The Last Stand of the JFK Truthers

Dallas plans to memorialize the fallen president on the 50th anniversary of his death, and the conspiracy theorists aren’t invited.

A view through a rifle scope aimed from the window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository shows a convertible car during a Warren Report story, Dallas, Texas, June 10-11, 1967. The Warren Report was an investigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination. 
Getty Images
Marin Cogan
Nov. 11, 2013, midnight

“I al­ways tell people I’m not a book­worm. I’m a book anaconda,” John Judge says, as he turns side­ways and care­fully man­euvers his large frame down a nar­row stair­case in­to the main lib­rary of the Co­ali­tion on Polit­ic­al As­sas­sin­a­tions, a non­profit ded­ic­ated to re­search­ing the killings of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. Carved deep in­to a hill in Penn Branch, a quiet, leafy com­munity in South­east Wash­ing­ton, the room might oth­er­wise be a base­ment, were the house not in­hab­ited by a man who for the past 45 years has been ob­sess­ively read­ing and re­search­ing every fa­cet of the Kennedy as­sas­sin­a­tion.

He scans through hun­dreds of books, care­fully pulling from the shelves some of the found­a­tion­al texts of the as­sas­sin­a­tion can­on: Mark Lane’s best-selling Rush to Judg­ment, the first book he ever read on the case, and Robert Groden and Har­ris­on Ed­ward Liv­ing­stone’s High Treas­on: The As­sas­sin­a­tion of JFK & the Case for Con­spir­acy. Judge ges­tures to 26 hard­cov­er volumes of the War­ren Com­mis­sion re­port, the of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment in­vest­ig­a­tion that fingered Lee Har­vey Os­wald as the lone gun­man. On a shelf be­side him sits a self-satir­ic­al bump­er stick­er: “Humpty Dumpty was pushed.” Judge, who has wavy sil­ver-white hair and a goat­ee that fans out be­neath his chin, smirks, “I tell people you can call me a con­spir­acy the­or­ist if you call every­one else a co­in­cid­ence the­or­ist.”

He pauses and picks a col­lect­or’s item from the stacks: one of the now out-of-print volumes of Penn Jones Jr.’s tome about a con­spir­acy to kill the pres­id­ent, For­give My Grief. Jones was a Texas news­pa­per­man and one of the ori­gin­al JFK as­sas­sin­a­tion re­search­ers. One year after the as­sas­sin­a­tion, he came to the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, where some wit­nesses say they heard shots fired that day, to hold a mo­ment of si­lence. Judge joined him in 1968 and con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion every year, tak­ing over the ce­re­mon­ies when Jones grew ill.

This month marks the 50th an­niversary of Kennedy’s as­sas­sin­a­tion. By the ad­mis­sion of most of the as­sas­sin­a­tion re­search­ers (they hate the term “con­spir­acy the­or­ists”), it’s also their last, best shot at re­ignit­ing a pub­lic de­bate about what really happened that day. “The 50th an­niversary will really be one of the last op­por­tun­it­ies to really get this out in­to the pub­lic do­main,” says James DiEu­genio, cofounder of the Cit­izens for Truth About the Kennedy As­sas­sin­a­tion. “I really and truly be­lieve that the Kennedy as­sas­sin­a­tion was quite epochal; it had re­ver­ber­a­tions down to present day,” he says. “What has happened over time is that cyn­icism and skep­ti­cism have seeped down in­to the pub­lic at large. It has caused a lot of ser­i­ous prob­lems about peoples’ be­lief in gov­ern­ment and has splintered our so­ci­ety.”

Judge says, “We are passing in­to a post-his­tor­ic­al era, and it prob­ably is, maybe not the last gasp, but the largest last gasp of the is­sue.” It’s also the first year they won’t get to be in the plaza on Nov. 22 at 12:30 p.m.

