On November 29, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson directed the Warren Commission to “evaluate all the facts” in the brutal November 22 murder of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, on a downtown Dallas street in broad daylight. Reduced to its bare essentials, the investigation sought answers to three fundamental questions: Who, why and how?
“Why” was entirely contingent on “who,” and that depended on “how.” Thus, the linchpin of the Warren Report—and every subsequent investigation—has always been precisely how Kennedy was assassinated in Dealey Plaza. That is the finding from which all the important answers flow; mishandle that question and the credibility of the entire report is undermined. The Warren Commission’s bungling of “how” is a primary reason why there have been so many residual doubts and conspiracy theories over the past 50 years.
In the 1964 Warren Report, just seven pages (of 888) reconstruct the shooting sequence. Three spent cartridges were found in the sniper’s nest on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, corroborating the testimony of most ear- and eyewitnesses that three shots were fired. But after 10 months of investigation, the report did not present a compelling explanation of the sequence; instead it offered up three slightly different scenarios. In each, one of the bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald fatally hit Kennedy in the head; another struck and passed through the president before hitting Texas Governor John Connally; and the third shot fired by Oswald…well, the commission could not say where that bullet went or even when it was fired. Depending on which of the three scenarios one favored, the total time span of the assassination ranged from as little as 4.8 seconds “to in excess of 7 seconds.”
The story of how the Warren Commission fumbled this pivotal question is long and convoluted, and only the barest outline can be presented here. The saga involved not just the lawyer-dominated commission and staff but also the FBI, the Secret Service and the media, primarily the then-mighty Time Inc. empire. The crucial element, of course, was the most famous movie ever taken by a cameraman, the 26-second-long Zapruder film.
As the Bullets Struck...
In 1963, Abraham Zapruder was the 58-year-old co-owner of a Dallas dress manufacturing company, Jennifer Juniors, and an avid amateur filmmaker. Yet he didn’t bring his top-of-the-line home movie camera to work on November 22 even though the president’s motorcade was scheduled to pass right by his office sometime after noon. Only after his secretary suggested he would regret not capturing JFK on film—after all, how often is a president less than a block away?—did Zapruder dash home to fetch his Bell & Howell Zoomatic.
An important fact to realize is that the film he shot that day consists of two parts. The first segment, 132 frames (seven seconds long), shows police motorcyclists riding by. Zapruder stopped recording the advance escort because he did not want to run out of film. He restarted his camera only after he clearly saw Kennedy acknowledging the crowd from a gleaming blue stretch limousine. Thus, the 19 seconds of Zapruder film everyone is familiar with begin at frame 133—well after the Lincoln Continental had already negotiated the sharp turn onto Elm Street, putting it about 71 feet into the plaza, as illustrated in Figure 2.
The FBI and the Secret Service swiftly got copies of Zapruder’s footage, which seemed destined to be a key exhibit in the upcoming trial of Oswald, arrested 75 minutes after Kennedy was shot for killing a police officer while fleeing downtown Dallas. But the film’s role abruptly changed on November 24, when a self-appointed vigilante, Jack Ruby, murdered Oswald as the accused assassin was being transferred to the Dallas County jail.
In the absence of a cathartic, public trial in Dallas, the Zapruder film displaced Oswald’s view from the sixth-floor window; a partial but mesmerizing visual record had to stand in for seeing the assassination through Oswald’s eyes, and hearing it described in his words. The assassination, in fact, was becoming “fused with one representation, so much so that Kennedy’s death became virtually unimaginable without Zapruder’s film,” as the critic Richard B. Woodward put it in 2003.
Well before investigative agencies had their say, the notion that Zapruder had captured the assassination in full was put forward by a very self-interested party: Time Inc., which had snapped up all rights to the film. Thirty-one black-and-white stills from the footage appeared in the November 29 issue of Time’s flagship publication, Life, along with an article titled “Split-Second Sequence as the Bullets Struck.” The following week, Life exploited its exclusive control over the film to publish an article rebutting rumors about “the presumed difficulty of firing three accurate shots in the time Oswald had.” In “End to Nagging Rumors: The Six Critical Seconds,” the magazine asserted that the film provided “a frame-by-frame chronology of events [making it] possible to reconstruct the precise timing…of the shots.” The article even specified the frames in which bullets could be seen hitting President Kennedy in the upper back, Governor Connally in the back and the president in the head, all within the span of 6.8 seconds, and in that order. That Zapruder had caught the entire sequence from beginning to horrific end was the position Life staked out and has never budged from, judging from the essays in a lavishly illustrated, $50 book it published on the 50th anniversary of the assassination.
