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Another JFK Anniversary, Another Conspiracy Theory
Former Secret Service agent’s recovered memory, ballyhooed by major media, is full of holes
As the 60th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination approaches, the onslaught of new(ish) conspiracy theories is as predictable as autumn leaves falling from the trees. Especially this year, with its nice round sixth decade number, the anniversary is already being saturated with revelations that purport to be new—but reveal absolutely nothing.
It’s part of the fall ritual—no surprise there. But what is most disconcerting to this writer is the fact that major, formerly dependable, media now seem to buy into easily disprovable “revelations” without hesitation or investigation. It seems that facts don’t matter even to our supposed last bastions of due diligence.
In the last few days, numerous news outlets reported the first revelations of Assassination Season 60, contained in a book to be published on October 10 entitled The Final Witness: A Kennedy Secret Service Agent Breaks His Silence After Sixty Years, by former Secret Service agent Paul Landis, who as a 28-year old agent accompanied the president and his wife to Dallas. The book is being ballyhooed as the now 88-year-old Landis “breaking his silence” after all these years—even though (checking notes) Landis actually broke his silence twice in the first days after the assassination, and again on the twentieth anniversary, then again on the fiftieth. (More on that to come.)
Among the media culprits were Vanity Fair, The New York Times, NBC Nightly News, Axios, The Hill, as well as The Guardian, The Independent, New York Post, etc.) Thanks to the breathless, albeit misleading, headlines advertising a major breakthrough in the story (NBC: “Landis is Opening Up For the First Time”; The New York Times: “JFK Assassination Witness Breaks His Silence and Raises New Questions”), the book is now an Amazon bestseller.
The two most detailed accounts appeared in Vanity Fair and The New York Times, once legendary for their fact-checking. Much like the Times, which claimed that Landis’s account “could change the understanding of what happened in Dallas in 1963,” VF informed its readers that, “[Landis’s] secret, coming to light only now, will certainly reorient how historians and laymen perceive that grave and harrowing event.” Not just that, the magazine also advised that, “His account also raises questions about whether there might have been a second gunman in Dallas that day.”
But just what are the “revelations” that supposedly point to a second gunman?
After Kennedy’s body was taken from his limousine at Parkland Hospital, Landis claims to have found a “pristine” bullet on the backseat, a bullet that he and his journalistic enablers believe fell out of JFK’s back. Why would this be significant? Since numerous investigations have concluded that the bullet that entered Kennedy’s back exited his neck, which also had a second bullet hole, this “new fact” demands that the two wounds weren’t connected, ergo the bullet causing the throat wound must have entered the front of the president’s throat, not exited. Thus a second shooter.
Holes in the Story
The experts have long concluded that Oswald’s second shot passed through JFK’s back and throat and then entered Texas Governor John Connally’s back, then broke his rib before exiting his chest and finally striking his wrist, fracturing a wrist bone, and emerged damaged. But Vanity Fair scribe James Robenalt and Times writer Peter Baker, the paper’s chief White House correspondent, are troubled by that. Instead, relying on long ago selective interpretations of the photographic evidence promoted in conspiracy circles arguing that the bullet appears to have emerged pristine, they say there had to have been a second shot, from a second shooter, in front of the president’s limo, that pierced Kennedy’s throat but was never found.
Landis avoids any conclusion about where the bullet came from. He just says he now remembers finding the bullet on the back seat and dropping it later on the stretcher next to Kennedy’s body. The writers merely recycle a decades-old, debunked conspiracy theory that a bullet struck Kennedy’s back, penetrating only an inch, and fell out—undamaged.
In his testimony, Dr. Michael Baden, who headed the House Select Committee on Assassination’s 1979 forensic panel, was among the many experts who are adamant about the bullet: “This is a damaged bullet…not a pristine bullet. This is a bullet that is deformed. It would be very hard to take a hammer and flatten it to the degree that it is flattened.” He added that the rib and wrist bones that it hit are not very hard, and the wrist bone is “a very thin bone.” Other panelists mirrored these opinions.
Buttressing Baden’s point, one of the top ballistics experts in the world, Lucian C. Haag, recreated everything Oswald and his so-called “pristine” bullet did for a 2013 PBS NOVA program. And he was not the only expert to have done so. Haag’s recovered bullet looked exactly like the so-called “pristine” bullet Oswald fired in his second shot, in other words, severely damaged.
Both Baker and Robenalt accept without question Landis's theory of an “underloaded” bullet that entered JFK’s back an inch or two, then fell out. Nonsense. Neither address the fact that an “underloaded” (i.e. packed with less gunpowder than recommended) bullet has one chance in a million of hitting a target 66 yards away—the distance of Oswald’s second shot into Kennedy’s back—and penetrating only one inch. Nor do they mention that manufactured bullets only vary by about five per cent in their loads, and severely underloaded bullets are usually prepared by individual gun owners who possess their own reloaders. There is no evidence that Oswald owned such a device, and it’s certain he couldn’t afford one. Today they run from $179 to $2718. At the time he shot JFK, Oswald couldn’t afford new shoes for his daughters.
Then there is the misleading statement that Landis never testified before the Warren Commission. In truth, hardly anybody did. Ninety-five per cent of the interviews were conducted by the FBI and the Secret Service—for the Warren Commission. Landis was one of them. In his first “silence breaking,” the then 28-year-old Landis filed a two-page report on November 27, 1963 with the Secret Service. Three days later he filed another Secret Service report (7 pages). In neither report does he say he found a bullet or that he entered JFK’s trauma room.
