Monday, September 17, 2007

The Truth About Joe O’Donnell


The legacy of Joe O’Donnell, the retired government photographer who worked with White House photographer Robert Knudsen and who told the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) in 1997 that Knudsen showed him post-mortem photographs of John F. Kennedy’s body which showed a grapefruit-sized hole in the back of Kennedy’s head, hasn’t faired very well since his death on August 14, 2007, at the age of 85.

Obituaries published nationwide credited O’Donnell for taking numerous photographs actually taken by other photographers – including one famous picture: John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his slain father’s passing caisson on November 25, 1963. That photograph and numerous others that O’Donnell claimed as his own turned out to have been taken by other photographers.

In a September 15, 2007, New York Times article written by Michael Wilson, Mr. O’Donnell’s family said “his claims to fame – made in television, newspaper and radio interviews, as well as on his own amateurish Web site – were not out of greed or fraud, but the confused statements of an ailing man in his last years. The only thing stolen, his widow and one of his sons said, was the soundness of his memory. While he was not formally diagnosed with a mental illness, he clearly became senile, his family said.”

However, as anyone familiar with the ARRB medical records knows, Mr. O’Donnell’s exaggerations have not been limited to his declining years.

Ten years ago, O’Donnell told the ARRB that White House photographer Robert L. Knudsen, whom O’Donnell knew well, showed him a set of post-mortem photographs of Kennedy which depicted a hole in the back of Kennedy’s head the “size of a grapefruit.” A few days later, Knudsen reportedly showed O’Donnell a second set of photographs which now showed the back of the president’s head intact.

Conspiracy buffs have made a big deal out of O’Donnell’s revelations ever since, citing O’Donnell as a witness to the true state of Kennedy’s head and the fabrication of photographs to cover up evidence of a fatal shot fired from in front of the motorcade – yes, (gasp!) the grassy knoll.

Of course, no where in all this conspiracy malarkey will you read about the other things that Mr. O’Donnell told the ARRB – claims that completely undermine his credibility. For instance, the ARRB also reported these two items:

“[O’Donnell] said that after [Air Force One] landed [at Andrews Air Force Base with the body of President Kennedy], he successfully demanded to briefly speak to Jacqueline B. Kennedy after she had gotten into the Navy ambulance, and that when he relayed to her the story about JFK saying he could ‘live up here forever (near the Lee Mansion),’ [which the President reportedly said within earshot of O’Donnell on November 11 – Veteran’s Day] she reportedly said to him, ‘then that is where we will put him,’ this providing an explanation for how the idea of an Arlington burial site first came to the President’s widow.” ).” [Call Report, Joe O’Donnell, Telephone Interview by Jeremy Gunn and Douglas Horne, 02/28/97, pp.1-2]

And this:

“Mr. O’Donnell further volunteered that he was asked to show Jacqueline Kennedy the Zapruder film in a private screening with a few weeks of the assassination; his recollection of the timing was uncertain. He said no one was present except Jacqueline Kennedy and him, and that the screening was held at the USIA [United States Information Agency] screening room at the USIA building at 1776 Pennsylvania Avenue. He said that when he asked her why she tried to escape from the limousine, she told him she was not trying to escape, but rather was trying to pick up pieces of the President’s head from the top of the car’s trunk lid, so that his head could be put back together. He said that following hr viewing of the head shot sequence in the film, Jacqueline Kennedy told him in a very forceful way, ‘I don’t ever want to see that again,’ which he said that he interpreted as an order to alter the film so as to remove the offending images of the head shot – namely, a halo of debris around the President’s head. He told us he knows it was wrong, but he removed about 10 feet of film from the Zapruder film. After Mr. O’Donnell was asked what format the film was, he stated it was 16mm film; when asked if he was sure that it was 16mm film, he said that yes, it was 16mm film. When asked to estimate how many frames he removed, he simply repeated that he removed ‘about 10 feet of film.’ He said he has not seen the Zapruder film since that time. When he was asked whether he altered a copy of the film or the original, he said, ‘I had the original.’ “ [Call Report, Joe O’Donnell, Telephone Interview by Jeremy Gunn, 02/28/97, p.2]

Both of these claims are patently false. First, the arrival of Air Force One and Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy’s departure in a Navy Ambulance with her husband’s body was broadcast on live television and at no time does Joe O’Donnell or anyone resembling O’Donnell approach the ambulance and converse with Mrs. Kennedy.

Second, O’Donnell couldn’t possibly have shown Mrs. Kennedy the original or even a copy of the 8mm [not 16mm] Zapruder film during the time period he claimed without anyone knowing about it – specifically TIME-Life, Inc., which owned the original and jealously guarded it, and the Warren Commission which didn’t begin to study the film until late January 1964. The whole idea of a private showing, especially one in which the only person besides Mrs. Kennedy in attendance was O’Donnell, is preposterous. Further, O’Donnell’s claim that Mrs. Kennedy recalled retrieving pieces of the president’s skull from the trunk lid of the limousine flies in the face of Mrs. Kennedy’s own testimony to the Warren Commission that she didn’t recall climbing on the trunk at all, let alone why she was there, and that looking at images of her doing so was like looking at another woman.

While the facts surrounding O’Donnell’s claims could have been easily checked, the ARRB’s Jeremy Gunn only noted that “Mr. O’Donnell’s memory was uneven” and that while he had difficultly remembering the names of Presidents, and gave a different timing on when Knudsen showed him the Kennedy’s post-mortem photographs (the first time he said he saw them within a week of the assassination; the second time he said it was within a month), Gunn nevertheless concluded – as if to save O’Donnell’s credibility: “On the other hand, [O’Donnell] appeared to remember with apparent precision some events from the 1940s through the 1960s.”

Scheez. Is this how conspiracy theorists get to the truth of the matter? You bet it is, and has been for the better part of four decades. And you can also wager that the conspiracy crowd will continue to play these kinds of shell games with the true facts as long as they can – just as they have with the testimony of the late Joe O’Donnell. Count on it.


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