This interpretation of the evidence proved almost indelible. The fact that Life was America’s biggest weekly magazine in 1963, with a circulation of 7 million, hardly does justice to its pervasive influence. It was nothing less than America’s image of itself, the mighty colossus in a media landscape where television was still struggling to prove its bona fides as a serious medium. “[Life] was People magazine before there was a People magazine,” as media critic Daniel Okrent once observed. “It was 60 Minutes and the Today show and the [networks’] evening news all rolled into one.” The two post-assassination issues of Life sold out so quickly—copies of the 25-cent magazine were being scalped for as much as $20—that Time Inc. printed a special memorial edition of 3 million copies.
Life’s explanation fit so neatly with the account that Connally broadcast nationwide from his Dallas hospital bed that even the FBI was promptly “Zaprudered”—so mesmerized by the footage that it lost perspective. Merely seeing should not be believing, yet the bureau accepted Life’s claim that the film was a full time-clock of the shooting sequence. In its January 1964 supplemental report to the Warren Commission, the bureau confidently declared that according to “a motion picture taken... by an amateur photographer, Abraham Zapruder… The best estimate of the time interval of the shots fired is that approximately six seconds elapsed from the first to the final shot, with the second shot occurring approximately in the middle.” Figure 3 is a model of Dealey Plaza the FBI built; the strings depict the FBI’s sequence and spacing of the shots.
The Warren Commission staff, to its credit, did not rubber-stamp Life’s analysis. It came to realize that the president and the governor had been wounded in such a brief time span that Oswald could not have worked the bolt action on his Mannlicher-Carcano rifle to fire two shots so quickly and accurately. Consequently, the staff theorized that there were either two shooters, or one of the bullets hit both men. The latter seemed more plausible, in part because Oswald had used military ammunition designed to pass through people. Besides, there was another insurmountable problem with the Life-FBI scenario: If a bullet, traveling at an entrance velocity of 1,900 feet per second, penetrated the president’s upper back, where did it go after exiting his throat at a velocity of 1,800 feet per second? Only one other person or object in the limousine was struck by a bullet, and that was Connally, his 6-foot-plus frame shoehorned into a jump seat just inches in front of JFK. Of course the same bullet hit the Texas governor; it had to. Critics would deride the “single-bullet theory,” calling it a “magic bullet.” But the truly magical bullet would have been one that disappeared after exiting the president’s throat—which is what one has to believe if one believes it didn’t hit the governor.
On May 24, 1964, when the commission restaged the assassination in Dealey Plaza, the main thrust was to show that the “single-bullet” hypothesis was correct. The theory has since been endorsed by every reputable investigation, to the point where it should be called the “single-bullet conclusion.” Yet its corollary—if one shot had hit two men, then one of the three shots missed—was mostly ignored. That unaccounted-for bullet was a pesky problem but one the commission could not explain. No matter how many times it ran the Zapruder film through the projector, the missing shot could not be pinpointed in time.
No one realized that the commission, despite its crucial revision of the FBI’s analysis, had also been Zaprudered. Squeezing the shooting sequence so that it fit inside the film made Oswald’s feat of marksmanship appear to be much more difficult than it actually was. The commission’s scenario, the one that reduced the shooting down to not just six but as little as 4.8 seconds, was all but impossible for expert marksmen to replicate. The commission’s riposte was that the report didn’t claim it happened that way—just that it could have. Since this legalistic answer verged on the absurd, the net effect was to cast doubt on the commission’s probity.