Dal­las knows the world will be watch­ing that day, and the city in­tends to be ready. “The in­ter­na­tion­al spot­light will shine in­tensely on our city, per­haps bright­er than it has since that gut-wrench­ing day in 1963,” May­or Mike Rawl­ings said in an op-ed for The Dal­las Morn­ing News last week. So Rawl­ings, along with a com­mit­tee of Dal­las’s best known Brah­mins, civic lead­ers with deep ties to the city, have care­fully planned an event they’re call­ing “the 50th.”

FROM 11/22 to 9/11

To ex­plain why, after 50 years, the as­sas­sin­a­tion re­search­ers still de­vote their lives and repu­ta­tions to what happened to JFK is to them at once ob­vi­ous and un­answer­able. “This is so hard to ex­plain in a sound bite,” Oliv­er Stone told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “It’s so im­port­ant be­cause Kennedy was the last peace-seek­ing pres­id­ent we really had, and the coun­try be­came much more con­ser­vat­ive after that. The last 50 years we’ve gone far to the right.”

They don’t in­tend to use the word as­sas­sin­a­tion. The event “is all about ac­know­ledging the life, leg­acy, and lead­er­ship of the 35th pres­id­ent, not the mo­ment 50 years ago,” says one of the press hand­lers help­ing with the ce­re­mony. His­tor­i­an Dav­id Mc­Cul­lough will read from Kennedy speeches, the U.S. Nav­al Academy Men’s Glee Club will sing, re­li­gious lead­ers will of­fer pray­ers. A ce­re­mo­ni­al fly­over will take place, and church bells will ring throughout the city. Around 12:30 p.m., par­ti­cipants will ob­serve a mo­ment of si­lence. The only thing that will be miss­ing are some of the people who have been com­ing to Dealey Plaza for dec­ades. The city offered only 5,000 tick­ets, to be dis­trib­uted through a lot­tery, and asked ap­plic­ants to sub­mit to a back­ground check — mean­ing that most of the as­sas­sin­a­tion re­search­ers will be shut out. “We’ve been do­ing this for 49 years, and there’s no reas­on to usurp it,” Judge says. “We could have been ac­com­mod­ated, but we wer­en’t — we think, on the basis of our mes­sage.”

The stakes go bey­ond grant­ing the con­spir­acists some meas­ure of cred­ib­il­ity. For the city, the an­niversary may be its best chance to fi­nally put one of the most pain­ful peri­ods in mod­ern Amer­ic­an his­tory be­hind it, an op­por­tun­ity to show that Dal­las has moved bey­ond the im­age it cul­tiv­ated in the as­sas­sin­a­tion era as a po­le­star of polit­ic­al ex­trem­ism. To un­der­stand the fight between the re­search­ers and the city is to un­der­stand how Dealey Plaza be­came a sym­bol­ic battle­ground for a much lar­ger war over the leg­acy of Dal­las and of how his­tory re­mem­bers what happened to JFK.

THE TAINT OF HIS­TORY

FROM 11/22 to 9/11

They are by now a large com­munity, a frac­tious, in­fight­ing fam­ily, with founders like Har­old Weis­berg, a Mary­land chick­en farm­er, and Mary Fer­rell, a Dal­las leg­al sec­ret­ary who be­came one of the move­ment’s most re­spec­ted re­search­ers. Be­lief in a con­spir­acy brought fam­il­ies to­geth­er and kept them apart: Pamela McEl­wain-Brown met her fu­ture hus­band on one of the early as­sas­sin­a­tion mes­sage boards; an­oth­er re­search­er named Dav­id Lifton nev­er mar­ried out of a self-pro­fessed re­cog­ni­tion that he’d al­ways be more in­ter­ested in the pres­id­ent’s dead body than a wife’s liv­ing one. Some, like Stu­art Wexler, in­her­ited their in­terest from par­ents and grand­par­ents. “This is go­ing to sound cheesy and self-right­eous,” Wexler says, “but there is to me a sense of justice in set­ting his­tor­ic­al re­cord straight and maybe get­ting some lit­er­al pro­ced­ur­al justice in this case; that I really think is im­port­ant.”

