Sunday, May 12, 2013

Five decades after JFK’s assassination, the lucrative conspiracy theory industry hums along

by ALLEN G. BREED with DAVID PORTER / Associated Press

On the very day John F. Kennedy died, a cottage industry was born. Fifty years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, it's still thriving.

Its product? The "truth" about the president's assassination.

"By the evening of November 22, 1963, I found myself being drawn into the case," Los Angeles businessman Ray Marcus wrote in "Addendum B," one of several self-published monographs he produced on the assassination. For him, authorities were just too quick and too pat with their conclusion.

"The government was saying there was only one assassin; that there was no conspiracy. It was obvious that even if this subsequently turned out to be true, it could not have been known to be true at that time."

Most skeptics, including Marcus, didn't get rich by publishing their doubts and theories _ and some have even bankrupted themselves chasing theirs. But for a select few, there's been good money in keeping the controversy alive.

Best-selling books and blockbuster movies have raked in massive profits since 1963. And now, with the 50th anniversary of that horrible day in Dallas looming, a new generation is set to cash in.

Of course, the Warren Commission officially concluded in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone _ and issued 26 volumes of documents to support that determination. But rather than closing the book on JFK's death, the report merely served as fuel for an already kindled fire of doubt and suspicion.

Since then, even government investigators have stepped away from the lone assassin theory. In 1978, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations ended its own lengthy inquiry by finding that JFK "was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy."

That panel acknowledged it was "unable to identify the other gunman or the extent of the conspiracy." But armed with mountains of subsequently released documents, there has been no shortage of people willing to offer their own conclusions.

Among the leading suspects: Cuban exiles angry about the Bay of Pigs fiasco; Mafiosi enraged by Attorney General Robert Kennedy's attacks on organized crime; the "military-industrial complex," worried about JFK's review of war policy in Vietnam.

One theorist even floated the notion that Kennedy's limousine driver shot the president _ as part of an effort to cover up proof of an alien invasion.

Anything but that Oswald, a hapless former Marine, was in the right place at the right time, with motive and opportunity to pull off one of the most audacious crimes in American history.

"As they say, nature abhors a vacuum, and the mind abhors chance," says Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society and author of "The Believing Brain," a book on how humans seem hardwired to find patterns in disparate facts and unconnected, often innocent coincidences.

Polls underscore the point.

About 6 in 10 Americans say they believe multiple people were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, while only one-fourth think Oswald acted alone, according to an AP-GfK survey done in mid-April. Belief in a conspiracy, though strong, has declined since a 2003 Gallup poll found 75 percent said they thought Oswald was part of a wider plot.

The case has riveted the public from the start. When the Warren Commission report was released in book form, it debuted at No. 7 on The New York Times Best Sellers List.

Two years later, attorney Mark Lane's "Rush to Judgment" dominated the list. The Warren Commission, he argued, "frequently chose to rely on evidence that was no stronger and sometimes demonstrably weaker than contrary evidence which it rejected."

The book has since sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback, says Lane. Since then, dozens of books with titles like "Best Evidence," "Reasonable Doubt," "High Treason" and "Coup D'Etat in America: The CIA and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy" have sought to lay responsibility for JFK's death at the highest levels of the U.S. government _ and beyond.

British journalist Anthony Summers, whose BBC documentary became the 1980 book "Conspiracy," says many conspiracy buffs "are fine scholars and students, and some are mad as hatters who think it was done by men from Mars using catapults."

Unlike the later coverage of Watergate, there were no reporters like The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who were told by their editors, "Get on this and don't get off it," says Summers, whose works focused on people and events largely ignored or treated cursorily by the official investigations. "Nobody went down there and really did the shoe leather work and the phone calls that we're all supposed to do," he says.

For many, the Kennedy assassination has become "a board game: `Who killed JFK?' So you feel free to sit around and say, `Oh! It's the mob. Oh! It's the KGB' ... and have no shame," scoffs Gerald Posner, whose 1993 book "Case Closed" declared that the Warren Commission essentially got it right.

The Oswald-as-patsy community has vilified Posner.