Ignoring the Evidence
The commission’s staff had ample clues that the Zapruder film did not capture the entire assassination, yet none of its leads prompted a reexamination of the fundamentally flawed premise. Reflecting the importance of “how,” more lawyers on the staff worked on this question than any other, but communication among them—all the more critical because the task had been divided up—was poor. Sometimes the staff discounted clues from ear- and eyewitnesses because they didn’t fit into the evolving conception of the assassination timeline. The staff also developed critical information only to neglect to follow it up. Finally, the staff also failed to gather some basic information that might have shown that the film was not the time-clock everyone thought it was.
Some of the most important clues were:
• Amos Lee Euins, a 15-year-old Dallas high school student, was one of the spectators who immediately directed police away from the grassy knoll and to the School Book Depository, having seen a man with a rifle firing from the sixth-floor window. Euins was also one of the very few witnesses able to pinpoint the first shot in time and space. He told the sheriff’s department that when the presidential limousine “got near the black-and-white [highway] sign” he heard the first shot. But when Euins appeared before the commission, assistant counsel Arlen Specter did not ask him about these details.
• Dallas Deputy Sheriff Luke Mooney discovered the three spent rifle cartridges on the depository’s sixth floor. The hulls had fallen in a distinctive pattern: two were close together, just below the window sill, and the third was several feet away. When Mooney testified, he tried to offer his opinion about what this signified, but assistant counsel Joe Ball was not interested. Six days later, though, assistant counsel Melvin Eisenberg exhibited considerable interest in the matter while questioning FBI agent Robert Frazier. That’s because cartridge ejection patterns are predictable and routinely used to determine shooting positions. The pattern found on the sixth floor suggested that one shot was fired with the rifle aimed more or less perpendicular to the face of the building, with the ejected cartridge bouncing away unimpeded, while the other two shots were fired with the rifle pointed in a direction nearly parallel to the building’s face, with the spent hulls bouncing back to the sill after hitting the book cartons Oswald had stacked behind him in order to stay hidden. Unfortunately Frazier did not have Mooney’s insight.
• James Tague, a Dallas car salesman, was the third person injured during the assassination—a deputy sheriff noticed drops of blood on Tague’s cheek, and Tague then recalled something stinging his face during the shooting. After he led the deputy to where he had been standing, the officer noticed a bullet smear on a nearby curb. Nine months later the FBI belatedly removed the curb, and a spectrographic analysis revealed metallic residue consistent with that of the lead core in Oswald’s ammunition.
This evidence was the only forensic proof of what had happened to that errant shot, yet the commission could not integrate it into the shooting sequence as defined by the Zapruder film. The same was true of subtler evidence about a bullet strike near a manhole cover on the south side of Elm, about three-quarters of the way from the sniper’s nest to Tague’s concrete curb.
The commission’s single most egregious mistake was to disregard a critical finding by FBI agents working with the panel’s staff. When they reenacted the assassination with the help of surveyors and FBI agents, in May 1964, commission staffers were stunned by an unexpected development. The president’s upper torso had come into Oswald’s line of fire at a point on Elm Street before Zapruder had restarted his camera. They labeled this “Position A,” the “first point at which a person in the sixth-floor window…could have gotten a shot at the president[’s back] after the car rounded the corner.” In Figure 1, the white automobile is essentially at what the Warren Commission labeled “Position A.”
But after having made what should have been a huge breakthrough, the commission treated Position A as an awkward, even unwanted, fact. Marines—Oswald had served in the Corps—are taught to aim at the main or upper body mass. That instruction alone hinted that, indeed, a shot might have been fired before Zapruder restarted his camera. Yet Position A is never mentioned in the seven pages that discuss the shooting sequence, and the film itself is misrepresented. The report states that “Zapruder filmed the presidential limousine as it came around the corner [emphasis added] and proceeded down Elm.”
The Warren Commission wasn’t the only investigative body to dismiss and discount these clues. Over the next 43 years, belief that Zapruder had captured the assassination in full became almost canon; it was the one presumption that went unexamined by the horde of curious investigators, from major media organizations such as CBS (in 1967), PBS’s Nova (1988) and ABC (2003) to arms of the government such as the House Select Committee on Assassinations (1977-1979). The latter, if anything, was even more wedded than the Warren Commission to the belief that everything of consequence had been captured on the Zapruder film.
