Sunday, November 16, 2008

Oswald co-worker no longer silent about JFK assassination role

by HUGH AYNESWORTH / The Dallas Morning News

Buell Frazier wants to tell it like it is – or was – on a very important day in U.S. history 45 years ago in Dallas.

The quiet, thoughtful man of 64 is not as well-known as some of the others who skyrocketed to fame or infamy in November 1963. But Mr. Frazier played a defining, if unintentional, role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

He drove Lee Harvey Oswald to work that fateful Nov. 22.

And the Warren Commission, the investigative committee appointed to explain all aspects of Mr. Kennedy's death, claimed that Oswald carried his cheap mail-order rifle to work with him in Mr. Frazier's car.

That put Mr. Frazier in the spotlight immediately after Oswald was captured – and long afterward as a mourning nation sought to find an explanation to the tragedy. With but a few exceptions, he has kept almost 4 ½ decades of angst, frustration, fear and occasionally even fury bottled up.

All Mr. Frazier did was offer a friendly gesture to a man he hardly knew.

Offering a ride

In mid-September 1963, Mr. Frazier, 19, moved to Irving to live with his sister, Linnie Mae Randle, her husband and three children.

He slept on his sister's couch, drove a clunker Chevy and was pleased to be earning $1.25 an hour, then the minimum wage, at the Texas School Book Depository.

As a teenager in Huntsville, Mr. Frazier had deftly balanced high school and several part-time jobs while trying to stay out of the way of an abusive, alcoholic stepfather.

But things seemed to be looking up.

On Nov. 22, Ms. Randle and Mr. Frazier were finishing breakfast about 7:15 a.m. when she looked out her window and saw a man standing close to her brother's car with a package under his arm. She had never met Oswald, but she knew who he was because Mr. Frazier had driven him to Irving on three or four occasions to visit his wife, Marina, and their two small daughters.

Oswald had ridden home with him the previous afternoon. A few minutes later, Mr. Frazier and Oswald headed for the book depository, where they were to report at 8 a.m.

They talked a bit about children – Oswald always seemed pleased to relate stories about his girls, Mr. Frazier said – but drove much of the 15-mile trip in silence.

Even though the area was inundated with news reports about the president's visit to Dallas later that morning, Mr. Frazier said they never discussed it during the ride.

"Lee didn't talk much, ever," he said. "Some people talk a lot. He just didn't."

Less than four hours later, Kennedy was shot to death riding through Dealey Plaza. And Mr. Frazier's life was turned upside down.

Brown paper package

Mr. Frazier was questioned vigorously by police – accused of being involved in the plot to kill Kennedy – and even told falsely by police officers that Oswald had named him as a co-conspirator. After 12 intense hours at the Police Department, he was allowed to take a polygraph test, passed it impressively and was released.

The fact that Mr. Frazier helped train Oswald at his new job (Oswald was hired at the book depository Oct. 16) and had driven him to Irving several times soon faded from most people's memories. But another factor remained noteworthy.

Officials assumed that the package Oswald carried to work that morning was the Italian-made rifle he used to kill Kennedy. Mr. Frazier still doesn't believe it.

When Oswald got in his car that morning, Mr. Frazier hardly noticed the bundle Oswald laid on the back seat.

"He told me he was taking some curtain rods for his room," Mr. Frazier said. "I didn't think much about it."

Mr. Frazier parked his car behind the depository building and revved his engine for a few moments, charging his low battery, and watched Oswald walk about 200 yards into the building with the package under his arm.

In his testimony before the Warren Commission, Mr. Frazier said the brown paper package Oswald carried that morning was too short to contain a rifle. Oswald cupped the package in his hand, he said, and it fit under his armpit.

In Washington, Mr. Frazier said, he was "pressured" to change his recollection. In the days afterward, he was badgered by the media, harassed by people who didn't understand his relationship to Oswald and even became fearful for his life.

His testimony was important because investigators had proved that Oswald bought the rifle used in the JFK slaying and had found a matching palm print on the stock, but they had no proof that he had it with him that day.

Ms. Randle, who was also a leading witness, said recently that when she and Mr. Frazier testified before the Warren Commission, "they tried to get us to say that package was much longer than we recalled, but that wasn't true."

The commission kept pushing, Mr. Frazier said. Could it be that he was traumatized by the horror of what happened or embarrassed that he hadn't been more observant?

"I know what I saw," he said, "and I've never changed one bit."

Size dispute

Hundreds of conspiracy theories have spawned thousands of books and articles since the tragedy, but the official investigation concluded that Oswald shot Kennedy from the Texas School Book Depository and acted alone.