But the lawyer says he didn't set out to write a defense of the Warren Commission. Instead, he planned to go back through the critical evidence to see what more could be determined through hindsight and more modern investigative techniques _ "and then put out a book that says, `Read THIS book. Here are the four unresolved issues of the Kennedy assassination, with the evidence on both sides.'"

Halfway through the allotted research time, Posner went to the editorial staff with a new idea: A book that says flat-out who killed Kennedy.

"Who?" one of the editors asked, as Posner retells it.

"Oswald," he answered.

"And who?" "Oswald," Posner says he repeated. "And they literally looked at me as though I had just come in from Mars. And you could tell there was this feeling of, `Oh my God. He's read the Warren Commission and that's all he's done.'"

"Case Closed" went on to sell 100,000 copies in hardcover. "I would have never thunk it," Posner says.

Unlike Posner, Vincent Bugliosi, author of 2007's "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy," embarked on his book expecting to vindicate the Warren Commission.

What he didn't expect was for it to balloon into a 1,650-page behemoth _ with a CD-ROM containing an additional 960 pages of endnotes _ that cost $57.

"STOP writing," he recalls his wife telling him. "You're killing the sales of the book."

The 78-year-old lawyer blames the conspiracy theorists. "We're talking about people," he explains, "who've invested the last 15, 20, 25 years of their life in this. They've lost jobs. They've gotten divorces. Nothing stops them."

"Like a pea brain," he says, he responded to all of their allegations. "It's a bottomless pit. It never, ever ends. And if my publisher ... didn't finally step in and say, `Vince, we're going to print,' I'd still be writing the book."

Despite its girth and hefty price tag, "Reclaiming History" had a respectable first printing of 40,000, says Bugliosi, best known as the former deputy Los Angeles district attorney who prosecuted Charles Manson.

But in a 9,400-word review, Gary L. Aguilar, a director of the Washington-based Assassination Archives and Research Center, wrote that the only thing Bugliosi's book proved was "that it may not be possible for one person to fully master, or give a fair accounting of, this impossibly tangled mess of a case."

Bugliosi omitted or distorted evidence and failed to disprove "the case for conspiracy," Aguilar wrote.

Lamar Waldron is not surprised at the success of people like Bugliosi and Posner. "The biggest money has been generated for the authors ... who kind of pretend it all was right back in 1964 and nothing really has happened since," says Waldron, who has co-written two books on the assassination. "The large six-figure advances and everything like that don't go to the people who dig through all those millions of pages of files and research for years."

In "Ultimate Sacrifice" and "Legacy of Secrecy," Waldron and co-author Thom Hartmann used declassified CIA documents to make the case that JFK (and later his brother Robert) were killed because of plans to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro _ and the Mafia's infiltration of that operation. Waldron says the books have sold a combined 85,000 copies since 2005.

And now, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro are set to star in a feature film version of "Legacy of Secrecy" _ with a reported price tag of up to $90 million.

That's one of a pair of major movies _ landing on opposite sides of the Oswald-as-lone-gunman debate _ due out this year.

Oscar winners Marcia Gay Harden and Billy Bob Thornton have signed on for the Tom Hanks-produced "Parkland," named for the Dallas hospital where Kennedy was pronounced dead. That project, which Hanks' website describes as "part thriller, part real-time drama," is based on a small portion of Bugliosi's magnum opus.

A TV movie is to be made from another new book, "Killing Kennedy," co-written by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, which had sold 1 million copies within four months of its release in October. In a note to readers, O'Reilly wrote: "In our narrative, Martin Dugard and I go only as far as the evidence takes us. We are not conspiracy guys, although we do raise some questions about what is unknown and inconsistent."

Academy Award winner Errol Morris is working on a documentary about the assassination. He did not respond to an interview request.

One film, critics say, has done more than anything to shape the public's perception of the assassination: That's Oliver Stone's 1991 drama, "JFK."

"He made this kind of paranoid conspiracy theory respectable," says New York writer Arthur Goldwag, author of "Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies."

The movie tells the story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner. Garrison remains the only prosecutor to bring someone to trial for an alleged conspiracy to kill Kennedy.

The film is "a remarkable litany of falsehoods and misrepresentations and exaggerations and omissions," Posner says. "The reason that I'm so hard on Stone is because he's such a good filmmaker. If he was a schlocky filmmaker, it wouldn't matter."

