Bottom Line: How Crazy Is It?

In the opening minutes of Oliver Stone's "JFK" a man collapses, twitching, on a city sidewalk; a woman mumbles about the president's murder from a hospital bed. Most moviegoers will see these simply as surrealistic omens. But a few people will instantly see that Stone did his homework. A man named Jerry Belknap really did have a seizure in Dealey Plaza minutes before President Kennedy's motorcade arrived. He was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital by the same drivers who were later to load the president's body into their ambulance for the trip from Parkland to the airport. It was probably not a staged distraction as plotters moved into place. Why didn't the hospital have a record? Belknap said he'd wandered out during the confusion when Kennedy was brought in.

The mumbling woman is something else again. Rose Cheramie, a prostitute and junkie, warned a doctor and a Louisiana state cop about the assassination in Dallas two days before it happened. She claimed she had been abandoned on the road by two men driving from Florida to Dallas who said they were going to shoot the president. She said she worked for a Dallas strip-joint owner named Jack Ruby. Stone doesn't tell the end of her story. ("JFK" is only a three-hour movie, after all, and Rose Cheramie is only a footnote to a footnote in the byzantine annals of the assassination.) In September 1965, a motorist outside Big Sandy, Texas, found her lying dead in the highway.

People who carry such information around are usually dismissed as assassination buffs. True, some are hobbyists, like rotisserie leaguers who buy Bill James's books of baseball stats. Others are careerists, like Mark Lane, whose 1966 "Rush to Judgment" was a best-selling attack on the official version of the assassination. But there's also a network of serious freelance researchers who think the government dropped the ball on the Kennedy assassination; they have become citizen investigators, with overstuffed Rolodexes and overdue phone bills. They're the people for whom Stone's improbably virtuous Jim Garrison is the paradigm: ordinary folks fighting the Power.

Last month in Dallas, the Assassination Symposium on John F. Kennedy drew specimens of all these types-plus a few hardcore zanies. (First Prize: the theory that Kennedy was shot by LBJ himself, who concealed his six-guns under a cape.) As lower-profile researchers socialized and swapped leads, Lane threatened from the dais to sue researcher Jim Moore for libel. Moore, a onetime believer in a conspiracy, has become a maverick among mavericks: he now believes, as the Warren Commission said in 1964, that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone nut who killed Kennedy and Jack Ruby was a lone nut who killed Oswald. He even defends the much-ridiculed ,'single bullet" hypothesis, made necessary by Abraham Zapruder's famous home movie, which serves as a clock for the assassination. Oswald had time to fire only three shots. One missed, one hit the president in the head. Ergo, one passed through Kennedy, broke Texas Gov. John Connally's wrist and one of his ribs. (This bullet is surprisingly little the worse for wear.) Critics say there's no "ergo" about it, and that the conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin forced the commission into a scenario out of Rube Goldberg.

Folks at the symposium admired Moore's pluck, but they were more ready to listen to David Lifton reprising his grisly conclusions-that Kennedy's body was spirited away and tampered with to make it appear he was shot from behind. The symposium's real zinger, though, was a presentation by a Houston police artist named Lois Gibson in which she provided names and rap sheets for each of the famous three "tramps," mystery men photographed in police custody on Nov. 22.

Exactly how crazy is this stuff? Not especially, compared with what we've already found out to be true, like the loony Mafia-CIA schemes against Fidel Castro back in the early '60s-which ranged from outright assassination to giving Castro a scuba suit permeated with LSD. Lyndon Johnson, who appointed the Warren Commission, said in 1973 that he had never believed its report. His candidate for Mr. Big: Castro. This has never been a popular theory: Castro himself said it would have been suicidally stupid.

Most dissenters from the Warren Commission would agree to something like the following: (1) Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy involving figures from the murky underground in which anti-Castro exiles, the Mafia and the CIA made common cause; (2) Lee Harvey Oswald was, as he claimed, a "patsy," and (3) the mob-connected Jack Ruby was sent to silence him. In a note to his lawyer, Ruby claimed another attorney put him up to saying he'd merely wanted to spare Mrs. Kennedy the ordeal of a trial. Larry Houston, the CIA's general counsel for more than 20 years, says that after the Warren Report, "I went through every one of these stories in detail and knocked them all out." Robert Tannenbaum doesn't buy it. "I'm not saying the CIA was involved," says Tannenbaum, deputy chief counsel of the Kennedy investigation for the 1976 House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). "But there's no doubt in my mind that the CIA knows exactly what happened."

