Guy Banister and David Ferrie
James Ellroy couldn’t invent a better henchmen duo: a G-man and an eccentric anti-Castroite turned New Orleans crime-boss consigliere who wore a bad wig and probably trained a teenage Oswald in the Civil Air Patrol. Ferrie didn’t deny he said Kennedy “ought to be shot,” but told the FBI it was a “colloquial expression.” Banister died mysteriously in 1964.
Fingered as the Warren Commission Report’s “Clem Bertrand”—the enigmatic figure who tried to hire an attorney for Oswald—this shady New Orleans businessman was the subject of the prosecution by Jim Garrison later portrayed in Oliver Stone’s JFK. The jury acquitted Shaw in 54 minutes.
Dallas was so famously enemy territory for liberals that Lyndon Johnson’s prewritten joke for that Friday evening had been “Thank God, Mr. President, you came out of Dallas alive.”
E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis
Better known today for their roles in Watergate, Hunt, a CIA operative, and Sturgis, with connections to U.S. intelligence and anti-Castro forces, uncannily resembled two of the so-called three tramps in Dealey Plaza. (The third is thought to be Woody Harrelson’s father.) On his deathbed, Hunt allegedly confessed that Johnson had orchestrated the assassination.
Johnson had ties to the Kennedy-phobic “Dallas oligarchy” and feared that the potus might replace him on the 1964 ticket. Madeleine Brown, LBJ’s alleged mistress, said that just hours before the assassination, he growled: “After tomorrow, John Kennedy will never embarrass me again. That’s no threat. That’s a promise.”
Upon hearing the news, Castro said, “They will try to put the blame on us for this.”
The Secret Service
The Assassination Records Review Board formed on JFK’s heels studied the Secret Service, whose performance the House called “deficient.” Its agents had destroyed documents the review board suspected were incriminating.
The Secret Service— by accident
In the pandemonium following Oswald’s first shot, Agent George Hickey misfired his AR-15 rifle, calamitously, into the president’s head.
Just before the shooting, Chicago mobster Sam Giancana’s right-hand man, Chuckie Nicoletti, instructed Files to drive to Dallas with weapons hidden in a secret compartment, where Files first met the Mafia A-Team: He was photographed by Oswald, ate pancakes with Jack Ruby, shared a motorcade map with mob kingpin Johnny Roselli. Years later, a .222 cartridge was dug up on the “grassy knoll” with Files’s teeth marks (he had a habit of gnawing spent cartridges). From prison, serving 50 years for the attempted murder of a Chicago-area police officer, Files claims that, yes, the Mafia wanted him to even the score on Bobby Kennedy’s meddling.
In 1990, the son of former Dallas police officer Roscoe White announced that White, who’d served in the Marines with Oswald, was indeed one of three CIA assassins (conspiracy theorists’ long-held suspicion).
Timeline of Doubt: How We Got From JFK to JFK, and Beyond
November 23, 1963:
Dan Rather tells the nation that Kennedy’s head thrashes “violently forward” (not backward) in Abraham Zapruder’s homemade film, fueling decades of doctored-tape theories. Life editors buy the film from Zapruder, but he worries it’s too grisly (in a dream, he saw the words ‘See the President’s Head Explode!’ on a Times Square sign) and asks them to never show frame 313, the one where gunfire hits its target. It takes six years and a subpoena before the public sees the film uncut.
The “Dallas-killed-Kennedy theory” first circulates in July from the judge who swore in Lyndon Johnson. The Feds investigate local John Birchers and a group called the American Fact-Finding Committee, which ran a full-page Dallas Morning News ad that day saying Kennedy “will answer … in public.” At the time, Dallas was so famously enemy territory for liberals that Johnson’s prewritten joke for that Friday evening had been “Thank God, Mr. President, you came out of Dallas alive.”