Shermer, of the Skeptics Society, agrees that Stone's role in stirring the conspiracy pot is "huge."

"You tell somebody a good story, that's more powerful than tons of data, charts and graphs and statistics," he says. "And Oliver Stone's a good storyteller. He's biased and he's very deceptive, and I don't trust him at all. But the movie's great."

Stone's publicist said the director had "chosen to pass on this opportunity" to comment.

"JFK" took in more than $205 million at the box office, nearly two-thirds of that overseas, and has since raked in untold millions more in television royalties, pay-per-view, and videocassette and DVD rentals.

In the recent AP-GfK poll, respondents were asked how much of what they knew about the JFK case came from various sources. Only 9 percent cited movies or fictional TV shows, while the greatest portion, 37 percent, said history texts and nonfiction books.

About two dozen JFK-related titles are due on bookstore shelves in coming months, says Patricia Bostelman, vice president of marketing for Barnes & Noble booksellers. Among them is "They Killed Our President: The Conspiracy to Kill JFK and the Cover-Up That Followed," by former pro wrestler and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Other authors are taking advantage of the anniversary to reissue or expand on previous works.

Waldron is working on a book focusing on mob figures who confessed to being part of a conspiracy to kill the president. Summers is publishing a sequel to "Conspiracy," incorporating material released since 1980, while Bugliosi has a "Parkland" paperback to accompany the movie release.

And "Case Closed" will soon appear for the first time as an e-book. Despite the mountains of documents released since its publication, and a mountain of criticism of his conclusions, Posner says there is no plan to update it, other than perhaps including a new foreword.

"I moved on to other subjects," he says.

On Nov. 22, 1963, John Kelin was a 7-year-old second-grader in Peoria, Ill. He says the Kennedy assassination is "my earliest clear memory in life."

But he didn't really give the case much thought until 13 years later, when as a sophomore at Eastern Michigan University he attended a lecture by Mark Lane. It was the first time he saw the Abraham Zapruder film that captured the moment when Kennedy was fatally wounded.

"Using slow motion and freeze frame, Lane made sure that all of us sitting in that hot, poorly ventilated auditorium understood that Kennedy's head and shoulders were slammed backward and to the left, and that Lee Harvey Oswald's alleged shooting position was behind the presidential limousine," Kelin wrote in a book, "Praise from a Future Generation," about early critics of the Warren Report. "In a way, that lecture was the genesis of this book."

Kelin bristles at references to a conspiracy theory "industry," preferring to think of himself as part of a grass roots response to the government's "severely flawed, unsatisfactory explanations for what really happened in 1963." His publisher, Wings Press, has "made intimations" about releasing a digital edition of "Praise" for the 50th anniversary. Meanwhile, Kelin has written another JFK book _ a fictional account of how he came to write the first one.

"It's kind of a satire of the present-day research community," he says, "with a love story thrown in to try to broaden the interest level."

The title: "Conspiracy Nut."

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Owner to sell rooming house where Oswald lived before JFK assassination

by ROY APPLETON / Dallas Morning News

Pat Hall wants to sell her house in north Oak Cliff.

The place at 1026 N. Beckley Ave. should attract some interest, as it has for half a century.

A guy named Lee Harvey Oswald lived there for a while in 1963. That is, until he was arrested and charged with killing President John F. Kennedy and Dallas police Officer J.D. Tippit.

With the 50th anniversary of those events drawing near, Hall plans to list the property for sale June 1. No word yet on an asking price. But she has a minimum in mind.

“It’s not going to be too low,” she said during a recent tour of the house. “I’m selling history here.”

Her grandmother Gladys Johnson bought the house in 1943 and lived there with her husband for years, renting rooms to single men.

On Oct. 14, 1963, a man identifying himself as O.H. Lee took her only available room, paying $8 a week including refrigerator and living room privileges.

“She must have really liked him,” said Hall, for most renters didn’t have refrigerator access.

And Oswald apparently liked children, she said, recalling how he would play ball with her brothers in front of the house.