The only notable advance on the Warren Commission’s analysis occurred in 1967, when CBS News found that the first of the three shots fired by Oswald was the one that missed. The network presented this finding as part of an exhaustive reinvestigation of the assassination, to which it committed unprecedented resources and airtime. Walter Cronkite anchored four one-hour prime-time segments broadcast on successive nights in June 1967, just as public doubts about the Warren Report were reaching the first of what would be several crescendos. That the first shot had missed was counterintuitive, since it meant the errant shot had occurred when the president was closest to the sniper’s nest. But every reputable analysis that followed agreed, including two books (Gerald Posner’s Case Closed and Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History) that have been regarded as nearly definitive. In this new paradigm, Oswald had a leisurely eight seconds in which to get off three shots. The first shot missed because it was deflected by a branch of the oak tree that fleetingly obscured the motorcade from Oswald’s vision. There never was precise agreement, however, about which telltale Zapruder frame captured this moment. Sometimes the first shot was said to have occurred as late as Zapruder frame 186 (CBS), other times as early as frame 157 (ABC). But no matter when they thought it had occurred, all investigators agreed that the first shot was on the film.
The logical explanation, however, was that Oswald, in keeping with his Marine training, had fired at the first good opportunity; that is, just after a good portion of the president’s upper torso came into Oswald’s sights at Position A. The only reason this first shot missed was because it hit the only obstacle (apart from the tree) blocking Oswald’s line of sight during the entire procession: the traffic mast arm. He could not get off another shot before the limousine became obscured by the oak tree, so he fired his second shot at the first good opportunity: the instant the president’s main body mass appeared out from under the oak tree. This bullet pierced Kennedy’s upper back and was quickly followed by an utterly devastating third shot.
The Limo Was Too Close
In November 2007, a New York Times op-ed I wrote with the photographer Johann Rush broached for the first time the radical notion that Oswald’s first shot came before Zapruder restarted his camera.
Three years later, NatGeoTV decided to explore this theory with the filmmaker Robert Stone. It retained Frank S. DeRonja, a former metallurgy unit chief at the FBI Laboratory, to inspect the steel mast arm for bullet metal damage as part of a documentary about the shooting sequence in Dealey Plaza. JFK: The Lost Bullet, aired in November 2011.
DeRonja studied numerous photographs of the signal assembly taken over the decades in an effort to determine what changes had been made to it and approximately when; the maintenance records kept by the Dallas Department of Street Services went back only seven years. Other than signage that had been added to the assembly, only one physical change was noticeable: Sometime after April 1991, when a new signal light with larger lenses was installed, the means of securing the signal to the end of the 16-foot-long steel mast arm changed significantly. In 1963 the light was attached with an L-shaped hanger arm, which had a 6-inch-long sleeve that fit over the end of the mast. The hanger arm had been discarded along with the old signal.
DeRonja inspected the mast arm twice. But looking for discernible metal damage was akin to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, and in a very limited amount of time. Traffic could be halted for only so long because Elm Street still serves as a major route in the city. The signage and the now much-larger adjacent oak tree were major encumbrances. It was impossible to examine properly the mast arm structure unless it could be taken down, disassembled and inspected under laboratory-type conditions.
Still, NatGeo’s efforts helped uncover critical information. In April 2011, licensed surveyors using laser technology established the precise distance and angles between the sixth-floor window and the mast arm, and from there, downstream to clues associated exclusively with the initial shot: first, the concrete skirt on the south side of Elm Street, and second, the concrete curb on the south side of Main Street where Tague had stood.
Another critical piece of information developed for the documentary concerned the exact path of the presidential limousine. Secret Service protocol called for it to be in the center of the street. This, however, had not happened initially in Dealey Plaza.
NatGeo arranged for three eyewitnesses to return to Dealey Plaza: Euins, Patricia Ann Donaldson (née Lawrence) and Tina Pender (née Towner). In November 1963, the then 13-year-old Tina Towner filmed the presidential limousine as it turned onto Elm Street—precisely the span of time when Zapruder was not filming.