The Warren Commission Report goes public. Then-Congressman Gerald Ford promises it “will stand like a Gibraltar of factual literature through the ages to come.” Detractors dismiss it as a cover-up, seizing upon junior counsel Arlen Specter’s Magic Bullet Theory, which posits one shot from the schoolbook depository hit Kennedy’s throat, went through Texas governor John Connally’s torso and wrist bone, and lodged itself in the governor’s thigh, destroying ribs and navigating fifteen layers of clothes, including the president’s Christian Dior tie knot. Problems plaguing the commission’s copy of the Zapruder film (transposed frames make Kennedy’s head move, again, in the wrong direction) fuel the so-called Alteration Theory, a belief the famous footage is merely sophisticated forgery, even that it was made “in a sophisticated CIA photo lab at the Kodak main industrial plant in Rochester.”
Gaeton Fonzi writes the first mainstream takedown of the Warren report, which he repeatedly calls unbelievable, and “Arlen Specter knows it.” Improbably, the House Select Committee in 1978 chooses Fonzi, a bona fide conspiracy peddler by now, to reinvestigate Oswald’s ties to two key men, former G-man Guy Banister, now a New Orleans mob consigliere, and David Ferrie, an eccentric anti-Castro pedophile who wore a homemade wig and trained a teenage Oswald in the Civil Air Patrol.
Two books—attorney Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment, which has sold over a million copies, and Edward Jay Epstein’s Inquest, based on his Cornell thesis—spark reevaluation of the Warren report. Epstein is more demure, but Lane alleges a cover-up; Dan Rather calls him “the gadfly of the Warren Commission.” Lane has said that even if only 10 percent of what he wrote is accurate, it still means the commission has serious problems.
Texas newspaper editor Penn Jones Jr. debuts the theory, quickly made popular, that a shadowy murder squad is offing witnesses, investigators, even journalists with ties to the assassination. “At least ten persons,” he writes, “have died in mysterious circumstances since the Kennedy assassination,” including three Life staffers responsible for its coverage. Many deaths look suspicious—one, for instance, is “by karate chop.” Former Times reporter Jim Marrs expands the list to 103 “convenient” deaths in his 1989 book Crossfire, one of the two books upon which Stone’s JFK is based. (A number that high “cannot be summarily dismissed.”)
The Lone Gunman Theory is scrutinized by Life in a comprehensive dissection of the rifle shots. There’s “reasonable—and disturbing—doubt” that Oswald acted alone, the story says; the two shots in the Zapruder film go off within a second of each other, but Oswald’s rifle needed twice that long.
Richard Sprague, a computer technician turned assassination researcher, stumbles upon seven unpublished newspaper photos of the “three tramps” in Dealey Plaza. In 1975, two of the men are said to be Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis, better known as Watergate burglars and CIA operatives. The third man, others contend, is Charles Harrelson, actor Woody Harrelson’s father, who, while high on cocaine in 1980, tells police, “I killed Kennedy.”
Johnson had close ties to the Kennedy-phobic “Dallas oligarchy” and feared that the POTUS might replace him on the 1964 ticket, but Joachim Joesten—in The Dark Side of Lyndon Baines Johnson, initially banned from U.S. shelves—is the first to allege a Texas-size coup d’état of Johnson and his Big Oil allies. Madeleine Brown, LBJ’s alleged mistress, later says the night before the assassination, Johnson growled: “After tomorrow, those Kennedys will never embarrass me again. That’s no threat. That’s a promise.”
Lyndon Johnson tells Walter Cronkite, “I’ve never been completely relieved of the fact that there might have been international connections”—that is, to Cuba.
The trial starts for Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman and the only person ever prosecuted for Kennedy’s death. The district attorney, Jim Garrison, treats it mostly as a Warren Commission trial by proxy, suggesting a plot by the CIA and anti-Castro forces and involving Oswald in the agency’s Operation Mongoose. A witness says Shaw, Oswald, and Ferrie strategized at a party about how one of them “would have to be captured as a scapegoat.” The jury acquits Shaw in 54 minutes, but Garrison will be immortalized in Oliver Stone’s JFK.
