Sunday, November 22, 2009

James W. Sibert, A Witness to History

Former FBI agent Jim Sibert, 91, holds a photo of President John F. Kennedy in his limousine just before he was killed in Dallas. ANDREW WEST/NEWS-PRESS.COM


South Fort Myers resident Jim Sibert has answered the questions for 46 years, ever since the night the FBI special agent observed the autopsy of President John F. Kennedy.

Over the years, Sibert, 91, has been interviewed for books. When the other FBI agent who witnessed the autopsy, Francis X. O'Neill, died earlier this year in Cape Cod, Mass., Sibert was quoted in a Boston Globe obituary of O'Neill.

The calls and questions keep coming from teachers, authors and historians.

"He told me a couple of years ago that he was never going to be interviewed again," said Paul Mitchell, one of Sibert's neighbors at the Cypress Cove retirement community on the grounds of HealthPark Medical Center.

Sibert can't always say no. He has a story to share. Theories and debates on conspiracies and motives and alleged cover-ups fill bookshelves and bop around the Internet. Sibert doubts any secrets remain to be unearthed.

"After 46 years," Sibert said, "there couldn't be."

Now, as Sunday's anniversary of the assassination approaches, Sibert is being asked again about that historic day, Nov. 22, 1963.

"It started out like a normal day," Sibert said.

At the time, Sibert was a 45-year-old FBI special agent stationed in Maryland and only a year younger than Kennedy. Late in the day, the president of the United States was dead in front of him with a hole in his head.

"It was a piece blown out of the skull," Sibert said.

Sibert and O'Neill met the casket at Andrews Air Force Base and accompanied it to Bethesda Naval Hospital. They were assigned to watch the autopsy, stay with the body and, as Sibert and O'Neill noted in a report dictated four days after the examination, "to obtain bullets reportedly in the President's body."

When Kennedy's body was removed from its casket and white sheets were unwrapped from him, Sibert recalls how the sheet around his head was blood-soaked.

"His eyes were fixed open," Sibert recalled.

No clothing came with the slain president. The suit Kennedy wore in the open-topped limousine had been cut off in Dallas, where he was gunned down.

What happened in Dallas that day remains contested with factions still debating whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the only shooter or if he was part of a wide-ranging conspiracy.

"I don't buy the single-bullet theory," Sibert said, "I won't go as far as to say there was no conspiracy."

Sibert and O'Neill's report, titled "Autopsy of Body of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy," stated that Commander James J. Humes, who conducted the autopsy, noted another wound.

"During the latter stages of this autopsy, Dr. Humes located an opening which appeared to be a bullet hole which was below the shoulders and two inches to the right of the middle line of the spinal column," Sibert and O'Neill reported.

Sibert won't guess on possible conspirators, on who else may have shot Kennedy other than Oswald.

"I wouldn't have any way of knowing," Sibert said. "See, that's another thing. All my work was in Bethesda, Maryland."

The FBI, Sibert said, had no jurisdiction in the investigation. The FBI Web site notes that "when President Kennedy was assassinated, the crime was a local homicide; no federal law addressed the murder of a President."

During the autopsy, Sibert couldn't let the magnitude of the event overwhelm his duty.

"You just kind of think, 'This happened to the president of the United States,'" Sibert said.

Until the president's murder, Sibert had observed only two other autopsies in his career.

One was of a little kidnapped boy. The other was on the wife of an FBI clerk who had died unexpectedly. That autopsy was held to make sure there had been no foul play.

Sibert recalls the somber atmosphere during the president's autopsy.

"There wasn't any joking," Sibert said. "No comic remarks made."

The experience, Sibert said, didn't change him profoundly.

But every now and then he gets calls from people who are still curious. There are also the memories of the history he witnessed.

"The other thing was the ferocity of the wounds," Sibert said. "That's tough. I never had nightmares, but it's something that flashes through my mind a lot of times."

Still, he's not obsessed with what he saw or what may have been behind the assassination.

"I don't think about it every day," Sibert said. "Generally, when something comes up, an article in the paper, something about the assassination, somebody wants to know about it. It's just another incident in your bureau career that you handled the best you could."

Sibert continued with the FBI until 1972, handling criminal cases.

Now, the former World War II bomber pilot and FBI agent is a widower who plays cards Friday evenings with Cypress Cove neighbors.

"Jim is a wonderful man," said neighbor and card player Elsie Thomas. "He's very interesting. Very knowledgeable. And he likes to talk about his time as an FBI man."


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