren were very thorough. And that’s what we need. The more smart-thinking that is applied to the evidence and the information we have, the more we’ll know as we go forward. Material is still coming out and I think we have an obligation to history to look at it very carefully to see if it changes the official version.”
Whether that kind of denudement can still occur remains to be seen. Like scar tissue, the years have wrapped Dealey Plaza in so many overlapping theories that the original wound has become almost impossible to see. But it festers still. To accept Donahue’s conclusion is to understand why many of these notions took hold in the first place and why they’ve flourished for so long.
Time itself, or course, has never stopped fleeing forward, as if to put some distance between us and that dreadful day. Most of those alive in 1963 will be gone within a generation, and for the country, the prospect of ever fully resolving the case seems to recede further with each passing November. But as long as the generation that lived through the events in Dallas still breathes, so too does the possibility that someone will come forward with information long suppressed or overlooked. On three separate occasions, Donahue received anecdotal, albeit unverified confirmation of his theory. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that others will finally decide to unburden themselves from the crushing weight of history and set matters right at last.
Special thanks to assassination researchers Robert Hillman and Doug Stone for their invaluable contributions to this article, Martin A.K. Morgan for his firearms expertise, and Daniel R. Roffe and Denise Hazelwood for their contributions and commitment to the work of Howard Donahue and Colin McLaren.
Bonar Menninger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
For new information surrounding the Donahue theory, check out this link.
Agent George Hickey’s statements:
First statement (Nov. 22, 1963)
Just prior to the shooting I was seated in the rear of the SS-679-X on the left side. As 100-X made the turn and proceeded a short distance I heard what seemed to me that a firecracker exploded to the right and rear. I stood partially up and turned to the rear to see if I could observe anything. Nothing was observed and I turned around and looked at the President’s car. The President was slumped to the left in the car and I observed him come up. I heard what appeared to be two shots and it seemed as if the right side of his head was hit and his hair flew forward. I then reached down, picked up the AR-15, cocked and loaded it and stood partway up in the car and looked about. By this time, 100-X and 679-X had passed under the overpass and was proceeding at a high rate of speed toward the hospital.
Second statement (Nov. 30, 1963)
The motorcade then left the airport and proceeded along the parade route. Just prior to the shooting the Presidential car turned left at the intersection and started down an incline toward an underpass followed by 679X. After a very short distance I heard a loud report which sounded like a firecracker. It appeared to come from the right and rear and seemed to me to be at ground level. I stood up and looked to my right and rear in an attempt to identify it. Nothing caught my attention except people shouting and cheering. A disturbance in 679X caused me to look forward toward the President’s car. Perhaps 2 or 3 seconds elapsed from the time I looked to the rear and then looked at the President. He was slumped forward and to his left, and was straightening up to an almost erect sitting position as I turned and looked.
At the moment he was almost sitting erect I heard two reports which I thought were shots and that appeared to me completely different in sound than the first report and were in such rapid succession that there seemed to be practically no time element between them. It looked to me as if the President was struck in the right upper rear of his head. The first shot of the second two seemed as if it missed because the hair on the right side of his head flew forward and there didn’t seem to be any impact against his head. The last shot seemed to hit his head and cause a noise at the point of impact which made him fall forward and to his left again. Possibly four or five seconds elapsed from the time of the first report and the last.
At the end of the last report I reached to the bottom of the car and picked up the AR-15 rifle, cocked and loaded it, and turned to the rear. At this point the cars were passing under the overpass and as a result we had left the scene of the shooting.
Saw a weapon in the hands of a Secret Service agent:
1. Dallas Mayor Earle Cabell: “From out of nowhere appeared one Secret Service man with a submachine gun.”
2. S.M. Holland: “…I noticed that this Secret Service man stood up in the car, in the President’s car. Just about the time the President was shot the second time. He jumped up in the seat and was standing up in the, on the seat. Now I actually thought when they started up, I actually thought he was shot too, because he fell backwards just like he was shot, but it jerked him down when they started off. He pointed this machine gun right toward that grassy knoll behind that picket fence.”