In testimony for the Warren Commission investigating the Kennedy assassination, Johnson said the quiet and tidy tenant spent most weekends with his family in Irving. She said he would keep “a half gallon of sweet milk … and lunch meat” in the refrigerator and occasionally watch television with other renters in the living room.

She also told of learning on Nov. 22 that her Mr. Lee was really Lee Harvey Oswald after seeing his picture “flash on the television” and talking with police officers who swarmed his room after his arrest at the Texas Theatre in the fatal shooting of Tippit.

Oswald had returned to the house briefly after shooting Kennedy — hurriedly, the landlady later said — apparently to retrieve a pistol. Officers found an empty holster in his room, Johnson testified.

“She was ashamed and humiliated that this house was associated with him,” Hall said.

And so it has been ever since. The brown brick house became a place in history, a tie to that tragic day.

Her grandmother put up with an onslaught of reporters and other intruders for months after the assassination before “telling everybody to go away,” Hall said.

The Oswald yoke

Hall’s late mother, Fay Puckett, lived as well with the Oswald yoke, a past that continues to attract tour buses, history hounds and the unexpected — as in the Lee Harvey Oswald look-alike actor from Austin who showed up at the front door one day.

“It was kind of weird having that guy standing there,” Hall said. “It took me back.”

After her mother died, Hall, 61, opened the place to tours for several years, encouraging — with some success — donations toward its upkeep.

But she and her house aren’t getting younger. The structure needs repairs here and there. The public demands of history, she said, have been a burden, something she doesn’t want for her children.

‘Timing is perfect’

So the assassination’s 50th anniversary seemed like prime time to test the real estate market and perhaps make a move.

“The timing is perfect,” Hall said.

The listing will include nine bedrooms and four bathrooms counting the main house, its basement and a detached building — fewer sleeping areas than in rooming-house days.

The kitchen stove dates to Oswald days. The refrigerator that cooled his food and drink is gone, as is the communal telephone he would use. The compact bathroom he and others shared still has its white tile floor and built-in medicine cabinet.

The living room’s reupholstered couch, rocking chair, coffee table, book shelves and fireplace heater remain from the times Oswald sat there watching television.

Above a donation box near the front door, a sign still solicits support: Help Restore the Lee Harvey Oswald Room & Beckley Rooming House.

“This is it,” said Hall, chuckling as she walked into the Oswald quarters near the dining room, minus the French doors he used for privacy.

Her grandmother, she said, “didn’t want to make a big deal about this being his room.”

But Hall is restoring it for the sale. She has repaired walls and hopes to paint them the green of 1963. She plans to refinish the wooden floor, measuring 5½ feet by 14 feet, and return blinds to the four windows. Oswald’s metal twin bed is back in place. A drawered closet will be returned from storage.

Everything but Hall’s personal belongings will remain with the house, she said.

The property, the 2,078-square-foot house and rear building, is valued on the tax rolls at $65,830. No telling what offers the 78-year-old, red-roofed house with its window air-conditioning, trellised porch and often-told story will attract.

Whatever happens, the structures have some protection. The city’s Landmark Commission must approve any significant changes to their exterior because the property lies in the Lake Cliff Historic District. Presence in the district probably would prevent demolition.

Landmark effort

Preservation Dallas may seek local, state or federal landmark status for the site, said David Preziosi, executive director. It also wants to record the Hall property inside and out, as well as other Oswald-related sites, he said.

“You need to tell the whole story of the assassination,” he said. “You can better understand the events of the day when you have the pieces documented.”

The big story about 1026 N. Beckley, Preziosi said, is more the possible change in ownership than any threat to the property.

“The sale is significant considering how long it’s been in her family,” he said. “We’re losing that [70-year] connection.”

Hall hopes a buyer will preserve the house, particularly the interior areas where Oswald spent time. “I’d like them to maintain it as it is so young people can come, history buffs can come and see what it was like to live in 1963.”

But first to find that buyer.

Real estate agent Vo Singhal will represent Hall. He will screen inquiries, he said, and try to protect Hall’s privacy.

“When this goes public, I don’t want to spend my time batting off lookie-looks,” Hall said.

Hall and Singhal would just as soon see a bidding war break out. And if she doesn’t get that bottom dollar?

“There’s a Plan B. Definitely.”