If conspiracy theorists seem paranoid about the CIA, the agency is partly to blame. In the late '60s, for instance, the CIA sent its agents a detailed memo explaining how to counter skepticism about the Warren Commission. It was accompanied by a New Yorker article highly critical of New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison's investigation of the Kennedy case and suggested agents "employ propaganda assets [that is, friendly journalists] to answer and refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose." In 1978, the CIA agent assigned as liaison to the HSCA was reportedly fired from the agency after rifling the safe containing the Kennedy autopsy photos and X-rays. The agent claimed he had an innocent explanation but would not give it to the press. "There's other things that are involved," he told The Washington Post's George Lardner, "that are detrimental to other things."

Despite its chronic suspicion of disinformation, the self-styled "research community" seems almost upbeat these days. "The case will break in one of three ways," says Dr. Cyril Wecht, distinguished forensic pathologist and colorfully intemperate Warren Commission critic. "Somebody will spill the beans, the technical analytical studies will be confirmed by appropriate experts, or we'll get into an appropriate legal forum." In fact, all these avenues have been tried over the years. Spilling the beans--assuming there are beans---seems to bring bad luck. John Roselli, who helped hatch CIA/Mafia assassination plots, was found, dismembered, in an oil drum after telling the HSCA he would testify that mob-connected Cubans were behind JFK's murder. And high-tech microanalyses of everything from Dealey Plaza photographs to police-radio recordings from a motorcycle in the motorcade have led only to experts duking it out with other experts.

Jim Garrison provided the "appropriate legal forum," such as it was, in his disastrous 1967 prosecution of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw. Shaw was acquitted of conspiring to kill Kennedy because Garrison (as he himself acknowledged) had no case especially after Shaw's alleged coconspirator, David Ferrie, suddenly dropped dead. Garrison ran roughshod over fairness and common sense. He may also have been on to something, though God knows what. Shaw, it turns out, despite his denials, was a CIA "domestic contact"; Ferrie, a former airline pilot, spent the two weekends before the assassination conferring with Kennedy-hating Carlos Marcello, reputed New Orleans Marfia boss. The third supposed conspirator (also dead), ex-FBI agent Guy Banister, was an anti-Castro right-winger; why did the pro-Castro leaflets Oswald handed out in New Orleans bear the address of the small building that housed Banister's office?

Since Garrison, the research community has been burned time after time. Comedian-activist Dick Gregory once claimed Watergate spook E. Howard Hunt Jr. was one of the three "tramps." (Bottom line: he wasn't.) Last year Ricky White, son of a Dallas cop, said he'd produce a diary his late father kept of his role in an assassination plot. (Bottom line: no way.) Hunt turns up again this year as the villain of Mark Lane's "Plausible Denial." In 1985, Lane successfully defended the far-right Liberty Lobby in a libel suit over an article implicating Hunt in the assassination. Lane humiliated Hunt on the witness stand; according to forewoman Leslie Armstrong, Lane convinced a Florida jury the CIA "was directly involved in the assassination." Another juror, Suzanne Reach, told The Miami Herald that wasn't the reason for the verdict. Armstrong says Reach is "in total denial."

Lane's star witness, Marita Lorenz, testified she had been with Hunt plus his future Watergate colleague Frank Sturgis plus the actual gunmen in Dallas the day before the assassination-a story the HSCA had doubted. "I've met Marita many times," says well-respected researcher Gus Russo of Baltimore. "She's a nice person, but her stories are wacky, totally unverifiable." Other researchers are less printable; some suggest Marita is part of a disinformation scheme. Lane himself says the CIA has long attempted to discredit him.

Nobody at last month's symposium came right out and accused Lois Gibson of spreading disinformation, but someone will probably get around to it. She says she's helped solve the old mystery of the three "tramps" police found in a boxcar in the railroad yards near Dealey Plaza after the assassination. We know about them only because of news photos; the police kept no record. Gibson has helped solve scores of cases. She says she'd "bet the farm" on her identifications: Charles V. Harrelson, a hit man (and, incidentally, the father of actor Woody Harrelson) convicted of assassinating federal Judge John Wood with a high-powered rifle in 1982; Charles Rogers, chief suspect in the unsolved 1965 murder and dismemberment of his parents, and one Chauncey Holt, a self-described forger and career criminal. If it could be proved, the presence of someone like Harrelson-not to mention the other two-would be, to say the least, suspicious.