3. Sen. Ralph Yarborough: “After the shooting, one of the Secret Service men sitting down in the car in front of us pulled out an automatic rifle or weapon and looked backward.”
4. Hugh Betzner: “I also saw a man in either the President’s car or the car behind his and someone down in one of those cars pull out what looked like a rifle.”
5. George Davis: (from a March 3, 1964 FBI statement): “He stated his first impression was that someone had played a prank, but then he saw guns in the hands of the Secret Service Agents with President Kennedy, saw President Kennedy slumped forward…”
6. Jack Franzen: (from a Nov. 24, 1963 FBI statement): “He noticed the men, who were presumed to be Secret Service Agents, riding in the car directly behind the President’s car, unloading from the car, some with firearms in their hands…”
7. Joan Franzen: (from a Nov. 25, 1963 FBI statement): “She advised her small son called her attention to the fact that some of the men in the automobile behind the President’s car were holding guns in their hands shortly after the shots which apparently struck President Kennedy and stated she assumed these men were Secret Service Agents.”
8. Officer Earle Brown: “And then we saw the car coming with the President, and as it passed underneath me I looked right down and I could see this officer in the back; he had this gun and he was swinging it around, looked like a machine gun, and the President was all sprawled out, his foot on the back cushion.”
9. Toni Foster: “I can’t recall the car behind them, which I’m sure was the one all the agents were in. And that fast you see gentlemen out there — all of a sudden they all had guns, rifles, light machine guns, if that is what it was.”
10. Secret Service Agent Rufus Youngblood: “Hickey [was] in the Presidential follow-up car poised on the car with the AR15 rifle looking up toward the buildings.”
11. Secret Service Agent Winston Lawson: “As the Lead Car was passing under this bridge I hear the first loud, sharp report and in more rapid succession two more sounds like gunfire. I could see persons to the left of the motorcade vehicles running away. I noticed Agent Hickey standing in the follow-up car with the automatic weapon and first thought he had fired at someone.”
12. Secret Service Agent Glen Bennett: “A second shot followed immediately and hit the right rear high of the President’s head. I immediately hollered `he’s hit’ and reached for the AR-15 located on the floor of the rear seat. Special Agent Hickey had already picked up the AR15.”
13. Secret Service Agent Emory Roberts: “I turned around a couple of times, just after the shooting and saw that some of the Special Agents had their guns drawn. I know I drew mine, and saw SA Hickey in the rear seat with the AR-15, and asked him to be careful with it.”
14. Secret Service Agent William McIntyre: “Most, if not all the agents in the follow-up car had drawn their weapons and agent Hickey was handling the AR-15.”
15. Secret Service Agent Jerry Kivett: “Once we left the area, I could see all three cars… The follow-up car, with some agent holding the AR-15 in the air.”
Believed shots may have come from the motorcade:
1. Dallas Motorcycle Police Officer Bobby Hargis (riding on the left rear side of the presidential limousine):
Q: “Do you recall your impression at the time regarding the source of the shots?”
A: “Well, at the time it sounded like the shots were right next to me.”
2. Austin Miller (standing on the triple overpass):
Q: “Where did the shots sound like they came from?”
A: “Well, the way it sounded like, it came from the, I would say from right there in the car.”
3. Royce Skelton (standing on the triple overpass):
Q: “Where did it seem to you that the sound came from, what direction?”
A: “Toward the President’s car.”
Q: “From the President’s car?”
A: “Right around the motorcycles and all that — I couldn’t distinguish because it was too far away.”
Smelled gunpowder at street level:
1. Dallas Motorcycle Police Officer B.J. Martin (riding on the left rear side of the presidential limousine) as quoted in “Murder from Within,” by Fred T. Newcomb and Perry Adams: “You could smell the gunpowder… you knew he wasn’t far away. When you’re that close, you can smell the powder burning. Why you — you’ve got to be pretty close to them… you could smell the gunpowder… right there in the street.”