The Kennedy-hating Mafia is a clear culprit—Bobby crusaded against it, and Jack couldn’t finish off Castro, costing dons their Havana casinos. Still, their worlds overlapped often, like with a mistress Kennedy shared with Chicago mobster Sam Giancana. When Giancana takes six bullets right before the Senate can subpoena him to talk about the assassination and Jimmy Hoffa vanishes a month later, mob conspiracies peak.
Senator Richard Schweiker releases a congressional report that offers (a qualified) backing of a “Cuba connection,” and later censures the Warren Commission Report as “one of the biggest cover-ups in the history of our country.” Then in August, four Dallas policemen tell the National Enquirer they gave receipts and call records to the FBI that prove Oswald and Jack Ruby called the Cuban Embassy from a New Orleans hotel. The documents are still missing from the Warren Commission archives.
Arthur Schlesinger, with the Washington Post, breaks the news that Johnson privately told White House staff as early as 1967 that “the CIA had had something to do with this plot.”
The House Select Committee on Assassinations releases its long-awaited report. The conspiracy-minded do find validation (“President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”), but the report dismisses most theories circulated to date: Soviet, Cuban (pro- and anti-Castro), Mafia, and U.S. intelligence involvement.
For his 1980 book Conspiracy, Banister’s secretary famously tells Anthony Summers a more incriminating story than the one she told Fonzi for the Select Committee investigation: Oswald actually kept an office at 544 Camp, and she’d interviewed him to become “one of Banister’s agents.”
Bill Novo, one of myriad anti-Castro culprits, first makes national news in 1964 as what Joan Didion calls “a comic footnote”—he’d fired “a dud bazooka shell” at the U.N. during a Che Guevara speech. But his stature grows: In 1978, Castro’s former mistress Marita Lorenz testifies before the Select Committee that Novo, Sturgis, and Oswald conveyed “rifles and scopes” to Hunt and Oswald at a Dallas motel.
The right-wing think tank Liberty Lobby claims Hunt was in Dallas during the murder. (Hunt wins a libel suit over this claim that the group’s attorney, Mark Lane, quashes on appeal by quoting Lorenz’s testimony—the part where Hunt gives Sturgis an envelope of cash.) Hunt’s sons will later claim their father admitted his involvement on his deathbed, and somewhere in the National Archives’ JFK Assassination Records Collection, skeptics point out, sit 366 pages of Hunt documents never made public.
Though she withheld this from her Select Committee testimony, during Hunt’s trial Marita Lorenz makes a big admission: “We killed the president that day,” and “it was safe” because “it was all covered. Very professional.” In Plausible Denial, Mark Lane writes, “It may have been very professional,” but after her testimony was read to a jury, “it was no longer all covered.”
David Lifton’s Best Evidence purports a medical cover-up: that Kennedy’s body was moved by conspirators from the bronze casket used to transport it (and which now lies 9,000 feet down in the Atlantic Ocean) into a shipping crate on its way to Andrews Air Force Base, then secretly helicoptered away to a facility—Walter Reed, perhaps—where surgeons made it look like Kennedy was shot from behind.
Veteran D.C. reporter Haynes Johnson says he was with a prominent anti-Castro exile on November 22, when Bobby Kennedy called and told the Cuban leader: “One of your guys did it.” It seems to validate theories that claim Bobby always suspected the Cuban-exile community; after all, it was Miami, not Dallas, where he’d ramped up security in advance of his brother’s November 18 trip. Salon founder David Talbot later published the best-seller Brothers, arguing that Bobby in fact immediately suspected a “shadowy nexus” of Cuban exiles, the Mafia, and CIA agents.
Rolling Stone publishes an article called “Did Lee Harvey Oswald Drop Acid?” in which it posits David Ferrie as “a nexus” in the murder mystery between “the Mafia and the CIA, drugs and assassination.” Another Rolling Stone article, an essay Don DeLillo pens while at work on his Oswald novel, Libra, subscribes (albeit as a work of fiction) to the theory that the assassination “was engineered by anti-Castro elements.”