Both statements are part of the Warren Commission records. (See Warren Commission Exhibit 1024, in which all twenty-two Secret Service agents in Dallas that day gave detailed statements of the events.) None of them, including Landis himself, placed him in Trauma Room One of Parkland Memorial Hospital. Only agents Roy Kellerman, Sam Kinney, and Clint Hill entered the room, so Landis couldn’t have placed the bullet near JFK’s shoe on the gurney, as he now suddenly insists. Oh, and JFK’s socks, shoes, and all of his outer clothing had been removed as soon as the doctors began their frantic surgical procedures. In The Warren Report’s Chapter 3, moreover, we see the evidence that the bullet indeed continued on from JFK’s back to his throat.
“The autopsy examination,” it said, “further disclosed that, after entering the President, the bullet passed between two large muscles, produced a contusion on the upper part of the pleural cavity (without penetrating that cavity), bruised the top portion of the right lung and ripped the windpipe (trachea) in its path through the President's neck. The examining surgeons concluded that the wounds were caused by the bullet rather than the tracheotomy performed at Parkland Hospital…By projecting from a point of entry on the rear of the neck and proceeding at a slight downward angle through the bruised interior portions, the doctors concluded that the bullet exited from the front portion of the President's neck that had been cut away by the tracheotomy.”
The House Select Committee on Assassinations’ forensic team reached the same conclusion 13 years later. As Vincent Bugliosi explained on page 402 of his book Reclaiming History: “The autopsy finding as to the track of the bullet that entered the president’s back was buttressed by the HSCA forensic pathology panel’s 1978 examination of the X-rays taken during the autopsy. The panel agreed, based largely on consultation with four radiologists, that X-rays of the president’s neck and chest showed evidence of air and gas shadows in the right side of the neck (likely a result of air seeping into the bullet track after the tracheotomy incision was made), as well as a fracture of the right transverse process (a bony knob protrusion) of the first thoracic vertebra, located at the base of the neck. The panel concluded that the fracture of the first thoracic vertebra could have been caused by the bullet striking it directly or by the force of the bullet passing very near to it.”
Contrary to all the evidence and experts, Baker suggests that the bullet “somehow” managed to cause all of Connally's wounds.
Where else was the bullet going to go? If it had missed Connally, that would be a magic bullet. Even the New York Times’s header is wrong: This story will not “change the understanding of what happened in Dallas”—except perhaps for RFK, Jr. and his conspiracy-addled fellow travelers.
Lastly, there is the whole “breaking his silence” thing.
As noted above, Landis broke his silence twice in the days after the event. In his third “silence-breaking” interview, for the Columbus Post Dispatch on November 20, 1983 (the twentieth anniversary), Landis revealed that he picked up a bullet fragment from the backseat of JFK’s limousine and “handed it to someone.” Five years later, Landis broke his silence for the fourth time, again describing to The Dispatch how he found a fragment (not a bullet) and saying he heard two shots. Landis broke his silence yet again in 2013 (the fiftieth anniversary), telling the authors of the book The Kennedy Detail (written with a foreword by legendary Secret Service agent Clint Hill) that he found a “small fragment” on the top of the backseat where the upholstery meets the metal trim—apparently the fragment just stayed there for the duration of the 60-mph race to the hospital without blowing away. Throughout this history of silence-breaking, Landis consistently recalled hearing only two shots, both from behind. But then, in a second silence-breaking instance that year, Landis suddenly recalled for the first time hearing three shots—all of which he was certain came from Oswald’s location behind the President.
“Oswald. Three shots. That was it. He was a creep who got lucky,” Landis told the Akron Beacon Journal. “Just some nut who, for some reason, everything went his way that day.” Still, however, there was no talk of finding any bullet, let alone a “pristine”one.
In his seventh silence-breaking, when he participated in a 2016 oral history project for the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, Landis repeated the new three-shots-from-behind version, but didn't mention a found bullet or fragment. He said he retrieved only a bloody lighter and Jacqueline Kennedy’s hat and purse. Regarding Trauma Room One, in this telling Landis walked in for one second before he was chased out by the medical personnel.
His jumbled memories, Landis and Vanity Fair maintained this week, stemmed from the trauma he witnessed up close on November 22, 1963.
“Landis, to this day, attests that in the first few years following the assassination, he was simply unable to overcome his PTSD from witnessing the murder firsthand. He says that the mental image of the president’s head, exploding, had become a recurring flashback. He maintains that he desperately tried to push down the memories. He also says he felt unable to read anything in detail about the assassination until some 50 years later, starting in 2014, when he began to come to grips with all that he had witnessed, suppressed, and finally processed.”
(Actually, he “came to grips with all that he witnessed” for the Akron Beacon Journal in 2013, not 2014.)
I groan at the thought of what may be “revealed” on the seventieth assassination anniversary—perhaps two pristine bullets and three shooters? On the subject of the Kennedy assassination, anything evidently flies.
Gus Russo is the author or co-author of 10 books, including (with Eric Dezenhall) Best of Enemies: The Last Great Spy Story of the Cold War. He has also reported or co-produced numerous documentary specials for major TV networks, including ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. He sends thanks to friends/colleagues Fred Litwin and Dale Myers for their expertise.
Correction: Due to an editing error, former Texas Governor John Connally’s name was initially misspelled.