To un­der­stand why this fight mat­ters so much to the re­search­ers, con­sider their strange cul­tur­al pre­dic­a­ment: Even though large ma­jor­it­ies of the pub­lic agree with them, the people who after all these years de­vote time and ef­fort to fig­ur­ing out what really happened that day in Dealey Plaza are re­garded as a little bit crazy by the anti-con­spir­acy writers, the me­dia — and some­times by each oth­er.

A 2009 CBS poll found that 74 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve the gov­ern­ment hid the truth about what happened to Kennedy; an As­so­ci­ated Press poll earli­er this year put the num­ber sus­pect­ing a con­spir­acy closer to 59 per­cent. But, ac­cord­ing to the CBS poll, 77 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve they’ll nev­er know what really happened to the 35th pres­id­ent. Oliv­er Stone’s movie re­ignited in­tense pub­lic in­terest in the de­bate and led to the pas­sage of the JFK Re­cords Act, which man­dated the re­lease of all gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments re­lat­ing to the as­sas­sin­a­tion of Kennedy by 2017. It also sparked a ser­i­ous back­lash against the con­spir­acy the­or­ists. Case Closed, Ger­ald Pos­ner’s 640-page book de­bunk­ing the con­spir­acy the­or­ies, won crit­ic­al ac­claim and sold more than 100,000 hard­cov­er cop­ies. When The New York Times re­viewed Vin­cent Bugli­osi’s 1,648-page tome Re­claim­ing His­tory, writer Bry­an Bur­rough wrote, “Bugli­osi is re­fresh­ing be­cause he doesn’t just pick apart the con­spir­acy the­or­ists. He ri­dicules them, and by name.”¦ What Bugli­osi has done is a pub­lic ser­vice; these people should be ri­diculed, even shunned. It’s time we mar­gin­al­ized Kennedy con­spir­acy the­or­ists the way we’ve mar­gin­al­ized smokers; next time one of your cowork­ers starts in about Os­wald and the CIA, make him stand in the rain with the oth­er out­casts.”

It’s not sur­pris­ing, then, that the War­ren Com­mis­sion’s crit­ics feel ri­diculed by the me­dia — and treated like out­casts. “They treat us as es­sen­tially the same people who be­lieve Elvis lives, which is ut­terly and com­pletely ri­dicu­lous. There are some really, really ser­i­ous prob­lems with evid­en­tiary case that the War­ren Com­mis­sion put to­geth­er, but the me­dia just ig­nored them,” DiEu­genio says. “I don’t think there’s any ques­tion that what this has turned in­to is this battle between people like my­self and the main­stream me­dia. It’s a de­bil­it­at­ing kind of obstacle.”

Partly, the crit­ics say, it’s the com­plex­ity of the case. “As soon as you get to the point of know­ing enough to talk about it, you start los­ing your cred­ib­il­ity, which is hard to handle,” says Larry Han­cock, au­thor of Someone Would Have Talked: The As­sas­sin­a­tion of John F. Kennedy and the Con­spir­acy to Mis­lead His­tory. “I don’t know if his­tory pro­fess­ors face that same thing; you’d think some­body who in­ves­ted 30 years on Greco-Ro­man his­tory is in the same boat we’re in, but nobody ques­tions, ‘Well, sir, you must be ob­sess­ive, and you’re only one who wrote a book on it so, wow, you’re strange.’ It’s a chal­lenge.”

But by the doubters’ own ad­mis­sion, the sheer volume and range of out­rageous­ness of some of the con­spir­acy the­or­ies have hurt their cause. “It pains us,” Han­cock says. “It’s your clas­sic 80-20 rule: 80 per­cent of it is really just opin­ion and sus­pi­cions.”