A landscaper and his son exhume a .222 casing on the “grassy knoll,” where a second set of shots was reported. It has the teeth marks of a man named James Files (he habitually gnawed spent cartridges). From prison, serving 50 years for offing two Chicago cops, Files says gives the play-by-play: A week before the shooting, Sam Giancana’s right-hand man Chuckie Nicoletti brought Files to Dallas, where Files is photographed by Oswald (the patsy), eats pancakes with Jack Ruby (the fixer), and gets a motorcade map from Castro hit man Handsome Johnny Roselli (the operator). The Mafia, he claims, paid him $30,000 to even the score for Bobby Kennedy’s meddling.
“It was at 544 Camp Street,” Jim Marrs writes in Crossfire, “that the paths of Lee Harvey Oswald, the FBI, the CIA, the anti-Castro Cubans, and organized crime figures all crossed.” The New Orleans address, which Oswald stamped on “Hands Off Cuba” flyers and the Warren Commission said was Mafia errand boy and ex–FBI agent Guy Banister’s office, is a cornerstone of many theories.
The son, wife, and pastor of former Dallas policeman Roscoe White announce that White, who worked Oswald’s arrest, was indeed one of three CIA assassins (conspiracy theorists’ long-held suspicion). White’s wife says he told Jack Ruby he’d “take care of” Kennedy if Ruby would “take care of Oswald.” White’s 1971 death, moreover, was at the hands of “a witness elimination team,” the same team buffs like Penn Jones and Marrs say murdered hundreds.
Labeled “irrational” and “one continuous lie” by critics, the film JFK nonetheless renews enough suspicion that Congress passes the JFK Act, establishing the Assassination Records Review Board to reinterview witnesses and archive key documents.
Relying on ballistics experts, Bonar Menninger’s Mortal Error makes the claim that in the pandemonium following Oswald’s first shot, it was a Secret Service agent—George Hickey, stationed in the vehicle trailing the president’s—who misfired his AR-15 rifle, calamitously, into the president’s head.
Kennedy loved James Bond, but he made waves at the CIA. When the Bay of Pigs made him look soft on communism, Richard Reeves reports in President Kennedy: Profile of Power, the potus told staff, “I’ve got to do something about those CIA bastards.” A White House advisory board was “very much disturbed” about Cuba, and Kennedy’s father, one of those advisers, warned: “It’s a lucky thing they were found out early.” In the post-JFK environment, these revelations returned interest to the CIA plot, particularly set against CIA thinking at the time. Jacob Esterline, Bay of Pigs project director, told the advisory board: “As long as decisions by professionals can be set aside by people who know not whereof they speak, you won’t succeed.”
The JFK Review Board formed on JFK’s heels studies the Secret Service, whose duties the House called “deficient.” Its agents had that very year, 1995, destroyed what was surely damning evidence of its involvement; gone were documents describing how limo damage came from crossfire. One former agent remembers agents vowing to “quit the Secret Service rather than give up their lives for Kennedy.”
Actor Richard Belzer calls the Federal Reserve “the candidate most likely” to have killed Kennedy, a zany theory that originates in Marrs’s Crossfire. The summer before the Dallas trip, Kennedy signed Executive Order No. 11110, transferring Fed power to the Treasury by replacing Federal Reserve notes with “United States Notes.” The government, such theorists contend, printed a small fortune (over $4 billion) in “Kennedy bills” before his assassination. Just days afterward, “all of the money President Kennedy had created was destroyed, and not a word was said to the American people.”
Assassination buff Jim Moore publishes online a document he says he’s held for decades because of doubts about its veracity; it’s a memo from CIA director John McCone to James Rowley, the chief of the Secret Service, about Oswald’s “Soviet assignments” (also meaning he wasn’t a defector). As with any intelligence matter, it’s an agent’s patriotic duty to lie if necessary, he says, to protect “Company secrets.”