Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

JFK Assassination


On this most Americans can agree: President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.

But four decades later, just about every other detail of the assassination of the charismatic, photogenic politician is subject to debate.

Was the CIA behind the murder? Fidel Castro? The Mafia? The FBI? LBJ? The Russians? Martians?

Or were Lee Oswald, the accused assassin, and Jack Ruby, Oswalds killer, simply two lone nuts who managed to carry out a pair of inconceivable shootings?

Professor John McAdams - JFK Assassination Expert
Professor John McAdams - JFK Assassination Expert
For most Americans, its a kind of a parlor game, says Professor John McAdams, who teaches a course on the assassination at Marquette University in Milwaukee. People will say to me, Well, whats your theory on who did it? And they look so disappointed when I say, Oswald did it all by himself.

That, of course, was also the conclusion of the presidential commission appointed a week after the assassination. Headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, the commission announced its Oswald-acted-alone findings on September 24, 1964.

On that date, vigorous conspiracy theories commenced, and the whodunit debate has roiled ever since.

The Kennedy assassination really has achieved mystic significance, McAdams, 58, tells the Crime Library. In this era when conspiracy theories abound, says McAdams, The greatest and grandest of all conspiracy theories is the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory.

Oliver Stone during JFK filming
Oliver Stone during JFK filming
McAdams says Oliver Stones film J.F.K. stirred the conspiracy pot by adding gravitas to Prosecutor Jim Garrisons fringe theory on the case. The movie still draws newcomers into the obsessive world of Kennedy assassination enthusiasts.

On one side are the conspiracy theorists, on the other the so-called debunkers. They argue with a fervor normally reserved for politics and religion.

Scores of books have been written about the assassination, and perhaps a hundred Web sites are dedicated to the subject, including one vast archive maintained by McAdams.

In these arenas, conspiracy theorists throw out questions, and debunkers try to respond.

Some questions are broad: Why did the Secret Service remove President Kennedy's body from Dallas and transport it to Washington? Others are terribly specific, such as: "Why is the upper part of the right eye's socket skull orbit missing from the X-ray that is supposed to be JFK's?"

Dave Reitzes, 34, a writer who lives in Delaware, has been on both sides.

I was drawn into it by Oliver Stone's movie in 1991, he writes in an e-mail interview. I was a rabid conspiracy theorist for eight or nine years, then did a hard about-face when I began to realize how wrong my thinking had been.

He says the conspiracies are propelled by disbelief that 10th-grade dropout Oswald--a silly little Communist, in the reported words of Jackie Kennedycould have killed a president; by a distrust of government, and by the poor work of mainstream journalists and historians who allow questionable theories to go largely unchallenged.

He adds, The truth is available to anyone who cares to study up on it. But those who fail to differentiate between evidence that is verifiable and the more popular varieties -- i.e., unsubstantiated eyewitness claims, hearsay, rumor, and supposition -- are going to forever doom themselves to chasing shadows, much like the hunters of flying saucers, Bigfoot, etc.

Reitzes says the conspiracy theories can be withering.

Of late, I confess I've found it hard to maintain much interest, he says. The seemingly endless springs of gullibility grow tiresome, and the theories certainly aren't getting any more persuasive. If anything, they get more outlandish as the years go by.

One prominent conspiracy theorist, Barb Junkkarinen, agrees that far-out conjectures get in the way.

Unfortunately, what gets all the attention are the nuts on both sides, she says. Everyone (in the media) runs to them, and the rest of us suffer the consequences.

Junkkarinen, 52, who lives near Portland, Ore., has a particular interest and expertise in the medical aspects of the case, including bullet-wound details.

She doubts Oswald shot Kennedy. She believes instead that he was set up as a foil to a larger conspiracy, which was covered up by a panicked United States government.

Junkkarinen says she was drawn into the JFK assassination long before Oliver Stones film. (She admits it is an obsession; her e-mail name is barbjfk, and she notes with a laugh that her husband recently gave her a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, the brand found near the assassins window roost at the Texas School Book Depository building in Dallas.)

For me, I love a mystery, Junkkarinen says. I grew up reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I think it was that and the medical evidence that sucked me into it.

She is an active member of a Web-based Kennedy assassination discussion group, attends JFK conferences and sometimes writes about the Kennedy evidence.

A lot of people want to place blame for who is responsible, she says. Im not sure that can be done, and Im not sure it matters. I think for me, if someone would come forward and say, There was a conspiracy and there was a cover-up, and now its such a mess it can never be untangled. That would satisfy me.

And why does it matter at this point?

I think it matters because Americans expect and deserve a true history, and I dont think we have that, Junkkarinen says. Thats the bottom line: History should be true.

Jack Ruby mugshots
Jack Ruby mugshots

McAdams, the Marquette professor, says Jack Ruby is largely responsible for fueling the suspicions of people like Junkkarinen.

Ruby did a tremendous amount to perpetrate the conspiracy theories, he says. Depriving American history and the American people of a Lee Harvey Oswald trial was a terrible thing.

But various government authorities can be blamed, as well.

First, Dallas police allowed Ruby access to Oswald at least twice. The department led a shoddy investigation in other ways, as well, calling into question the chain of evidence. The citys police chief leaped to the quick conclusion that Oswald was the assassin, then went before the media to announce his finding.

The Secret Service and Kennedys top aides spirited the presidents body out of Dallas just 100 minutes after he was declared dead. In Washington, a bumbling team of doctors performed a hack-job autopsy on what was perhaps the most precious corpse in modern American history.

The fumbled Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the report that the Kennedy administration had contracted Mafia assassins to kill Fidel Castrooperating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean, in the words of Lyndon Johnson--gave legs to the notion that the United States would do nefarious business with just about anyone for just about any purpose.

Suspicious doings, polluted evidence, the credibility gap, striking coincidences: For many, these factors make doubting seem more sensible than believing.

Junkkarinen, a doubter, uses the analogy of a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which is complicated enough. But the box of the JFK assassination puzzle has 2,000 pieces. To solve it, you must first figure out which 1,000 pieces dont fit.

On the other hand, McAdams, the believer, says too many conspiracy theorists flyspeck just one inaccurate piece of the puzzle, then use that error as a basis to dismiss the entire Kennedy investigation.

The tactic has been known to work in the contemporary world of criminal justice: If the glove doesnt fit, you must acquit.

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