That points to the biggest prob­lem plaguing the Kennedy con­spir­acy the­or­ists: the view that they are the fore­bears of today’s more out­land­ish con­spir­acy the­or­ists, the 9/11 ob­sess­ives and the Sandy Hook truth­ers, who be­lieve that the New­town, Conn., shoot­ing was an elab­or­ate gov­ern­ment hoax. “Back in ‘67, ‘68, in my opin­ion, it felt hon­or­able to be look­ing in­to things that many people be­lieved were not right about something as his­tor­ic­ally im­port­ant as the as­sas­sin­a­tion of the pres­id­ent of the United States,” Ern­est says.”But now, there is so much dis­in­form­a­tion out there on this sub­ject that it’s not so hon­or­able for a lot of people.”

The as­sas­sin­a­tion the­or­ists be­lieve that with the re­lease of the last of the gov­ern­ment re­cords in 2017, they’re closer than ever to fig­ur­ing out what really happened to JFK. “I stuck with this be­cause I think we’re go­ing to get that story, and it’s go­ing to be one hell of a story when we get it. So when people say, ‘You’re nuts,’ well, a lot of people are crazy in this field, and if you study it long enough it can drive you crazy, so I am fully aware of the danger of that,” says Mor­ley, who has a web­site, JFK­Facts.org, to help sep­ar­ate the more out­land­ish the­or­ies from what he says is the com­pel­ling re­search. “But I don’t think I’m crazy.”

THE TAINT OF HISTORY

The re­search­ers haven’t yet de­cided what they plan to do. One cre­ated a web­site called Oc­cupy the Grassy Knoll, sug­gest­ing an act of civil dis­obedi­ence to protest the cur­tail­ment of their First Amend­ment rights. (Judge ex­pects 250 at­tendees for a con­fer­ence this month in Dal­las.) Brad Kizzia, an at­tor­ney who has provided coun­sel to Judge, says they’re still con­sid­er­ing wheth­er to file a law­suit. For COPA and the oth­ers, the city’s ac­tions are evid­ence that the Dal­las old guard hasn’t dealt with the wounds of its past. “If we can­not al­low people to men­tion the as­sas­sin­a­tion or what happened that day and what ques­tions re­main, if we have to go to these lengths to keep people from do­ing that on the 50th an­niversary, then ob­vi­ously we haven’t con­fron­ted it, and we’re not able to — at least the people who are run­ning things have not and can­not,” Kizzia says.

If Dal­las is still strug­gling to reck­on with his­tory, the bur­den is not just the as­sas­sin­a­tion it­self but also the linger­ing af­ter­math. Pre-as­sas­sin­a­tion Dal­las was a hot­bed of right-wing ex­trem­ism, blamed for cre­at­ing a cul­ture of vi­ol­ence that pre­ceded the pres­id­ent’s death. Lyn­don B. John­son, Kennedy’s run­ning mate, was ac­cos­ted by angry, spit­ting pro­test­ers on a cam­paign stop three years earli­er. When Ad­lai Steven­son, then the U.N. am­bas­sad­or, vis­ited the city just a month be­fore the as­sas­sin­a­tion, a pro­test­er hit him on the head. The Dal­las Morn­ing News reg­u­larly at­tacked Kennedy’s policies in its ed­it­or­i­als, and its pub­lish­er, Ted Dealey (the plaza is named after his fath­er), had sharply cri­ti­cized the pres­id­ent at a White House meet­ing two years earli­er. On the day Kennedy vis­ited, the pa­per ran an ant­ag­on­ist­ic full-page ad, “Wel­come Mr. Kennedy to Dal­las,” de­mand­ing to know why the ad­min­is­tra­tion was be­ing soft on com­mun­ism.

Jim Schutze, a colum­nist for the Dal­las Ob­serv­er who has been fol­low­ing the Dealey Plaza con­tro­versy for years and cri­ti­ciz­ing the city’s treat­ment of the con­spir­acy the­or­ists, re­cently wrote: “For the people who were kids or young adults when it happened, mem­bers of the fam­il­ies or the gen­er­al so­cial class that was blamed, I think the Kennedy as­sas­sin­a­tion may have been a very dam­aging form­at­ive event in their early per­son­al de­vel­op­ment. Now in their old age, for them Dealey Plaza has be­come a hated cemetery where all of their youth­ful demons dwell and all of them look like Robert Groden with horns.”