The Warren Commission cited eyewitnesses to the president's shooting and the later assault of Officer J.D. Tippit and knew that Oswald had bought the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle for $12.95 from a Chicago mail-order house.

A brown paper sack with an Oswald palm and fingerprint on it was found close to the sixth-floor window where Oswald sat perched in wait that day.

Oswald's claim that he was carrying curtain rods for his room carried little weight with investigators because no curtain rods were ever found in the depository, and Oswald's room on Beckley Street in Oak Cliff already had curtains.

In a book he's writing, Mr. Frazier describes how he and his sister assembled packages with wrapping paper for hours, trying to show Warren Commission lawyers the size of the package Oswald carried that day.

In its report, released in the fall of 1964, the commission said:

"The Warren Commission has weighed the visual recollection of Frazier and Mrs. Randle against the evidence here presented ... and has concluded that Frazier and Randle are mistaken as to the length of the bag."

The FBI lab reported that the disassembled rifle stock measured just under 35 inches long, and the homemade bag measured 38 inches.

"I wasn't surprised," Mr. Frazier said. "They seemed to have a prearranged agenda when they questioned Linnie and me. Our refusal to agree with their agenda simply caused them to state that we were mistaken."

Their testimony fostered early public doubt about the commission's investigation.

President Gerald Ford, who in 1963-64 was a Michigan congressman and a Warren Commission member, told reporters in Dallas in early 1964 that he thought Mr. Frazier had been mistaken.

"I don't believe for a moment that he was consciously lying," Mr. Ford said then. "This is a fine young man – I've talked to him – who recalls seeing an object a certain size. But if Oswald was carrying curtain rods, as Mr. Frazier claimed he told him, I am a bit confused as to what happened to them."

Mr. Ford told a Dallas Morning News reporter that day: "I have never believed Mr. Frazier was involved in anything more than being a good neighbor, a good friend. I don't think he even knew Oswald very well."

Actually, Mr. Frazier said, "I didn't know his last name until that day. We all just knew him as Lee. I thought that was his last name."

Years of reticence

For years, Mr. Frazier refrained from talking about his role that fateful Friday. He hasn't had a listed telephone number for years. Few people have visited his home. In recent years, he has spoken briefly to university classes and others studying the Kennedy assassination.

And when a British production company staged a mock Oswald trial in London in 1986, Mr. Frazier was a star witness. He still considers that trip one of his "greatest experiences ever."

As the years went by, he served two stints in the Army, worked in Denver and Portland, Ore., with banks and an airline, and studied at Southern Methodist University.

He married in 1969 and had a son, Robert, now 29, who graduated from Texas A&M and is in the Army, stationed in South Korea. Mr. Frazier divorced in 1987 and married his current wife, Betty, in 1988.

Since 2002, he has worked for the Lewisville school board as the receiving clerk, handling desks, chairs and other equipment to stock the district's schools.

Asked if co-workers know of his background, Mr. Frazier said: "Some do, on a limited basis." He has mixed emotions about conspiracy theorists.

"Conspiracy theories are like noses," he said. "Everybody has one. No one has ever sold me 100 percent that Lee did it. If he did, yes, but some other people were involved in some way."

He admits that the circumstances of that November decades ago helped mold his life and personality.

"I have had to be more careful and aware of what is going on around me at all times. Being able to trust someone is very hard for me. I simply do not trust people in general."

And though he is no longer physically afraid, he's more comfortable staying anonymous.

"Though I did nothing wrong," he said, "some of them think I am guilty, that I was involved with him.

"And there are people out there still today who think that I helped him, that he and I were in cahoots on that, and you just never know who you're talking to."

His sister, Ms. Randle, is a retired nurse in her 70s who lives "in the country" outside Sulphur Springs. She agrees that Mr. Frazier is super-careful and somewhat withdrawn but says she understands why.

"Even my children, at the time, we just didn't talk about it because you just never know who you're talking to. There are a lot of kooks out there.

"We weren't ignorant, but we were very, very naive," she said.

Dave Perry of Grapevine, a friend of Mr. Frazier, said: "When we first met in 1990, he was very distrustful of me. After a very short period, we got off the subject of the assassination and into baseball.

"When we get together now," said Mr. Perry, a retired insurance executive and longtime JFK assassination researcher, "it's never about the assassination, but as close friends."

David Murph, director of church relations for Texas Christian University, and his wife, Jean, are also friends of the Fraziers. "He is an honest, gentle soul with a good heart who sees and believes in people," he said.

Mr. Murph says he hopes Mr. Frazier finds a publisher for his memoirs. "Buell's story is extremely important. It needs to be told."

Hugh Aynesworth is a freelance writer and author and was an eyewitness to the JFK assassination.

Source: The Dallas Morning News

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