Nov. 20, 2004 -- There is no other murder in history that has produced as much speculation as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Forty years after Kennedy was fatally shot on Nov. 22, 1963, more than 70 percent of Americans still believe there was a conspiracy to kill him and that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, did not act alone, according to a recent ABCNEWS poll. Even though the government concluded Oswald was the sole gunman, theories still flourish.
See the poll results.
"How could possibly someone as inconsequential as Oswald have killed someone as consequential as Kennedy? [There's] something out of whack about it," said Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy.
At a time of tragedy in the country, conspiracy theories offer "purpose and meaning that make tragedy more than a simple twist of fate in the hands of, in this case, a lone gunman," said Robert Goldberg, author of a book about the Kennedy assassination, Enemies Within.
Using his 8-millimeter movie camera, Abraham Zapruder recorded the moments when President Kennedy was murdered. The Zapruder film is the only film that recorded the shooting from start to finish. The film itself has been cited as evidence of a conspiracy, and some have claimed it shows that Oswald was not the only gunman.
To advance the analysis of the crime Dale Myers, a computer animator who has been studying the assassination for more than 25 years, generated an exact computer simulation of the Zapruder film.
Myers created a three-dimensional computer model of the plaza, reconstructed exactly the way it was on Nov. 22, 1963, then matched the model with the Zapruder film. The result allowed him to piece together various animated viewpoints of the shooting.
Once he had a three-dimensional match, he was able to create any point of view. Not only was he able to re-create Zapruder's point of view, he could re-create the viewpoint of any eyewitness: on the sniper's nest with the gunman, or on the grassy knoll, or along the motorcade route.
"In addition to that, the accuracy of the computer model would be such that you could then plot trajectories, you could take the wounds, the positions of the figures, you could see where the firing sources were from, or not from," Myers told ABCNEWS.
Single Bullet Theory
Myers' animation has introduced a new way of investigating the Kennedy assassination — and debunking the conspiracy theories which have flourished over the last 40 years.
Many Americans believe Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally were hit by different bullets from separate guns, suggesting a conspiracy of more than one gunman. Myers' simulation, however, proves they were hit from behind by the same bullet.
The animation shows, from the positions of the two men in the car, that any bullet that struck the president in the upper right back and emerged out of his throat, would have continued forward and hit Connally in the back near his right armpit — exactly where the governor was in fact hit. In addition, the fact that both men reacted at the same time clinches it, said Myers.
"So it's not a magic bullet at all," said Myers. "It's not even a single bullet theory, in my opinion. It's a single bullet fact."
If the two men were hit from behind by the same bullet, where did it come from? Using the men's body positions and the locations of their wounds, Myers isolated the source of the shot.
"We can start with, for instance, Governor Connally's entrance wound on his back, connect that with the point of exit on the president's throat, and then take that line and project it rearward," said Myers. "What we end up with is a line that goes right back through the sniper's nest window, the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository."
Dozens of witnesses pointed to the School Book Depository, where Oswald had been working as a clerk, after hearing the shots. One witness reported seeing a gun in the sixth floor window.
Who Was Behind Oswald?
After the shooting, Oswald was the only worker missing from the building. Police arrested Oswald in a nearby movie theater and took him to the Dallas police headquarters, where he was questioned by police, the FBI and the Secret Service throughout the weekend.
A 24-year-old loner, Oswald, was finally in the spotlight, which family members say he craved his entire life. He never confessed to killing the president. On Sunday, Nov. 24, while he was being transferred from police headquarters to the county jail, Oswald was fatally shot by a local club owner, Jack Ruby.
Read an interview with Oswald's brother.
On the same day the nation mourned for Kennedy as they watched his body being carried through the streets of Washington, Oswald was buried in Texas. His wife Marina, his mother and brother Robert attended the funeral. And on that same day, Ruby, under heavy guard, was transferred to the county jail.
Even though Ruby claimed he wasn't part of a conspiracy, millions of Americans believed he was. Worried about the anxious mood of the country, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a commission to investigate the assassination, and asked U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren to lead it.
"The Warren Commission was created for two main reasons," said Robert Goldberg. "One was to settle the mood in the United States. But there was a second very key reason, and that was to dispel any rumors of foreign intrigue."
Warren Commission: He Acted Alone
During its 10-month investigation, the commission interviewed 25,000 people and collected 3,000 pieces of evidence. The panel presented an overwhelming case against Oswald.
Firearms tests showed that the bullets that hit the president could only have come from Oswald's rifle. Oswald's palm print was on the rifle stock and his fingerprints were on boxes found in the sniper's position at the book depository.
The Warren Commission found persuasive evidence that Kennedy and Connally had been hit by the same bullet. It also concluded that Oswald acted alone and there was no evidence of a conspiracy.
But when the commission published its report in September 1964, many Americans simply did not believe it. They accused the commission of rushing to judgment and covering up a conspiracy.
Warren Commission lawyer William Coleman defended the report: "I think the best proof is it's 40 years later, and nobody's come up with any statement of anybody else who did it," he told ABCNEWS.