That sens­it­iv­ity is evid­enced in of­fi­cial Dal­las’s un­usu­al ap­proach to ques­tions from the me­dia on this story. When Na­tion­al Journ­al con­tac­ted both the may­or’s of­fice and the Sixth Floor Mu­seum, which ini­tially re­ques­ted the per­mit for the 50th an­niversary event, for com­ment, we were dir­ec­ted to a pub­lic-re­la­tions firm the events com­mit­tee hired to handle press, Laurey Peat + As­so­ci­ates. One of its em­ploy­ees agreed to an­swer ques­tions via email, on the con­di­tion he not be quoted. “Be­cause they did not come from any one spe­cif­ic per­son, they should be ref­er­enced as mes­saging points,” he said in an email. “I, per­son­ally, am not a quot­able source nor an of­fi­cial spokes­per­son for the event. But I do work here, as the say­ing goes!”

He wrote, “It’s im­port­ant that the city of Dal­las has a strong voice in re­mem­ber­ing this very sol­emn day, and that we re­flect upon it with the sense of his­tory and dig­nity it de­serves.”

The city didn’t ex­actly ask for this. For the past 49 years, the an­niversary of the as­sas­sin­a­tion has come and gone in Dealey Plaza without any of­fi­cial at­tempts to have a ce­re­mony, so the War­ren Com­mis­sion doubters and con­spir­acy the­or­ists had free rein over the park and the cor­res­pond­ing me­dia at­ten­tion. On oc­ca­sion, the scene did evolve in­to cringe-in­du­cing spec­tacle: bloody Jack and Jack­ie man­nequins, im­per­son­at­ors as­cend­ing from coffins, men on stilts. Ac­cord­ing to an up­com­ing His­tory Chan­nel doc­u­ment­ary, 311 dis­tinct con­spir­acy the­or­ies point blame at 42 groups, 81 as­sas­sins, and 214 people.

Deep di­vi­sions ex­ist among the War­ren Com­mis­sion skep­tics about what con­sti­tutes sol­id re­search and what is more like wild the­or­iz­ing, and they are de­bated with such Talmud­ic fur­or it can be nearly im­possible for out­siders to tell the dif­fer­ence. Jef­fer­son Mor­ley, a former Wash­ing­ton Post ed­it­or who has writ­ten ex­tens­ively on the CIA’s in­terest in Os­wald be­fore the as­sas­sin­a­tion, says, “Among ser­i­ous re­search­ers, the idea of a na­tion­al se­cur­ity plot is prob­ably the dom­in­ant inter pret­a­tion.” He looks for cor­rob­or­ated de­tails and aca­dem­ic re­search that’s been peer-re­viewed. But oth­er pet the­or­ies — that Vice Pres­id­ent John­son was in­volved, that George H.W. Bush was in­volved as a CIA op­er­at­ive in Dealey Plaza, that Kennedy’s Secret Ser­vice de­tail played a role — are hotly de­bated among the con­spir­acists.

“There a lot of huck­sters roam­ing the area com­ing up to tour­ists and selling tabloid pa­pers and a lot of dis­in­form­a­tion,” says Barry Ern­est, one of the re­search­ers who spent 35 years work­ing on a book about a wo­man, Vic­tor­ia Adams, who was in the stair­well of the Texas Book De­pos­it­ory at the same time the gov­ern­ment says Os­wald was that day. “It’s kind of a wild place to go to. What they’re try­ing to do is elim­in­ate that type of activ­ity in Dealey Plaza at a time when they want to just re­mem­ber Pres­id­ent Kennedy and not ar­gue about di­ver­gent the­or­ies as to how he died.”

But the War­ren Com­mis­sion doubters have far more than tra­di­tion in their fa­vor. Pub­lic-opin­ion polls from the mid-1960s through today show that sol­id ma­jor­it­ies of the Amer­ic­an people don’t be­lieve the gov­ern­ment’s lone-gun­man the­ory. The pre­vi­ous an­niversary ce­re­mon­ies may have been ad hoc and in­form­al, but they also were rep­res­ent­at­ive of the pop­u­lar be­lief. What the reg­u­lars don’t un­der­stand is why the city had to ex­clude them from plan­ning or even at­tend­ing the event.

