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May 17, 2011

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FBI Agents James W. Sibert and Francis X. O’Neill:
Analysis of their Activities
at the Bethesda Morgue
on November 22, 1963

by
James V. Rinnovatore
(jvrmar@verizon.net)
&
Allan Eaglesham
(aeaglesh@twcny.rr.com)


INTRODUCTION BACKGROUND ACTIVITIES AT THE MORGUE SYNTHESIS CONCLUSION SOURCES AND NOTES
INTRODUCTION
Of those present at the autopsy on the body of President Kennedy at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC), Bethesda, Maryland, the most important were FBI Special Agents James W. Sibert and Francis X. O’Neill, Jr. We make this claim for the simple reason that they were the only non-medical eyewitnesses to write a report on their activities and the events of the evening of 11/22/63, titled “Autopsy of Body of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy” [1]. For example, the importance of one particular sentence in that report cannot be overstated [1, p.3]:

Following the removal of the wrapping, it was ascertained that the President’s clothing had been removed and it was also apparent that a tracheotomy had been performed, as well as surgery of the head area, namely, in the top of the skull.

This utterance, by Chief Pathologist Dr. James Humes [2, p. 22; 3, p. 70], was contributory to author David Lifton’s deduction that surgery had been performed on the president’s body at some point prior to the initiation of the official autopsy at the NNMC at 8:00 PM, as described in his 1980 book, Best Evidence [4]. More recent work, strongly supportive of Lifton’s conclusion, indicates that the president’s wounds were tampered with in the autopsy room at the NNMC after arrival at approximately 6:45 PM [5, pp. 1002–1012; 6] in a plain shipping casket [4, pp. 585, 586].

Because of its importance, the FBI report merits careful analysis; however, this is a challenging task due to lack of specific timelines and implications that are open to interpretation. We will provide information to indicate that SAs Sibert and O’Neill crafted their report to conceal failure in their primary duty—to maintain constant vigil of the president’s body/casket.


BACKGROUND
Sibert and O’Neill met at Andrews Air Force Base at around 3:00 PM, to await the arrival of Air Force One carrying President Kennedy’s body [1, p. 1]. O’Neill stated that he and Sibert made contact with Secret Service agents they knew and “advised” them of their orders from FBI Director Hoover, “to stay with the body of the President no matter where it went...” [7, p. 3]. Shortly before the arrival of Air Force One, they spoke to the Director of the Secret Service, James Rowley, informing him of their instructions from Hoover [2, p. 39; 3, p. 45]. Accordingly, Rowley placed the FBI agents in the third car of the motorcade that followed the ambulance containing the Dallas casket, from Andrews AFB to the NNMC.

Although the time of their rendez-vous at Andrews AFB is provided in their report (approximately 3:00 PM), and the times (5:25 and 6:05 PM) at which they were advised when AF-1 would arrive and when they received orders to stay with the body (5:55 PM), important timelines are not provided in the report:

  • Arrival of AF-1 at Andrews AFB.
  • Departure of the motorcade from Andrews AFB.
  • Arrival of the motorcade at the NNMC, Bethesda.
  • Arrival of the ambulance carrying the Dallas casket at the loading dock adjacent to the morgue.
  • Carriage of the Dallas casket into the morgue complex.
  • Removal of the body from the Dallas casket and placement on the autopsy-room table.
  • Evacuation of non-medical personnel from the autopsy room to allow photographs and X-rays to be taken.
  • Re-entry to the autopsy room.
  • Conclusion of the autopsy.
The report states that "the first incision was made at 8:15 PM."

ACTIVITIES AT THE MORGUE
The motorcade arrived at the front of the NNMC at 6:55 PM [4, p. 478]. Hence, that is when Sibert and O’Neill arrived. Their report states that, after Mrs. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy had alighted and entered the building, the ambulance (carrying the Dallas casket) “was thereafter driven to the rear entrance...” The word “thereafter” is a catch-all, concealing a significant delay before the navy ambulance moved to the rear [4, p. 478].

After the delay, Sibert and O’Neill either drove or walked [2, p. 43] to the loading dock adjacent to the morgue complex and arrived there presumably at 7:17 PM, the time they gave to Arlen Specter for when “preparation of the autopsy” began [8, p. 2]. This begs the question of what happened between 7:17 and 8:15 PM, the time they gave for when the "first incision was made." Nothing in their report directly answers this question, and, we believe, for good reason, i.e. they needed to conceal the fact that they failed in their primary duty: they lost vigil of the president’s body/casket for a considerable period of time.

The claim in their report that “Bureau agents (i.e. themselves) assisted in the moving of the casket to the autopsy room” [1, p. 1] is less than truthful: they could not have taken the casket any further than the anteroom (i.e. the cooler room adjacent to the autopsy room). Why not? Because the president’s body had been on the table in the autopsy room for at least thirty minutes [9]—something the agents were probably not aware of and which had to be kept from them. Our reasoning here is supported by comments made by Mr. Sibert, in retirement, to William Law [10, p. 241]:

We took [the casket] into the anteroom, like off the autopsy room, where we put it right down on the floor, the casket right down on the floor. I remember that.