Gibson's photo comparisons looked persuasive, though no rigorous scientific analysis has been done. At the symposium Jerry Rose, publisher of a researchers' newsletter, stood up and urged Dallas's JFK Assassination Information Center, which cosponsored the event, not to endorse Gibson's work. Mark Lane's associate Steve Jaffe called the identification of Harrelson-which researchers have made before"the most irresponsible and inaccurate in my experience." Harrelson reportedly once told police he had shot Kennedy, then claimed he'd been skyrocketing on cocaine when he said it. He's now in a federal penitentiary in Illinois and couldn't be reached for comment. Rogers has been missing for years.

But Chauncey Holt is glad to talk-and the more publicly the better. Holt says he was once an accountant for mob financier Meyer Lansky, but spent most of his career forging documents and doing other illegal chores for the CIA. He says he was ordered to Dallas before the assassination--of which he had no foreknowledge--to deliver fake Secret Service credentials. (Several people in Dealey Plaza said they'd encountered men claiming to be Secret Service agents of whom the Secret Service had no knowledge.) He says the men he traveled to Dallas with were both contacted by the HSCA in the '70s: one was killed before he could testify, another disappeared. He readily names them; he also names the man he says gave him his orders, the man who gave the man his orders, the gangster whose ranch he flew to when the Dallas police turned him loose and the pilot who flew him. Who, he says, later died in a plane crash. He knew his picture had been taken; he says the law partner of a Warren Commission attorney told him not to worry.

Holt says he met Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans ("he wasn't any dummy"), as well as David Ferrie ("the weirdest guy you would ever want to meet") and Guy Banister ("an extreme right-wing type of individual, into just about everything"). It says something for Holt's credibility that he doesn't claim to have known Jack Ruby, too. "I never even heard the name," says Holt. "What he said was asinine. Someone might sympathize with Jacqueline Kennedy, but you can't tell me a guy who's running a strip joint and beating up women is worried that she'll have to come back to Texas for a trial. I think he was just a gofer for the syndicate down there."

Why would conspirators order Holt so unnecessarily to the scene of the crime? "Dallas that day was flooded with all kinds of people who ended up there for some reason," says Holt. "It's always been my theory that whoever was the architect of this thing-and no one will ever know who was behind it, manipulating all these people-I believe that they flooded this area with so many characters with nefarious reputations because they thought, 'Well, if all these people get scooped up it'll muddy the waters so much that they'll never straighten it out'." Whether Chauncey Holt is the real thing or not, that's something like what happened. The police did scoop up and release several mysterious people in Dallas that day: a man with a leather jacket and black gloves, a Latin man, a crew-cut blond man in a hooded sweat shirt. A man named Jim Braden, with a long criminal record; Holt says Braden was with him on the plane out of Dallas.

If Holt's story could be verified, it would be pretty scary: the mob and the agency, cover-ups and rubouts. It could also be the product of a runaway imagination, or yarn-spinning for the sake of a little attention. What Holt says fits well with what researchers have long suspected. That's what makes his story at once persuasive and open to question, Should Holt be cheeked out? Certainly. Will that settle the question of conspiracy? Probably not.

The best argument against conspiracy theories is that if any moment in history were to be scrutinized with the obsessiveness focused on 12:30 p.m., Nov. 22, 1963, you could come up with weird coincidences, hidden connections, terrifying portents. People who believe the official version of the assassination-that Kennedy was shot by a lunatic whose motives were probably beyond even his own understanding-say that conspiracy theorists need to grow up, to come to terms with the fact that this was a random event, the moral equivalent of a bolt of lightning. Those who find a pattern here, it's said are indulging in wishful thinking: to them, even sinister meaning is more comforting than no meaning at all.

"I have chosen to offer a way out of the madness," writes Jim Moore at the end of "Conspiracy Of One." "To believe that President Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy is not always to believe in zombie CIA assassins and Watergate burglars on the grassy knoll or in a Secret Service-FBI cover-up, but it is a path to personal doubt and disaster. Only when you and I come to grips with the fact that this -mammoth tragedy can, in fact, be blamed on one man, can the personal growth and the healing process begin." In other words, get a life. It's a powerful altar call (assuming he's got his facts straight). What we'd give to be able to run it by Rose Cheramie.