“It’s very hard, be­cause we’re go­ing up against the city of Dal­las,” says Debra Con­way, whose group, JFK Lan­cer, puts on one of the largest con­fer­ences of re­search­ers around the an­niversary of his as­sas­sin­a­tion. Each year, at­tendees make the trek to Dealey Plaza to sing and share words of en­cour­age­ment. “It’s just those kind of people with prom­in­ence and money that will get the na­tion­al and glob­al at­ten­tion, and people like the JFK Lan­cer don’t. If we don’t take ad­vant­age of an an­niversary, par­tic­u­larly this one, if we can’t at least say something to the people in Dealey Plaza, we’ll nev­er have a chance.”

The re­search­ers see their treat­ment as a cur­tail­ment of their First Amend­ment rights by the city of Dal­las, a fight that began years ago with Robert Groden. He was a con­sult­ant to the House Se­lect Com­mit­tee on As­sas­sin­a­tions in 1976, as well as to Oliv­er Stone’s movie JFK about New Or­leans pro­sec­utor Jim Gar­ris­on’s at­tempt to con­vict Clay Shaw of a con­spir­acy to kill the pres­id­ent. In the re­search com­munity, Groden is af­fec­tion­ately known as the Dealey Llama. For the past sev­er­al years, he has gone to the grassy knoll al­most every day to sell his work on the as­sas­sin­a­tion. The po­lice tick­eted him more than 80 times and in 2010 ar­res­ted him for selling lit­er­at­ure in a pub­lic space — only to have the courts throw out each cita­tion, rul­ing that Groden didn’t vi­ol­ate the law.

So, when Judge learned that the usu­al per­mit he re­ques­ted and re­ceived from the city each year for the an­niversary had been denied be­cause the Sixth Floor Mu­seum had taken out a per­mit for the en­tire week sur­round­ing the an­niversary, he was sus­pi­cious. Later, the mu­seum with­drew its per­mit and the city stepped in, with Rawl­ings es­tab­lish­ing a blue-rib­bon pan­el of com­munity phil­an­throp­ists and oth­er lead­ers and an­noun­cing plans to block off the space for the ce­re­mony. Only those who won the lot­tery and passed a back­ground check got tick­ets.

What might be the most galling in­sult to the likes of Con­way and Judge is that the city won’t ac­know­ledge the as­sas­sin­a­tion at all. In Janu­ary, Rawl­ings met with Judge and Mor­ley. “I tried to im­press on him that you can have an event cel­eb­rat­ing the life and leg­acy of JFK any time or place. I can only have my event mean­ing­fully and ef­fect­ively on Novem­ber 22 on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza,” Judge says. “He said he’d get back to me, but there were months more of si­lence des­pite let­ters and emails.”

Mor­ley says, “My sense is that the city wants to con­trol this thing very tightly, and they don’t want any­body to talk about causes of Kennedy’s death. I think that’s crazy when you’re com­mem­or­at­ing Kennedy’s death in the place where he was killed.”

Dal­las of­fi­cials have offered to let them watch from a Jum­botron in a nearby park and come to Dealey Plaza a few hours after the ce­re­mony ends. But both he and Con­way say the city has stalled so much in fi­nal­iz­ing dis­cus­sions with them that there’s no real way to plan their own com­mem­or­a­tion on the grassy knoll.

“They put to­geth­er a group of people who are like the city fath­ers and moth­ers — who do sym­phon­ies and bal­lets — and said, ‘Let’s just put to­geth­er a beau­ti­ful pro­gram, and we don’t have to talk about the as­sas­sin­a­tion,’ like it’s just a co­in­cid­ence that they’re there,” Con­way says. “It’s just the weird­est thing. It’s like if you went to a fu­ner­al but no one talked about the per­son who was dead.”

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