The next statement in the report is as follows [1, p. 1]:

A tight security was immediately placed around the autopsy room by the Naval facility and the U.S. Secret Service. Bureau agents made contact with Mr. ROY KELLERMAN, the Assistant Secret Service Agent in Charge of the White House Detail, and advised him of the Bureau’s interest in this matter.

These two sentences convey the impression that the events—the placement of tight security and the advisement of SA Kellerman—occurred sequentially. They did not. During Sibert’s deposition before the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), when invited to comment on this passage, he responded [2, p. 57]:

Yes, the sequence of events is off there. Contact was made with Kellerman right before the casket even came out of the…ambulance. But the tight security, believe me, it was tight. About every 10 feet they had a guard posted in the hallway.

Therefore, Sibert and O’Neill introduced themselves to Kellerman at the loading dock adjacent to the morgue and subsequently saw the tight security as they entered the anteroom. These independent events provide a new picture of what occurred after 7:17 PM. The use of the word “advised” coupled with the comment on “tight security” has elicited erroneous conclusions for decades. The statement about tight security was merely a factual observation; it had nothing to do with their not entering the autopsy room. After all, how would the presence of FBI agents constitute a break in security? The word “advised” has been interpreted as indicating a battle of wills between the FBI agents and Kellerman [e.g. 5, p. 1006], whereas a simpler explanation is that Sibert and O’Neill were merely introducing themselves to the Secret Service agent, informing him of their remit. They believed that an introduction was necessary, and Kellerman responded with words to the effect, “I know all about you from Secret Service Director James Rowley” [1, p. 2].


SYNTHESIS
What kept the FBI agents from entering the autopsy room? The answer lies in information that emerges from Sibert’s and O’Neill’s ARRB depositions. On their arrival at the morgue entrance, both men said they became aware of on-going discussions involving the pathologists about what type of autopsy—full or partial—should be performed [2; pp. 49–50; 7, p. 5]. These discussions are probably what were referred to in the following cryptic comment in the report [1, p. 3], which immediately precedes the description of the body being removed from the casket:

Arrangements were made for the performance of the autopsy by the U.S. Navy and Secret Service.

These discussions would have provided Sibert and O’Neill with a plausible reason for a delay in the start of the autopsy, which may explain their claim to Arlen Specter that “the preparation for the autopsy” began at 7:17 PM. In other words, there was no need for them to enter the autopsy room at 7:17 PM because, as far as they were initially aware, nothing was going on there. However, at some later point, it appears that they realized that there was activity in the autopsy room during their absence. Support for this thesis comes from Sibert’s interview with William Law; when asked how long it was from when the body was unwrapped to when they returned to the autopsy room (supposedly after photographs and X-rays were taken), Sibert said, “Probably close to 45 minutes, something like that” [10, p. 244]:

Law: So, that’s how long you were in the cooler room or the anteroom?
Sibert: Maybe out in the hall.
Law: Out in the hall?
Sibert: Yes, we were excluded from where they were working. We had no idea what was going on—X-rays or nothin’.
(See [11].)

Law’s interview was the first time either Sibert or O’Neill had openly admitted absence from the autopsy room for a considerable period and that they possibly had been deceived. It seems odd that, if they were asked to leave the autopsy room to allow photographs and X-rays to be taken, Sibert would complain that they had no idea what was going on. A 45-minute interval comports well with the interval between 7:17 PM, their arrival time at the morgue entrance, and ~8:00 PM, when we believe they entered the autopsy room and observed the president’s body for the first time. It is noteworthy, however, that even with this important truth expressed in his interview with Law, Sibert (and O’Neill) was guilty of what most kindly may be described as “memory merge” in the report—implying that they observed the president’s body being unwrapped shortly after their arrival at the morgue, i.e. at 7:17 PM, when, in fact, at 7:17, the body was already in the autopsy room being altered [5, p. 1006; 6]—presumably unbeknownst to Sibert and O’Neill at the time.

Two other statements in the Sibert and O’Neill report merit discussion here, because neither has received much attention. This is unfortunate since one is blatantly false. The first is [1, p.3]:

The President’s body had been removed from the casket in which it had been transported...

If this sentence is given a just a quick glance, one might take it that Sibert and O’Neill witnessed this event. However, the wording is awkwardly in the passive tense leading us to surmise that they did not observe the president’s body being removed from the Dallas casket. On this subject, a bizarre exchange occurred among Sibert, Law and Debra Conway [10, pp. 242–243]:

Conway: Were they in the anteroom when they unwrapped him, or when they brought him into the main—
Sibert: I couldn’t say for sure.

Law: …[Y]ou don’t remember whether they took the body out at that point—
Sibert: I would think, I don’t know, this is just reasoning, but they had corpsmen that were carrying, you know, lifting him out of the casket onto the autopsy table and I can’t—because I was talking with O’Neill. When I saw what we were up against there, I said, “We’ve got to get the names of everybody in this autopsy room…”

Apparently Mr. Sibert had better recollection of his concern over who else was in the room than of first seeing the body of his murdered president.