When Towner stood at that spot in 2011, she said that the limousine standing in for the president’s car should be farther to the left. Her film was subsequently studied for clues about the exact path of the limo. Several frames revealed that it was indeed much closer to the lane dividers on the driver’s (or left) side of the center lane on Elm Street. Moreover, because Elm Street had been reduced from four to three lanes in 1956, the lanes were considerably wider than normal—putting the presidential limousine well to the left of the mast arm’s midpoint. Ultimately, the most likely point of impact on the mast arm for Oswald’s first shot was estimated to be no more than 30 inches from the end.
One of the better illustrations of the probable area of impact on the mast arm is a still taken during the filming of Oliver Stone’s JFK. Stone painstakingly transformed Dealey Plaza to re-create its appearance in 1963; in certain ways his restaging of the motorcade procession was visually more accurate than reenactments by the Secret Service or the Warren Commission. A photo taken during the filming of JFK captures the view from the sniper’s nest just as the stand-in for the president is about to reach Position A, as defined by the Warren Commission. Because Stone’s reenactment was filmed at the right time of day and under a clear sky, sunlight on the mast arm puts it in strong relief—very close to how it looked on November 22, 1963.
The Metal Jacket
In late July 2012, eight months after the NatGeo documentary aired, an unknown vehicle struck the signal light assembly, forcing the Street Services Department to replace it. Over the next year DeRonja, with my assistance, made four trips to the shed where the Dallas Park and Recreation Department had secured the extant mast arm on a chest-high fixture. Each trip marked a stage in the forensic examination and processing of the mast. In November 1963, the mast arm had only a red paint primer and an original coat of forest green paint. Over the next 45 years, coats of light gray, olive green and black paint had been applied, often haphazardly on the top surface. Deterioration of the paint coatings had left the mast exposed to the elements and susceptible to extensive corrosion.
DeRonja decided to conduct firearm testing on exact replicas of the mast arm to determine the characteristics of a bullet strike at various points on the circumference of the mast arm. H.P. White, a nationally recognized ballistics-testing laboratory in Maryland, offered its facilities and several technicians. Steel pipe exemplars with the same cross-sectional dimensions as the mast arm were prepared, and a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle—the same model used by Oswald—was used to fire comparable ammunition. The only real difference between these tests and Oswald’s position was that the rifle had to be fired at point-blank range, some 30 inches away, rather than from 75 feet. This concession was necessary to exert control over the point of impact on the exemplars’ circumference, since changes of as little as 1/16 of an inch could produce dramatically different results.
In three of the four tests, bullet strikes close to the top center-line of the mast left deep indentations, and the bullets shattered upon impact. In one test firing, however, a bullet strike far from the top center-line produced a ricochet while removing the paint and leaving a slight indentation barely discernible to the touch.
That firing also caused the metal jacket to be stripped from the bullet after impact. This result was significant because in 1964 the FBI determined that the smear on Tague’s concrete curb had no traces of copper, and thus “could not have been made by the first impact” of a copper-jacketed bullet fired from Oswald’s rifle. Finally, calculations based on the bullet-deflection measurements revealed that a glancing bullet strike on the mast arm in the right circumferential location could deflect a bullet downstream to the turf adjacent to the concrete skirt on the south side of Elm Street.
The test also yielded the sobering realization that definitive evidence of a bullet impact could not be obtained. Within the 30-inch area deemed critical, DeRonja did find a shallow surface disturbance and rusted area approximately 22 inches from the signal end of the mast, but rust corrosion resulting from the mast’s long exposure to the elements obliterated the possibility of a telltale bullet footprint. This forensic metal examination should have occurred 49 years earlier.
Figure 4 is a composite photo, assembled from the Secret Service stills, that shows the flight path of the first shot as substantiated by the test on the exemplar. Oswald fired his rifle within milliseconds of getting a bead on his target. But instead of striking the president’s upper body, the bullet glanced off the mast arm. The impact stripped the copper jacket from the bullet and redirected the lead core, which struck the ground in the vicinity of the concrete skirt on the south side of Elm and then ricocheted toward the south side of Main Street. The strike to the concrete curb left a metallic smear and caused the injury to James Tague—the collateral victim in Dealey Plaza whom history has mostly ignored.