2. Virgie Rachley, aka Mrs. Donald Baker, (standing on the sidewalk in front of the book depository), from a Nov. 23, 1963 FBI statement: “She recalled that after the second shot she smelled gunsmoke but did not know where it was coming from.”
3. Tom Dillard (riding in a convertible, Camera Car #3, located seven cars behind the Secret Service follow-up vehicle):
A. “I might add that I very definitely smelled gunpowder when the car moved up to the corner.”
Q. “You did?”
A. “I very definitely smelled it.”
Q. “By that you mean when you moved up to the corner of Elm and Houston?”
A. “Yes; now, there developed a very brisk north wind.”
Q. “That was in front of the Texas School Book Depository?”
A. “Yes, it was very close — the corner is rather close. I mentioned it, I believe, that it was rather surprising to me.”
Q. “Who did you mention it to?”
A. “Bob, I’m sure.”
Q. “Bob Jackson?”
A. “Yeah, Bob and I were talking about it.”
4. Robert (Bob) Jackson (riding in a convertible, Camera Car #3, located seven cars behind the Secret Service follow-up vehicle):
See Dillard statement above.
5. Sen. Ralph Yarborough (riding in the Vice President’s car, directly behind the Secret Service follow-up vehicle), as quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963: “You could smell powder on our car nearly all the way to here (to the hospital.)” In 1989, Yarborough told author Jim Marrs: “A second or two later, I smelled gunpowder. I always thought that was strange because, being familiar with firearms, I never could see how I could smell the powder from a rifle high in that building.”
6. Elizabeth Cabell (riding in a convertible, two cars behind the Secret Service follow-up vehicle): “I was acutely aware of the odor of gunpowder. I was aware that the motorcade stopped dead still. There was no question about that.
Q. “Did you make the observation to anyone at the time that you smelled gunpowder?”
A. “No, because there was too much confusion. But I mentioned it to Congressman Roberts when we were in Washington a couple of weeks ago.”
Q. “Did he say that he had observed that?”
A. “As well as I remember, he said `Yes.’”
7. Congressman Ray Roberts (riding in a convertible, two cars behind the Secret Service follow-up vehicle): See Cabell statement above.
8. Patrolman Earle Brown (standing on the railroad bridge that crossed Stemmons Freeway upwind from Dealey Plaza. The motorcade passed beneath him on the way to Parkland Hospital):
“…I heard these shots and then I smelled this gun powder.”
Q. “You did?”
A. “It come on it would be maybe a couple minutes later so — at least it smelled like it to me.”
9. Patrolman Joseph Smith (moving on Elm Street toward the grassy knoll) Smith reported “a distinctive smell of gunsmoke cordite.”
10. Unknown sources, as reported in the Chicago Tribune by writer Wayne Thomis on Nov. 23, 1963. “Seconds later the cavalcade was gone. The area still reeked with the smell of gunpowder.”
Believed the Secret Service may have returned fire:
1. Jean Hill, to the Dallas Times Herald on the afternoon of the assassination: “I thought I saw someone in the motorcade in street dress shoot back at a person running up the hill.”
To the Dallas County Sherriff’s Department, also on Nov. 22nd: “There was an instant pause between the first two shots and the motor cade seemingly halted for an instant and three or four more shots rang out and the motorcade sped away. I thought I saw some men in plain clothes shooting back but everything was such a blur and Mary was pulling on my leg saying `Get down thery [sic] shooting.’”
2. Sen. Ralph Yarborough: The senator told reporters at Parkland Hospital that the third shot he heard “may have been a Secret Service man returning the fire.”
3. Secret Service Agent Winston Lawson: “I noticed the president’s car back there, but I also noticed right after the reports an agent standing up with an automatic weapon in his hand, and the first thing that flashed through my mind, this was the only weapon I had seen, was that he had fired because this was the only weapon I had seen up to that time.”