Moreover, in his ARRB deposition, Sibert claimed no recollection of the honor guard bringing in the Dallas casket [2, p. 54]. In O’Neill’s ARRB deposition, he said that, due to vague recollection, he would have to guess as to which military branch the honor guard came from [3, p. 58]. In fact, the honor guard, whom Sibert and O’Neill had seen at Andrews AFB, was composed of all five services. It seems unlikely that O’Neill—who served in the US Air Force in World War II—would not have taken mental note of the servicemen in dress uniforms. Of course, any mention in their report of the honor guard would have raised awkward questions of why the Dallas casket was brought into the morgue twice. Either Sibert and O’Neill were somehow manipulated so as not to see the honor guard carrying the casket or they feigned faulty memory. (We view the former possibility as the more likely.)

The second statement meriting discussion is in the next paragraph [1, p. 3]:

Upon completion of X-Rays and photographs, the first incision was made at 8:15 p.m.

This statement is questionable for two reasons. X-rays and photographs were taken throughout the autopsy, which was completed at around 11:00 PM [5, p. 1010]. In any case, it is intuitively obvious that the taking of X-rays and photographs could not have been completed within 15 minutes of the beginning of the autopsy at 8:01 PM [5, p. 1008]. Furthermore, after his arrival at 8:30 [12, p. 1] prosector Pierre Finck ordered full-body X rays [12, p. 3]. We estimate that if Sibert and O’Neill first entered the autopsy room shortly after 8:00 PM, it was after the honor guard had delivered the Dallas casket, the second time that this casket had been brought in [see 9]. And if Sibert and O’Neill then exited because “all personnel with the exception of medical officers...were requested to leave the autopsy room...” [1, p. 3], then they re-entered shortly before 8:15 PM, assuming they witnessed the Y-incision, which is described in their report as [1, p.3]:

…the first incision was made at 8:15 p.m.

However, even this statement is problematical. In Sibert’s deposition to the ARRB, he said that “[he didn’t] have a recollection of seeing the Y made…”, adding that he didn’t know why he would have made that notation if it had not been the Y-incision [2, p. 121].

One more point should be made. We suggest that once the FBI agents entered the autopsy room at some time after 8:00 PM, they did not then exit for the taking of X-rays and photographs as stated in their report [1, p. 3]. There would have been no need to clear the autopsy room at this point since all of the illicit alterations of the president’s body had been completed and nothing needed to be hidden from the agents.


CONCLUSION
Why did SAs Sibert and O’Neill produce a narrative to convey the impression that they were absent from the morgue for only 15 minutes? We suggest that their objective was to reassure their superiors that—for reasons beyond their control—the body was out of their sight for just 15 minutes after it had been removed from the Dallas casket and was on the autopsy table. Thus, they would be excused for a minor infraction in carrying out their responsibility to maintain an unbroken chain-of-custody of the president’s body. They needed to hide the fact that they had lost contact with it for about 45 minutes, 7:17 to after 8:00 PM. (But see [13].)

SOURCES AND NOTES
[1] O’Neill, F.X., Jr., and Sibert, J.W. (1963) Autopsy of Body of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (ARRB MD 44), here.
[2] Deposition of James W. Sibert to the ARRB, here.
[3] Deposition of Francis X. O’Neill to the ARRB, here.
[4] Lifton, D.S. (1980) Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: MacMillan.
[5] Horne, D.P. (2009) Inside the Assassination Records Review Board. Self-published, available from Amazon.com.
[6] Rinnovatore, J.V. (2010) JFK 11/22/63: The Throat Wound: Where Was It Altered? here.
[7] ARRB MD 189—Document Provided to ARRB by Francis X. O’Neill, Jr. on September 12, 1997 Containing Recollections of Events Surrounding JFK Assassination, here.
[8] ARRB MD 153—FBI Internal Memorandum To: Mr. Belmont, From: A. Rosen, Date 3/12/64. Summarizing, in Q and A Format, An Interview that Same Date of BUAGENTS Sibert and O’Neill by Commission Staff Member Arlen Specter, here.
[9] Rinnovatore, J.V. (2009) JFK 11/22/63: Body/Casket Chicanery at the Bethesda Morgue, here.
[10] Law, W.M., Eaglesham, A. (2005) In the Eye of History: Disclosures in the JFK Assassination Medical Evidence. Southlake, Texas: JFK Lancer Productions & Publications, Inc.
[11] Although there was a door from the corridor/hallway directly into the autopsy room, unlike the door connecting the autopsy room with the anteroom, it did not have windows. [Information provided by Harold A. Rydberg by email, April 22, 2011.]
[12] The Blumberg Letter (1965), here.
[13] The FBI agents were, presumably, unaware that chain-of-custody had already been lost; the Dallas casket was empty when it arrived at the NNMC [4, p. 585; 5, p. 1006; 9].

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