In the 1970s, Americans' distrust of the government was fueled by the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. Under this kind of pressure, in 1976, the House of Representatives created a Select Committee on Assassinations to deal with the conspiracy once and for all.
"We made it our central program to see what might have changed since 1963. What had changed since 1963 are advances in science and technology," recalls G. Robert Blakey, the committee's chief counsel, who directed the investigation.
The committee reviewed all the evidence, and reaffirmed that Kennedy was shot and killed by Oswald.
With tension stemming from the Cold War, there was fear in the West that Soviet leaders in Moscow were directing a worldwide Communist conspiracy aimed at destroying the free world, including the United States.
The FBI knew that Oswald was a former U.S. Marine who had lived for almost three years in the Soviet Union, and returned to America with a Russian wife. They believed he was a committed Communist. Many Americans believed that Oswald's professed admiration for Cuba's Fidel Castro — who had established a Communist government allied with the Soviet Union just 100 miles from the United States — was proof somehow of a Communist conspiracy.
On Sept. 9, 1963, in a widely published interview with The Associated Press, Castro threatened American leaders. "We are prepared to fight and answer in kind," he said. "The United States leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe."
Committee investigators went to Mexico City to check on allegations that Oswald had met with Cuban agents during a visit in 1963. And in 1978, they went to Havana to interview Castro himself.
"I sat in President Castro's office and, albeit diplomatically, looked at him in his eyes and said, 'Did you kill John Kennedy?,' " said Blakey, who headed the delegation. "And he said no. And then he told me why it would have been a foolish thing for him to have done."
According to Blakey, Castro said it would have been "insanity" for him to attack Kennedy. "That would have been the most perfect pretext for the United States to invade our country, which is what I have tried to prevent for all these years," Blakey says Castro told him.
"We looked as best we could for evidence that he might have done it," Blakey went on, "and we couldn't find it. That doesn't mean he didn't do it. It just means on the basis of the evidence that I have, I don't think that he did."
The committee combed Oswald's life for links to foreign governments. It heard testimony from a KGB officer who had handled Oswald's file when he was in Russia. The officer, Yuri Nosenko, says Oswald had tried to defect when he was in Russia, and the KGB would never have sent such an obvious target for suspicion back to the United States on an assassination mission. "KGB never will go on this because it's so obvious," Nosenko told ABCNEWS. Nosenko testified to the commission after himself defecting to the United States, where he still lives under an assumed name.
The special congressional committee spent two years on its investigation, and near the end was preparing a report saying that the Warren Commission was right: Oswald had been the sole assassin, and no one had conspired with him — not the CIA, the FBI, the Soviets or the Cubans. But a team of scientists surprised the committee with evidence that appeared to prove a conspiracy.
Scientists produced a sound recording of the assassination — overlooked for almost 15 years — that had been recorded at police headquarters in Dallas from a microphone thought to have belonged to a motorcycle officer who was riding in the motorcade. The recording was noisy, with static, but the scientists said that with special equipment they could identify four gunshots. Read more about the sound recording.
To the House committee, this came as a huge shock. Four shots were one more than Oswald had time to fire. "That meant there were two shooters in the plaza," said Blakey, "two shooters in the plaza equal a conspiracy."
But by synchronizing seven amateur films including the Zapruder film, Myers found that at the time of the first shot, the motorcycle was on Houston Street, about 170 feet from the position predicted by acoustic scientists, thus disproving the acoustic evidence.
Another conspiracy theory links Oswald's killer, Ruby, to the mafia, and suggests that the mafia had conspired to kill Kennedy. "I see Jack Ruby's assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald as a mob hit," Blakey told ABCNEWS.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, had been leading a major offensive by the federal government against organized crime at the time of the assassination. In April 1961, Carlos Marcello, the mafia boss of New Orleans, was seized and deported to Guatemala. According to Blakey, Marcello became so angry at the Kennedy administration that he conspired to kill the president. Blakey believed Marcello recruited Oswald to shoot the president, and Ruby to make sure that Oswald never talked.
Read an interview with G. Robert Blakey, chief counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
"The theory is Ruby is taking out Oswald so Oswald can't say anything," said Ralph Salerno, who was hired by Blakey to be the committee's mob expert. "Somebody has to take out Ruby so he can't say anything. And then somebody has to take out the guy who took Ruby out. It becomes an unending dilemma so it doesn't work quite that way."
Salerno reviewed, for the committee, the electronic surveillances that the FBI had on organized crime figures all over the country, and there was no indication at all of their involvement in Kennedy's assassination.
In the Mind of Oswald
Forty years later, there has not been a single piece of credible evidence to prove a conspiracy.
Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, says it's inconceivable that a conspiracy could have been kept secret for four decades "given a society like ours, which is so open in so many ways and so porous."
"I know that millions and millions of people in this country believe that there was a conspiracy because, I think, it's very difficult for them to accept the idea that someone as inconsequential as Oswald could have killed someone as consequential as Kennedy," said Dallek.