11 Seconds in Dallas
If the Warren Commission had properly examined the traffic mast arm, it could have presented a clear, compelling account of the shooting sequence. Instead of presenting three possible scenarios, the Warren Report would have described a shooting sequence that took slightly more than 11 seconds, with intervals of approximately 6.3 seconds and 4.9 seconds between the three shots. The misleading but sibilant meme first put forward in Life—six seconds in Dallas—would have been debunked, an accomplishment nearly as important as proving that one of the three shots hit both Kennedy and Connally. Because the shot by Oswald that missed was his first one, when it occurred defines the time span of the assassination. It also shows that Oswald’s allegedly remarkable feat of marksmanship was no feat at all, especially for an ex-Marine who once qualified as a sharpshooter.
Raise this deficiency with the surviving members of the Warren Commission staff today and most of them (being nearly all lawyers) respond by raising the legal doctrine of “harmless error.” But was the error harmless? Such a pinched view ignores the wellspring and the arc of criticism of the Warren Report. Critics pounced on its bewildering explanation, singling out one of the alternatives—three shots in six seconds or less, with two of those shots finding their mark—for the ridicule it deserved. In tandem, the commission’s genuine (if only) contribution to the forensic findings—its single-bullet conclusion—astoundingly became a cause of disrepute (paging Oliver Stone). Moreover, unlike questions about, say, Oswald’s relationship with Fidel Castro’s regime, which could not be satisfactorily answered without access to secret Cuban records, the shooting sequence was completely within the commission’s power to resolve. All the evidence was right there in Dealey Plaza—if only it had been fully examined.
Reacting to Some Unnatural Stimulus
The final twist to this saga is that once Zapruder’s film is put in its proper context—he recorded an assassination that had started, not one in full—the footage provides some of the most powerful evidence against being Zaprudered. The film is mesmerizing and may deceive, but ultimately it does not lie.
Figure 1 is perhaps the most well-known still photo taken during the assassination. AP photographer James Altgens raced to the grassy infield area of Dealey Plaza just after the president’s limousine turned right onto Houston Street. He was standing no more than 60 feet from the front of the limousine when he looked into the viewfinder and clicked the shutter.
Altgens’s photo is equivalent to Zapruder frame 255, about two seconds after Oswald fired the second shot. The president can be seen reaching for his neck, where the bullet exited, with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s white-gloved hand supporting his left arm. Connally’s head is turned 90 degrees, the same bullet having just penetrated his torso. Most spectators are still oblivious to what is happening. Only the police motorcyclists and the Secret Servicemen on the “Queen Mary” follow-up car are reacting to the moment. Three of the eight agents riding in the car—Jack Ready, Paul Landis and George Hickey—have turned their heads toward the source of the shot, while Clint Hill and William McIntyre are in the process of doing so, although Hill would never complete the motion. Seeing that the president is in distress, he leaped from the running board in a futile effort to cover the president’s body with his own.
Juxtapose Altgens’s picture with frame 153 from the Zapruder film, taken an estimated two seconds after the traffic arm mast deflected the first shot. There is no sign of distress in the presidential limousine, and the spectators show no signs of concern. But look again at the Queen Mary. Though not all eight agents can be seen clearly, at least three of them—Ready, Hickey and Glen Bennett—are reacting to some unnatural stimulus. Ready’s head is turned sharply to his left, although normal protocol called for him, as the president’s body man, to keep his eyes on the quadrant to his right. Hickey, seated on the driver’s side of the rear bench seat, is already rising and leaning over far to his left; in his statement, he said he thought someone had thrown a firecracker at the motorcade.
Most telling, however, is the movement of Bennett. He can barely be glimpsed leaning to his right, straining to see around presidential aide Dave Powers and Secret Service agent Emory Roberts, seated directly in front of him. He was trying to “look at the Boss’s car,” he wrote in notes he jotted down while en route back to Washington, D.C., after the shooting. He saw Kennedy struck in the back by the second shot, and then in the head by the third bullet.
The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy happened only one way, and the die had already been cast by the time the Zapruder film begins at frame 133. The Warren Commission never tried to match Bennett’s untainted recollection with his movements as seen in Zapruder’s footage, and because of that inexplicable lapse, the American people had to wait 50 years for an answer it deserved and sorely needed.