True Disbelievers

' If you've been around the Del Rey Indoor Shooting Range in Del Rey Beach, Fla., lately, you may have heard a sound with a unique historic ring. It's the sharp report of Jack Ruby's gun being fired, but this time the finger on the trigger belongs to Anthony V. Pugliese III, a real-estate developer and collector who bought the gun at auction in 1991 for $220,000. pugliese has been shooting 5,000 bullets through the Colt Cobra .38 and into a barrel of water, to prevent disfiguration. He sets each bullet in a museum-quality frame (with certificate of authenticity) and sells them for $1,495. Last year he acquired a new treasure: the bloody toe tag that marked Lee Harvey Oswald's corpse, rescued for posterity by a farsighted paramedic. No plans yet commercial development. But Pugliese would like you to know about his plans for the "Seance of the Century." Guess who's invited?

This may sound like the good old American tradition of twisting profit from any historic moment, no matter how tragic or perverse. And it is. The cottage industry that sprang up within a day of Kennedy's assassination (when Time-Life bought Mr. Zapruder's 8-mm film for $150,000) now encompasses more than 2,000 book titles, a half-dozen newsletters (The Grassy Knoll Gazette), several computer networks, Oliver Stone's "JFK" and this issue of NEWSWEEK.

But the consumers in question aren't exactly Trekkies or Elvis-sighters. Despite Pugliese, this is more cottage than industry, a community of true disbelievers, hungry for every morsel that might give further clues about who shot JFK and help them understand what it all means. "If you lop off the nut fringe, if you lop off the merchandisers," says David Wrone, who teaches a course on the assassination at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, you have the people "who believe that our public system of government is endangered, and that John Kennedy's death is a symbol or metaphor for this great loss...of mastery of public government." And if the six-month waiting lists for his course are any guide, their numbers are only growing.

Congregation or market, it got a huge boost from the Stone film, which has not only made more than any other assassination product ever ($200 million, not including video sales) but galvanized the faithful and inspired new recruits. Andrew Winiarczyk, who owns the Last Hurrah Bookstore in Willimasport, Pa., saw Kennedy assassination book mailing list leap to 1,400 from 400; Barnes & Noble brought out a new edition of the Warren Commission summary report (out of print since the 1970s), and the Assassination Symposium on John F. Kennedy in Dallas expects 400 people at its third annual meeting this month.

Clearly, the heart of this business is books. That's been true ever since 1966, when Mark Lane's "Rush to Judgment" and Edward Jay Epstein's "Inquest" came out. They were the first blockbusters in a long line of what Woody Allen once called the "nonfiction version(s) of the Warren Report." The vast supply of mostly out-of-print titles and the life-long students who read, write and fight over them have created an unusual brand of mail-order business. "This isn't Lands' End," says Winiarczyk, who talks by phone with readers worldwide and is less salesman than "intellectual psychiatrist." He probes for the conspiratorial tastes of each caller, then recommends the relevant tract or offers a gentle reality check to someone prematurely convinced that he's discovered the missing link.

Although the top five or so assassination authors have made money, most persist in the face of penury--or other sacrifices. Take David Lifton, author of "Best Evidence," which argues that Kennedy's wounds were altered to destroy evidence. "I never got married," says Lifton, 53, only partly in jest, because "there always came a point where the woman realized I was more interested in the president's body than in her body."

The agony and the ecstasy of assassination fascination is that the mystery is unlikely to yield an answer. At the same time, the dissidents still hope to change the official story. Those who obsess, for example, about the Lincoln assassination (we still don't know exactly who, if anyone, was behind Booth) are resigned to feeling that history has been written, says Winiarczyk. "But the idea persists in our hearts that this has not yet passed into the mists of history. We can still do something about it."

That's certainly true for Mary Ferrell. An assistant to Jim Garrison, the hero of Stone's film, Ferrell has spent a lifetime searching and says she's "no closer to any conclusion today than I was 30 years ago." But she doesn't regret a minute of it, not even her refusal to grant the deathbed wish of her mother, who implored her, "Mary Elizabeth, a Southern lady simply does not chase assassins. I want you to stay away from that Jim Garrison." Ferrell couldn't even pretend to promise.